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

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.