The noted architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, died on January 7 at the age of 91. She was the first architecture critic for a major U.S. newspaper and will long be remembered for the eleven books and countless articles and columns she wrote for The New York Times where she was the architecture editor for many years and as architecture editor of The Wall Street Journal, a position she held at her death. She was still writing brilliantly and forcefully until the very end of her life; her last article for The Journal in which she voiced her objection to the planned renovation of the New York City Public Library in typical trenchant prose, was published just a month before she died.
Few people today remember that in 1970, she penned 200 words that would result in the preservation of a cherished New York City landmark that would otherwise have faced certain destruction. The Merchant’s House Museum, a rowhouse built in 1832, had been open to the public as a Museum since 1936, but by 1965 it was sadly deteriorated and hard pressed for operating and maintenance funds. The Board was eyeing an offer from a developer who wanted to buy up sites on the Fourth Street Block, and the old house seemed to be headed for demolition.
But the deal never materialized and somehow the house hung on, continuing to deteriorate, until by 1970, it was literally on the verge of collapse. Joseph Roberto, then the New York University architect, volunteered to undertake what seemed to be an impossible endeavor: a complete structural restoration of the house. But where was the money to come from for such an ambitious project? With the help of his wife, Carol, Roberto spent a year and a half in a desperate and unsuccessful effort to raise the necessary funds.
Then in December of 1970, one of Roberto’s letters of appeal landed on Ms. Huxtable’s desk. She responded by ending the column she was working on for The New York Times, with three short paragraphs—200 words— describing the plight of the Merchant’s House, which she noted was unlikely to make it through the winter. She issued a challenge. “Anyone for some nice civic-minded Christmas gifts?” she asked.
When Ada Louise Huxtable spoke, people listened. Roberto said the result was “electrifying.”
Joan Dunlop, then assistant director of the Fund for the City of New York, offered a gift of $5000, but more importantly put Roberto in touch with state and federal authorities who were able eventually to come up with grants that would provide major funding for a decade-long restoration of the old house, a restoration that Roberto undertook with scrupulous care, using original materials where it was at all possible and accurately reproducing them where it is was not. When the structural restoration was complete, the original furniture was restored where necessary, and the entire collection reinstalled along with an accurate reproduction of the parlor carpeting and draperies.
Ms Huxtable deplored the ersatz and the “doctored reality” of many restored historic buildings and in the cultural landscape as a whole. She wrote compellingly on this theme in The Unreal America. (1997). But the Merchant’s House did not belong in that category, and in February of 1980 when she was able to inform her readers that in spite of all odds, the Old Merchants House (as it was then called) had survived, she explained why.
The distinction of this house—and it is a powerful one—is that it is the real thing. One simply walks through the beautiful doorway . . . into another time and place in New York. . . .An authentic original interior like this one is an extreme rarity among historic houses . . . . The completeness of these interiors is rarer still. There is all the period nostalgia that anyone would want at the Old Merchants House, but it is also a unique social, esthetic and historical document and its loss would have been a particular tragedy for New York.
Since the restoration of the 70s, the Merchant’s House has enjoyed a continuity of leadership that is rare among historic house museums: first by Roberto himself and since his death in 1988 by Margaret Halsey Gardiner.
Roberto performed the miracle, New York City Landmarks legislation provided legal protection for both the exterior and interior, and the current stewards are vigilant in meeting the many needs of a 181-year old house, determined to maintain this authentic landmark whatever it takes.
But it was Ada Louise Huxtable who got the ball rolling—with 200 well chosen words.