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all the period nostalgia that anyone would want at the Old Merchants House, but it is also a unique social esthetic and historical document and its loss would have been a particular tragedy for New York.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! 

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

Ada Louise Huxtable, 1921-2013

The noted architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, died on January 7 at the age of 91. She was the first architecture critic 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. She was still writing brilliantly and forcefully  until the very end of her life; her last article for The Journal in which she voiced her objection to the planned renovation of the New York City Public Library in typical trenchant prose, was published just a month before she died.

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

Few people today remember that in 1970, she penned 200 words that would result in the preservation of a cherished New York City landmark that would otherwise have faced certain destruction. The Merchant’s House Museum, a rowhouse built in 1832, had been open to the public as a Museum since 1936, but by 1965 it was sadly deteriorated and hard pressed for operating and maintenance funds. The Board was eyeing an offer from a developer who wanted to buy up sites on the Fourth Street Block, and the old house seemed to be headed for demolition.

But the deal never materialized and somehow the house hung on, continuing to deteriorate, until by 1970, it was literally on the verge of collapse. Joseph Roberto, then the New York University architect, volunteered to undertake what seemed to be an impossible endeavor:  a complete structural restoration of the house. But where was the money to come from for such an ambitious project? With the help of his wife, Carol, Roberto  spent a year and a half in a desperate and unsuccessful effort to raise the necessary funds.

Then in December of 1970, one of Roberto’s letters of appeal landed on Ms. Huxtable’s desk. She responded by ending  the column she was working on for The New York Times, with three short paragraphs—200 words— describing the plight of the Merchant’s House, which she noted was unlikely to make it through the winter.  She issued a challenge.  “Anyone for some nice civic-minded Christmas gifts?” she asked.

When Ada Louise Huxtable spoke, people listened. Roberto said the result was “electrifying.”

Joan Dunlop, then assistant director of the Fund for the City of New York, offered a gift of $5000, but more importantly  put Roberto in touch with state and federal authorities who were able eventually to come up with grants that would provide major funding for a decade-long restoration of the old house, a restoration that Roberto undertook with scrupulous care, using original materials where it was at all possible and accurately reproducing them where it is was not. When the structural restoration was complete, the original furniture was restored where necessary, and the entire collection reinstalled along with an accurate reproduction of the parlor carpeting and draperies.

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

Ms Huxtable 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, and in February of 1980 when she was able to inform her readers that in spite of all odds, the Old Merchants House (as it was then called) had survived, she explained why.

The distinction of this house—and it is a powerful one—is that it is the real thing. One simply walks through 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.

Since the restoration of the 70s, the Merchant’s House has enjoyed a continuity of leadership that is rare among historic house museums: first by Roberto himself and since his death in 1988 by Margaret Halsey Gardiner.

Roberto performed the miracle, New York City Landmarks legislation provided legal protection for both the exterior and interior, and the current stewards are vigilant in meeting the many needs of a 181-year old house, determined to maintain this authentic landmark whatever it takes.

But it was Ada Louise Huxtable who got the ball rolling—with 200 well chosen words.

Architecture · Preservation

New York Public Library to Commit Hara-Kiri on Fifth Avenue

That’s right; the disembowelment is scheduled to begin this summer.

"We cannot help but be grateful that the Library's construction occurred in the decades that produced our finest architecture, at a time when the nation led the world in the classical tradition. More, that there were giants. . .to plan and design the building and craftsmen. . .to bring their age-old skills to its adornment. Let us, their fortunate heirs. rejoice in their triumph." Henry Hope Reed, The New York Public Library.
“We cannot help but be grateful that the Library’s construction occurred in the decades that produced our finest architecture, at a time when the nation led the world in the classical tradition. More, that there were giants. . .to plan and design the building and craftsmen. . .to bring their age-old skills to its adornment. Let us, their fortunate heirs. rejoice in their triumph.” Henry Hope Reed, The New York Public Library.

The problem:

Mid Manhattan Library
Mid Manhattan Library

1.The Mid-Manhattan circulating library located at 43rd and Fifth Avenue, across the Street from the research library, is dirty, ugly, and poorly designed. It struggles to accommodate its 4000 daily visitors. You really have to want to take a book home to patronize this place.

2.The millions of books stored in the seven stories of stacks in the research library need to be housed in a state-of-the-art  climate controlled environment to slow down deterioration. The stacks, which are not open and not visible to the public, are located under the glorious Rose reading room and indeed physically support it.

Seven stories of stacks are located under the Rose Reading Room.
Seven stories of stacks are located under the Rose Reading Room.

The proposed solution:

Remove the books that are currently housed in the research library—all of them—from the building. Some of them can be shelved in the space under adjoining Continue reading “New York Public Library to Commit Hara-Kiri on Fifth Avenue”