Gracie Mansion has been the official residence of New York City’s mayor since the 1940s, but its history goes back much farther than that. It was named for Archibald Gracie, the wealthy merchant who built the house in 1799 as his private residence at what is now East End Ave. and East 88th St. New-York Historical has its own connection to Mr. Gracie: Our collection includes an original dinnerware set of his that’s currently on loan to the Mansion.
When Gracie Mansion opens to the public again, visitors can find the set in the Yellow Parlor’s glass-fronted bookcase. Mr. Gracie’s porcelain dinnerware reflects an era of convoluted cultural exchange between East and West. The boldly decorated plates, sauceboat, vegetable dish, and compote were made by the Staffordshire porcelain manufacturer Spode around the 1810s. Surely Gracie’s dinner guests were impressed by the china’s dazzling blue, red, green and gold asymmetrical designs of exotic flowering plants, zig-zag fencing, and stylized leafy borders.
Today, this style is referred to as “Imari” after the southern Japanese port from which similarly decorated wares were shipped beginning in the 17th century. Early trade as well as territorial invasions facilitated webs of cross-cultural exchange: the earliest Imari wares were made by Korean potters in Japan after designs inspired by porcelain manufactured in southern China (for example, the early 18th-century dish below). Dutch and Chinese merchants brought Imari wares to Europe, where they were admired, collected, and copied. Leading 18th-century porcelain manufacturers in France, Germany, and England made imitations of Imari designs and its distinctive palette. Spode’s version, a distant cousin to the originals, was likely modeled after European knock-offs.
At the time Gracie entertained with his faux Imari, exotic-looking goods were all the rage among European and American elites as well as middle-class consumers, reflecting an age of cultural imperialism. The taste was contemporary with King George IV’s Brighton Pavilion, an orientalist fantasy that fused Asian and Indian styles.
As the city’s oldest cultural institution, the New-York Historical Society is proud to lend it to the “People’s House.”
Top image: Gracie Mansion in 1917. Herman A. Blumenthal photograph collection. Patricia D. Klingenstein Library
Margi Hofer, vice president and museum director