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.

Books · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Museums

How and Why We Became Publishers, Part Three, Merchant’s House Meet POD

The Merchant's House Museum 29 East Fourth St., New York City
The Merchant’s House Museum 29 East Fourth St., New York City

After we moved to Manhattan we made it a point to see all the things people come to the city to see. One of them, the Merchant’s House Museum, a historic house built in 1832, was occupied by the same family for almost 100 years and still has original furniture and personal family belongings—even their underwear!

Mary asked if there was a book about the house.Well no, there wasn’t. So she volunteered to be a docent at the Museum and began to learn the answers to the things she had wondered about. What was it really like to live in a world without screens, air-conditioning, indoor plumbing, or furnaces, and what were the family’s assumptions about life—about courtship, diseases, women, and death, for instance.

Nineteenth-century woman in mourning
Nineteenth-century woman in mourning from Ch. 18 An Old Merchant’s House

After a lot of study, including close reading of diaries and letters and publishedworks of the time as well as research about the Tredwell family and their house, she finally knew enough to write the book that she had wanted to buy when we first visited the house: An Old Merchant’s House.

When it came time to submit the manuscript for publication, we realized that our agent had died and our editor had retired. The idea of selling ourselves and our books to new set of very young people was depressing. But while we weren’t looking, everything about the publishing business had changed. It was now possible for an author to publish his books himself. Digital presses can now print one book at a time, without costly set up. It’s called POD (print on demand.) There are a number of firms which you can hire do everything necessary to publish your work and to place it on Amazon and other online sites. We decided to publish our books POD. Since we can edit our books ourselves and have an in-house IT guy (a son-in law, who is also an author), we don’t have to rely on the POD firm for creating the necessary disc (not something most people can easily do themselves) or editorial services.

A girandole.
A girandole.

We decided to form a publishing company called Girandole Books. A girandole is a 19th-century lighting device, employing candles and sometimes a mirror. Since it illuminates and reflects, we thought that was a good name for a publisher. Turns out nobody can say it or spell it. Amazon argued that it wasn’t a real word. We finally prevailed.

Mary has written another book about the Merchant’s House, Miracle on Fourth Street. It’s about the cast of incredible characters who managed to save the house from being destroyed. Both her books are now on sale at the Merchant’s House and on Amazon. My recently published, Did You See This? Poems to Offend the Politically Correct is also available from Amazon in paperback or a kindle version.

Now since we are too old to dally, we plan to publish at least two books each year for awhile. We will be referring to these books and publishing excerpts. Next up is my novel Beating a Dead Stick, a book about a high school teacher who teaches in a school in the eighties where the students learn nothing and the faculty doesn’t care. No, it is not a fictionalized version of the Pembroke-Hill school in Kansas City where I taught or of Balboa High School in the Canal Zone or of the Canal Zone College or of Kansas City University, but . . . Stay tuned.

-HK

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.

 

 

Architecture · Conservation · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Monuments and Memorials · Movies and Videos · Preservation

The Historic House Tells It Like It Was

Front parlor, Merchant's House Museum. Photo by Patrick Blanc
Front parlor, Merchant’s House Museum. Photo by Patrick Blanc

To feel the world of the nineteenth century in our bones, it’s necessary to find a place that can take us there. Such places are rare. Without question, in New York City, the most authentic domestic nineteenth-century place is the Merchant’s House Museum. 

From the introduction to the forthcoming Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House by Mary Knapp

If you can’t visit this wonderful place in person, this documentary by BluePrint New York City, which aired on New York stations last week, is the next best thing. Just click on the link above to view.

Front hall and stairway, Merchant's House Museum. Photo by Patrick Blanc
Front hall and stairway, Merchant’s House Museum. Photo by Patrick Blanc

Of all the ways we have of connecting to the past, as far as I’m concerned, the historic house museum trumps all others when it comes to understanding life in a place and time beyond memory. It’s here we can come closest to the people who went before us. These are the very walls that enclosed them. Here they stood before the fire. Here are the mirrors that reflected their movements in the parlor. This is the stair they climbed on their way to bed.

When we tune in to the height of the ceilings, the nearness of the walls, the path we travel from room to room, the narrowness of a passageway or the lack or presence of natural light, we begin to understand what daily life was like for those who lived there long ago.

One house that serves us particularly well in our attempt at understanding is the Merchant’s House Museum in New York City. I say that not because this year marks the twentieth anniversary of my involvement with the Museum, but because this house is unique.  Only one family, The Seabury Tredwells, lived there for almost 100 years. They moved in in 1835; the baby born in the  house in 1840 died in an upstairs bedroom  in 1933.  So there is one continuous storyline; no confusing amalgamation of different families’  ghosts.  They came, and they stayed—for almost a century.This was their home, and most importantly, these are their things. They quit buying new furniture somewhere around midcentury. And that’s not all! There are 40 gowns worn by the Tredwell women that go on exhibit on a rotating basis as well as personal objects like books and needlework and fans and children’s homework.

The House underwent a structural restoration in the 1970s that is unparalleled for authenticity. For example, when it was necessary  to remove the floorboards in the kitchen to address a problem of water infiltration, the original boards were carefully numbered and their placement indicated on a diagram so that they could be replaced just the way they were. When the House was reroofed, original slate tiles were reused where possible. The parlor draperies and carpet are exact reproductions of the originals. Today, when walls need repainting, the original colors are matched as determined by the latest scientific methods of paint analysis.

Finally, the serendipitous floor plan makes it possible for us to actually enter the rooms and feel the space around us.  We can never come closer to the nineteenth century than we do here.

Central Park · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Preservation

Ten More Reasons Why I Love Living in The City That Never Sleeps

Last year I posted ten of my favorite sites in New York. Here are ten more reasons I love living here.

"Three Dancing Maidens"
“Three Dancing Maidens”

11. Realistic Public Sculpture. New York has plenty of it. There are lots of stalwart men on horseback, but this bronze statue of the Three Dancing Maidens by Walter Schott is my favorite. It is an expression of pure joy. Located in The Conservatory Garden of Central Park, the maidens dance around the Untermeyer Fountain, looking  very much alive. See how their wet dresses cling to their bodies?

Alpples and anthuriaum on Broadway
Alpples and anthurium on Broadway

12. The lovely symmetrical arrangements of fruit and flowers that appear outside all of the small markets. This is sidewalk art at its best!

Edgar's Cofee Shop at and Amsterdam
Edgar’s Cofee Shop on Amsterdam

13. Edgar’s Cafe. All New Yorkers have their favorite neighborhood coffee shop. This is mine. Edgar’s is named after the poet Edgar Allen Poe because for years it was located on the site where Poe lived for a time, just around the corner from my building.  They had to move because of rising rent. Fortunately Edgar’s is still within easy walking distance.

Bryant Park
Bryant Park

14. Bryant Park. Located smack dab in the middle of the City, it’s everything a city park should be: moveable chairs, tables, lots of green grass, a merry-go-round, food kiosks, a canopy of plane trees for shade, verdant ivy. But I love it most of all for its transformation from a dangerous  place where drug dealers dealt and homeless drug addicts lived, if you could call it living. That was in the seventies when I first became aware of it. Now look at it! Just shows what can be done if there’s a will to do it.

Frank Lloyd Wright Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Frank Lloyd Wright Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

15. The Frank Lloyd Wright Room at the Met. My favorite thing in the Metropolitan Museum is not a painting nor a sculpture but this room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Originally it was the living room of the summer home of Frances Little on the shores of Lake Minnetonka in suburban Minneapolis. The furniture doesn’t look very comfortable—none of Wright’s furniture does—but the room to me is just sublimely beautiful

Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center

16. Lincoln Center. Three subway stops brings me to this 16.3 acre complex– home to the very best in the performing arts. What’s your pleasure? Opera, ballet, theater, orchestral music: it’s all on offer. Lincoln Center also has a sentimental attraction of a sort. In my first visit to New York City in 1964, I watched some of it being built.

The Way to Go—New York City
The Way to Go—New York City

17. Public Transportation 24/7. Don’t laugh. This really is one of the most important benefits New York offers as far as I’m concerned. The busses are slow, the subway is unpleasant. the taxi drivers are terrible, and the car service expensive. But I hate driving and haven’t for many years. So much is available by foot in New York, that it all adds up to a very positive plus.

The Frick Museum Fragonard Room
The Frick Museum Fragonard Room

18. The Frick Museum. An historic house and an art museum all in one. What could be better! The Fragonard Room pictured is delicious. Go here for a virtual tour. I was once offered the opportunity to visit the parts of the house not open to the public. And yes—there really is a bowling alley in the basement.

Welcome Home!
Welcome Home!

19. The Lobby. Instead of a front yard, I have a lobby. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer, it’s a welcoming transition from the street to my front door on the 11th floor. It says, “Welcome Home.”

The Merchant's House Museum on a Winter Day
The Merchant’s House Museum on a Winter Day

 

19. The Merchant’s House Museum. This is a repeat from last year. I include it again because it is so important to me. This is an 1832 row house preserved as an historic house museum complete with the furniture and personal belongings of the family who lived here for almost 100 years. I’ve spent a lot of time here in the last 19 years working in many capacities, currently as the historian. Right now, the Museum is facing a threat from a developer who plans to build a hotel next door. 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. 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!

The House , incidentally, has looked like this a lot this winter. If you want to know more about the Merchant’s House, go to the website: http://www.merchantshouse.org.