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).
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all the period nostalgia that anyone would want at the Old Merchants House, but it is also a unique social esthetic and historical document and its loss would have been a particular tragedy for New York.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!
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.
First of all, let me dispatch the criticism of the passage most frequently cited by the media as offensive: The Little House on the Prairie was published in 1932. On the first page of that first edition, the following sentence appears:
There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much further than a man could see, and there were no people. Only the Indians lived there.
It seemed clear to most readers that what was meant was that there were no white people like Laura and her family. But in 1952, a reader wrote to the publisher complaining about the passage. The editor was shocked that no one had ever noticed the wording before and suggested a correction. The author immediately responded:
You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction you request. It was a stupid blunder of mine.
In a new edition published in 1953, the offending passage was replaced by the following:
There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much further than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there.
In other words, the original offensive wording has not appeared in the book for 65 years! But apparently there is no statute of limitations in the case of careless political incorrectness. It is really stretching to assume that Wilder thought Indians were subhuman.
I imagine the authorities dislike Laura’s physical descriptions of the Indians or the fact that the “wild men” frighten her:
First she saw their leather moccasins. Then their stringy bare, red-brown legs all the way up. Around their waists each of the Indians wore a leather thong, and the furry skin of a small animal hung down in front. . . .Their faces were bold and fierce and terrible. Their black eyes glittered. . . .When Laura peeked out from behind the slab again, both Indians were looking straight at her. Her heart jumped into her throat and choked her with its pounding.
But make no mistake: it is Pa who is the central character of this book. It is his decisions that drive the action; his accomplishments as a frontiersman that fill the pages; his songs and fiddle that provide much of the poetry. Surely it is to Pa we must look for the values this work endorses.
And what are they when it comes to the Indians?
One day a tall Indian suddenly appears in the doorway,
‘How!’ he said to Pa. Pa held onto Jack and replied, ‘How!’ He dragged Jack to the bedpost and tied him there. While he was doing it, the Indian came in and squatted down by the fire. Then Pa squatted down by the Indian, and they sat there, friendly, but not saying a word, while Ma finished cooking dinner. . . .Ma gave Pa and the Indian their dinners on two tin plates, and they ate silently. The Pa gave the Indian some tobacco for his pipe. They filled their pipes, and they lighted the tobacco with coals from the fire, and they silently smoked until the pipes were empty. . . .A while longer they all sat silent. Then the Indian rose up and went away without a sound.
‘Let Indians keep themselves to themselves,’ said Ma, ‘and we will do the same. I don’t like Indians around underfoot.’
Pa told her not to worry, ‘That Indian was perfectly friendly,’ he said. ‘And their camps down among the bluffs are peaceable enough. If we treat them well and watch Jack, we won’t have any trouble. . .
The next day, when Pa opens the door there is another mounted Indian on the trail that runs by the house. Jack stands snarling before the Indian, ready to pounce. When the Indian sees Pa, he points his gun at Jack. Pa grabs Jack’s collar and pulls him off the trail.
‘That was a darned close call!’ Pa said. ‘Well, it’s his path. An Indian trail, long before we came.’
Later, Laura overhears a conversation between Pa and Mr. Scott and Mr. Edwards, who are distant neighbors. Scott and Edwards think that perhaps the Indians started a recent prairie fire on purpose to drive out the settlers and that they “mean devilment.”
Mr. Edwards said there were too many Indians in those camps; he didn’t like it. ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian,’ Mr. Scott said.
Pa said he didn’t know about that. He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.
You be the judge.
Coming next: A Kickapoo Kidnapping, A True Family Story
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.
TEN REASONS WHY THE MERCHANT’S HOUSE IS SPECIAL
The same familylived 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.
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 ofthe 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