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.
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.