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How the Historic Gracie Mansion Foyer Floor Tricks the Eye

The Foyer of Gracie Mansion
The Foyer of Gracie Mansion
Photo: NYC.gov

Gracie Mansion was built in 1799, during the Federal Period (1790-1830). This mansion serves three purposes. It is the New York City Mayor's residence, and it is also the Mayor's workplace. The house belongs to the residents of New York City, so the public can enjoy tours of this historical site. Divided into two wings, the old wing was built in 1799, while the new wing was added in 1966.

Gracie Mansion's foyer, also referred to as the front hall, was the entrance to the home in 1790-1809. When we enter this foyer, our eyes are immediately drawn to the floor, a floor that upon first look one would think is marble. However, during the federal period, floors were not supposed to lay bare. To do so was considered bad taste and/or a display of low economic status. A well-to-do family, or maybe a family with those aspirations, would make sure their floor was covered in some manner, whether it be marble, matted, carpeted or painted to look like marble. In Archibald Gracie's day, the foyers were large, as this one is, because they would also use it as a miniature ballroom for parties and dancing.

Mayor Ed Koch, who founded the Gracie Mansion Conservancy in 1981, desired to restore and renovate the mansion to its historic form. He wanted to replicate how it might have looked during the Federal Period. Lisa Krieger researched floorings of the period and the color scheme of ochre and charcoal was decided upon. Decorative artist Stephen Gemberlin designed a faux marble diamond pattern, similar to what might have been used in 1810. Its design features a compass rose, which pays homage to Archibald Gracie's success as a shipping merchant. The wooden floor is painted to look like marble using a technique known as trompe l’oeil, French for “trick the eye”. The artists who painted the wooden floor were HIV and AIDS patients. Mayor Koch was responsible for hiring these artists.

Detail of the compass rose painted on the Foyer floor.
Detail of the compass rose painted on the Foyer floor.
Photo: NYC.gov

To complete this delight, the "marble" floor brings your eyes up to the staircase and you can visualize two centuries of New York City mayors descending the stairs from their private apartment and walking across that beautiful floor to go about their day. I hope they take their shoes off.