EXCLUSIVE: Unmasking the faces behind the design of Gracie Mansion’s Halloween extravaganza

Over the weekend, the stately home of New York City’s mayor, Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side, became a haunted mansion engulfed in fog and surrounded by skeletons protruding from the muddy grass.

The sight evoked thrills and chills who came there for Halloween celebrations. Akin to a movie set, the grounds were transformed into a haunting wonderland complete with eerie props and creepy actors.

However, while many enjoyed the final product, few got to see the work that goes into bringing the dead to life.

After scaring a young attendee, a staff member unmasks to reveal a friendly face. Photo by Dean Moses

Mercedes Nunez is the Director of Horticulture for the Manhattan bureau of NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and is the mind that brainstorms the concepts. Her rich imagination is the lifeblood that flows into the veins of design, taking it from proposal to reality.

“When I see pieces, like a broken TV or something like that, I say this is very good for Halloween. I see necklaces, I say they are snakes. That’s how we started eight years ago,” Nunez explained.

In order to decide the exact placement of the haunted house, corn maze, graveyard, and more, Nunez said she sketches out the design to help make the construction process easier. And with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the event to take a hiatus in 2019 and 2020, she used the best of her ideas from previous years to make the return that much more spectacular.

Mercedes Nunez helps make the nightmare a reality. Photo by Dean Moses

“This year we said we have to make up for the two years that we could not make it,” Nunez said.

Although the blueprints come directly from Nunez’s own creativity, she affirms that the final product wouldn’t happen without the help of a dedicated team from the NYC Parks Department. Beginning construction as soon as Oct. 21, they started to convert the space into a treasure trove of scares.

“I have a wonderful staff in the Parks Department. They are always willing to help. We are a team and embark on work as a team. That is something really important. We always support one another. The carpenters have been here making the frame because the whole haunted house is fabric. They made strong columns, they got my vision and they put it in,” Nunez said. 

Mercedes Nunez and members of her team. Photo by Dean Moses

Members of the team didn’t just help construct the winding pathways and ghoulish jump scares, however, they also lived and breathed it. Many NYC Parks staff members also went the extra mile by dressing up as ghosts and mummies to deliver the frights firsthand. Still, despite all the horrors on show, the most terrifying process for staff was the weather. 

“We built all this time but the rain really hindered us throughout the process—lots of flooding, even up until the morning we opened. But it turned out perfect,” Executive Director of Gracie Mansion Dawn Tolson said. 

After so many days working in the Mayor’s backyard, the staff members were eager to get Mayor Bill de Blasio’s feedback, and according to Nunez he was pleased with the results.

“He loved it. The mayor loves Halloween because he loves to see the kids’ faces,” Nunez said.

While some of the actors were volunteers, many of the ghouls and ghosts were members of the NYC parks department. Photo by Dean Moses