Architecture · Conservation · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Museums · Pennsylvania Station · Preservation

The Good Guys Won This One!

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The Merchant’s House Museum, showing the original Duncan Phyfe chairs. The carpet and window treatment are exact reproductions of what was in the house in 1850.

The City Council Came Through!

This week the New York City Council voted unanimously to deny a developer an application to build an eight-story hotel next door to one of New York’s treasures: the Merchant’s House Museum, a 186-year old house, a family home with original furnishings and objects now open to the public. The proposed construction threatened the fragile building with catastrophic damage and a possible collapse.

There will always be a conflict.

There are those who want to want to preserve historic buildings and those who want to demolish them for various reasons, sometimes because it is prohibitively expensive or impossible to save them, but often for selfish financial reasons, or simply because they assume that whatever is new is better than what is old.

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Original Pennsylvania Station interior.

In 1963, when Pennsylvania Station, a beautiful monumental example of Beaux Arts architecture, was demolished, many New Yorkers raised a loud hew and cry in opposition. Penn Station could have been saved, but the good guys who wanted to “renovate not amputate” lost that one. Today, 55 years later, New Yorkers, especially those whose daily commute takes them through the miserable underground replacement sorely lament that decision.

The argument against demolishing Penn Station was primarily based on its architectural significance.

But I think an even more important reason for saving a historic building is that its presence in the community connects us to the past. We need to be reminded as we go about our daily lives that the present is not all there is, that we are not the end-all and be-all, that in many ways we owe who we are to what went on before we existed.

The connection is not always conscious, but it exists nevertheless—like background music you don’t particularly notice but that affects your mood. A city with no old buildings would be an Orwellian nightmare.

 

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The rear bedroom of the Merchant’s House with its original furniture.

The place where we can most easily connect to life beyond memory is a domestic space.

Here is where people actually ate their dinners, entertained their friends, climbed the stairs to bed. These places are rare and rarer still are those that still contain the furniture and personal possession of the family that lived there,

Those who know me and have heard me repeat the “really real table” story more often than they wanted may now skip the following two paragraphs.

 I was giving a tour of the house to second graders. The children were seated on the parlor carpet in front of me. I explained that a family with eight children lived in the house over 100 years ago and today the house was still here, just as it had been then. The furniture was theirs; the big sister played the piano; the family sat on the chairs.

 A hand shot into the air. The seven-year-old’s eyes were wide. He pointed to the center table. “You mean . . . you mean . . . that’s the really real table?”

This little boy “got it.”

He obviously realized that there were those who came before him and were no longer here, and in that moment he had connected to them. Caught up with our personal ambitions, we sometimes forget that we too will pass into history and someday other youngsters will judge us and find our homes and habits and possessions quaint and queer. The historic home serves to remind us of this humbling fact.

So thanks, City Council, and all those who worked so hard to convince them that the Merchant’s House is worth saving!

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The Really Real Table

For more about the Merchant’s House see An Old Merchant’s House and the sequel, Miracle on Fourth Steet by me. You can read more about these books here.

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

March 6, 1965—The Day The Children Took to The Streets

The Children's March
The Children’s March

On March 6, forty-nine years ago, munchkins from the Downtown School in the East Village grabbed their banners and wended their way to the steps of the Merchant’s House Museum, singing protest songs all the way. This was the sixties, after all, and when you saw an injustice, that’s what you did, even if you were just a little kid.

Here’s an explanation of the crisis that prompted the children’s march, how it all turned out, and why today the Merchant’s House is in need of another mobilization of public outrage.

For several years, a small group of New Yorkers had become alarmed at the number of architecturally significant old buildings that were falling victims to the wrecker’s ball.

Th old Pennsylvania Station—heartbreakingly beautiful
Th old Pennsylvania Station—heartbreakingly beautiful

In October of 1963,  Pennsylvania Station, one of New York City’s most glorious structures was demolished. Public opinion was galvanized, for there was a growing understanding that old buildings give character, dimension, and beauty to the city.

The old Pennsylvania Station—interior.
The old Pennsylvania Station—interior.

Fast Forward to the spring of 1964. An advisory commission appointed by Mayor Robert Wagner had finished drafting landmarks legislation. It called for a Landmarks Preservation Commission that would have the power to designate landmarked buildings. Such designated buildings could not be demolished until a series of alternatives had been explored, and then only with permission of the Commission.

And that wasn’t all. The proposed legislation also empowered the Commission to designate historic districts. The Commission would have the power to determine whether proposed new structures or modifications to the exterior of existing structures in these districts were appropriate to the aesthetic and historic character of the district. And there was teeth in the proposed law, for the commission would have the power to impose criminal sanctions to enforce its decisions.

But months passed without action on the proposed legislation, and then on September 17, 1964, it was announced that a prized New York City landmark, the former Brokaw Mansion at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, was going to be demolished and replaced with a high rise apartment building.  The public was outraged; the press was outraged; pressure for action became intense.

The Brokaw Mansion at 79th and Fifth Avenue.
The Brokaw Mansion at 79th and Fifth Avenue.

But the Landmarks legislation had still not been passed and so on a Saturday morning in February of 1965, the Brokaw Mansion began to come down. New Yorkers winced and howled as stained glass, carved architectural moldings and marble ornamentation were shattered.

At the same time, a developer who hoped to assemble East Fourth Street lots for commercial use offered to buy the Old Merchant’s House. It had survived as a museum for three decades, most of those years by the skin of its teeth and now it was on its last legs. The Board was tentatively eyeing the offer.

AND THAT’S WHEN THE CHILDREN MOBILIZED

Children from the Downtown School were aware of the outrage of their parents. They understood that somehow the final enactment of the Landmarks legislation might help save the Old Merchant’s House—the destination of many of their field trips. So they, too, were outraged. And with the encouragement of their teachers, they decided to do something about it.

Lilliputian protesters, some playing guitars, some carrying placards, marched through the East Village singing, “Where have all the landmarks gone? Gone to ruins, most every one. When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” After weaving their way through East Village Streets, they gathered at the Old Merchant’s House, where they collected petitions of protest to be sent to the mayor and recited original poems on the steps: “Save the Old Merchant’s House, please. Or else it will fall on its knees.”

Whether it was the destruction of the Brokaw mansion or the Children’s March that finally prompted action on the part of the City Council and the mayor, I really couldn’t say. But on April 6, 1965, the legislation passed unanimously, and the mayor signed it into law on April 16, 1965.

The children had their wish. On September 21, 1965, the Commission met for the first time all day and into the night.  By nine o’clock, 20 structures had been designated. The Old Merchant’s House was one of  them. Though it did not exactly have a new lease on life just yet, the designation had bought it some time. It had escaped being sold and razed. For seven years, it limped along, and beginning in 1972, it was closed for almost a decade while a thorough structural restoration was undertaken. Today the Merchant’s House is one of the City’s most valuable historic documents.

However today the Museum faces another crisis. A developer plans to build a hotel next door to the west. The demolition of the existing building on that site and construction of such a project poses a grave danger to the delicate 1832 brick building. Not only is the structural integrity of the building endangered, at great risk is the beautiful plaster work within. It was restored in 1988 under the direction of Edward Vason Jones, White House architect, by his team of master craftsmen. The amazing plaster ceiling medallions are probably the finest example of this type of Greek Revival interior ornament in the country.

We are counting on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to do what they have done so many times before and that is to protect an historically important, irreplaceable New York City treasure. We are keeping our fingers crossed, holding our breath, and praying!

To learn more about the Merchant’s House Museum,  www.merchantshouse.org.

And visit when you can! 12-5 p.m. Thursday-Monday