New York

The meaning behind two Gramercy lampposts

Four Gramercy Park West, with its ornamented white doors and iron lace terrace, is about as breathtaking as a New York City townhouse can get (number four is at left).

Built in 1846 soon after Gramercy Park was transformed from a swamp to an elite neighborhood, the Greek Revival home “features sun-filled rooms, high ceilings, and elaborate crown molding, and it comes with a coveted key to the park,” writes 6sqft.

It also features two cast-iron lampposts flanking the front entrance on the sidewalk. Oddly, the mirror image townhouse next door, Three Gramercy Park West, has no lampposts.

So what’s the significance?

The lampposts are remnants of a mayoral tradition leftover from Dutch colonial days.

In the 1840s, this was the home of New York mayor James Harper (founder in 1825 of Harper & Brothers, now Harper Collins). What were dubbed the “mayor’s lamps” were at some point installed.

“The custom dates back to the early days of the Dutch Burgomasters,” according to the New York Times in 1917. “It is supposed to have originated with the lantern bearers who were accustomed to escort the Burgomaster home with proper dignity from the historic city tavern or other places of genial entertainment.”

Hmm, sounds like the tradition was in part a way to get a possibly drunk colonial leader back home safely.

“The lanterns were then left in front of the residence as a warning to any boisterous members of the town not to disturb the rest of the official ruler of the city.” Well, those early colonists did love their taverns.

“The Dutch custom of placing special lamps at the mayor’s door was an aid to finding his house at night, but by Harper’s day, it was merely ceremonial,” states nyc-architecture.com. “The custom ended with the 1942 establishment of Gracie Mansion as the mayor’s official residence.”

Harper lived there until his death in 1869; his descendants stayed on in the house until 1923. Since then, it’s become significant for two more reasons.

Number four is rumored to be the townhouse home of Stuart Little.

E.B. White never specified this in his classic tale of the adventurous mouse boy. But the book’s illustrations certainly look a lot like the former Harper residence, as the site Architecture Here and There reveals.

Four Gramercy Park is also immortalized on the cover of Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.

Manager Albert Grossman lived there at the time. Doesn’t the white door behind Dylan look familiar? Here’s the story about the shoot, from Rolling Stone.

[Second Photo: Wikipedia; Fourth photo: MCNY/Berenice Abbott 89.2.3.44]
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