In May 1942, federal authorities warned New York that the glow of city lights was making ships offshore easy targets for German submarines. The country was at war and German U-boats had already sunk several merchant ships and oil tankers bound for Britain. Washington ordered a “dim-out” extending over the entire city. Times Square was dark and civil defense air-raid wardens ordered New Yorkers to draw their blackout curtains. City residents were so skittish that Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia used his weekly radio address to promise nervous parents that the city would keep their children safe.
By the end of the month, La Guardia sounded frazzled. “There’s no telling what might happen and we must be prepared,” he declared in his Sunday broadcast. “I fear we’ll need a great deal of fortitude in the next few months.” Saturday’s alarm tests had gone well, he reported, but there was still a need for “nurses and more nurses and more nurses.” But the Mayor failed to mention that week’s historic milestone: the city’s powerful Board of Estimate had designated a Federal-style house in Carl Schurz Park along the East River as the permanent residence of New York’s mayors and on May 26 the La Guardias had moved in, becoming the first mayoral family to occupy Gracie Mansion.
The city’s strong-willed Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had been urging the Mayor to reside in an official residence for years but La Guardia had resisted. He was content to raise his two children Eric and Jean, along with his late brother’s son, Richard, in his unpretentious six-room apartment in an Italian neighborhood in East Harlem. Back in 1936, when industrialist Charles M. Schwab had offered to donate his seventy-five-room turreted castle on Riverside Drive for the mayor’s house, La Guardia had scoffed, “What! Me in that?”
By 1942, with World War II raging, Moses was concerned about the Mayor’s security. He tried to convince the “Little Flower”, as La Guardia was known, that he’d found a location that could be easily guarded. Since 1936, the eighteenth century house built by wealthy merchant and shipbuilder Archibald Gracie as his summer residence had been a small post-Colonial museum, exhibiting furniture on loan to the city. Unfortunately, few New Yorkers or tourists ventured into Carl Schurz Park to visit. Moses, who, as parks commissioner, looked forward to becoming the Mayor’s landlord, argued it would be better for La Guardia to inhabit it than to let the house go to ruin. Besides, he argues, the federal Works Project Administration (the WPA) would pay to restore it and the furniture in the public rooms would be borrowed from local museums so the city’s costs would be minimal. The frugal Mayor relented.
Still some New Yorkers thought any expense in the midst of war was unseemly. One businessman pointed out, “The King and Queen just moved out of Buckingham Palace to cut down expenses.” Another, Mr. A. B. Montgomery, objected that the city was “seizing a public museum, however little used, and a portion of a public park.” In his response, La Guardia was distinctly unenthusiastic. “My family is not keen about it,” he wrote, “and it has no personal advantage for me.”
On moving day, the Mayor was away in Canada. The family’s cook Juanita got there first, then the mayor’s bodyguard. When Marie La Guardia arrived, neighborhood mothers, their wailing babies in tow, surrounded the six-foot iron fence to cheer her on. It took two days to load in, with much of the family’s maple furniture destined for the attic. The New York Times could not resist teasing the Mayor. “It is astonishing how many unforeseen emergencies and long-standing important engagements will unite to call a married man away from home when there are books to be packed in boxes and china and glassware in barrels for moving and the next day to be unpacked in the new place.”
The three-story mansion consisted of nine rooms and two large foyers with servants’ quarters and an office for a Park Department custodian in the basement. Upstairs were four bedrooms and a sitting room. The ground floor rooms were decked out with furniture from the colonial, Revolutionary and the early nineteenth century periods. A modern kitchen and pantry had been added, as had new radiators and electric outlets. The Times was struck by the juxtaposition of old and new. Their headline read, “Rare Antique Pieces and Old Art Set Amid Electrical Household Conveniences.”
A few days after moving in, Mayor La Guardia had a housewarming party for members of the Board of Estimate and their wives. A month later, King Peter II of Yugoslavia, then only 19, came for lunch. But for the most part, the La Guardias lived modestly in Gracie Mansion, paying their own grocery, butcher and utility bills. Marie scrubbed the floors herself, battled cockroaches and did most of the cooking, except when Fiorello made his signature peasant soup.
Their lives were less private here. The public could peek into the dining room as the family ate dinner. They could watch Marie walk their Scotch Terrier, Mac, and hang laundry. Neighbors noted that Fiorello left for City Hall in a police patrol car every morning at 8:30. In the evenings, he stayed home, worked and played cards. Eventually WNYC installed permanent lines so the Mayor could broadcast his popular Sunday “Talks to the People” from home. Ever the man of the people, La Guardia would persist in calling the home not Gracie Mansion, but “the Mayor’s House” or “Gracie Farm.”
The La Guardias would live in Gracie Mansion until a month before the end of the mayor’s third and final term, leaving his successor William O’Dwyer time to redecorate. Fiorello had bought his family a fifteen-room, $40,000 home on a quiet suburban street in Riverdale. On moving day, November 27,1944, the mayor was out of town, this time in Washington. Once again, Marie La Guardia handled the move alone.
Gracie Mansion was the first mayoral residence in the United States. It’s been 75 years since Mayor La Guardia grudgingly made it his home and it’s now a cherished New York City landmark. Future mayors and their families have left their mark. A reception wing bearing the name of Susan E. Wagner was opened in 1966. Mayor Ed Koch initiated house tours for the curious. In 1981, the Gracie Mansion Conservancy was established to help renovate and maintain New York’s most important house.
Gracie Mansion is sometimes referred to as New York’s Little White House but, like La Guardia, some of his successors have hesitated to call the mayoral home a mansion. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who oversaw and paid for most of another major refurbishment but never moved in, called it the “People’s House,” which set a standard for generous public access. Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray live in Gracie Mansion today and continue that welcoming tradition in keeping with the Mayor’s motto: one city, rising together.