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!
When the time came to restore the parlors of the Merchant’s House in 1977, the head of the restoration turned to one of the most prominent architects of the period, Edward Vason Jones, who was so impressed with the beauty and the importance of the house that he offered his services free of charge.
Jones’ works include the first restoration of the Department of State Diplomatic Reception Rooms and renovations to rooms of the White House under the administrations of Nixon, Ford, and Carter. One of the receptions rooms was named “The Edgar Vason Jones Memorial Hall” in his honor.
To restore the parlor plaster, Jones brought on a team of the country’s finest craftsmen who had worked with him at the White House. David Flaharty, the sculptor and ornamental plasterer who would bring the dramatic ornamental plaster back to its original beauty says that the matching ceiling medallions are “unquestionably among the finest such designs to survive.” In his opinion they are superior to any composed during the American Classical Revival.
Still in Place after 186 years!
A little over five feet in diameter, they are larger than most ceiling medallions found in Greek Revival homes. In addition, rather than being flat, as such medallions usually are, their centers of alternating foliate acanthus leaf clusters are recessed into the ceiling. This characteristic creates depth and adds interest, but along with the large size of the medallion, requires an extremely elaborate system of framing and lathing of the central ceiling joists. That these heavy medallions are still in place after 186 years is a testimony to the skill of the original builder. That it is impossible to detect which missing elements were replaced by the restorer is a testimony to the skill of the expert Jones hired to do the work.
In 1853 Louisa Bird Cunningham was traveling by steamboat down the Potomac River. As the boat passed George Washington’s home, she was shocked and saddened to see its deteriorated condition. Both the U.S Congress and the Commonwealth of Virginia Legislature had refused to entertain the idea that they purchase the home with a view to the restoration and creation of a national monument. In a letter to her daughter, Ann Pamela, Louisa Cunningham wrote that the site of the home made her “painfully depressed. . . . Why was it that the women of this county did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?”
Upon reading her mother’s letter, Ann Pamela Cunningham is reported to have exclaimed, “I’ll do it!” She was an unlikely candidate for the job. But the frail 37-year-old spinster, who was plagued by pain from a youthful spinal injury, was determined to see to it that Mount Vernon was preserved for future generations. And so she established the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. And with that, the historic preservation movement began in earnest.
Today the ladies are still at it. The national treasure that is Mount Vernon attracts over 1.1 million visitors a year.The operation is entirely privately funded; the ladies have never received any federal or state funds.
Throughout the history of the preservation movement that Ann Pamela Cunningham inspired, women have been deeply involved, both individually and through their organizations. Wherever there is a historic site, you more than likely will find women an important part of its history and current operation.
Credit for saving the historic site with which I am most familiar, the Merchant’s House Museum in New York City, typically and legitimately goes to two men: George Chapman, the founder who bought the run down house at the death of the last family member in 1933 and ran it for 25 years, and Joseph Roberto, an architect who appeared in 1969 and volunteered to perform a ten-year-long structural restoration, during which time the House was closed.
But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
At the death of George Chapman in 1959, the Merchant’s House board tried desperately to find a way to keep the house afloat. By that time, funds were running low, the house had continued to deteriorate during Chapman’s time, and developers were eager to acquire the property. The board was seriously considering throwing in the towel.
And then in 1963, the Decorators Club of New York City, a women’s group of professional interior decorators, agreed to take the Merchant’s House on as a project. One would suppose that a group of decorators would want to impose their own ideas on the decor. But they didn’t. They felt that the house should be preserved just the way it was in the 19thcentury, and their stewardship reflected that commitment. For five years they raised funds, made stop- gap repairs, conducted tours, reproduced the carpet and the silk curtains, and managed to keep the lights on. They had neither the funds nor the know how to undertake what was necessary to halt the disintegration of the house, but they kept at it, and in 1969, they had the good luck of consulting architect Joseph Roberto, who fell in love with the house and devoted a decade to securing funding and conducting the restoration as a volunteer.
True to their charter, the Decorators Club is still a women’s group. The name of the organization has not changed, but today the members are known officially as interior designers.
They are not interested in historic preservation in general or the Merchant’s House in particular, but there is no doubt whatsoever that the Merchant’s House owes its existence not only to the founder, George Chapman, and the restorer, Joseph Roberto, but to the group of resolute women who called themselves interior decorators and who would not have been at all offended if you called them “ladies.” In fact, Elizabeth Draper, whom the NY Times called “the grand dame of interior design,” and who served as the president of the Decorators Club for two years and was a member of the Museum board for 18, said of herself, “I came along in that lovely ladies’ era of decorating, just before all the talented men began emerging in the field.”
The Merchant’s House is the only existing example of an urban home owned by a member of the merchant elite of New York when that city was the “commercial emporium of the nation.” Without the devotion and stubborn persistence of those lady decorators, one of New York City’s most important historical resources would simply not exist.
When I did the research for An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City 1835-65, I relied heavily on New Yorkers’ diaries because a diary tells you what real people really did. You can count on a diary.
Imagine how delighted I was, then, to discover the diary of John Ward, in which he recounts his New Year’s Day calling in 1861. Here is an excerpt from my book:
“The most elaborate calling ritual of all took place on New Year’s Day when the doors between the parlors were thrown open for the traditional New Year’s Day reception. According to an old Dutch custom, on that day the ladies stayed home to receive guests and preside over a lavish buffet table, while the gentlemen sallied forth to make calls. . . .
“The ladies were bejeweled and beautifully dressed in low-neck silk gowns got up by their dressmakers especially for the occasion. The tables were laden with all manner of delicacies: turkey, chickens, fruits, pickled and stewed oysters, crullers, doughnuts and little New York cakes with mottoes written on them in icing. Alcohol flowed almost as freely as Croton water. . . .
“When John Ward was twenty-two years old, he made the rounds with his nineteen-year old brother, Press. They decided to make only a few calls (the total turned out to be thirty-three), so they were able to stay for more conversational exchange than was perhaps typical.
“John was impressed by the finery of the women—Julia Carville wore a French headdress of gold ornaments and velvet; Mrs. Fisher wore blue to match the blue silk on the parlor walls, and Julia Cutting, a red silk with a long train.
“He talked to Bessie Fisher about the sculpture “Babes in he Woods” by Thomas Crawford and to Lizzie Schuschardt about crossing the ocean and admiring the rosy sunsets over Mount Rigi in Switzerland. Mrs General Jones told him how she detested shopping and always just went to one large shop and bought everything she could think of and scarcely shopped in Paris at all.
“He ate tongue and biscuits at the Aspinwalls and peered into the stereopticon at the Cuttings . . . Lucy Baxter accused Press of deliberately cutting her and swore the next time she saw him she intended to march right up to him and put out her parasol or throw her muff to attract his attention.
“The stereopticon was a viewing device commonly found in nineteenth-century parlors. Using a special camera with two lenses that produced two negatives, photographs were taken of the same scene but from slightly different viewpoints corresponding to the distance between the eyes. These images were then mounted side by side and the whole inserted into the device. When looked at through the viewer, a single three-dimensional image sprang into life. To a nineteenth-century audience for whom photography itself was a relatively new phenomenon, the effect was magical.”
For more from An Old Merchant’s Housego here where you’ll find an excerpt on hair care and cosmetics.
And now, 80 years later, The Merchant’s House Museum still offers visitors a unique window into the lives of mid-19th century New Yorkers.
August, 1933—The country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Gertrude Tredwell had just died at the age of 93 in the 1832 rowhouse her family had inhabited for almost 100 years. A century of urban progress meant that the house, once located in the New York City’s most desirable neighborhood, was now just steps from the Bowery, the nation’s skid row. It was a time capsule, complete with the original owners’ furnishings dating to mid 19th century, and personal belongings as well—books, decorative objects, textiles, and even 39 dresses belonging to the women of the family.
Enter George Chapman, a distant cousin who made what can only be described as a foolhardy decision to “save” the old house from the auction block and turn it into a museum. Not only had the house been long neglected and was then well along the road to disintegration, but certainly no one at that time was inclined to donate money to preserving the home of an early New York City merchant—a rich merchant, to be sure—a good man certainly—but not a person of historical significance.
But George was a wealthy man and in spite of increasing physical infirmity he just barely managed to hold his beloved museum together at great personal cost for over 20 years. However, he was not inclined to make major repairs let alone the needed thorough restoration of the collapsing house.
Eventually, after an improbable chain of events, an impeccable authentic restoration did take place, undertaken without charge by Joseph Roberto, an accomplished restoration architect who exercised a scrupulous regard for the original fabric of the building and recruited some of the most talented craftsmen in the country as well as White House architect, Edward Vason Jones and noted 19th century authority on American decorative arts, Berry Tracy, as pro bono consultants.
The restoration was a story of creative solutions to structural calamities, heartbreaking setbacks, personality conflicts, and an unceasing struggle to find funding, but Joseph Roberto simply would not give up, and eventually the house was restored to its original beauty, structurally stronger than ever. The textiles had completely deteriorated, but instead of replacing them with period appropriate examples, The Decorators Club, who were responsible for the interior refurbishment, wisely had the original silk curtains and the carpeting reproduced at extraordinary expense.
The story doesn’t end there, however, for there was to be one last crisis, which could literally have brought the house down were it not for the wise direction of the current director and the support of government and corporate grants, and the generosity of private donors.
Since the beginning, The Merchant’s House has held an unworldly attraction for all those who have been involved in its long life. It is not an exaggeration to say that people simply fall in love with it and are willing to devote extraordinary effort to its preservation.
Maybe that’s because of what happens when you cross the threshold.
Which brings me to the most miraculous circumstance of all. Here we come as close as we ever will to those who came before us. As we tune in to the height of the ceilings and the nearness of the walls, as we travel a path from room to room, observing the light, seeing what the family saw in those rooms—the piano, the mirrors, the Duncan Phyfe chairs, their four poster beds—we learn with our bodies as well as our brains what it was like to live in a 19th century urban rowhouse owned by one of the early merchants who laid the commercial foundations of this great city.
Once there were hundreds of such homes lining the streets of the neighborhood north of Bleecker. Now there is only one left to tell the story.
To feel the world of the nineteenth century in our bones, it’s necessary to find a place that can take us there. Such places are rare. Without question, in New York City, the most authentic domestic nineteenth-century place is the Merchant’s House Museum.
From the introduction to the forthcoming Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House by Mary Knapp
If you can’t visit this wonderful place in person, this documentary by BluePrint New York City, which aired on New York stations last week, is the next best thing. Just click on the link above to view.
Of all the ways we have of connecting to the past, as far as I’m concerned, the historic house museum trumps all others when it comes to understanding life in a place and time beyond memory. It’s here we can come closest to the people who went before us. These are the very walls that enclosed them. Here they stood before the fire. Here are the mirrors that reflected their movements in the parlor. This is the stair they climbed on their way to bed.
When we tune in to the height of the ceilings, the nearness of the walls, the path we travel from room to room, the narrowness of a passageway or the lack or presence of natural light, we begin to understand what daily life was like for those who lived there long ago.
One house that serves us particularly well in our attempt at understanding is the Merchant’s House Museum in New York City. I say that not because this year marks the twentieth anniversary of my involvement with the Museum, but because this house is unique. Only one family, The Seabury Tredwells, lived there for almost 100 years. They moved in in 1835; the baby born in the house in 1840 died in an upstairs bedroom in 1933. So there is one continuous storyline; no confusing amalgamation of different families’ ghosts. They came, and they stayed—for almost a century.This was their home, and most importantly, these are their things. They quit buying new furniture somewhere around midcentury. And that’s not all! There are 40 gowns worn by the Tredwell women that go on exhibit on a rotating basis as well as personal objects like books and needlework and fans and children’s homework.
The House underwent a structural restoration in the 1970s that is unparalleled for authenticity. For example, when it was necessary to remove the floorboards in the kitchen to address a problem of water infiltration, the original boards were carefully numbered and their placement indicated on a diagram so that they could be replaced just the way they were. When the House was reroofed, original slate tiles were reused where possible. The parlor draperies and carpet are exact reproductions of the originals. Today, when walls need repainting, the original colors are matched as determined by the latest scientific methods of paint analysis.
Finally, the serendipitous floor plan makes it possible for us to actually enter the rooms and feel the space around us. We can never come closer to the nineteenth century than we do here.