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 · 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.