This charming little park can only be enjoyed from the outside . . . unless you happen to have a key. The general public is welcome to stroll around or stare into the park through the fence but is not allowed in. Gramercy Park has a rare distinction of being the only private park in Manhattan.
The idea of a private park was conceived by Samuel B. Ruggles, a 19-century lawyer, politician and landowner who aimed to develop an upscale neighborhood to rival “The Row” (located along Washington Square North)— the most fashionable elite enclave in the 1820s. He succeeded in transforming “Gramercy Farm” from a swamp into one of the city’s most desirable locations.
Originally little more than an expanse of marshy ground, the land was drained and subdivided into lots for individual dwellings. Its unusual name—Gramercy—is an anglicization of Crommessie, the Dutch word meaning “little crooked swamp” or “little crooked knife”—a fitting reflection of the shape of the swamp on site.
Ruggles correctly bet on the fact that the city would expand northward, creating a need for the next exclusive enclave for the well-to-do. In order to attract this exclusive set, he came up with a rather original idea: instead of filling all the lots with buildings, he allocated some of the land for a park meant for exclusive use by the residents. How clever! He gave Gramercy’s inhabitants not only beautiful homes but also—and most importantly—bragging rights!
The neighborhood of Gramercy Park got its start in 1831; it was well-settled by the 1840s. The ownership of the park was divided amongst all the park-facing home proprietors, who were bestowed with a most unique amenity—a key to a private city park.
The park remains private to this day. One can acquire a venerable key by buying a park-facing house or getting a membership in one of Gramercy’s private clubs—the Players or National Arts Club—or by renting an apartment in one of the neighborhood apartment buildings. If all these plans fail, there is still an option of getting a room in the Gramercy Hotel, which grants its guests temporary use of the key. The most economical way to get into the park is to befriend a key-holder and be invited for a visit.