By Amy Zimmer
DNAinfo News Editor
GRAMERCY PARK — For one hour on Christmas Eve the gates of Gramercy Park will welcome the public for caroling and hot cocoa.
It is one of the few nights a year when the Trustees of Gramercy Park open the two-acre gem to anyone other than the key-holders from buildings lining Manhattan’s only private park.
“People sing and children play and munch and mingle. A lot of people come from the neighborhood and from out of the neighborhood,” said Lys Pike, whose husband, Rev. Thomas Pike, a trustee of Gramercy Park and rector emeritus of the Parish Calvary-St. Georges, has been leading the caroling for 40 years.
“It’s a very long tradition,” Rev. Pike said, recounting the music’s evolution from acappella to a Salvation Army brass band accompaniment to a field organ. It started with fewer than a hundred singers and had grown to nearly 1,000, he said.
It is perhaps the most popular public gathering in the park — a ledge of which was recently scrawled with “Not allowed unless rich” — but there are other rare moments when the gates swing ajar.
It was open to the public earlier in the month, Rev. Pike said, for a Chanukah menorah lighting ceremony led by the Brotherhood Synagogue, at the park’s southeast corner. The park is also open on the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur but not for the public-at-large — there is a guard sizing visitors up and determining whether they look like they’re observing the Day of Atonement. (This year, the park closed earlier than usual, surprising some locked-out temple-goers.)
The park had been open for something called “Gramercy Park Day,” but that tradition reportedly ended three years ago.
“The park is open on occasion,” Rev. Pike noted. “The trustees have a responsibility to maintain the park. This sounds like a spin doctor, but the fence is not to keep the public out. It’s to keep the park green and beautiful.”
Several key-holding residents — some of whom noted they were not wealthy and lived in tiny apartments — emphasized that they pay for the park’s upkeep, not taxpayers, and that it was designed to be a private park ever since Samuel B. Ruggles purchased the swampland in 1831.
From the park’s beginning, Rev. Pike said, it was designed to be “ornamental, not recreational.”
It is a green oasis with frequent hawk sightings and 180 other bird species. Dog walkers came from blocks away to walk their pets (which are not allowed inside) around Gramercy Park’s perimeter, Pike said.
“There’s a Japanese concept, ‘borrowed landscape.’ That’s what this is. People borrow the beauty of it,” he said. “We want to keep it the way it always was.”
Gramercy Park Christmas Caroling, Friday, Dec. 24, from 6-7 p.m. With singing led by Rev. Thomas Pike and treats provided by the Gramercy Park Hotel. The park is located between E. 20th and 21st streets and Park and Third Avenues.