NEW YORK, NY.- History inspires artists to be incisive and dramatic. Artists reflect human ancestry and everyday events, and create art that reflects their time, history and controversies. But sometimes the history of dramatic events are lost and all we have left is the art that tells a story. Some of the paintings at the clubs at Gramercy Park that tell a story are being sold, so I revisited the stories the paintings tell.
Sometimes fine artists capture people and events portrayed by literary artists. That is what happened in New York in the late 1800s. The stories of inheritance and property were so notorious, artists made them their subject matter. One phrase we do not hear anymore, at least I dont, is heir-in-law to the estate. But the playwright, George Colman, and the portrait and landscape painter, John Singer Sargent, captured the phrase in their art. John Singer Sargents portrait, an oil on canvass painting of the comic actor in a play, is entitled, Joseph Jefferson as Peter Pangloss in George Colman Jrs the-Heir-in-Law. Revisiting this and other paintings by John Singer Sargent tells us much about the era these artists captured in art.
The Heir-in-Law painting is the third painting owned by the Players Club at Gramercy Park to be sold. Years ago, when the Players Club had financial difficulty, the first painting sold by the private club, founded in 1888 by the actor, Edwin Booth, who founded the Players Club for actors ostracized by high society, was John Singer Sargents oil portrait of Edwin Booth. That painting was done in 1890. Another painting of the actor, Lawrence Barrett, was also sold by the Club to meet its financial needs. And the third painting to be sold, the Heir-in-Law painting, in a dramatic turn of events, reflects the real estate history of the Park where this private club and another private club, the National Arts Club, are located in New York City.
The National Arts Club has also experienced tumultuous inheritance, financial and succession conflicts among its members, as reported in the New York Times. So the question we have to ask about the sites history is if modern fine artists and literary artists knew the stories of heirs, inheritance and conflicts of the place, would kind of art would they create?
The Gramercy Park Hotel showcases museum-quality art. One work that currently dominates the lobby is Damien Hirsts Posterity-The Holy Place, from 2006. This work, composed of butterflies and gloss household paint intermingled on the canvass, speaks to a living history and nature. In 1997, the artist described his work and the universal triggers, symbols of resurrection, and his trying obsessively to reflect a living past, present and future. Like earlier artists, the artist attempted to capture people, place and time. But vital people, events and nature are lost or unknown, unless we choose to revisit them.
Gramercy Park has such a dramatic history and such lost conflicts about heirs, inheritance and succession rights, it is a great place to gather art that showcases history. In 2006, hotel impresario Ian Schrager bought the Gramercy Park Hotel and hired the famous multi-talented New York artist Julian Schnabel, whose career started with cracked-plate-paintings to design art and furniture for the Hotel. Schnabel showcased dramatic paintings, his own, and other artists. Today, signature works by his friend and colleague, Jean-Michel Basquiat, plus works by Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, Andy Warhol, Brian Clark, Fernando Botero, Dan Colen, George Condo, Thomas Hoepker, Enoc, Perez, David Salle, and Cy Twombly, borrowed from their owners, grace the hotel. Schnabel also designed the Hotels rugs, build-in shelving and lighting.
Art, design and architecture reviewers said the designs were a throwback to the past, the disco-past of Ian Schragers Studio 54, but none of the reviewers knew that bold dramatic conflicts at the site were captured by earlier artists. But excavation of historical records now uncovers the secrets of the private Gramercy Park and shows that the site of the artful and artistically designed Gramercy Park Hotel, the private Players Club and National Arts Club is a hotbed of colonial intrigue. Artists now create from the recovered history.
The Clubs and Hotel, built on the sites adjoining the Park share the places history. The Hotel on the site of renowned architect Stanford Whites mansion, is across the street from the private park, across from a plaque embedded in the sidewalk, Gramercy Park, founded by Samuel B. Ruggles, 1831. So now lets see what secrets we find if we trace the story of Samuel B. Ruggles back in time. As artists created art that is sold by the Clubs, and create art that hangs in the Hotel, they can create paintings and sculpture that reflect the history.
This is a story of lost but blended history. The story begins when New York was farmlands, and ends in the era when Samuel Ruggles created a private park. I am curious about Samuel B. Ruggles because at the time, there was another New Yorker, an African-American named David Ruggles. If they are related, genealogists will soon discover the connection. The New York lawyer and surrogate judge, Samuel Ruggles, was born in 1800 in New Milford, Litchfield County, Connecticut. He purchased the section of Gramercy Park called Gramercy Seat from the heirs of another lawyer, James Duane, in 1831.
At the time, the private park reached the East River. David Ruggles, a New York abolitionist and journalist, who assisted in the escape of the African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, in whose home on Lispenard Street in todays Tribeca Douglass was married, was a supporter of artists, writers and others who fought for freedom. Ruggles was born in Lyme, Connecticut in 1810 to a father who was a freed blacksmith and a mother who was a freed caterer. He and his family relocated to New Milford in Litchfield, Connecticut before, as a teenager, he relocated to Lower Manhattan in New York City.
The history of the park is not only a secret, it is controversial. It is a secret about the citys lost history. In the 1600s, Colonial Dutch leaders in the farmlands of New York called the citys African-Americans Spanish Negroes, because they were imported from Santo Domingo, todays Dominican Republic, by Dutch merchants. Many of these African-Americans were artisans. The leading merchant at the time was Peter Stuyvesant, a military officer who became Governor of New York. So by todays labels, their ancestry was African-American and non-white Hispanic. They were enslaved people from Africa who were occasionally manumitted, or freed, by their transporter and owner, the Dutch West India Company. The Company employed Stuyvesant from 1635 to the mid-century.
These freed African-Americans were artists, artisans and maritime workers who worked on the Dutch West India Companys ships as shipwrights, blacksmiths, cooks, surgeons, skilled sailors. They bought their freedom with their own money they earned, because the Dutch allowed them to work after their slavery duties and hours were finished each day. The Company sold land to dozens of them, whose names are noted in historical records. They became farmers, artisans and entrepreneurs who settled in New York alongside other colonials.
But their names and the deeds to their properties are lost in the archives. In neighborhoods like Tribeca where I live, in Soho, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, the East Village, Greenwich Village, and points north, they owned property and farms. Many of their land grants were issued in 1643, but some were settled earlier. Now, despite the complexity of American history, because the records were preserved, I can show the twists and turns and triumphs and drama of the Gramercy place and the era.
The subject of ancestors who co-existed fascinates me because I found multifaceted groups on my own colonial family tree. A diverse group created the city, the New York that was an international business center. As early as the 1600s, in the colonial era, America was blended. Blacks and whites crossed paths in difficult times, and some stand out as heroes of the era and others as villains. Peter Stuyvesant was a military officer who led battles for the Dutch West India Slave Trading Company against other European nations. In the Caribbean Islands, on St Martin/St. Maarten, he met a slave Bastiaen DAngola who was captured by a ship captain and mate.
When Stuyvesant was wounded and he lost his right leg in a battle, he was attended by Bastiaen DAngola, the slave. Later, DAngolas son settled in New York. The leading family must have been grateful to the free people who attended to the military officer, because of what happened next. After Stuyvesant died in 1672, his widow, Judith, sold four acres of property to Frans Bastiaensz, the son of a slave, a New Yorker whose father had attended to Peter Stuyvesant in the Caribbean Islands.
Previously, Stuyvesant traveled to Holland for medical attention, where his leg was amputated. So his health loomed large in the family. But who were these enslaved and free people who attended to the Governor? The New Yorkers father, Bastiaen DAngola, was an African: From his name, DAngola, from Angola, we know he was captured and transported from Angola in West Central Africa, and was captured and transported by the captain and mate of a Dutch ship. He was 18 to 20 years old when he was captured and enslaved in 1644, and, because of his skilled service on the ship where he served in Martin/St. Maarten, ten years later in 1654, he was manumitted and granted his freedom.
The heritage and fate of Frans Bastiaensz, DAngolas son, a free man, living and owning property in New York in the1600s is closely linked to that of the Stuyvesants. The Dutch West India Company was a corporate business, and it and Governor Peter Stuyvesant allowed free African- Americans, men who were mostly shipwrights, blacksmiths, artisans and other skilled workers, who worked as skilled repairmen on their square-rigged ships that ploughed the waters of the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean, to own property. Under the Dutch Governor and corporate leadership, free African-Americans, artisans and skilled workers, were permitted to purchase farms and lands from the wealthy Dutch families, the powerful merchants who controlled New York in the first half of the 1600s. But this changed when the British conquered the Dutch in 1664. Powerful British merchants and nobles instituted laws saying these African-Americans and nonwhite Hispanics could no longer own property.
By 1665, they enacted a law that redefined slavery as a legal institution, limiting the rights of African-Americans. In New York and the other Colonies, they eliminated the Dutch laissez-faire-style individual slavery where individuals could work and purchase their freedom.
So the fates changed.
Bastiaen DAngola, who was captured in the Caribbean Islands by the square-rigged Dutch ship, the prize bark De Jonge Raven, and manumitted by Pieter Jacobsz of Flushing, and Jan De Graue, captain and mate of the vessel, on August 21, 1654, worked on the ship. Jacobsz was the captain and lieutenant, and De Graff [he signed his name De Graue] was the ships mate. DAngola, captured as a slave, most likely was a skilled artisan or ship worker, who purchased his freedom and his sons freedom. We do not know much more from the archives. But we know that in the 1600s, skilled African-Americans who were captured as slaves, were permitted to work after hours, buy their freedom, and were freed. But they then lost these rights and privileges under the British leaders.
DAngola was freed, manumitted ten years after he was captured by Jacobsz and De Graue, because he served them skillfully on their ship.
But how did Stuyvesant and DAngola, from two different continents, two different cultures, Europe and Africa, meet in the Americas? DAngolas place of capture is called Point De Kockes. Peter Stuyvesant, then Governor of Curacao, the Dutch Caribbean Island, was deeply involved in the slave trade. A Governor of Curacao from 1642 to 1644, before he was Governor of New York, he led the trade and battles for the Company. After he became New York Governor, he remained Governor of the Dutch Caribbean Islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. He led a battle of the Dutch against the Spanish at the Spanish fort at Point Blanche on St. Martin/St. Maarten in 1646. His army was supported by Bastiaen DAngola and other free and enslaved African-Americans. Blacks and whites fought alongside each other in military battles in the Americas from one end of the colonies to the other.
Any artist who creates triumphant art and wall murals should reflect this blended history.
In the American Colonies, St. Martin/St. Maarten, for example, has both a French side and a Dutch side, because in the 1600s, the island was held by the Spanish navy and traders, who captured the island from the Dutch and French military. The Dutch later resettled the island, because the Dutch navy, led by Peter Stuyvesant, attacked, won and governed. Stuyvesant and the Dutch governed the Dutch Caribbean Islands and other Colonies, including New York.
In the Colonies, owners had children with the slaves, or owners were nursed by slaves, or gained useful business or military information from slaves. There had varied relationships, the majority being owner and slave, but some slaves in the family were allowed to purchase their freedom. They were related to their owners, to the owners family members, or business partners. Under the Dutch, some were permitted to work after hours, earn their own wages, purchase their freedom, practice a skilled trade, sign documents, and purchase, and own real estate. So how and when did the fate of the family of Bastiaensz change?
Because New York was an international trading center then as it is now, much of this lost history and the lost records are preserved in the archives. Some of the lost history can now be retrieved, and artists who create can incorporate the history, reflecting on the relationships and properties. But it was not smooth sailing. Relationships and business transactions involved legal finagling and sleigh-of-hand that produced a controversial history.
The most nefarious business transactions were secret; they were not recorded in legal documents. Some luxurious New York places such as Gramercy Park that currently do not sport markers are part of this history. Gramercy Parks history traces to Judith, Governor Peter Stuyvesants widow. She resisted the new British regulations that restricted African- Americans from owning property. She sold a portion of her property in Colonial Dutch New York, in New Amsterdam in the Dutch New Netherland Colony. Defying the laws, she sold the property to a free African-American, none other than Frans Bastiaensz, Bastiaen D Angolas free son.
Unraveling the mystery and the losses of African-Americans and residents in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries is a task of unraveling the family- and business-relationships of New Yorks most powerful, wealthy and influential families. The fenced, gated, locked-with-key private park, Gramercy Park was a central point in Dutch New Amsterdam, where leading Dutch and British colonials as well as African-Americans owned land. The property was called, Crommessie Brook, meaning Crooked Little Shoemakers Knife, because that was the shape of the brook, which ran from Madison Square, across 18th Street, on the east side, to the East River.
The brook was viewed from the hill. After the British conquered the city from the Dutch in 1664, New Yorkers morphed the Anglicized name, Gramercy, for the brook, Crommessie.
Under the leadership of the Dutch West India Company, Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor of the New Netherland Colony, already owned large properties in the Wall Street area on the East River. Later in 1651, he purchased the rural uptown country farm property from the Dutch West India Company. He died in 1672. In 1674, his widow, Judith (Bayard) Stuyvesant, sold the property. (Peter had married his sisters sister-in-law, Judith Bayard because family married family then.) Judith Stuyvesant deeded the property to Frans Bastiensz, a negro, a free person. But after this era, the records in the archives are sparse or non-existent. Colonials did not keep records of evil deeds.
It is not quite clear how his land was recaptured. But clearly it was. Judith Stuyvesant died in 1687, and on September 16, 1692, there is an ominous note in the records of New Yorks City Council, then called the Common Council.
The minutes said, The common council appoints a committee to view the highway from the fresh water unto Crummashie hill beyond the Boree and Examine what Intrusions hath been lately made and what was the Ancient Limitts and bounds of the highwayes aforesaid.
The fresh water was Collect Pond in todays Tribeca and the Civic Center near the courts, Chinatown and Canal Street. Crommassie Hill was near the Stuyvesant Farm, near todays Gramercy Park. The Boree was the colonial Bowery Road, now Bowery/Fourth Avenue, the main highway then, but now, Park Avenue South at Gramercy Park.
Solving the mystery of what happened to the missing deed for Frans Bastiaensz property was like solving a legal real estate and travel puzzle. In 1647, Governor Peter Stuyvesant said there were 50 Bouweries and Plantations. In 1673, a year before Mrs. Judith Stuyvesant sold the property to Frans Bastiaensz, the Burgomasters noted 6,000 men, women and children in the New Netherland colony. Bastiaenszs farm was on the northern edge of the 18th Street brook, which places it in the center of Gramercy Park.
New York Citys Common Council captured the lands, farms and buildings from African-American owners and their heirs, and redistributed the lands and farms to politicians and wealthy families, and it was all done legally, according to the laws at the time. In Bastiaensz case, they recaptured his land under the guise of reviewing the boundaries of the highway.
Many of these colonial real estate transactions were secret and political, a hand shake between family members. Secrets not revealed in the public records are as informative as what is revealed. In 1651, Governor Peter Stuyvesant purchased the rural farmland. He died in 1672. In 1674, a deed dated September 24, 1674 in the Original Book of N.Y. Deeds, which can be viewed by visitors in the New York Historical Society Collections of deeds, states that, Mrs. Judith Stuyvesant, the widow and executrix of Petrus Stuyvesant, sold the property to Frans Bastiaensz, a free Negro, New Yorker. Judith Bayard Stuyvesants mother was Marjorie Beekman, of the wealthy, leading political colonial family. These were major families.
The property legal deed of the property she sold is described witnessed and signed. It says, Mrs. Stuyvesant declared to cede, transfer and convey in right true and free ownership [the property] to and in behalf of Frans Bastiaensz free Negro. This was, a certain parcel or piece of land situated across the Fresh Water about the Bowery past the section or neighborhood called Crommessie along the public road running into the wood commencing at the Northend of the lots of Crommessie and then running along said road northward thirty two and a half rods, thence
Mrs. Judith Stuyvesant, Governor Peter Stuyvesant widow, in 1674, stated that she was paid in full by Bastiaensz. The deed said, she was desisting from any claims, ownership-rights and pretensions she or any one on her behalf should or might advance. The deed was executed and signed, September 24, 1674.
The property was transferred to Frans Bastiaensz, a free Negro, with the same rights and responsibilities to the land that Mrs. Stuyvesant and her family had. His main responsibility, with his neighbors, was to keep in repairs the fence of said land.
But then in 1692, under the newly enacted laws about what free African-Americans could and could not do, the New York Citys records simply note that Bastiaenszs land reverted to the Stuyvesant family.
The historical records do not say why the property reverted to the Stuyvesants. But other properties also reverted to anyone claiming interest in properties not their own, under new laws that said free and enslaved African-Americans could not own. Between 1674 and 1746, 72 years later, there are no records about this property. But in 1746, on June 24th, Governor Peter Stuyvesants granddaughter, Anne Pritchard, a widow, the daughter of Nicholas William Stuyvesant, sold the property to James DeLancey.
The sale of this property to James DeLancey was a private sale under the deeds of lease and release laws. There is no record of a public deed.
Then in 1747, on November 13, James DeLancey sold the four-acre rural farm property to John Watts, Jr., Esquire. Again, there is no record of a public deed. These sales were made as deeds of lease and release. Lease and release was a legal, private deed, given as a way of giving someone present and future interest in a property. One person who has interest in the property leased the property to another for one year, then one day following the year, that person sold the property to the person who had leased it, and transferred the property, without having to record a deed or leave a public record. The person who had purchased the property, privately, then sold it, using a quit-claim deed.
So Governor Peter and Judith Stuyvesants descendants, their in-laws, business partners and powerful political friends set up a private lease and release deal, recaptured this property from a Colonial African-American New Yorker, then resold it. In 1761, Gerardus Stuyvesant, Governor Stuyvesants grandson, Anne Pritchards brother, sold the property to James Duane, a lawyer, on July 21 to 22, 1761 with a quit-claim deed. James Duane became Mayor of New York City in 1784. He was also a N.Y. State Senator and a U.S. District Judge.
James DeLancey, John Watts, the Bayards, the Beekmans, and Duane, who were part of the lease and release transaction were all in the wealthy, powerful Stuyvesant family. James DeLancey was Chief Justice of New York and he later became Lieutenant Governor, and Acting Colonial Governor. John Watts, a lawyer, married Anne DeLancey, and their son John Watts Jr. was a U.S. Congress Representative from New York. His wife, Anne, was James DeLanceys sister.
The property may have been parked in the name of the familys in-law and lawyer, John Watts; the record does now say when, but in 1761 the lawyers client and in-law, Gerardus Stuyvesant, Anne Pritchards brother, sold the property to James Duane, another lawyer, with a quit-claim deed.
A quit-claim deed was granted when the seller did not own the title to the property, or did not guarantee the history of the property. Colonel Gerardus Stuyvesant did not have a clear deed to the land that became todays luxurious, private Gramercy Park. James Duane purchased the property for £120, about $120,000 to $240,000 in todays money. That was approximately 72 years after Bastiaensz and his heirs lost the land.
The lawyer, James Watts, who orchestrated the lease and release private deed, died in 1776. A note in the descendants De Peyster familys records said descendants of Stuyvesant and Duane fought over the lands and deeds. James Duane, who bought the Gramercy Park land in 1761, was the son of Anglo-Irish-American settlers, but he became the ward of the powerful merchant and politician, Robert Livingston, when his parents died. His father was an officer in the Royal Navy. Livingston was a member of the Assembly and the son of a wealthy real estate family.
These transactions were all in the family. James Duane married Livingstons daughter, Maria. He purchased the other two properties, ten acres and four acres, from Governor Peter Stuyvesants grandson, Gerardus Stuyvesant. James DeLancey was a member of the wealthy and political DeLancey clan; he married Anne Heathcote, who was from the noble British family that founded the Bank of England. These buyers and sellers of the four-acre farm property were also related to the Van Cortlandts and Beekmans, power,ful political and real estate families.
So property, rural farmland, that once belonged to a free African- American, because of slavery laws and colonial real estate laws and maneuverings, was intercepted, recaptured, taken, and not passed to his descendants. The rest is New York history. James Duane founded Gramercy Park Farm after he purchased the farms. In 1831, the New York lawyer and developer, Samuel Ruggles, created Gramercy Park.
Much of the finagling and property taking happened when wills were probated, when deeds were transferred, and or when Dutch New Yorkers, who had sold property to African-Americans, died. The battles for properties revealed a contentious relationship among Stuyvesants heirs and other wealthy New York families who intermarried each other, but they also fought fiercely for property and inheritance. Properties were transferred through the men, the fathers, brothers, sons and husbands, so the widows had a harder fight. They often lost to powerful lawyers, politicians and business partners.
Such transactions made family relations quite contentious. In the 1770s, the property Judith Stuyvesant sold to Frans Bastiaensz in 1674 was in dispute between the heirs of Stuyvesant & Duane. The records simply say, James Duane bought Coll. Gerardus Stuyvesants quit-claim deed. This is the property James Duane sold to Samuel B. Ruggles. The deed in the New York Historical Society reflects the propertys blended history, but only partially.
It says the lands of the private Gramercy Park, a site where the historic and artistic Gramercy Park Hotel now stands across the street, was bounded by 15th Street on the South, 28th Street on the North, the Bloomingdale Road and Old Post Road on the West, and the First Avenue on the East. The property stretched almost to the East River. Interestingly, the deed accurately describes Judith Stuyvesant as the previous owner, and cites the land transfer in 1697, and even mentions that the property was bounded south by the lands of Antonio, the free negro, and was previously owned by Frans Bastiaensz, but there is no mention of how Bastiaenszs heirs lost the property that became New Yorks private Gramercy Park.
Artists can now reflect this history.
Until now, these records were lost, but now we know that lands belonging to skilled free African-American farmers and artisans in the 1600s were not passed to their families and heirs. Half a century earlier, the Lenape Native Americans had lost New York island to Dutch explorers who navigated the rivers. One historian has proposed creating a New York Freedom Trail, with markers of the historic sites, and the sites where artists and artisans lived, worked and created.