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.

April 8, 2014—Forsythia watch on the 86th transverse road, Central Park, New York City.

Not Yet. Not Even Close!

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



Filed under Historic House Museums, Merchant's House, Museums, Restoration

Let’s Just Call It Handwriting



The Tennessee and South Carolina legislatures are now considering bills that would require the teaching of cursive handwriting in their public schools. If this legislation passes, these states will join seven others—Florida, Kansas, Utah, Idaho, Georgia, Massachusetts, and California— where the teaching of cursive is now either required by law or has been adopted by the State Board of Education to supplement the Common Core standards.

 These standards are part of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Federal initiative that specifies learning outcomes and rewards states that test students for achievement of these outcomes. The standards were written by a group of governors, state education leaders and other experts. They do not include the teaching of handwriting.

 The state of Indiana, one of the first of forty-five states to adopt the standards, has just withdrawn from Common Core. Legislation signed by the governor Monday, March 24, requires the Board of Education to create its own goals by July 1. It will be interesting to learn whether those goals include the teaching of handwriting and whether other states follow Indiana’s lead in dumping Common Core in favor of locally controlled education.


Since Common Core does not specify cursive writing as a goal, many schools have stopped teaching handwriting past the second grade. Those who are in favor of dropping the teaching of “cursive” believe that manuscript printing should be taught in grades 1 and 2, but do not see the point of continuing instruction and practice of handwriting beginning in grade 3 because in the digital age, writing by hand is seldom necessary and when it is necessary, the printing learned in first and second grade will do. Classroom time should be used in teaching keyboarding,

Seriously! That seems to be their argument: that proficiency in writing rapidly and legibly by hand be dropped as a pedagogical goal at age 8.  They apparently believe that no further instruction or practice or effort to acquire a controlled hand is necessary after age 8, when neural connections are still fragile.  Age 8!


 “Should we be teaching handwriting—of any kind—past the second grade”? Let’s just call it handwriting or longhand. Whether it is writing with loops or no loops, written vertically or slanted, with every letter joined or just some letters joined really makes no difference. What we need to ask is this question: Are there benefits to learning and practicing writing by hand as opposed to keyboarding, and in practicing that skill throughout one’s academic career?


Strangely, the most potent argument in favor of offering instruction and requiring the practice of handwriting throughout one’s academic career is very seldom offered.

It has to do with the relation of the hand to the brain. The feedback we get from forming the shapes of letters with our hand and focusing on the tip of the pen is quite different from the percussive strokes we make when typing on a keyboard, where the letters come ready made, where there is no distinction from the demands made in forming one letter vs. another, and the focus constantly shifts from the keyboard to the screen.


Neurophysiologist Jean-Luc Velay of the University of Marseille and Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger (Norway) have examined a wealth of research that deals with the significance of the differences between typing and writing by hand.(If you wish to read the article by Velay and Mangen summarizing the specific studies, here’s the link.)


A growing body of evidence in various scientific fields shows that the way we move our body (our hand, for example) and engage our senses (visual, tactile, kinesthetic, sound) plays an important role in learning and cognitive development.

In discussing how we teach writing, it is important to take this concept of “embodied cognition” into account. We generally tend to overemphasize the visual and ignore what is known as “haptics,” the way we learn and communicate by touch.

Different parts of the brain light up on an MRI when writing by hand and when typing. Some of these studies suggest that the challenge of learning to form letters by hand results in more fluency in speaking and reading as well.

Also the experience many of us have of being better able to memorize material if we write it down by hand is born out by the research.

When writing on a keyboard, attention oscillates between the screen and the keyboard and we constantly interrupt our thoughts to correct what we have written. When writing by hand, what one researcher has dubbed a “kinetic melody” is eventually achieved, when we no longer need to attend to letter formation and the writing seems to flow as the words pass through the hand. When this is achieved, we seldom stop to make corrections, there is an uninterrupted connection of our thoughts, and creativity is facilitated.


Evidence suggests that writing by hand facilitates fluency in reading and speaking, ability to memorize and to think creatively. But it is not necessary to abandon the teaching of keyboarding in favor of handwriting. Children can and should learn to do both. For a century and a half millions of people learned to use the QWERTY keyboard and to write a legible hand as well. You would think that those who oppose the teaching of  handwriting past second grade never heard of the typewriter.


Filed under Education, Handwriting, Technology

The Royal Kitchens at Kew


This is one of the most exciting things I’ve heard of in the way of restoration. It appears they have been able to recapture the past in a way that is very seldom possible.

Originally posted on Jane Austen's World:

The Royal Kitchens at Kew were opened in May 2012 to visitors for the first time in over 200 years. They were virtually untouched since the mid-1800s, during the era of King George III. This introductory video, The Royal Kitchens at Kew: a food history, provides a brief overview of the kitchen in 1788-1789, showing all the features of a typical Georgian kitchen:

The following video helps you step back in time to 6 February 1789 when George III was given his knife and fork back after his first bout of ‘madness’. Using similar cooking utensils as the Georgians, working in a Georgian kitchen, and making the soupe from an 18th century recipe, the chef hopes to recreate food that has the look and taste of cuisine 200 years ago. During this period, soup was often served by the male head of the household. We can easily imagine Rev. Austen…

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March 6, 1965—The Day The Children Took to The Streets

The Children's March

The Children’s March

On March 6, forty-nine years ago, munchkins from the Downtown School in the East Village grabbed their banners and wended their way to the steps of the Merchant’s House Museum, singing protest songs all the way. This was the sixties, after all, and when you saw an injustice, that’s what you did, even if you were just a little kid.

Here’s an explanation of the crisis that prompted the children’s march, how it all turned out, and why today the Merchant’s House is in need of another mobilization of public outrage.

For several years, a small group of New Yorkers had become alarmed at the number of architecturally significant old buildings that were falling victims to the wrecker’s ball.

Th old Pennsylvania Station—heartbreakingly beautiful

Th old Pennsylvania Station—heartbreakingly beautiful

In October of 1963,  Pennsylvania Station, one of New York City’s most glorious structures was demolished. Public opinion was galvanized, for there was a growing understanding that old buildings give character, dimension, and beauty to the city.

The old Pennsylvania Station—interior.

The old Pennsylvania Station—interior.

Fast Forward to the spring of 1964. An advisory commission appointed by Mayor Robert Wagner had finished drafting landmarks legislation. It called for a Landmarks Preservation Commission that would have the power to designate landmarked buildings. Such designated buildings could not be demolished until a series of alternatives had been explored, and then only with permission of the Commission.

And that wasn’t all. The proposed legislation also empowered the Commission to designate historic districts. The Commission would have the power to determine whether proposed new structures or modifications to the exterior of existing structures in these districts were appropriate to the aesthetic and historic character of the district. And there was teeth in the proposed law, for the commission would have the power to impose criminal sanctions to enforce its decisions.

But months passed without action on the proposed legislation, and then on September 17, 1964, it was announced that a prized New York City landmark, the former Brokaw Mansion at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, was going to be demolished and replaced with a high rise apartment building.  The public was outraged; the press was outraged; pressure for action became intense.

The Brokaw Mansion at 79th and Fifth Avenue.

The Brokaw Mansion at 79th and Fifth Avenue.

But the Landmarks legislation had still not been passed and so on a Saturday morning in February of 1965, the Brokaw Mansion began to come down. New Yorkers winced and howled as stained glass, carved architectural moldings and marble ornamentation were shattered.

At the same time, a developer who hoped to assemble East Fourth Street lots for commercial use offered to buy the Old Merchant’s House. It had survived as a museum for three decades, most of those years by the skin of its teeth and now it was on its last legs. The Board was tentatively eyeing the offer.


Children from the Downtown School were aware of the outrage of their parents. They understood that somehow the final enactment of the Landmarks legislation might help save the Old Merchant’s House—the destination of many of their field trips. So they, too, were outraged. And with the encouragement of their teachers, they decided to do something about it.

Lilliputian protesters, some playing guitars, some carrying placards, marched through the East Village singing, “Where have all the landmarks gone? Gone to ruins, most every one. When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” After weaving their way through East Village Streets, they gathered at the Old Merchant’s House, where they collected petitions of protest to be sent to the mayor and recited original poems on the steps: “Save the Old Merchant’s House, please. Or else it will fall on its knees.”

Whether it was the destruction of the Brokaw mansion or the Children’s March that finally prompted action on the part of the City Council and the mayor, I really couldn’t say. But on April 6, 1965, the legislation passed unanimously, and the mayor signed it into law on April 16, 1965.

The children had their wish. On September 21, 1965, the Commission met for the first time all day and into the night.  By nine o’clock, 20 structures had been designated. The Old Merchant’s House was one of  them. Though it did not exactly have a new lease on life just yet, the designation had bought it some time. It had escaped being sold and razed. For seven years, it limped along, and beginning in 1972, it was closed for almost a decade while a thorough structural restoration was undertaken. Today the Merchant’s House is one of the City’s most valuable historic documents.

However today the Museum faces another crisis. A developer plans to build a hotel next door to the west. 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. Not only is the structural integrity of the building endangered, 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!

To learn more about the Merchant’s House Museum, see the “About” page and the website: http://www.merchantshouse.org.

And visit when you can! 12-5 p.m. Thursday-Monday


Filed under Historic House Museums, Merchant's House, Pennsylvania Station, 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 “About” page or the website: http://www.merchantshouse.org.


Filed under Central Park, Historic House Museums, Merchant's House, Preservation

George Washington, Father of Our Country—Oh, How They Loved Him!

"Washington and His Generals" from the collection of Th Merchant's House Mseum

“Washington and His Generals” from the collection of The Merchant’s House Museum

I know, I know, we already celebrated President’s Day last week, but today is really Washington’s birthday. (If you want to know why we don’t celebrate his birthday on his birthday, go here.)

Today we remember George Washington; we honor him and celebrate him (sort of), but we don’t love him the way the 19th century loved him and we should.  Not only did he lead the Continental Army to an improbable victory over the  most powerful nation on earth, but by first relinquishing his military commission and then refusing to continue his presidency past two terms, he insured that our revolution would remain true to its republican ideals. Today we enjoy the liberty and freedoms the patriots fought for, though regrettably we too often take them for granted.

In the 19th century, Washington’s birthday was celebrated with bell ringing, cannons, parades, fireworks, and grateful prayer. Countless images of him hung in public places, schools, and private homes throughout the land.

The large steel engraving by A.H.Ritchie pictured above hangs on the wall of the basement family dining room in the Seabury Tredwell home (now the Merchant’s House Museum) in New York City. It was offered for sale by mail order in 1859.

Born in 1780, Tredwell was a boy of seven when the delegates met in Philadelphia to  frame the Constitution. His generation was close enough to the founding to understand in a very personal and concrete way the risks the revolutionaries took, the dangers they faced, and the part George Washington played in winning our independence and establishing our freedoms.

Several years ago I visited Mount Vernon with my family on Washington’s birthday. One would imagine that on that day his home would be overrun by tourists and school children who were on vacation. But no—as it turned out there were only three or four others touring the home with us. When we moved outdoors to the kitchen, the laundry, the stable, we were all alone. I should explain that the weather was absolutely miserable. There was no sun; it was bitterly cold and sleeting, which no doubt accounted for the lack of visitors.  Yet the weather somehow enhanced the experience for me. I could really feel the presence of George and Martha Washington in that place on that cold winter day. I will never forget it.

A month from today—March 22— I will be in Philadelphia visiting Independence Hall where George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention and our freedoms were codified.

I doubt if it will snow, but I hope there aren’t too many people visiting  on that day.

The Merchants House Museum is open Thursday through Monday, 12 to 5 p.m. Visit the website: www.merchantshouse.org.

The Washington print has been removed for conservation but will be back soon.

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Filed under Historic House Museums, Merchant's House

Valentine’s Day–A chance to put a surprise in someone’s mailbox

Originally posted on Hints and Echoes:

A 19th century valentine

A 19th century valentine from the collection of The Merchant’s House Museum

IMAGINE–you pick up the mail: a couple of catalogues, the Con Ed bill, a notice from the gym, and what’s this? A hand addressed envelope! And inside—a valentine. The wonderful thing about valentines is that they are always a surprise.  Nobody expects you to send them a valentine.

You’ve got time; Valentine’s Day is February 14. The selection today is quite a bit different from those 19th century confections shown here  and you may not feel up to an original verse like the gentleman who sent the above valentine to Martha Tredwell in 1847. Martha was a collateral relative of the Tredwell family who lived at 29 East Fourth Street in New York City in the 19th century, known today as the Merchant’s House Museum. I can’t decipher his name, but here is what I think the verse says:

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