Architecture · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Museums

New York City’s Most Haunted House

Merchant’s House Museum, 29 East Fourth Street, New York City

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. 

Childhood learning · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Museums

Here’s Where I First Encountered the Past

The William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, 1939, Kansas City, Missouri

When I was eight years old and still an only child, my parents and I spent many Sunday afternoons at the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (now called the Nelson Atkins Museum) in Kansas City strolling through the cool marble halls, looking this way and that at the paintings. 

Not that my parents had any particular interest in art, but it was a pleasant place to be and it was (and still is) free—an important consideration in those days.

I don’t remember a single painting, But what I do remember with the utmost clarity are the period rooms. They were arranged in chronological order in a recessed area off a main hall, beginning with a colonial keeping room, followed by a bedroom, which I now know was from an antebellum Southern mansion.

I knew these were supposed to be rooms where real people once lived and I was absolutely enthralled. I tried to imagine the child who slept in the bed with the ruffled roof—a bed so high off the floor that you needed little steps to get into it. But I just couldn’t do it. It was like a magic trick I began well but kept fumbling. I wanted to climb under the ropes and get into that bed to see what it was like. But of course I didn’t dare. 

* * * * * * * * *

Fast forward over half a century. Recently retired, Herb and I had moved to New York City where like all newcomers we set out to visit all the tourist attractions. One day we happened on the Merchant’s House Museum, an urban row house constructed in 1832 which miraculously still existed complete with the family’s original furniture and many personal possessions.

And this time the magic worked!

Eliza Tredwell’s bedroom, Merchants House Museum, New York City

I stepped through the front door—not into a room but into an entire house where real people lived over 100 years ago! And this time the magic worked. I could easily imagine the Tredwell family in those rooms because by that time I had become acquainted with the Victorian era through my study of history and literature. I asked if there was a book I could buy that would tell me more. I was disappointed to learn there was not.

But my childhood passion had suddenly been rekindled, and I knew this was where I was meant to spend my newly acquired free time. So I volunteered and for the next 20 years I moved among those rooms,  conducting tours, training the guides, and eventually writing the book I had wanted to buy on that first visit. (See sidebar.)

And  yes, from time to time I was tempted to lie down in that big bed, but I never did for fear it might collapse. I confess, however, to once sitting on the sofa, just to see what it was like.

Architecture · Conservation · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Museums · Pennsylvania Station · Preservation

The Good Guys Won This One!

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.
Original Pennsylvania Station interior.

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.


18.a rear bedroom
The rear bedroom of the Merchant’s House with its original furniture.

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!

The Really Real Table

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.

Conservation · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Monuments and Memorials · Museums · Preservation · Restoration

How a Hundred-eighty-six-year-old House Survived the Odds and Why It Should Be Cherished

Cover-photograph-(CROPPED&Colorized)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 old 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, 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.A mirror reflecting the 19th century.

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.

On September 26, the New York City Council will vote on a developer’s application to build an eight-story hotel next door to the Merchant’s House. Engineering analyses show that the proposed construction would cause catastrophic damage to the fragile building, leading to a possible collapse.



Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Museums · New York Theater · Restoration

Helen Hayes Nailed It!

Helen Hayes
Helen Hayes (1900 -1993) “The First Lady of American Theater.”

We never know who is going to walk through the door of the Merchant’s House. One day in August of 1971, it was Helen Hayes. She had just retired from the theater, and she and her friend Anita Loos, the playwright, had decided to take a year exploring the City, visiting sites that were unfamiliar to them, including the Old Merchant’s House, as it was then called.

This was before the restoration had taken place, and the house was showing its age. The caretaker apologized: “There just isn’t enough money to do all the things we should do.”

“Just the same,” the actress replied, “the old place is still here with its original furniture, drapes, and chandeliers. No amount of rust or wear can keep their beauty from shining through.” As she left, she remarked to her companion, “With a little financial help they could give New York City back one of its treasures in pristine order.”

It would take over nine years and a lot more than a “little” financial help, but she was right. The House had just received the initial grant from the government for the restoration. The treasure was on its way back. Helen Hayes helped; she left a contribution of ten dollars.


The two women wrote about their New York sightseeing adventures in Twice Over Lightly. (1972).