New York City takes understandable pride in the many beautiful parks studding the concrete rigidity of its urban grid. This makes it somewhat ironic that one of the lovliest of these green spaces is locked up—accessible only to those lucky enough to live in a building facing onto it. Gramercy is the name both of the park itself and the neighborhood immediately surrounding it, and its beauty and exclusivity have delighted and frustrated New Yorkers for over a century.
From Swamp to Swank
Today, the neighborhood of Gramercy lies between East 20th and 21st Streets (called Gramercy Park South and North at the park, respectively), and Gramercy Park West and East, two mid-block streets between Park Avenue South and Third Avenue. The park itself also marks the termination of Lexington Avenue on its north side, and the origin of Irving Place on its south side.
Back in 1831 however, what is now Gramercy Park and the surrounding tree-lined neighborhood was a marshy swamp. Samuel B. Ruggles bought the property—then called "Grammercy Farm" in 1831 from James Duane, a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant. Ruggles spent a fortune draining the swamp, and according to historians, moved about a million horsecart-loads of earth during the course of the project. He then laid out "Gramercy Square," and deeded possession of the square to the owners of the 60 parcels of land he had plotted to surround it, making Gramercy Park held in common as a privately-owned park. Ruggles sought and was granted tax-exempt status for the park in 1832, and also compelled the state legislature to establish Lexington Avenue and Irving Place to feed his development at the top and bottom of the park. The iron fence enclosing Gramercy Park was erected in 1832, but construction on the surrounding lots did not begin in earnest until the 1840s.
Much of that development came in the form of single-family mansions and row houses, but in the 1870s, Richard Morris designed the Stuyvesant Apartments, which—though now demolished—were considered to be the first real "apartment building" in the city. Of course there was tenement housing before that, but Morris' building catered to the middle- and upper-class New York family, and in doing so gave apartment living a level of social desirability that it had historically lacked.
Other buildings capitalized on Stuyvesant's idea, and 129 East 17th Street was built in 1878. This building is now thought to be the oldest apartment building in New York City, while the nearby Gramercy (at 34 Gramercy Park East) is the oldest co-op in the city. These buildings were large for their day —big enough to house 20 or 30 families within their walls. Row houses and townhouses continued to go up during this time, as did other types of apartment buildings—including at least one built exclusively for bachelors—its designers purposely omitted kitchens in all units.