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The Ever So Exclusive Gramercy Park: Samuel Ruggles

What gives an address a reputation?

New Yorkers and tourists alike recognize the name Gramercy Park. 20th and 21st Streets between 3rd Avenue and Broadway are some of the most sought-after addresses in the world. The locked gates of Gramercy Park have been standing since 1844, granting access only to residents. Everything about New York has changed since it was built, but the park and its regulations have remained the same.

Peering between its rungs, imagine the past 175 years of artists, architects, rebels, and revolutionaries that have sat, worked, and lived right here. Imagine Stanford White sketching, or Mark Twain writing, or Theda Bara drinking her morning tea. At the gates of Gramercy Park you are steps from the place where Theodore Roosevelt was born, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens grew up, and Edwin Booth sought solace after his brother John killed the President in 1865. By standing near Gramercy Park, you are a part of history.

So how has the park’s sense of stillness and history remained so vivid as everything around it has changed so drastically? Samuel Ruggles, a politician, lawyer, and the land-holder who created Gramercy Park, wrote out some very specific rules before the park opened: the park has to be for residents only, and no businesses, “theatrical clubs,” “public museums,” or other “banned establishments” can move onto the park’s bordering blocks.

In the 1830s, Manhattan above 14TH STREET would’ve been swampy, rural area full of hills and marshes. Ruggles Called the land “Gramercy Farm.” The name “Gramercy” had been given to the area 70 years earlier, adapted from the name “From Moerasje” which, in dutch, means exactly what it was: “a crooked little swamp.” He had a vision for a private park that would maintain the peace and quiet in his little section of New York, while the rest of the city experienced a massive population boom.

Between 1820 and 1840, New York’s population skyrocketed as immigrants from Ireland and Germany moved into Lower Manhattan. This, as Ruggles probably predicted, moved wealthier New Yorkers uptown. Families like the Astors and the Roosevelts and the Stuyvesants would be looking for new places to settle, and Ruggles had faith in Gramercy.

So he set up Gramercy Farm with a specific vision. He built homes and carriage-houses surrounding a small, centrally-located park. Although the park was always intended to be exclusively for residents, Ruggles believed that a quiet plot of unbuilt land would break up the chaos and crowding and therefore benefit all New Yorkers.

At the time, science also stated that air flow was essential to the health of residents in big cities. So providing space for air to travel (in a park, rather than through/around buildings) was seen as an act of public service, promoting health and wellness. Ruggles was concerned with the community throughout his life, ultimately becoming a state representative for New York, but this idea to benefit everyone also may have been a tactic.

He requested tax-exemption for his private project, stating in his proposal that Gramercy Park would “promote the health and convenience of [New Yorkers].” This was a bold move, as the taxes on properties like this would’ve been huge. But Ruggles had been socializing in the same circles as the men making these decisions for years; they were his friends and equals, and they approved his proposal, trusting him because he was like them. Despite challenges to both the private and tax-exempt statuses of the park, in the recent years and in 1903, its residents and committee defend Ruggles’ initial intention, sticking with the rules written 175 years ago.

What does an exclusive park bring to a neighborhood? Do you agree with maintaining Ruggles’ artistic and architectural integrity even if it does more harm than good in a new context? Why do you think Gramercy Park is one of the most desired addresses in the world?