By Sabina Mollot
Stuyvesant Town resident Alfred Pommer, who’s been leading historical walking tours of various Manhattan neighborhoods for over 25 years, has released a new book about two neighborhoods with particularly rich but different histories — Gramercy Park and Union Square. Pommer’s wife Joyce is the co-author of the book, Exploring Gramercy Park and Union Square ($22, paperpack, The History Press), which was released on October 26.
Together, the couple has also written another book, Exploring Manhattan’s Murray Hill, and Pommer has previously written two other neighborhood history books, Exploring New York’s SoHo and Exploring the Original West Village.
On his latest venture, Pommer said he had initially pitched the idea to his publisher of writing only about Gramercy Park, but was then asked to throw the adjacent neighborhood into the mix.
“I said sure,” said Pommer, who was intrigued by the idea of side-by-side profiles of a neighborhood known for its exclusivity as well as one known for being the pulpit of the masses.
“You have two different neighborhoods in Manhattan that have distinctively different heritages,” he said. “Union Square represents the working class, the common people, while Gramercy Park is much more elite and wealthy, and like many neighborhoods in Manhattan, they’re a block apart.”
The book delves into the past of each community, with Gramercy Park always having been known for its wealthy residents but also those who were creatively gifted.
“It’s remarkable how many artists and politicians and writers have come from Gramercy Park,” said Pommer, “over the last 100-something years.”
The book tells the tales of a few of the neighborhood’s more well-known characters like mid-19th century lesbian couple Elise DeWolf and Elizabeth Marbury. DeWolf was an actress and interior decorator (who’s widely credited with having invented the profession) and Marbury was a literary agent who had Oscar Wilde as a client. The women shared a home at the southwest corner of 17th Street and Irving Place with their romantic relationship an open secret. DeWolf eventually married a nobleman and became known as Lady Mendl. Today, the Victorian-styled Lady Mendl’s Tea Room at the Inn at Irving Place is located around the corner from where DeWolf lived. The house where she lived and threw many lavish parties is still standing.
Another local institution that gets a mention in the book is Calvary Church, where a man named Bill Wilson, who utilized one of the house of worship’s outreach programs for “the moral re-armament for alcoholics,” later went on to become one of the two founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The history of other buildings, from The Players club to Pete’s Tavern, is also explored. On the latter institution, Pommer debunks a myth about how the writer O. Henry had penned his famous short story, The Gift of the Magi, while at the tavern. He didn’t write that there, despite being a regular and a resident of Irving Place.
“He was quite a drunk,” noted Pommer of O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter. As for his nom-de-plume, legend has it that it was inspired by Ohio State Penitentiary, where the author did time for embezzlement while working as a bank clerk. The Gift of the Magi is about a woman who cuts her long hair to sell it so she can buy a fob for her husband’s watch. The husband, unaware of her intentions, sells his watch to buy his wife decorative combs for her hair.
Another local profiled was industrialist Peter Cooper, for whom Peter Cooper Village is named. Cooper also devoted a free university so that working class people, especially women, were able to receive an education.
“He said many women were tied to no-good men because of a lack of education,” said Pommer. Cooper had a mansion at 22nd Street and Lexington Avenue.
The Union Square area had neighborhood notables such as, in the early 1900s, actress and pilot Harriet Quimby. Though not a resident she frequented the area because there was a movie studio there where she worked. Quimby appeared in several silent films, but was actually more well known for being an aviator, even later landing her own postage stamp.
Then there’s Samuel Ruggles, a land owner who developed Gramercy Park, Union Square Park, Madison Square Park and Stuyvesant Square Park in the 1830s. The parks later become known as Manhattan’s four squares. Ruggles’ mansion was on 14th Street. Initially, all the parks had fences around them, though Union Square’s was removed after just 30 years.
But more than its residents, Union Square is discussed in the book for its landmarked buildings as well as its long history of frequent labor rallies and political demonstrations.
The rallies and protests became a regular occurrence starting in the Civil War era, reaching a peak at the turn of the century and a couple of decades after that. The tradition still continued through the 1960s and 1970s, when “it started to taper off,” Pommer said.
When not writing, Pommer can sometimes be found leading tourist groups on any one of his 27 walking tours. A few of the most popular ones are the Gargoyle Walk (which includes stops at various buildings in Flatiron and Gramercy Park), the Millionaires Mile Walk through the Upper East Side and the Midtown Architectural Walking Tour. The tours are given publicly each month and privately upon request. For a schedule, visit Pommer’s website, nycwalk.com.
Pommer will be signing copies of Exploring Gramercy Park and Union Square on Saturday, November 14 from 2-4 p.m. at 315 West 39th Street, Studio #1608, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.