When we were in Philadelphia several years ago, we visited Christ Church, an historic building where George Washington worshipped. We were able to sit in Washington’s pew, and as I sat there my gaze was directed to the clerestory windows near the roof line. As I looked through one of the windows, it occurred to me that I was seeing what George Washington saw! No doubt the windows had been painted over the years, but they hadn’t changed, and the view outside the window certainly hadn’t changed.
This realization was a mind-blowing experience for me. I tried to think of other places where this kind of experience would be available. One I immediately thought of was Jasper Cropsey’s front porch. Cropsey was one of the landscape artists of the Hudson River school. Ever Rest, his home, has been preserved in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, where many of his paintings of the Hudson River are on display, and you can sit on his front porch and observe what he saw that inspired the pictures of the Hudson River that are on display inside.
There are, of course, many restored historic buildings where an attempt has been made to recreate the original, but the restorers’ hand inevitably introduces a false note. For instance, great pains are taken to preserve the additions they have made (plastic runners over the carpet, no sitting on the chairs) so one misses the normal wear and tear that is common in a home.
So keep your eyes open, be alert for any opportunity that presents itself, and take advantage of it. You will be glad you did! And let me know about it!
The Merchant’s House Museum, where I worked for almost 20 years, has a reputation for being the most haunted house in New York City. There are several things about this historic house museum that distinguish it from other historic houses that encourage the ghosts to make their presence known.
First of all, only one family lived there for almost 100 years. The baby born in the house in 1840 died in an upstairs bedroom in 1933. Thus there is no confusion caused by a lot of unrelated departed individuals vying for attention.
And this is key—the house is still furnished with their furniture and decorative objects. Their personal possessions are still there, including their clothing. Even the textiles—the draperies, the upholstery, the carpet, are exact reproductions of what was there at mid nineteenth century.
And sometimes strange things happen
Visitors and staff have over the years reported inexplicable events. Apparitions in 19th century costume and hair styles appear suddenly. Objects are moved from their accustomed places without the intervention of a living person. Footsteps are heard on the stairs by an office worker working late, although no one else is in the house.
However, I am a ghost skeptic.
I am not too vocal about my misgivings because I realize that many people find it entertaining and exciting to think that the house is haunted and I don’t want to spoil the fun. It’s not that I don’t believe these strange events have happened; I just believe there is an alternative explanation.
When visitors ask if there are ghosts
My standard reply when I used to give tours was “Of course, that is the whole point.” The Merchant’s House offers guided tours, but visitors are also free to explore the house on their own for as long as they like with a self-guided tour book. It is then, in my opinion, that the real ghosts are likely to emerge. They are not scary; they are not even particularly mysterious. But if you just stand quietly and stare at their things, you will feel their presence beside you.
Here is the coal grate they stood before to warm themselves.
Here are the chairs they sat in.
Here is the table they sat around.
And as you climb the very stairway they climbed to make their way to bed, with your hand touching the stair rail their hands touched, one of them leads the way.
Here are the beds where they rested—and sometimes died.
Here is the window they looked out of.
Here are the mirrors that reflected their faces.
Of course you can never completely pierce the veil, but you will never come closer to knowing what life was like in the nineteenth century than you do at the Merchant’s House, and that is because, as they say, it is the most haunted house in New York City.
Unfortunately, this year because of COVID-19. the Merchant’s House has had to cancel their in-person ghost events and the popular candlelit ghost tours. But if you like to ruminate about ghostly happenings, go here and you will find several virtual events you might be interested in, including a summary of the paranormal studies of the House that are now taking place.
The moment we decided that we wanted to leave Manhattan came in a cab ride to the dentist, whose office is in midtown. I made the mistake of scheduling the appointment on Columbus Day. Any New Yorker can tell you what is wrong with that idea. The annual Columbus Day parade makes its way up Fifth Avenue, which means that traffic, which is always slow, comes to a virtual standstill in midtown as normal Fifth Avenue traffic is diverted to nearby streets.
So there we were sitting in a cab on Park Avenue in the middle of the day as pedestrians passed us by. I tried to divert my attention from the running meter by gazing out the window. And up—up—up—in the air so far up I had to scrunch down in my seat to see it— there was the great green dinosaur on top of a building then under construction. Okay, maybe this one wasn’t green, but it certainly looked ridiculous perched that high in the sky.
And then it occurred to us we didn’t want to live where the buildings are now no longer scraping the sky but piercing it. A boom in what are called “supertall towers” is underway in New York. In my opinion, these buildings are inhuman. They’re not awe inspiring; they’re frightening. And as Paul Goldberger, architecture critic, observes, they are changing the character of Manhattan as we have known it. Midtown, he notes, is no longer for New Yorkers. It is instead a place for tourists and globe-trotting billionaires.
A supertall building in New York is nothing new, of course. The Empire State Building is 1250 feet high; the Freedom Tower 1776 feet. (The Twin Towers were slightly over 1300 feet.)
What is different about the new supertalls is that they are super skinny residential buildings built with global billionaire investors in mind, and they are popping up all over, particularly in midtown, where their height gives them spectacular views of Central Park. In 2016, a Saudi retail magnate bought a penthouse at 432 Park (1396 feet high, 95 stories) for 87.7 million. Some sources say 95 million, but I guess it doesn’t much matter when money is literally no object. Not all of the apartments in this building are that expensive, of course. You can pick up an apartment on a lower floor for 15 to 20 million.
And Now Outside My Window
There’s the dinosaur, this one most certainly green, pouring concrete for a new apartment building. It will be a modest 16 stories tall, still too tall for the disgruntled citizens of Fleetwood, where the many apartment buildings here seldom rise above eight stories.
I guess we’ll not be having Saudi billionaire neighbors any time soon.
The Merchant’s House Museum, showing the original Duncan Phyfe chairs. The carpet and window treatment are exact reproductions of what was in the house in 1850.
The City Council Came Through!
This week the New York City Council voted unanimously to deny a developer an application to build an eight-story hotel next door to one of New York’s treasures: the Merchant’s House Museum, a 186-year old house, a family home with original furnishings and objects now open to the public. The proposed construction threatened the fragile building with catastrophic damage and a possible collapse.
There will always be a conflict.
There are those who want to want to preserve historic buildings and those who want to demolish them for various reasons, sometimes because it is prohibitively expensive or impossible to save them, but often for selfish financial reasons, or simply because they assume that whatever is new is better than what is old.
In 1963, when Pennsylvania Station, a beautiful monumental example of Beaux Arts architecture, was demolished, many New Yorkers raised a loud hew and cry in opposition. Penn Station could have been saved, but the good guys who wanted to “renovate not amputate” lost that one. Today, 55 years later, New Yorkers, especially those whose daily commute takes them through the miserable underground replacement sorely lament that decision.
The argument against demolishing Penn Station was primarily based on its architectural significance.
But I think an even more important reason for saving a historic building is that its presence in the community connects us to the past. We need to be reminded as we go about our daily lives that the present is not all there is, that we are not the end-all and be-all, that in many ways we owe who we are to what went on before we existed.
The connection is not always conscious, but it exists nevertheless—like background music you don’t particularly notice but that affects your mood. A city with no old buildings would be an Orwellian nightmare.
The place where we can most easily connect to life beyond memory is a domestic space.
Here is where people actually ate their dinners, entertained their friends, climbed the stairs to bed. These places are rare and rarer still are those that still contain the furniture and personal possession of the family that lived there,
Those who know me and have heard me repeat the “really real table” story more often than they wanted may now skip the following two paragraphs.
I was giving a tour of the house to second graders. The children were seated on the parlor carpet in front of me. I explained that a family with eight children lived in the house over 100 years ago and today the house was still here, just as it had been then. The furniture was theirs; the big sister played the piano; the family sat on the chairs.
A hand shot into the air. The seven-year-old’s eyes were wide. He pointed to the center table. “You mean . . . you mean . . . that’s the really real table?”
This little boy “got it.”
He obviously realized that there were those who came before him and were no longer here, and in that moment he had connected to them. Caught up with our personal ambitions, we sometimes forget that we too will pass into history and someday other youngsters will judge us and find our homes and habits and possessions quaint and queer. The historic home serves to remind us of this humbling fact.
So thanks, City Council, and all those who worked so hard to convince them that the Merchant’s House is worth saving!
For more about the Merchant’s House see An Old Merchant’s House and the sequel, Miracle on Fourth Steet by me. You can read more about these books here.
Ada Louise Huxtable was the first architecture critc 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 in 2013 at the age of 91.
She 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, Here is what she had to say at a time when the future of the Museum had been in doubt. There could be no better argument for protecting the Merchant’s House!
The distinction of this house—and it is a powerful one—is that it is the real thing. One simply walks though 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.
On September 26, the New York City Council will vote on whether to approve a developer’s application to build an eight-story hotel next door to the Merchant’s House. There is no case that can be made for the proposed construction, but there are many reasons that it is absolutely unwarranted:
It will result in catastrophic damage to the fragile 186-year-old building, and according to engineering analyses would likely lead to its collapse.
The developer’s application requests a zoning text amendment for “spot zoning,” which is illegal, benefiting the developer alone.
The community is vehemently opposed to the eight-story hotel in this location.
The hotel project could be shifted to a site around the corner at 403 Lafayette, which the developer already owns!