Samuel B. Ruggles, Founder Of Gramercy Park
( Originally Published 1921 )
Next in descent of ownership must be ranked Samuel B. Ruggles, who in 1831 purchased "Gramercy Seat," or a large part of it, from the heirs of James Duane, and the story of his purchase and of the use which he made of it cannot be told better than by quoting from the ad-dress of President King on "Progress of the City of New York During the Last Fifty Years," delivered be-fore the Mechanics Institute on December 29, 1851:
"Another citizen who has devoted rare intelligence, precious years, and large sums of money to the advancement, embellishment, and solid progress of the City, is Samuel B. Ruggles. In 1831, he became possessed of a portion of the old Duane Farm. This farm had a front of about 400 feet on the Bowery road, and ran thence easterly almost to the river,, with some upland, but much morass, overgrown with cat-tails, and through which wandered a stream known as the Crumme-Vly, or Winding Creek. The heirs, five in number, estimating the value of the property according to its frontage on the Bowery, divided the farm by that front, 400 feet, into five equal parcels, and thus constituted narrow strips of land half a mile, nearly, long, and 80 feet wide. One of these fifths having been acquired by Mr. Ruggles in the year 1831 he forthwith set himself at work to make it available. Between him and the actual City was the Bowery Hill, 20 feet above the level—behind him morass. It was clear that the latter was of little value without the former. After incredible difficulties, he succeeded in obtaining both the Bowery Hill and the morass, covering together more than fifty acres, and very soon tumbled the one into the other to the amount of some three millions of loads, at a cost of $180,000—and squaring the lines as he went along, and regulating the lots, he planted on the edge of the morass, in December, 1831, Gramercy Park, by gratuitously giving the whole of the 66 lots it comprises —now worth two hundred thousand dollars—and attaching to the grant a condition that ten dollars a lot should be annually paid forever by the residents around the square, as a fund out of which to plant, preserve and adorn it. Disdaining, too, the personal vanity of entailing his own name upon this creation of his own energy and property, he preserved the name by which the old Duane estate was known, the Gramercy Seat—corrupted, probably, from the Crooked Creek, or Crummevly, which meandered through its meadow..
"Next came, in 1833, Union Square, made up chiefly of those 'Children of Necessity' to which allusion has heretofore been made, fragmentary lots, which, after much trouble and labor on the part of Mr. Ruggles and others, and with the aid of the Legislature, were reduced to the sightly and admirable square, with its wide open area of streets around which we all now admire. The assessment for lands for this square was $110,000, and it was imposed upon lots as far as Gramercy Park, of which very many belonged to Mr. Ruggles who thus contributed largely in money as well as personal exertions to this embellishment of the City. In walking, upon one occasion, round this square with Rev. Dr. Hawks, Mr. Ruggles was expatiating upon the value, for all time, of such squares in a great city. `Come what will,' said he, `our open squares will remain forever imperishable. Buildings, towers, palaces, may moulder and crumble beneath the touch of time; but space-free, glorious, open space—will remain to bless the City forever.' `And do you not perceive the reason?' was the prompt return of Dr. Hawks, `Man makes buildings, but God makes space,' thus stamping as it were, the signet of the Almighty on the labors of Mr. R. to perpetuate to his fellow-citizens, for all time to come, Heavens boon of free air and open space. Mr. Ruggles also cut through his own property, two wide streets, parallel with and between the Third and Fourth Avenues, and being allowed by the Corporation to name them, he again avoided the temptation of personal feeling, and called the one Irving Place, after our admirable fellow-townsman, whose gentle and genial humor and fine literary taste and talents have illustrated our City and nation—the other he named, with the just pride of a New-England man, Lexington Avenue after that battlefield where the first blood was shed for independence."
The man, to whose foresight and liberality we owe the existence of Gramercy Park, was the son of Philo Ruggles, Surrogate and District Attorney of Dutchess County. He was born in New Milford, Conn., April 11, 1800, and was graduated from Yale in 1814. Subsequently he studied law, was elected to the Assembly in 1838, and took an active part in public affairs, particularly in the development of the Erie Canal. His report on the Finances and Internal Improvements of the State of New York was an epoch-making document in promoting the commercial prosperity of the State. He was a commissioner of the Croton Aqueduct and represented the United States abroad at .several monetary and other congresses. He also took a keen interest in public education, was Mr. Astor's chief advisor in founding the Astor Library, going abroad to purchase books for its collection and serving as one of its trustees. He was also a Trustee of Columbia College for many years; and was largely instrumental in broadening its scope and increasing its efficiency. Yale University recognized his attainments and civic spirit by conferring upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws, but the Park which he has left us will best keep his memory green.
After the establishment and beautification of Union Square as a public park had been secured, he proceeded in 1831, as narrated by President King, to dedicate the two acres of trees and verdure which we know as Gramercy Park. It can only be surmised that this act may have been prompted in part by his familiarity with some of the many similar oases which add so greatly to the charm and attractiveness of many parts of London. In creating Gramercy Park, the only park on Manhattan Island which has cost the City nothing, and has always paid taxes indirectly, if not directly, Mr. Ruggles conferred a boon not only upon the residents of the Park but upon the multitudes who pass it daily, and whose toilsome way is cheered by the greenness of its sward or a glimpse of sky and sunshine through its branches. The laving out of Gramercy Park represents one of the earliest attempts in this country at "City Planning," and had this example been followed by other large real estate owners, New York would be a vastly more beautiful city than it is today. A bronze medallion portrait of Mr. Ruggles upon a marble pedestal has recently been erected in the Park, and his generosity and service in creating the Park are recorded upon a stone which lies in front of the westerly park gate and which bears the inscription : "Gramercy Park, founded by Samuel B. Ruggles, 1831, commemorated by this tablet imbedded in The Gramercy Farm by John Ruggles Strong, 1875."
The "Outline of the Title of Samuel B. Ruggles to his lands between 15th Street on the South, 28th Street on the North, the Bloomingdale Road and Old Post Road on the West, and the First Avenue on the East," of which a printed copy is preserved in the New York Historical Society, refers to a map made by Edwin Smith, Surveyor, comprising five parcels, one of which is "The Gramercy Farm, lying between 19th Street on the South, 23rd Street on the North, the Bloomingdale Road on the West and the Second Avenue on the East, containing about 22 acres." This document also quotes the tradition as to the "transport" by Judith Stuyvesant and mentions "another conveyance dated in the ninth year of his Sacred Majesty, King William the Third, Anno Domino, 1697," in which certain lands are described as being "in the Bowery ward near unto a certain place or rising hillock called Crommessie" and as being bounded "south by the lands of Antonio, the free negro." From the same source we learn that "The whole of the land forming `the rising hillock of Crommessie' has recently been excavated to a depth of seventeen feet below the natural surface; but a vestige of Judge Duane's possession yet remains in the lower section of his well, walled up with brick, on the lots purchased by Messrs. Davis and Brooks on the west side of the Park."
The purpose of Mr. Ruggles to establish the Park was carried into effect by a deed executed on the seventeenth of December, 1831, by which he and his wife, Mary R. Ruggles, conveyed to Charles Augustus Davis, merchant, Thomas L. Wells, counsellor-at-law, Robert D. Weeks, gentleman, Thomas R. Mercein,' gentleman, and Philo T. Ruggles, counsellor-at-law, forty-two lots of land lying between Twentieth and Twenty-first Streets, having an area of 520 feet by 184 feet. The deed recites that "Samuel B. Ruggles proposes to devote and appropriate the said forty-two lots of land to the formation and establishment of an ornamental private Square or Park with carriageways and footwalks at the southeastern and northwestern end thereof for the use, benefit and enjoyment of the owners and occupants of sixty-six surrounding lots of land belonging to the said Samuel B. Ruggles and with a view to enhance the value thereof," and in order to effectuate these purposes conveys the property. "Upon Trust, nevertheless, for the uses, in-tents and purposes hereinafter expressed and declared." These purposes were to erect "an iron fence with a stone coping and ornamental gates," enclosing "an ornamental Park or Square," and "to lay out within such Park or Square ornamental grounds and walks, and plant and place therein trees, shrubbery, and appropriate decorations" . . . and to "preserve, maintain and keep the said Park or Square, and the said plantations and decorations in proper order and preservation" and also "at all times thereafter to permit, suffer and allow the owner and owners of any and every of the said sixty-six lots surrounding the said Park and to the families of such owners and also to the respective tenants under such owner or owners and their families, to have ingress and egress to and from such Park or Square, to frequent, use and enjoy the same as a place of common resort and recreation under and subject always to such rules and regulations as the owners of two-thirds in number of the said lots . . . shall from time to time make, establish and prescribe." The deed also provides that when and as often as three of the Trustees shall die, or remove from the City, or resign, the surviving Trustees shall cause the title to be vested in themselves, and three other Trustees to be nominated by the owners of the major part in number of the lots surrounding the Park.
By the same instrument Mr. Ruggles imposed upon the sixty-six surrounding lots, which were afterwards reduced to sixty by the opening of Lexington Avenue and Irving Place, ,the restriction which has preserved the character of the Park as a residential neighborhood and excluded business in a covenant that neither he, nor his heirs or assigns, would at any time erect within forty feet of the front of any of the sixty lots any other buildings saving brick or stone dwelling houses of at least three stories in height; this being the first attempt to limit the height of buildings in New York. The same covenant also excluded the erection of buildings for business purposes or for any purpose dangerous or offensive to the neighboring inhabitants and empowered the Trustees and the owner of any of the adjacent lots to take legal proceedings to prevent its violation.
Subsequently, on December 24th, 1833, by a confirmatory deed, Mr. Ruggles and his wife granted to the owners of lots and all subsequent owners the right and privilege to frequent, use, and enjoy the said Park or Square as an easement to their respective lots, the owners at that time being Charles Augustus Davis, Sidney Brooks, Robert D. Weeks, Seixas Nathan and Charles C. King.
During the first thirteen years after the Park was deeded to the Trustees slow progress was made toward realizing the ideals of its founder, but it appears to have been enclosed with a fence and graded when the first recorded meeting of the Trustees was held on November 15, 1844, at the residence of James W. Gerard, who lived at No. 16, which is still owned by his namesake. In the interval three of the original Trustees died or re-signed, and Norman White, James W. Gerard, then a prominent real estate lawyer, and William Samuel John-son, a grandson of the first president of Columbia College, had been chosen to replace them. Under the presidency of Charles Augustus Davis, one of that group of old New Yorkers whom Philip Hone has commemorated so delightfully in his Diary, the new trustees proceeded to develop "an ornamental Square or Park" by awarding a contract to one James Virtue, whose very name was a happy omen, to set out "one thousand healthy plants called Privit or Prim, being considered a quantity sufficient to surround the said Park inside its fence," an order which has been duplicated by their successors within the last few years with a promise which would have gratified the original gardener. They also ordered a hundred trees, including Horse Chestnuts, Willows, Lindens, Helianthus, Maples, Catalpas, Elms, Beech, Ash, Poplars, Sycamores, Walnuts and Mulberries, but of these a fine old Elm and a Willow tree appear to be the only survivors. At the same meeting a committee was appointed to prepare a plan for a fountain, and it is significant of the ambition of the first Trustees that the committee recommended in favor of "the plan of one of the fountains erected in front of St. Peter's Church in Rome, which are acknowledged to be the most beautiful in Europe." The cost was estimated at $5,300 "to be provided by the voluntary contributions of lot owners." Unhappily this enthusiastic effort of the Trustees met with a cold response, and when the plan was presented to the lot owners at a meeting held in April, 1846, the fountain instead of being erected in the Park was laid on the table. Two years later a fountain of more modest design was erected and it was apparently surmounted by a statue, for in 1866 the Treasurer was directed "to replace it with a new statue." The age of the nymph who has so long presided over the Park is thus determined, and it may be some consolation to the older residents, who had grown familiar with her presence and resented her displacement by the Booth statue, to learn that she still has a place of honor, even if somewhat less conspicuous, upon one of the fountains recently erected by the Trustees.
For many years the annual charge upon each lot was $10, and the amount was so inadequate as to lead to almost pathetic appeals to the lot owners on the part of the Trustees for contributions to maintain the Park, until about 1877, when the assessment was increased to $30. During these years meetings of the lot owners were frequently held in the Gramercy Park House, a hotel much resorted to by Southerners and Cubans, which occupied the easterly frontage of the Park from 1860 until about 1880, and which played an important part in the history of the Park while it was under the management of Curtis Judson, who was its proprietor for many years. Here were discussed many burning issues, such as the question of allowing baseball playing in the Park, and, twenty years later, of allowing croquet and lawn tennis, and it is evidence that great minds can take an interest in small affairs when we find Samuel J. Tilden and Cyrus W. Field uniting with the other Trustees in an appeal to the lot owners to preserve the "ornamental" character of the Park and to exclude "games which will engender disputes and ill feeling." In this opinion they were supported by a large majority of the lot owners.
A much more real danger menaced the Park in 1890, when a bill was passed by the Legislature, permitting the construction of a cable road through the Park in spite of the strenuous opposition of the Trustees who ex-pressed their gratitude to Governor David B. Hill for refusing to sign the bill by sending him an engrossed letter of thanks. The Park was again similarly threatened in 1912, when the. Board of Aldermen adopted an ordinance for the condemnation of an easement under and through its grounds for the construction of a subway, and the Gramercy Park Association was organized for the defence of the Park, but this disaster was happily averted by a change in the route of the subway.
In 1902 the residents of the Park were aroused by the proposed building of the Irving Hotel, and a suit for an injunction was brought by Mrs. Gallatin, the owner of a lot fronting on the Park. Several meetings of the lot owners were held in the Quaker Meeting House at which the Hon. John Bigelow presided, at which the right of the lot owners to the exclusion of business structures from the Park was warmly discussed, and about a thousand dollars was subscribed toward the expense of prosecuting the suit for an injunction. The resuit turned upon the question whether a "hotel" was a "dwelling house," within the meaning of the term as used in the covenant in the Ruggles deed, which forbids the erection of any building in the Park except a "dwelling house." It was decided by the Courts that the building of a private family hotel, divided into apartments for residential purposes, was not a violation of the covenant, but the right of the owners to exclude business occupation was recognized, and this right was further assured by the "Zoning Ordinance" adopted by the City on July 25, 1916, which defines the property surrounding the Park as a "residential district."
The most serious attack upon the Park, however, occurred in 1903, when the City assessed it for purposes of taxation at $750,000 subsequently reduced to $500,000. The Trustees protested that the Park was a public benefit, and ought not to be taxed, and that the enhanced value of surrounding property supplied any loss from non-taxation, but the City authorities refused to remit the tax and the Trustees thereupon retained counsel to con-test the claim of the City, and under the able advice of Mr. Henry B. Anderson proceeded to defend the rights of the lot owners in the Courts. A memorial to the Legislature was also prepared and printed, and a bill was introduced exempting the Park from taxation, but the attempt to secure relief from the Legislature met with no success. The Park was again assessed in 1904, and succeeding years, and proceedings were commenced to set aside the assessments, the tax being paid under protest.
After seven years of litigation the assessments were vacated, and the Park was declared to be exempt from taxation. %The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court (139 App. Div. 83), before which the appeal was argued, held that the title to the Park was vested in the Trustees, that the lot owners had an easement in the Park, i.e., a right to use it as a park, and that the Tax Commissioners had included the full value of the park privileges in their assessment of the surrounding lots, with the result that the assessed value of such lots was several hundred dollars per front foot in excess of the value of other lots in the same part of the City, the total excess amounting to $660,000. The conclusion of the Appellate Di-vision was that the City, having added to the market value of the surrounding lots a sum equal to the estimated value of the easements, which exceeded or equalled the value of the Park itself, it could not assess the value of the Park a second time against either the Trustees, who held the fee, nor by necessary consequence, against the owners of the land benefited by the easement.
This decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals (200 N. Y. 519) and the City was compelled to refund the taxes which had been paid, pending the controversy. The sum so refunded amounted with interest to $105,067.48, which was distributed among the lot owners after deducting the expenses of the litigation, except the sum of about $12,000 which, by the consent of certain of the owners, the Trustees retained as an Endowment Fund for the maintenance of the Park. With the aid of the income afforded by this fund the Trustees have been and will be able to expend more upon the care of the Park ; considerable improvement has already been effected, and its future maintenance has been more fully assured.
So much for the bare facts which comprise the history of Gramercy Park as an acre or two of ground surrounded by an iron fence, but any account of the Park which should omit its human history would be sadly inadequate, for while there are many historic sites on Manhattan Island identified with more stirring events there are few, if any, which have so continuous a history or which, in the transformation of the City, have so long preserved their original character. Here the spirit which led James Duane to abandon "Gramercy Seat" to serve with Washington found new expression when the Park was turned into an encampment during the Civil War for the militia then protecting the City in the Draft Riots, and still later when "Pershing House" was established in the residence of Mrs. Schieffelin as a canteen for our troops returning from France. Here have been decided questions of national and even international moment, and art and literature have found a congenial atmosphere, and here three generations have lived to en-joy the quiet seclusion of the Park.