Architecture · Conservation · Historic House Museums · Landmarking · Merchant's House · Preservation · Restoration

From the White House to the Merchant’s House

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! 


Ch3-Flaherty Medallion
The ornamental highlight of the Merchant’s House parlors is a perfect restoration of the nineteenth-century artisan’s work in all its swirling rhythmic exuberance.

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.

The story of the Merchant’s House


Architecture · Landmarking · Preservation

Take Three Minutes to Tour the Wonders of Rockefeller Center

I have been absent from blogging because I am immersed in the writing of  a book about the history of The Merchant’s House Museum, and I don’t seem to do very well dividing my focus!  The work in progress follows the book published last spring, which was the story of the House when it was a family residence. Old houses over a hundred years old do not keep standing without a great deal of intervention and care. How the Merchant’s House was saved from the ravages of time and the willful destruction of man is a unique tale in the annals of historic preservation and I am eager to tell it. For today, I am turning to our friends at the Landmarks Conservancy to  pinch hit  for the blog. This is their latest episode of the “Tourist in Your Own Town” series.

The image that comes to mind when you think of the Great Depression of the 1930s is probably that of defeated men in shabby overcoats standing in a soup line. That was the sad reality of the time. Yet something else was happening then—a miracle that still stands at the heart of our great city.

Conservation · Historic House Museums · Landmarking · Merchant's House · Museums · Preservation · Restoration

Ada Louise Huxtable, 1921-2013

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.

Ada Lpuise Huxtable and Joseph Roberto at a joint benefit for the Old Merchants House and the International Human Assistance Program, December 1980. Photo by Marilee Reiner
Ada Louise Huxtable and Joseph Roberto at a joint benefit for the Old Merchants House and the International Human Assistance Program, December 1980. Photo by Marilee Reiner

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.

The Merchant's House Museum
The Merchant’s House Museum

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.

Landmarking · Merchant's House · Monuments and Memorials

Ten Reasons Why I Love New York

A professional group I belong to recently asked us to list on the discussion board what, in our opinion, were the ten most significant historic sites in New York City. We could decide what “significant” meant, so I decided to make a list of ten “personally significant” sites—places that for one reason or another meant the most to me. I’m glad they asked, because in making my list, I realized how incredibly rich the city is in material connections to the past. For tourists, they are attractions to visit; for New Yorkers, they are part of the fabric of our daily lives. Here are my picks—with my reasons.

Grand Central Terminal Concourse
Grand Central Terminal Concourse

Grand Central Terminal tops the list because of its significance in establishing the constitutionality of Landmarks Legislation, without which I am certain that many of the historic sites I cherish would have been demolished or defaced. And for me Grand Central is a gateway to family who live up the river.

Continue reading “Ten Reasons Why I Love New York”
Landmarking · Preservation · Restoration

And To Think We Could Have Lost It

Sculptural group of  Mercury, Hercules, and Minerva on top of the entrance to Grand Central Terminal with Met Life Building in the background.
Sculptural group of Mercury, Hercules, and Minerva on top of the entrance to Grand Central Terminal with Met Life Building in the background.

Last Friday, I had the occasion to take a 5:30 a.m.train out of Grand Central Station. Usually I approach the station from below by climbing the stairs with the other passengers from the Times Square shuttle. But since it was so early, I indulged in a car service, and the driver let me out at the entrance to the Met Life Building where the lobby connects to an escalator going down to the concourse.

The Concourse, Grand Central Terminal in the early morning.
The Concourse, Grand Central Terminal in the early morning.

The commuters had not yet begun arriving at that early hour and without the distraction of a hurrying crowd and because of my elevated perspective, I saw the Continue reading “And To Think We Could Have Lost It”