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.

Monuments and Memorials · New York City · Role of Women

Fearless Girl—She’s Got to Go!

Fearless Girl Faces Charging Bull in Manhattan’s Financial District

Fearless Girl gets to stay in the path of Charging Bull  at least until February of 2018.

State Street Global Advisors installed the bronze statue on the eve of International Women’s Day in order to highlight the need to increase feminine representation on the boards of Wall Street firms. An inelegantly expressed sentiment on the plaque at the girl’s feet states, “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.”

That should make the feminists happy, right? but not all are. Gina Bellafante, columnist of the New York Times criticized the statue as a cynical PR ploy, an example of “corporate feminism.”  However, after 28,000 people signed an online petition advocating for its permanent placement, Mayor De Blasio, acquiesced to popular opinion and decided to let her stay—for now.

But the fact that the statue represents a prepubescent child suggests correctly that it may take a long time to achieve gender parity on Wall Street boards, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she is around for much longer. No doubt State Street realized that many people would be offended by the representation of an adult female protester, who would certainly appear too aggressively militant. Everyone can sympathize with a brave child. But I can’t help wondering why she is thought to be “fearless.”  Ticked off, resentful and angry, surely, but fearless? Being ignored is different from being threatened.

Fearless_GirlFor awhile, moving Fearless Girl to another location was under consideration.  But of course removed from the path of the charging bull, she would lose her power as a messenger for equal rights. Taken out of context she just looks like a spoiled brat. One has the impression she would stamp her little foot if she could.

Arturo Di Modica, worked on the bull  for two years following the crash of 1987 and with the help of friends secretly installed the 7,100 pound statue in the early morning hours of December  19, 1989. Di Modica himself wants “Fearless Girl” out of there. He was recently quoted by the New York Post as saying that his statue is “a symbol for America. . .of prosperity and for strength.” He resents his statue being viewed as an oppressor. New York City does not own the statue. Actually Di Modica would be within his rights to remove the bull, though he has not threatened to do that.

I am in sympathy with the sculptor. Surely no one would consider the bull a symbol of the male managers of Wall Street who make the decisions about board appointments. Rather, Charging Bull is a positive statement about the energy and bullish optimism the stock market generates. It is a powerful tribute to capitalism.

Standing defiantly in its path, Fearless Girl is a rebuke that makes no sense whatsoever.  MK

Conservation · Historic House Museums · Holidays · Merchant's House · New York City · New York Theater

Small Talk, New Year’s Day, 1861

new-years-greetingWhen I did the research for An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City 1835-65, I relied heavily on New Yorkers’ diaries because a diary tells you what real people really did. You can count on a diary.

John Ward, Lieutenant, 12th Regiment,N.Y. State Troops, Washington, D.C., May 1861.
John Ward, Lieutenant, 12th Regiment,N.Y. State Troops, Washington, D.C., May 1861.

Imagine how delighted I was, then, to discover the diary of John Ward, in which he  recounts his New Year’s Day calling in 1861. Here is an excerpt from my book:

“The most elaborate calling ritual of all took place on New Year’s Day when the doors between the parlors were thrown open for the traditional New Year’s Day reception. According to an old Dutch custom, on that day the ladies stayed home to receive guests and preside over a lavish buffet table, while the gentlemen sallied forth to make calls. . . .

“The ladies were bejeweled and beautifully dressed in low-neck silk gowns got up by their dressmakers especially for the occasion. The tables were laden with all manner of delicacies: turkey, chickens, fruits, pickled and stewed oysters, crullers, doughnuts and little New York cakes with mottoes written on them in icing. Alcohol flowed almost as freely as Croton water. . . .

“When John Ward was twenty-two years old, he made the rounds with his nineteen-year old brother, Press. They decided to make only a few calls (the total turned out to be thirty-three), so they were able to stay for more conversational exchange than was perhaps typical.

“John was impressed by the finery of the women—Julia Carville wore a French headdress of gold ornaments and velvet; Mrs. Fisher wore blue to match the blue silk on the parlor walls, and Julia Cutting, a red silk with a long train.

Winslow Homer, Waiting for Callers on New Year's Day
Winslow Homer, Waiting for Callers on New Year’s Day

“He talked to Bessie Fisher about the sculpture “Babes in he Woods” by Thomas Crawford and to Lizzie Schuschardt about crossing the ocean and admiring the rosy sunsets over Mount Rigi in Switzerland. Mrs General Jones told him how she detested shopping and always just went to one large shop and bought everything she could think of and scarcely shopped in Paris at all.

 

New Year's Day, New York City, 1868. Harper's Weekly, January 4, 1868
New Year’s Day, New York City, 1868. Harper’s Weekly, January 4, 1868

“He ate tongue and biscuits at the Aspinwalls and peered into the stereopticon at the Cuttings . . . Lucy Baxter accused Press of deliberately cutting her and swore the next time she saw him she intended to march right up to him and put out her parasol or throw her muff to attract his attention.

“The stereopticon was a viewing device commonly found in nineteenth-century parlors. Using a special camera with two lenses that produced two negatives, photographs were taken of the same scene but from slightly different viewpoints corresponding to the distance between the eyes. These images were then mounted side by side and the whole inserted into the device. When looked at through the viewer, a single three-dimensional image sprang into life. To a nineteenth-century audience for whom photography itself was a relatively new phenomenon, the effect was magical.”

mlk

Antique stereopticon
Antique stereopticon

For more from An Old Merchant’s House go here where you’ll find an excerpt on hair care and cosmetics.

 

 

 

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).

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.