NEW YORK -- Washington Irving and the Marquis de Lafayette were among its earliest celebrity visitors. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia used to broadcast from the dining room, reading comic strips over the radio to New York children.

And Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, consigned to a downstairs room, complained about the noise overhead from his estranged wife's exercise machine.

If the exquisitely refurbished walls of Gracie Mansion could talk, what other tales of political and personal drama would they tell?

The walls of this landmark residence on the Upper East Side may not be giving up their secrets, but thousands of visitors are nonetheless taking advantage of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's open-house policy at the city's official mayor's residence, turning it into one of New York's newest tourist attractions.

Thanks to Bloomberg's decision in 2001 not to live at the mansion, its normally off-limits private rooms are on display during guided tours that a non-profit conservancy group conducts three days a week at one of the few mayoral residences in the country.

"By opening up the house, our hope is not only for New Yorkers to come and visit, but for out-of-towners to see Gracie Mansion as a destination," said deputy mayor Patricia Harris. "It offers New York City history, extraordinary American furnishings and works of art, and a fabulous view of the East River."

Yet the tours are only one part of Bloomberg's effort to turn this one-time country retreat into a "people's house." Last year, he held 178 parties, receptions and other events there.

Important civic matters, such as the choice of a memorial design for the site of the World Trade Center, have been weighed in the relative seclusion of the mansion. To pick a memorial to commemorate the thousands who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, the jury deliberated in the mansion's dining room amid pastoral scenes of Parisian parks depicted on 170-year-old French wallpaper.

Bloomberg also wants the mansion to serve as the city's version of Blair House, the Washington townhouse used by visiting dignitaries. Last month, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa stayed in Gracie Mansion's second-floor state bedroom, decorated with faux-bamboo furniture typical of a style that was popular in the 19th century.

Shortly after Bloomberg took office, the billionaire media mogul shocked New Yorkers by announcing that he would not move into the official residence, forgoing one of the most unusual perquisites offered to an American mayor.

The president lives in the White House, and almost every state offers its chief executive a governor's mansion, although Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich declines to live in his official Springfield residence. But few cities have an official mayor's house. In addition to Gracie Mansion, the Manoogian Mansion in Detroit and the Getty House in Los Angeles serve as mayoral residences. But, unlike most of his less prosperous predecessors, Bloomberg already lived in a mansion. He occupies a large townhouse on East 79th Street, in the heart of the nation's most affluent Zip code.

"I said to Mike, 'You're making a mistake,' " former Mayor Ed Koch said. "But he continues to live in his palatial digs. You can't blame him for it. They're really nice."

In fact, Koch had some personal reservations about moving into Gracie Mansion when he was elected mayor in 1977. A bachelor, Koch was used to living in an apartment.

"I didn't want to have a huge place to float around in and feel it wasn't a home," said Koch, a Democrat who has been among the staunchest supporters of the Republican Bloomberg. "Then I had a dinner there with my sister and my brother and my nieces and nephews, and it was extraordinary. I realized I'd have to be a schmo not to live there."

Conducting a recent tour for about two dozen retirees, guide Ida Pecorini notes that Gracie Mansion sits on land first settled by a Dutch farmer in 1646.

George Washington requisitioned a previous house on the site during his ultimately unsuccessful defense of New York during the American Revolution. The British burned that house, but in 1799 Scottish merchant Archibald Gracie built the current two-story, wood-framed structure as a country retreat. At the time, New York City hugged the southern tip of Manhattan Island.

Financial travails forced Gracie to sell the house in 1823. It stayed in private hands until the late 19th century, when the city assumed ownership as part of a parks expansion project. During the following decades, it housed concession stands and a city museum until it was restored to its original state in the early 1940s. At the suggestion of powerful parks commissioner Robert Moses, who was better known for tearing down old buildings rather than preserving them, it became the mayor's official residence. In 1942, La Guardia became the first mayor to live in the mansion.

For most mayors, the house has stayed in the background, but Gracie Mansion became the stage on which Giuliani's marriage to TV personality Donna Hanover came to its tumultuous end. After the mayor's affair with Judith Nathan became public, Hanover won a restraining order to keep Nathan out of the mansion.

As the marriage collapsed, Giuliani slept in a first-floor room -- tour guides profess not to know which room he used -- while his wife and children occupied bedrooms on the second floor. Complaining about the noise from Hanover's 5 a.m. exercise routine, Giuliani moved out before his term ended.

His divorce lawyer, Raoul Felder, predicted that extracting Hanover from the historic house would be tougher.

"I suppose we're going to have to pry her off the chandelier to get her out of there," Felder said. As it turned out, she left on time and without complaint when her ex-husband's term expired.

As a fitting bit of symmetry, Bloomberg married Giuliani and Nathan in a ceremony last year at the mansion.

Like most cities, Chicago has no official mayor's house, although the South Lowe Street bungalow where Richard J. Daley lived during his two decades as Chicago mayor became famous, in part because its humble setting on a Bridgeport street belied the power that Daley wielded.

But Daley, not the city, owned his own house, and the same is true for his son, Mayor Richard M. Daley, who plans to move into a condominium in a luxury high-rise overlooking Millennium Park.

Historian James Grossman of Chicago's Newberry Library speculates that most cities do not have official mayoral residences because of the nature of a mayor's job.

"The difference between being a mayor and being a governor or president is that a governor and a president do not normally live where they serve," said Grossman. "If you're governor of Illinois, what are the odds that you're going to have a home in Springfield? But with mayors, you have to be a resident of the place where you're mayor."

As for Gracie Mansion, Koch hasn't given up hope that Bloomberg might still overcome his reluctance to change his address.

"This is one of the oldest houses in the city," said Koch. "It helps make the mayor be intimately involved in the life of the city. Maybe if he wins a second term, I can convince him to move in."

Tribune correspondent Elizabeth Siegel contributed to this report.

Scottish merchant Archibald Gracie built the two-story mansion in 1799 as a country retreat when New York City occupied only Manhattan's southern tip.