Deep in the heart of Manhattan, between Park Avenue and 3rd Avenue, there lies an almost-hidden gem whose history and exclusivity stand as one of New York’s most riveting treasures: Gramercy Park.
In Manhattan there’s an exclusive and coveted item very few individuals can actually possess. It’s a small key of a rather modest appearance with nothing evidently special about it. Of ordinary silver color and seemingly cheap craftsmanship, it's the sort of key you'd find anywhere in the world to open any unremarkable lock whatsoever, but don't let its unassuming look fool you. Commonplace as it might seem, it unlocks the doors to one of the most exclusive areas in New York City: a green two-acre haven known as Gramercy Park.
(Photo by Andy Rusch)
The history of Gramercy Park dates back to 1831, when a visionary and advocate of open spaces, Samuel B. Ruggles, bought what was then nothing more than a swamp adjacent to an unbecoming property called Gramercy Farm. He drained the swamp, developed and landscaped the land, and planned a residential block of about 66 parcels, which he deeded to different trustees and owners under the condition that they should maintain the park through generations. The first meeting of trustees took place in 1844 and ever since that moment, for 174 consecutive years, they have continually fulfilled Ruggles’ dream and vision. Its doors were locked after that meeting, and Gramercy Park became a standard of exclusivity and prestige.
Few people can get their hands on a key, and even fewer have their own personal one. Only residents of the area are eligible to buy it—for a yearly fee of $350. Made from an ordinary alloy and without any special inscriptions except that of the manufacturer, these keys do feature a very special trait: they’re almost impossible to duplicate. And even if someone manages to copy it, the locks on the park are changed annually and each key must be constantly recommissioned (hence the yearly fee) to avoid unwanted characters to get a hold of one for too long. It’s a system that has worked well for the neighborhood!
(Photo by Beyond My Ken)
There are currently 39 buildings around the park eligible for keys. And since Gramercy Park is a private space, its upkeep depends on the collaboration of all those who have the privilege of enjoying it. That means each building must pay an annual fee of $7,500 per lot to maintain the park (which grants the building access to two keys that are administered by doormen to lend to any resident who didn’t buy one of their own). Any building that fails to meet this payment will have its park-rights relinquished. Needless to say, there has never been a need to apply the penalty.
Furthermore, losing a key is almost a capital offense—by neighborhood standards—and nets a penalty fee of an astounding $1,000 dollars, which doubles for any subsequent misplacements. Keys are thus valuable and any key-holder is entrusted with a responsibility to protect it dearly. It’s a good thing people find this privilege so appealing: being a key-holder is so rare it grants a certain prestige and bragging rights. However, that doesn’t mean you have to be a key-owner or resident to get into the exclusive enclosure.
If you really want to enter the park, you can always stay at the expensive—but fashionable—Gramercy Park Hotel at 2 Lexington Avenue, whose staff will escort in and out of it upon request (they used to lend the keys to guests, but so many were stolen that now only the staff is permitted to handle them). Besides its beautiful building, interior design, and prime location, the hotel’s main selling point is Gramercy Park itself. It’s understandably the only hotel with access to the park, and they certainly take advantage of it.
(The Gramercy Park Hotel)
Your next best bet to access the park is to befriend someone who owns a key. You could be one of up to five guests that any key-holder can bring into the enclosure at any given time. Otherwise, you’d have to be an outstanding member of the National Arts Club, the Players Club, the Brotherhood Synagogue, or Calvary-St. George’s Church. Either that or rent property in the area. Short of these conditions, the park is completely off-limits to you, no exceptions allowed.
That's for 364 days a year, anyway. But there’s one special day, and only one, when the doors of Gramercy Park are opened to all: Christmas. That’s right, if you happen to be in the area, you can actually join the Parish of Calvary-St. George’s in the merry singing of Christmas carols. If you do not qualify otherwise, this is your one chance to see the park in all its glory, and on such a special day as well! But beware, there’s a few rules you cannot break no matter how you gain entry: dogs, alcohol, smoking, cycling, hardball, lawn furniture, or Frisbees are strictly forbidden inside, and don’t even think about feeding any of the birds of squirrels there. Otherwise, enjoy your visit!
(Photo by Dmadeo)
Its almost unaffordable exclusivity may make Gramercy Park guilty of elitism, but it has worked well for the area, its residents, and the preservation of the park itself as a vestige of New York City’s history—presenting an alluring ode to the years back when Manhattan was nothing but swamps, farms, and undeveloped potential. The area is pristine in beauty and safety. Its famous silence and tranquility make it ideal for strollers of all kinds, who, while prohibited from entering the park proper, are more than free to visit the neighborhood and get a glimpse of the greenery from just outside a small black fence. Untouchable as it may be, Gramercy Park seems just within the reach of everyone who strolls past it. It’s inviting and beautiful, and truly a fascinating spot to visit. Especially now you’re aware of its history.
(Cover photo by Jeffrey Zeldman)
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