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Gramercy's Gadfly

O. Aldon James Jr., the eccentric president of the National Arts Club, wants to convert Gramercy Park into a public Garden of Eden. But some neighbors think he's the snake.

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"Then this woman said it was against the law to feed pigeons!" shrieks O. Aldon James Jr., his polka-dotted bow tie twitching furiously as his Adam's apple bobs up and down. The woman in question is Sharen Benenson, chairman of the Horticultural Society, the Mercantile Library, and, most important, of the Gramercy Park Trustees. Aldon James, her inflamed nemesis, is president of the National Arts Club, the century-old institution on the south side of Gramercy Park that the bespectacled, brogue-shod, seersucker-suited grandee proudly calls "the country's premier vertical artists' colony."

Civic pedigrees notwithstanding, Aldon James and Sharen Benenson have spent the better part of six years in an ugly fight over one of the city's more beloved bastions of gentility, the gated and manicured Gramercy Park. James, who fancies himself the private garden's Oberon, wants the formally sculpted park to cultivate a more romantic aesthetic, and, gasp, be opened to the public. Benenson, who occupies a lifetime seat on the board, has stubbornly resisted any such change. She favors the clean geometry of an Italianate garden; James would prefer to restore traditional French shade canopy -- "with its former magic and mystery and natural wildness." The conflict has generated a flurry of lawsuits, charges and countercharges that have cost the park trustees and the National Arts Club hundreds of thousands in legal fees, to say nothing of the dead fish someone deposited at James's door.

"That woman illegally cut down trees in the park to improve the view from her apartment!" charges James. "She's engaged in arborcide. She is no friend to trees!"

"Aldon wouldn't know an English elm from an English muffin!" retorts Benenson's husband, James Jr.

The battle reached a new pitch last week, when Aldon escorted a phalanx of 50 Washington Irving High School students into the park for a day of "environmental education." When Mrs. Benenson spied the pack of mostly black and Latino students from the living room window in her fifth-floor duplex, she frantically bustled down and ordered them to leave. (Use of the park is officially limited to some 350 key holders, who pay $2,000 per year to the park trust.) After numerous calls to the school principal and the police, James complied, but not before shouting at the teenagers: "Don't talk to this woman! She kills trees!"

"When I first met that woman, I thought she was a sweet church mouse," says James. "Now I see she's an attack rat."

The tug-of-war has the president of the National Arts Club a bit frazzled. One morning, he stands in front of an eighteen-foot bay window on the club's parlor floor, recounting past skirmishes in such a torrent that it's often difficult to understand him. "Then that woman had the groundskeeper withdraw the water dishes, so now the poor birds -- people were going in there, trying to fill -- I mean the woman is unbelievable! There are birdhouses -- people had beautiful Victorian birdhouses in the park -- and you say, 'Well, surely she would restore them?' Well, no thank you! And now she wants to build birdhouses with no holes because she doesn't want sparrows in the park! And why? Because they're not a Native American bird!"

James stops suddenly and peers out at the park, a glass of Perrier fizzing in his hand. "Oh, oh, oh! I don't even like to go into the park anymore! It just upsets me too much! This woman is crazy! When I first met her, I thought of her as a church mouse. Now we see that she's an attack rat! This woman -- "

"This woman" may be a thorn in James's side, but he proudly describes the institution he has presided over for the past fourteen years as a "multicolored bouquet of roses." Is he the ribbon around the bouquet? "I am one rose," he demurs modestly. "I'm merely one more player on this volleyball team," he says, raising his fist, "throwing in my heart and soul!"

If Sharen Benenson is so far winning the battle to keep change from infiltrating the wrought-iron gates of Gramercy Park, change itself runs happily amok within the walls of its dowager neighbor, the National Arts Club. Founded by New York Times art critic Charles de Kay with the mission of uniting "art lovers and art makers," the National Arts Club is a private-membership club that has been a part of the city's cultural fabric for more than a century. Its members once included collectors like Pierpont Morgan and Henry Frick and a vast assortment of famous artists, including Mark Twain, Stanford White, Alfred Stieglitz, and Salvador Dalí, who was wont to arrive at the club accompanied by his ocelot. "Gramercy Park is called the American Bloomsbury, and we are the keepers of that tradition," insists James. "We can be very immodest about that."

Comprising two row houses that were originally the residence of Samuel Tilden, later renovated by Central Park co-designer Calvert Vaux, the 40-room Gothic mansion is as impressive as the club's name, which often misleads visitors into thinking that the private institution has a public function. Visiting dignitaries have made trips to the club, and their photos hang in the club's entryway alongside the likes of Robin Leach's and Marla Hanson's. "Last week a woman came in and started shouting, 'Where's President Clinton? I have an appointment with him!" confides one employee. "She waited in the foyer all day."


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