The Insider | Gracie’s Volunteer Tour Guide

Name: Mike Widdoes
Age: 46
Hometown: Mr. Widdoes grew up in Manhattan and lives in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.
Title: Docent at Gracie Mansion.

Claim to fame: Mr. Widdoes volunteers as a guide at Gracie, where he explains everything from the furniture to the floorboards. He gives tours on most Wednesdays.

In the mayor’s absence: Built in the 1790s, Gracie first became city property in 1896 because the owner had failed to pay his taxes. It was Robert Moses who thought of converting the house from a museum to a place for the New York’s mayor to hang his hat. Since Fiorello H. La Guardia moved in in 1942, nine mayors have called it home.

But when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was elected, he decided to stay in his own house on the Upper East Side rather than move into Gracie. Though he still hosts parties and guests there — a library that is mostly decorated in sea green is Mr. Bloomberg’s favorite room for meetings, Mr. Widdoes says — without the pitter-patter of residential feet, the house is empty most of the time. But this is a good thing, too, since it means there is more time for tours and allows visitors to poke around more of the mansion’s nooks and crannies.

“Thank you, Mr. Mayor,” Mr. Widdoes said.

His first trip to Gracie Mansion: “No one ever goes to the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty if you’re a New Yorker unless you’ve got someone in from out of town,” said Mr. Widdoes, who also works as a waiter at Gramercy Tavern. “This was one of those things I had never done.”

About five years ago, another New Yorker suggested they remedy the situation. That New Yorker? His mother.

Knowing too much, or too little, on a tour: “The hardest thing is when you get cantankerous New Yorkers — though I can be one myself — that are challenging you,” Mr. Widdoes said. “Well, what’s that? Are you sure?”

The other end of the spectrum, however, can also be a challenge.

“The history buffs who know everything about New York City,” he said. “One time I had to say, ‘Ma’am, I do this for fun.’ ”

His favorite part about volunteering: Mr. Widdoes says that he always gets a thrill from the home’s history (“I mean, Alexander Hamilton walked in this house — are you kidding me!”), but the most exciting moments are when New Yorkers, especially those with long memories, share their New York stories with him.

When Mr. Widdoes was giving a tour a few years ago, he said, a woman in her 90s told him that she had met La Guardia more than 60 years ago while he was puttering around on the Gracie Mansion grounds — security was not what it is now, he explained.

“This woman was a living link to an early part of our history here,” he said. “When I start talking and somebody tells me something about their experience of New York or why they like to be here, that’s the most joyful part.”


Our City Hall reporters, David W. Chen and Javier C. Hernandez offer an inside look at New York’s government. Check back every Wednesday for updates. Got a tip? E-mail [email protected]

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