A Nation in Mourning, Three Perspectives: The Historian, The Diarist, The Poet

President Lincoln On the morning of April 15, 1865, just six days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, President Abraham Lincoln died from a wound inflicted by an assassin’s bullet the night before as he sat in the Presidential booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington. In New York City, the Seabury Tredwell family had been in deep mourning for over a month, having lost the family patriarch on March 7.  From a Distance— The Historian, An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-64, March, 2012

The private grief of the Tredwell family was enveloped and intensified by an outpouring of national sorrow. On April 24, Lincoln’s funeral cortege reached New York City, and over a million New Yorkers watched and wept as a team of six gray horses pulled the class-sided hearse from the dock on the Hudson River to City Hall, now draped with a banner reading “The Nation Mourns.” It was the end of an era. . . .The Federal Republic was giving way to a more centralized nation. Thirty-five thousand miles of railroad had been constructed, telegraph lines had crossed the continent, and the final effort to link the United States to Europe with the transatlantic cable was about to be succeed.

In the Moment—The Diarist. The Diary of Julia Lay, Saturday, April 15, 1965

A special edition of The New York Herald announces the dreadful news.

A special edition of The New York Herald announces the dreadful news.

This morning the sad and mournful intelligence of the death of our beloved President, Abraham Lincoln, who was shot last evening burst upon this city like a thunderbolt. Every face was  pale and many a tear shed for his loss. I walked down the Fourth Avenue and through Broadway below Stewarts with Georgie who could scarcely keep back the tears as we looked first on one flag half mast and draped, then at another. Everywhere flags were edged with black and looped up with crape. Places of business were closed throughout the city in respect of him whom we all so much esteemed.  

Upon Reflection,The Poet—”When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Walt Whitman, Summer 1865

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,

I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

If you are in New York, don’t miss the exhibit “All Broadway is Black With Mourning” commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death and funeral of Abraham Lincoln at The Merchant’s House Museum, until June 29, The Seabury Tredwell home, virtually unchanged since those sad days, will take you back to the time when the City mourned for its fallen leader.

And on Sunday, April 26 at 6 p.m. a unique multi media presentation including a concert by the Bond Street Euterpean Singing Society featuring music composed in 1865 and an illustrated lecture about the assassination, the aftermath, and the funeral train that carried Lincoln to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. Details on the Merchant’s House web site.


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Some Things Never Change Because They’re Perfect Just the Way They Are

The coming of spring is one of those things. The crocus, spring’s first flower, spied and photographed by my friend David Livingston in Greenwich Village.

The crocus returns.

The crocus returns.

For winter’s rains and ruins are over,

and all the season of snows and sins,

The days dividing lover and lover,

The light that loses, the night that wins,

And frosts are slain and flowers begotten

And in green underwood and cover,

Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

                             Algernon Charles Swinburne

                              Atlanta in Calydon 1865


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See The City Change in a Way You’ve Not Seen it Before

Just grab and drag the green bar. You’re going to like this.


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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.



Filed under Architecture, Conservation, Historic House Museums, Merchant's House, Monuments and Memorials, Movies and Videos, Preservation

Never Satisfied

Out with the old 459 pages

Out with the old 459 pages

As revolutionary and transformative as the technological innovations of the 19th century were–and they were— they didn’t demand much effort from those who benefited from them. I mean, how hard is it to learn to turn on the lights, dial a telephone, or flush the toilet? And what’s more, the beneficiaries didn’t have to learn different ways of using these inventions every other year. It was 44 years—44 years!— from the introduction of rotary telephone dials to touch tone dialing, and even then, that innovation was pretty intuitive. Even the elderly could do it. Nowadays, of course, telephones are much more complicated. For one thing, they’re not just for talking. They can get you in a whole lot of trouble if you don’t know what you’re doing. And like everything digital, the current version is never good enough.

Last week,  our printer died after four years of service. I don’t know how old that is in human years, but I’m pretty sure it’s well past the age of retirement. The telephone rep warned me, if I understood her correctly, which wasn’t easy, that to have it repaired might cost more than a new printer, especially since as loyal Epson customers, we were entitled to a discount.

To find out though, we’d have to lug the printer to the Bronx, there not being a single Epson service center in the entire borough of Manhattan, which tells you something right there.

In with the new 857 pages

In with the new 857 pages

Well, we never liked that printer anyway so we bought a new one. But uh oh, our operating system wouldn’t support the new printer. As Mac users, we were a little late to the OS X party; we came on board with Jaguar, having missed out on Cheetah and Puma. We then ignored Panther, Tiger, Leopard and Snow Leopard. But somewhere along the line, we bought a new computer and in the process acquired Lion, not to be confused with Mountain Lion, which came next, followed by Mavericks. Having run out of exotic animals and there being no logical successor to Mavericks, Apple has now transitioned to national parks, Yosemite being the current version of OS X to which we have dutifully upgraded.

Mark my words: before long, they’ll be promoting Shenandoah. But, trust me, we won’t be making the trip. We’ll just wait for Yellowstone or Denali or Glacier. Or maybe we’ll just stay home.

P.S. Seems I have made the mistake of jumping to a logical conclusion. Steven (the best Apple guru one could find—well, after David Pogue, maybe) informs me in the comment section that the cats were left behind with Mountain Lion and the new series is named after California landmarks, of which Mavericks is one. So what’s next? Alcatraz?


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My Kitchen Window Garden

avocado (no flowers), amaryllis, violet,and orchid

avocado (no flowers), amaryllis, violet,and orchid

At the tail end of a long, hard winter, you gotta have flowers! Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme just don’t cut it. Only eight days until the official arrival of spring and then—the countdown to forsythia begins.


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Fifty Years Ago Today the Children Marched in New York City Streets

The Children's March

The Children’s March

On March 6, fifty years ago today, munchkins from the Downtown School in the East Village grabbed their banners and wended their way to the steps of the Old Merchant’s House, an 1832 historic house museum in New York City,  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 and how it all turned out..

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. In June of 1961, Mayor Robert Wagner appointed a committee to come up with recommendations on how New York City’s old buildings could be protected. Their advice was that the mayor appoint an advisory Landmarks Preservation Commission to survey potential landmark buildings and draft legislation to help preserve them.

Th old Pennsylvania Station—heartbreakingly beautiful

Th old Pennsylvania Station—heartbreakingly beautiful

Fast Forward to the spring of 1964. The 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.

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.

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.

The Brokaw Mansion at 79th and Fifth Avenue.

The Brokaw Mansion at 79th and Fifth Avenue.

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 19, 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 landmark designation 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 Museum is one of the City’s most valuable historic documents.


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