The private park for which this neighborhood is named is absent from John Falter’s cover picture for The Saturday Evening Post. Indeed without the identifying name, this illustration could be of any urban street lined with townhouses and apartment buildings—Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, St. Louis, or New York.
The streets east and west of the park were noted in an 1831 plot of the park and residences as carriage ways or foot walks. Those paths are now streets called Gramercy Park West, and East, 20th and 21st Streets at the park are called Gramercy Park North and South. Eventually lots A through F were opened to extensions of Irving Place and Lexington Avenue bisecting South and North respectively.
The identifying buildings of Falter’s Post cover are the first two townhouses fully visible at the left of the image. Their distinctive wrought iron trimmed façades mark them as Nos. 3 and 4 on Gramercy Park West.* Built in 1847, they are the remnants of a group of four townhouses designed by Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892), who was primarily known as a designer of Gothic Revival country villas, such as Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York. As is clear in Falter’s illustration, the two townhouses on Gramercy Park West are similar but not the same. The windows of No. 4 have operable shutters and those of No. 3 have permanent metal awnings over the windows of the top three floors. Another difference is the two street lights, called “mayor’s lamps,” standing at the foot of No. 4’s steps. They were installed when New York Mayor James Harper purchased the property in 1847 and reflect the custom of putting special lamps in front of a mayor’s residence so that he could be easily found in case of a nighttime emergency.
What strikes me most about this cover image is the appearance of quiet on this New York City street. Gramercy Park West is so empty that a nursemaid slowly walks a baby carriage across to the unseen park. While the owners of the Gramercy Park residences have always held the park in common, they annually need to purchase a key to gain access to the gated park. Moving away from the nurse and her charge is a man leading a horse drawn flat bed wagon filled with greens and perhaps fresh vegetables. A city worker in a white coat sweeps the street along the curb. A smattering of people walk along the sidewalk and a man stands at the curb reading a newspaper while his leashed dog heads toward a young tree planted at the curb. There is even a workman standing on the roof of the covered porch at No. 4 doing something to the window or shutter.
Along Gramercy Park North a yellow cab drives westward and there is a manned pushcart in the street. It is interesting to see the various window treatments on the floors of the high rise which overlook the streets and the park. Even without the park visible we can tell that it is still early enough in the spring for the trees to be just leafing out and the white planting urn in the middle of the small fenced garden in front of No. 4 to be empty.
Push carts, horse carts, and street sweepers all bespeak of a time before the cars and delivery trucks clogged Manhattan’s streets. But this hometown calm is in marked difference to the war that is still raging in the spring of 1944. In the first two months of that year, the allies land at Anzio on the Italian coast and the Germans counter attack. In the Pacific, U. S. troops invade the Marshall Islands. John Falter painted a view of what the Allied troops were fighting to preserve—a bit of home.
* For more information about the park and its surrounding residences see, Stephen Garmey’s Gramercy Park: An Illustrated History of a New York Neighborhood (NY: Balsam Press, Inc., and Rutledge Books, 1984).
November 5, 2009
By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies
Norman Rockwell Museum