Aside from a natural disaster like a flood or hurricane, or an accidental fire, there are two ways an historic building can be lost. Over slow time, insufficiently addressed corrosive effects of the elements, especially water, will result in a collapse—or, in a matter of days, a well maintained historic building can be destroyed by the swift and deliberate actions of man.
In 1969 the Merchant’s House faced the the threat posed by time. Then 147 years old, it had operated as a museum since 1936 after the death of the last family member, but there was no doubt that a total collapse was coming. Water poured through the roof, timbers were rotted, the extension at the back of house was separating from the main building, plaster walls were crumbling, and the House seemed doomed.
Then a miracle happened; a person appeared who would save the House from destruction. Joseph Roberto, was an architect by profession who worked at nearby New York University and lived in the neighborhood. As a major in the Air Force during World War II, Roberto had been part of a team that was sent all over Europe to evaluate the effectiveness of Allied bombing raids. He said that kicking around in the rubble and seeing what Europe had lost helped him to understand how important old buildings were to the life of a City.
To let the Merchant’s House go, he said “would be for us to lose our heritage, our ties with the past, to break with those who left us a bit of history.”
And so over the next nine years, Roberto, on a purely volunteer basis, raised funds and supervised a thorough structural restoration, meticulously protecting original fabric where it could be saved, using historically accurate material where it could not, employing craftsmen who were at the top of their profession. It’s a wonderful story of skill, ingenuity, passion and love of our heritage. I am now nearing completion of a book that will tell this story. The working title is Miracle on Fourth Street.
The Merchant’s House will never face a threat of that kind again. Today it is owned by the City, and is a member of the Historic House Trust of New York City; those in charge keep an eagle eye out for developing problems, and preventive maintenance is constant. Whenever more extensive restoration efforts are called for they are undertaken with great care by preservationists who know what they are doing. The House has the enthusiastic support of Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, private foundations, corporations, and generous individuals, all of whom recognze that the House is an invaluable historic document worthy of whatever it takes to preserve it for future generations. In 1997 the House was the recipient of a million dollar grant from the Astor Foundation, establishing an endowment fund for the first time in its history.
NOW, HOWEVER, THE HOUSE FACES AN IMMEDIATE THREAT TO ITS SURVIVAL.
A developer has filed an application to build a nine-story building next door. The demolition of the existing one-story building that is there now and the excavation necessary to build such a structure would pose an extreme danger to the structural integrity of the museum. Extreme in the sense that it very well might mean the end of Manhattan’s only family home preserved in its original state since the days before the Civil War.
The City, of course, must grant a construction permit before the builder can proceed. Mindful of the grievous loss this would be to the preservation of New York City history, over 1300 people at this writing have signed a petition opposing the granting of the application. On May 14 many supporters of the House turned out at a meeting of the Landmarks Committee of Community Board #2 for Round One of the fight to save the House. The good news is that the Committee voted unanimously to deny the developer’s application. However, this is just the first step. Next step, a meeting of the Landmarks Commission on June 15th. Those who understand the importance of preserving this House for future generations will aggressively fight every bureaucratic battle along the way, you can be sure.
(Update: On February 11, 2014, there will be another meeting of the the Landmarks Preservation Commission to evaluate revised plans of the developers.)