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

Check Out the Size of That Dinner Napkin!

In 1840, when Henry Cole painted The Dinner Party, napkins had to be very large to cover the voluminous skirts then fashionable. Here a party of 12 is nearing the end of  the lengthy dinner party ritual. They have proceeded to the dessert service after which the cloth will be removed and fresh fruit and nuts served on the bare mahogany table. After that, the ladies will retire to the front parlor behind the closed folding doors separating the front parlor and the dining parlor, and the gentlemen will remain at the table drinking brandy. The host will keep a careful eye on the guests, however, suggesting at last that the gentlemen “join the ladies.” before the level of inebriation becomes embarrassing. Soon the dinner party ritual will have come to an end—but only for a while, for the guests are now obliged to issue a reciprocal dinner invitation to their hosts.

Architecturally, this British dining room bears a strong resemblance to that of the Merchant’s House, the historic house museum in New York City where the Tredwell family lived for almost 100 years. There’s more about 19th-century dining in An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City 1835-65. Go here to read a sample chapter. And for more about the museum see merchantshouse.org.

Books · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Museums

How and Why We Became Publishers, Part Three, Merchant’s House Meet POD

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

After we moved to Manhattan we made it a point to see all the things people come to the city to see. One of them, the Merchant’s House Museum, a historic house built in 1832, was occupied by the same family for almost 100 years and still has original furniture and personal family belongings—even their underwear!

Mary asked if there was a book about the house.Well no, there wasn’t. So she volunteered to be a docent at the Museum and began to learn the answers to the things she had wondered about. What was it really like to live in a world without screens, air-conditioning, indoor plumbing, or furnaces, and what were the family’s assumptions about life—about courtship, diseases, women, and death, for instance.

Nineteenth-century woman in mourning
Nineteenth-century woman in mourning from Ch. 18 An Old Merchant’s House

After a lot of study, including close reading of diaries and letters and publishedworks of the time as well as research about the Tredwell family and their house, she finally knew enough to write the book that she had wanted to buy when we first visited the house: An Old Merchant’s House.

When it came time to submit the manuscript for publication, we realized that our agent had died and our editor had retired. The idea of selling ourselves and our books to new set of very young people was depressing. But while we weren’t looking, everything about the publishing business had changed. It was now possible for an author to publish his books himself. Digital presses can now print one book at a time, without costly set up. It’s called POD (print on demand.) There are a number of firms which you can hire do everything necessary to publish your work and to place it on Amazon and other online sites. We decided to publish our books POD. Since we can edit our books ourselves and have an in-house IT guy (a son-in law, who is also an author), we don’t have to rely on the POD firm for creating the necessary disc (not something most people can easily do themselves) or editorial services.

A girandole.
A girandole.

We decided to form a publishing company called Girandole Books. A girandole is a 19th-century lighting device, employing candles and sometimes a mirror. Since it illuminates and reflects, we thought that was a good name for a publisher. Turns out nobody can say it or spell it. Amazon argued that it wasn’t a real word. We finally prevailed.

Mary has written another book about the Merchant’s House, Miracle on Fourth Street. It’s about the cast of incredible characters who managed to save the house from being destroyed. Both her books are now on sale at the Merchant’s House and on Amazon. My recently published, Did You See This? Poems to Offend the Politically Correct is also available from Amazon in paperback or a kindle version.

Now since we are too old to dally, we plan to publish at least two books each year for awhile. We will be referring to these books and publishing excerpts. Next up is my novel Beating a Dead Stick, a book about a high school teacher who teaches in a school in the eighties where the students learn nothing and the faculty doesn’t care. No, it is not a fictionalized version of the Pembroke-Hill school in Kansas City where I taught or of Balboa High School in the Canal Zone or of the Canal Zone College or of Kansas City University, but . . . Stay tuned.


Education · Museums · Technology

Follow-up on “The Heart of the Andes”—Call it Serendipity or the Power of the Internet or Both

The Heart of the Andes, Frederic Church


My friend Linda, who teaches English as a Second Language to an amazingly diverse class of 20 college students, emailed to tell me how my post on Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” coincided with one of her assignments. (Scroll down for a link to my original post.)

Linda is the most creative teacher I have ever known, and I’ve known a lot of teachers. Her students, who hail from China, Haiti, Mauritius, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Syria, and Bangladesh are not only perfecting their English but learning a great deal about American culture in the bargain and I daresay enjoying every minute of her class.

Here is Linda’s email:

(The reason the students were instructed to check out the knights in shining armor and the “Artistic furniture of the Gilded Age” exhibit has to do with some of their reading. As I say, Linda is a creative teacher!)

How interesting that you posted this at this particular time. Last week, I sent my students off to the Met to do three things: check out the knights in armor and next the “Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age” and last to choose a Gallery Talk to test their listening skills with a lecturer who wouldn’t accommodate their being ESL students. Several of the students chose a particular Museum Highlights tour where the docent took them to see this very painting. I know because a few chose it to describe as the most impressive thing they saw on the tour. Two even said they lagged behind the group because they wanted to keep looking at the painting. One described it as 3-D. These were students who have never been to the Met or perhaps any art museum before. So, as you hit on, it’s all relative. You and I can’t even number how many times we’ve been to the Met or seen “great paintings”, but for these students, it’s all new, so they’re closer to the original audience. Now we’re in the midst of our intense review for the upcoming reading comprehension exam in June, and one of the reading passages yesterday was about American artists and the beginning of landscape painting on this kind of scale in the mid 19th century. The students who went on that tour all commented about “Heart of the Andes” again. So today, I’m printing out your post for them so we can see the old-time photo and follow up on yesterday’s talk. Thanks! Linda

Coincidence, yes, but a powerful demonstration how we are all connected in unimaginable ways via the internet. Gives me goosebumps.



What I Learned from “The Heart of the Andes”


Would you pay seven dollars and stand in a long line around the block to see this painting?

When I learned that in 1859, almost 13,000 New Yorkers did just that—paying 25 cents (the equivalent of about seven dollars in today’s currency) during the three weeks that Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” was on view at the Tenth Street Studio, I decided to seek out the painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it now lives.

I wanted to see if I could put myself in the place of those 19th_century New Yorkers and feel some of the same excitement they felt when looking at this painting.

 The short answer is no, I couldn’t.

 Upon reflection it should have been clear that I would fail at this attempt. In order to succeed with my experiment I would have to become what I am not. I would have to somehow escape the culture I swim in, forgetting a lot of what I know and the assumptions I make. Professional actors can sometimes do this, but it takes a lot of training and talent to replace oneself with another self.

First of all, in 1859, there were limited opportunities to view art work. There were galleries with a limited selection of paintings, but the Metropolitan Museum would not be founded until 1870. Just to be able to see a large (10 by 5 ½ feet tall) painting by America’s most famous painter would be an exciting possibility.

Today we are surrounded by colored representations everywhere we turn. Then there was much less visual stimulation. No colored pictures in books at all and the chromolithographs which were then widely available were feeble in comparison to what we are used to seeing wherever we look.

 But there was more to it than that. Travel to exotic locations was limited then to intrepid explorers and scientists. Alexander Van Humboldt, a widely recognized naturalist explorer began a five-year expedition to South America in 1799, in which he recorded the natural environment. Later, Church, following in his footsteps, painted the natural world that Humboldt described. And curious New Yorkers flocked to see what Humboldt had found.

“The Heart of the Andes” is not a representation of an actual site but a compilation of the various climatic zones that Humboldt explored: the snowy peaks, the temperate climate and in the foreground the steamy jungle flora, which Church painted with meticulous accuracy. These detailed elements are not visible in the above image; in fact, they are not visible at all unless you stand very close and scrutinize the painting carefully. Visitors to the exhibition in 1859 were encouraged to bring opera glasses so that they could examine the details of the flowers and foliage, the birds and butterflies.

Today there is no corner of the world that is as mysterious to me as Ecuador was to the mid-19th century New Yorker. I’ve seen too many National Geographic publications and videos to be amazed by Church’s representation of tropical flora.

If I wanted to—I don’t, but if I did— I could be in Ecuador within hours and there are many travel services that would take me on an exploratory trip of the natural wonders depicted in Church’s painting.

 By grouping paintings chronologically, the Museum encourages us to view the painting as representative of the art of the period. It shares the gallery with Leutze’s iconic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” and other paintings of the time. Yet I think we would be better served in understanding this particular  painting if they exhibited it, as they once did, in a replica of the walnut frame which Church himself designed. Something like a window frame, it stood on the floor, putting the painting at eye level of the average viewer, making it easier to view the details. A green drapery completed the theatrical effect Church intended. And it wouldn’t hurt if they provided opera glasses.


Church original



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

Ten More Reasons I Love New York City

This is the third list I’ve made of Reasons I Love New York. The other two are here and here. It is said that New York is a great place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. Actually, the opposite, it seems to me, is true. Hard to visit—there’s just so much to do and see in a short time— great to live here (same reason).

Way to Go!

I said the next time I made a list, Uber would be at the top. I love Uber because it has made my life easier. It’s that simple. It’s not the only summon-a-ride service available in the City, but so far the only one I’ve tried.

Lovely neighborhood gardens

Located on vacant lots throughout the City are a number of neighborhood gardens. This is West Side Community Garden, just two blocks  from my building. Right now it is abloom with gorgeous tulips.


Thomas Hart Benton at the Met

Benton is my favorite American artist. Like me, he lived much of his life in Kansas City. The ten-panel mural “America Today” depicts a panorama of American life in the 20s. I never fail to visit this work when I’m at the Met. It is installed in a space that recreates the board room where it originally hung.

Park Avenue Armory’s restored Veterans Room

Magnificent restoration of historic sites happens in New York, where there is access to plenty of money to carry it out. The most recent is this restoration in the Park Avenue Armory.

Horses in Central Park

Okay; it’s controversial. Animal activists think these horses’ lives are too hard. But I don’t buy it. Their work in the Park is not hard. Walking to and from work through city traffic is somewhat hard, but it’s not far. Lots of us do it every day.

Riverside Drive

A runner’s dream. The last westerly street on this narrow island so there are no intersections. You can run (or walk) for almost 20 blocks til you get to the highway access roads, and you never have to pause for a traffic light. After running down hill for a bit, you circle back through

RS Park
Riverside Park with Hudson River in the background

If you need a long view of water, Riverside Park is the place to go. More or less a straight line, it parallels the river. Beautifully planted, the park attracts moms and nannies with babies in strollers, bicyclists, runners, dog walkers, and me.

New Amsterdam
The New Amsterdam Theater

The Broadway theater is one of the best things about New York City. Nothing can compare to that delicious moment when the house lights dim and the overture begins. The old Broadway theaters, too, have been the beneficiaries of renovation. Most of them were built in the early-mid 20th century when more was more—and I love it.

Dogs and dog walkers in Riverside Park.

Big dogs, little dogs, cute dogs, ugly dogs—they are all vastly entertaining—and so patient. I’d like to have one, but the walkers are expensive, and I don’t relish the idea of taking Fido down eleven stories and outside on a cold winter morning.

Miracle on Fourth

Finally, The Merchant’s House in a repeat performance. It’s always on the list because it is so important to me, particularly this year—my second book about the house has just been released.