On March 6, forty-nine years ago, munchkins from the Downtown School in the East Village grabbed their banners and wended their way to the steps of the Merchant’s House Museum, singing protest songs all the way. This was the sixties, after all, and when you saw an injustice, that’s what you did, even if you were just a little kid.
Here’s an explanation of the crisis that prompted the children’s march, how it all turned out, and why today the Merchant’s House is in need of another mobilization of public outrage.
For several years, a small group of New Yorkers had become alarmed at the number of architecturally significant old buildings that were falling victims to the wrecker’s ball.
In October of 1963, Pennsylvania Station, one of New York City’s most glorious structures was demolished. Public opinion was galvanized, for there was a growing understanding that old buildings give character, dimension, and beauty to the city.
Fast Forward to the spring of 1964. An advisory commission appointed by Mayor Robert Wagner had finished drafting landmarks legislation. It called for a Landmarks Preservation Commission that would have the power to designate landmarked buildings. Such designated buildings could not be demolished until a series of alternatives had been explored, and then only with permission of the Commission.
And that wasn’t all. The proposed legislation also empowered the Commission to designate historic districts. The Commission would have the power to determine whether proposed new structures or modifications to the exterior of existing structures in these districts were appropriate to the aesthetic and historic character of the district. And there was teeth in the proposed law, for the commission would have the power to impose criminal sanctions to enforce its decisions.
But months passed without action on the proposed legislation, and then on September 17, 1964, it was announced that a prized New York City landmark, the former Brokaw Mansion at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, was going to be demolished and replaced with a high rise apartment building. The public was outraged; the press was outraged; pressure for action became intense.
But the Landmarks legislation had still not been passed and so on a Saturday morning in February of 1965, the Brokaw Mansion began to come down. New Yorkers winced and howled as stained glass, carved architectural moldings and marble ornamentation were shattered.
At the same time, a developer who hoped to assemble East Fourth Street lots for commercial use offered to buy the Old Merchant’s House. It had survived as a museum for three decades, most of those years by the skin of its teeth and now it was on its last legs. The Board was tentatively eyeing the offer.
AND THAT’S WHEN THE CHILDREN MOBILIZED
Children from the Downtown School were aware of the outrage of their parents. They understood that somehow the final enactment of the Landmarks legislation might help save the Old Merchant’s House—the destination of many of their field trips. So they, too, were outraged. And with the encouragement of their teachers, they decided to do something about it.
Lilliputian protesters, some playing guitars, some carrying placards, marched through the East Village singing, “Where have all the landmarks gone? Gone to ruins, most every one. When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” After weaving their way through East Village Streets, they gathered at the Old Merchant’s House, where they collected petitions of protest to be sent to the mayor and recited original poems on the steps: “Save the Old Merchant’s House, please. Or else it will fall on its knees.”
Whether it was the destruction of the Brokaw mansion or the Children’s March that finally prompted action on the part of the City Council and the mayor, I really couldn’t say. But on April 6, 1965, the legislation passed unanimously, and the mayor signed it into law on April 16, 1965.
The children had their wish. On September 21, 1965, the Commission met for the first time all day and into the night. By nine o’clock, 20 structures had been designated. The Old Merchant’s House was one of them. Though it did not exactly have a new lease on life just yet, the designation had bought it some time. It had escaped being sold and razed. For seven years, it limped along, and beginning in 1972, it was closed for almost a decade while a thorough structural restoration was undertaken. Today the Merchant’s House is one of the City’s most valuable historic documents.
However today the Museum faces another crisis. A developer plans to build a hotel next door to the west. The demolition of the existing building on that site and construction of such a project poses a grave danger to the delicate 1832 brick building. Not only is the structural integrity of the building endangered, at great risk is the beautiful plaster work within. It was restored in 1988 under the direction of Edward Vason Jones, White House architect, by his team of master craftsmen. The amazing plaster ceiling medallions are probably the finest example of this type of Greek Revival interior ornament in the country.
We are counting on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to do what they have done so many times before and that is to protect an historically important, irreplaceable New York City treasure. We are keeping our fingers crossed, holding our breath, and praying!
To learn more about the Merchant’s House Museum, www.merchantshouse.org.
And visit when you can! 12-5 p.m. Thursday-Monday