Conservation · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Monuments and Memorials · Museums · Preservation · Restoration

How a Hundred-eighty-six-year-old House Survived the Odds and Why It Should Be Cherished

Cover-photograph-(CROPPED&Colorized)August, 1933—The country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Gertrude Tredwell had just died at the age of 93 in the 1832 rowhouse her family had inhabited for almost 100 years. A century of urban progress meant that the house, once located in the New York City’s most desirable neighborhood, was now just steps from the Bowery, the nation’s skid row. It was a time capsule, complete with the original owners’ furnishings dating to mid 19th century, and personal belongings as well—books, decorative objects, textiles, and even 39 dresses belonging to the women of the family.

Enter George Chapman, a distant cousin who made what can only be described as a foolhardy decision to “save” the old house from the auction block and turn it into a museum. Not only had the old house been long neglected and was then well along the road to disintegration, but certainly no one at that time was inclined to donate money to preserving the home of an early New York City merchant—a rich merchant, to be sure—a good man certainly—but not a person of historical significance.

But George was a wealthy man and in spite of increasing physical infirmity he just barely managed to hold his beloved museum together at great personal cost for over 20 years. However, he was not inclined to make major repairs let alone the needed thorough restoration of the collapsing house.

Eventually, an impeccable authentic restoration did take place, undertaken without charge by Joseph Roberto, an accomplished restoration architect who exercised a scrupulous regard for the original fabric of the building and recruited some of the most talented craftsmen in the country as well as White House architect, Edward Vason Jones and noted 19th century authority on American decorative arts, Berry Tracy, as pro bono consultants.

The restoration was a story of creative solutions to structural calamities, heartbreaking setbacks, personality conflicts, and an unceasing struggle to find funding, but Joseph Roberto simply would not give up, and eventually the house was restored to its original beauty, structurally stronger than ever. The textiles had completely deteriorated, but instead of replacing them with period appropriate examples, The Decorators Club, who were responsible for the interior refurbishment, wisely had the original silk curtains and the carpeting reproduced at extraordinary expense.

The story doesn’t end there, however, for there was to be one last crisis, which could literally have brought the house down were it not for the wise direction of the current director and the support of government and corporate grants, and the generosity of private donors.

Since the beginning, The Merchant’s House has held an unworldly attraction for all those who have been involved in its long life. It is not an exaggeration to say that people simply fall in love with it and are willing to devote extraordinary effort to its preservation.

Maybe that’s because of what happens when you cross the threshold.A mirror reflecting the 19th century.

Which brings me to the most miraculous circumstance of all. Here we come as close as we ever will to those who came before us. As we tune in to the height of the ceilings and the nearness of the walls, as we travel a path from room to room, observing the light, seeing what the family saw in those rooms—the piano, the mirrors, the Duncan Phyfe chairs, their four poster beds—we learn with our bodies as well as our brains what it was like to live in a 19th century urban rowhouse owned by one of the early merchants who laid the commercial foundations of this great city.

Once there were hundreds of such homes lining the streets of the neighborhood north of Bleecker. Now there is only one left to tell the story.

On September 26, the New York City Council will vote on a developer’s application to build an eight-story hotel next door to the Merchant’s House. Engineering analyses show that the proposed construction would cause catastrophic damage to the fragile building, leading to a possible collapse.

merchantshousemuseum.org

 

 

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

Helen Hayes Nailed It!

Helen Hayes
Helen Hayes (1900 -1993) “The First Lady of American Theater.”

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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

102 Words That Say It All

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Ada Louise Huxtable and Joseph Roberto, the restoration architect, at a joint benefit for the Old Merchants House and the International Human Assistance Program, December 1980. Photo by Marilee Reiner

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! 

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

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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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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.

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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