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.

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

How a 100-Year Old House Became an Historic House Museum

And now, 80 years later, The Merchant’s House Museum still offers visitors a unique window into the lives of  mid-19th century New Yorkers.

The Merchant's House Museum
The Merchant’s House Museum

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 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.

Joseph Roberto inspects the roof of the Old Merchant's House
Joseph Roberto inspects the roof of the Old Merchant’s House

Eventually, after an improbable chain of events, 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.

To read a sample chapter from Miracle on Fourth Street, go to http://girandolebooks.com.

 

 

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).

uber1
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.

tulips3
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.

 

CityActivitieswithDancehall
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.

VR19
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.

IMG_2354
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
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.

 

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

What Makes the Merchant’s House Museum a Miracle

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 · Restoration

When Is a Window Not a Window?

Answer: when it’s between rooms instead of between a room and the outdoors. You’re not expected to look through a Borrowed Light Window. In fact they are usually positioned high on the wall. Their purpose is to bring light from a room that has outside windows into an otherwise dark interior space like a closet or a hallway.

When the 1832 New York City rowhouse now known as the Merchant’s House Museum was opened to the public as an historic house museum in the 1930s, some minor modifications had to be made to provide for public amenities. Recently, research was undertaken to find out just what those modifications consisted of. Much to everyone’s surprise, a Borrowed Light Window was discovered under the plaster of the original kitchen.

The borrowed light window  at the Merchant's House Museum, recently discovered and restored.
The borrowed light window at the Merchant’s House Museum, recently discovered and restored.

That window has now been restored so that visitors can be reminded of what was certainly one of the greatest domestic concerns before the introduction of gaslight and particularly electricity.

It’s hard for us to imagine just how demanding the task or how different life was without the instantaneous availability of artificial light.  To supplement the natural light of the sun during dark days and of course always at night, it was necessary to have a fire of some kind, and all fires tend to be accompanied by smoke. Candles smoked and dripped; oil lamps  smoked and smelled and wicks had to be trimmed, candle wax scraped off of holders and glass shades cleaned every day. Oil spills were common and were a mess! Kerosene came along in 1859, but though the light burned brighter, other drawbacks persisted. Once the sun dropped below the horizon, most of the house was enveloped in total darkness. Typically there was a pool of light—what we would consider very dim light— where the family sat together around a single light source.

Borrowed Light Windows helped some during the day. They were a common feature of houses built before the introduction of electric lights.

On a recent weekend trip to Philadelphia we stayed in a bread and breakfast located in a colonial home built in 1769. And what do you know? In the bedroom we discovered—a borrowed light window!

Borrowed Light Window in the Thomas Bond House, Philadelphia.
Borrowed Light Window in the Thomas Bond House, Philadelphia.

P.S. Since posting, I’ve received a photo of a Borrowed Light Window in the Steinway Mansion in Astoria, Queens from Kevin. A 19th-century Italianate villa, the mansion is privately owned, but Friends of the Steinway Mansion have mounted a campaign to purchase the house and open it to the public. https://www.facebook.com/steinwaymansion

Does anybody else have a picture of a Borrowed Light Window?

Borrowed Light Window in the Steinway Mansion
Borrowed Light Window in the Steinway Mansion