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.

http://www.merchantshouse.org

The story of the Merchant’s House

 

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

Leave it to the Ladies—Women and Historic Preservation

ann pamela cunningham
Ann Pamela Cunningham, founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

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.

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Ann Pamela Cunningham with some of the original vice-regents of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

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.

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Mount Vernon. The veranda faces the Potomac. The MVLA bought extensive acreage on the other side of the river, thus preserving the view.

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.

Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

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Cover-photograph-(CROPPED&Colorized)
The double parlors of the Merchant’s House Museum, New York City. Photo by Larry Lederman

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.

12a-Elisabeth-Draper-(1986)
Elisabeth Draper decorated the Eisenhower Homes, the American Embassy in Paris,     and worked on a number of rooms in the White House.

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.

The Merchant’s House Museum

Miracle on  Fourth Street

Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Poetry

More Ghostly Than a Ghost

First Cup of Coffee Our youngest grandson came by yesterday. A junior in college, he towers over us and has a beard and moustache! But we can’t stop thinking of him as a tiny kid trying hard to teach Mary how to play Pokemon. This double vision is confusing.

Front parlor, Merchant's House
Front parlor, Merchant’s House Museum, New York City.  Photo by Patrick Blanc

A RIDDLE

It can be felt but not by hands
And though it has an outside and within,
it has no weight or skin.
I’ve seen it, but it’s never seen.
And never will its presence be announced
by bells or blinking lights on a machine.
It tells the truth; it lies; it prophesies,
but doesn’t make a sound.
Forever lost, it can be found
in flavors, textures, scents, and melodies,
in empty rooms, in photographs, in stones.
It isn’t air, but it is everywhere,
which is to say it isn’t anywhere.
It’s changing constantly but can’t be changed,
is part of me but is apart from me.
It haunts me, so it’s like a ghost,
But it is also like a place I go
like a ghost, invisibly, to visit.
So much for what it’s like and isn’t.
What is it?
Answer: The past.
From Flying Backward, A Memoir in Verse

 

I usually manage to ignore the passage of time, but then I see my face in the mirror or have to adjust to a sudden “hitch in my gitalong.”

Then I know I am older than I used to be, but I also know the past still exists. How is this possible? It’s gone but it’s not. And the future’s yet to come but it depends on the past. As for the present—I notice it only at the moment it has just passed into the past!

One of the spookiest things about the past is the way we can feel it—or can feel like we’ve wandered into it. This “sensation” isn’t really “a sensation,” since “the past” doesn’t exist. It has no substance shape or scent. It’s more ghostly than a ghost. We can feel it, though. It’s like an idea. They don’t exist, either, but we have them.

The historian Johan Huizinga has had the sensation of feeling himself in the past. He says it is “an almost (do not laugh) ecstatic perception of no longer being myself, of flowing into the world around me, touching the essence of things, experiencing Truth through history.” He compares it to the feeling of understanding we sometimes get when listening to music.

The first time we visited The Old Merchant’s House Museum, Mary had an experience like that. I thought the place was interesting. Mary’s response was more intense. I’ll let her tell about it.

**********

Mary: That’s right. At first glance I was moved in a mysterious way by the Merchant’s House. It is rather unique among historic house museums in that almost all of the objects in the house— the furniture, the decorative arts, the utilitarian objects— belonged to the family who lived there for almost 100 years and date to around mid 19thcentury. Even the carpet and the curtains are exact reproductions of the originals.

On that first visit I felt like I was entering a past that lay just beyond what I could remember of my grandmother and her house when I was a small child.

As soon as I could, I volunteered my services and spent the next 20 years moving about that house and the Tredwell family’s belongings, learning about the family, the neighbors, and the historical period in which they all lived. And I gradually came to a realization of how important the past is in our lives. We do not emerge fully formed from the cabbage patch. We’re born into history and influenced in ways we cannot even comprehend by what went before.

Merchant's House · Music

Shall We Dance?

In 1927, when Gertrude Tredwell was eighty-seven years old, she recalled the romantic era before the Civil War when the Tredwell girls and their guests had danced in their own double parlors.

These parlors were separated by folding or sliding doors. With the doors opened and the furniture moved to the edges of the room or the hall, there was enough room for a square of four couples in each parlor to dance a quadrille—a dance organized like a square dance but unlike the later square dance performed with sedate restrained steps.

Music for the dance might be played on the pianoforte, a violin, or a flute. If no accompanist were available, a music box might be pressed into service.

The quadrille was a very decorous dance, but around 1840, dances that some people called “the work of the devil” were introduced and became very popular. These “round dances”—the waltz, the polka, the mazurka, for example—actually countenanced the approximation of a face to face embrace!

One such dance was the Varsovienne. If you want to see what shocked some 19th century observers this brief video will show you.

(Our shock threshold has obviously undergone a serious collapse in the past 175 years.)

For more on 19th century dance, see Chapter 11, “Parlor Choreography” in An Old Merchant’s House.

Visit the Merchant’s House website:

http://www.merchantshouse.org

 

 

 

 

 

Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Museums · New York City · Preservation · Restoration

“Our society will be defined not only by what it creates, but by what it refuses to destroy.” John Sawhill

John Sawhill, the conservationist who made this observation, had nature in mind, but I think it applies even more powerfully to the built environment, for a historic building has no recuperative power. Once it is gone, it is irrevocably lost.

And what a lot we have to learn about our past from those buildings, especially the historic house, where our ancestors lived out their daily lives.

Among all historic houses, The Merchant’s House Museum in New York City, stands out as a unique testament to the importance of historic preservation . You climb the stoop, ring the bell, and magically step into the 19th century.

The Merchant’s House Museum 29 East Fourth St., New York City

 

TEN REASONS WHY THE MERCHANT’S HOUSE IS SPECIAL

The same family lived in the house for almost 100 years.

Some people think there are ghosts, (I don’t, but some do). In any case, there is no confusing amalgam of characters from multiple families bumping into one another in this house or in the story it tells about how the Seabury Tredwells, a wealthy merchant family, lived at the time when New York City was becoming the “commercial emporium” of the nation. (If you are interested, there are monthly ghost tours.)

 2. With a few exceptions, the furnishings actually belonged to the Tredwells, The 19th century is simply there for all to see with their own eyes: authentic furniture, décor, personal objects—and clothing. Even the textiles (curtains and parlor carpet) are exact reproductions of the originals. It is so easy to imagine the Tredwells playing the piano, sleeping in those beds, looking in those mirrors because you know they really did.

Photo by Denis Vlasov

3.You can actually enter every room and feel the space around you. You don’t have to peek into the rooms from the doorway.

4.You can take a tour—or not—depending on how you feel about guided tours. Knowledgeable tour guides give tours at no additional charge but visitors are welcome to go it alone. You can take as long as you want to go through the house—double back if you like. Take your time to stand and stare. This is the way many people with children prefer to view the house and why we are so popular with homeschoolers.

5. There’s an informative entertaining self-guided booklet that you read at your own pace if you decide to forego the formal tour. You ask for it at the desk and return it when you are finished with your visit. It tells you about the family, how the objects in the house were used, and it includes direct quotations from diaries and domestic manuals of the times.

6. In nice weather, you can sit in the walled garden far away from the distractions of the 21st century. Rest for awhile, think about what you’ve seen, read the self guided tour guide, and return for a second look.

7. No distracting signage interferes with your imagination.. Well, maybe a “do not touch” reminder here and there, but nothing to draw you away from what you are seeing. If you have questions, there are always staff present who will engage you in conversation. They love to talk about the house.

8.You get to see the servants’ quarters . No story of this period in NYC history is complete without an explanation of how the domestic servants contributed to life in these homes. However, this is the only place in Manhattan where an Irish servants’ room is available for viewing. It is furnished as it would have been when four Irish women made the Tredwell house their home.

9. Children under 12 are free and other students qualify for reduced admission. There is no better way to fire children’s imaginations or to convince them of the importance of history than visiting this historic home.

10. There are books!

I wrote two of them because I felt the story this house tells and the encouraging story of its preservation and restoration needed to be preserved in print.

So If you want to know more, it’s all here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To read an excerpt from each book, go here. For reviews, see here

and here.

 

And for more about the museum: merchantshouse.org. Check it out for hours, time of tours, etc.. before you come.