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Cover-photograph-(CROPPED&Colorized)
The Merchant’s House Museum, showing the original Duncan Phyfe chairs. The carpet and window treatment are exact reproductions of what was in the house in 1850.

The City Council Came Through!

This week the New York City Council voted unanimously to deny a developer an application to build an eight-story hotel next door to one of New York’s treasures: the Merchant’s House Museum, a 186-year old house, a family home with original furnishings and objects now open to the public. The proposed construction threatened the fragile building with catastrophic damage and a possible collapse.

There will always be a conflict.

There are those who want to want to preserve historic buildings and those who want to demolish them for various reasons, sometimes because it is prohibitively expensive or impossible to save them, but often for selfish financial reasons, or simply because they assume that whatever is new is better than what is old.

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Original Pennsylvania Station interior.

In 1963, when Pennsylvania Station, a beautiful monumental example of Beaux Arts architecture, was demolished, many New Yorkers raised a loud hew and cry in opposition. Penn Station could have been saved, but the good guys who wanted to “renovate not amputate” lost that one. Today, 55 years later, New Yorkers, especially those whose daily commute takes them through the miserable underground replacement sorely lament that decision.

The argument against demolishing Penn Station was primarily based on its architectural significance.

But I think an even more important reason for saving a historic building is that its presence in the community connects us to the past. We need to be reminded as we go about our daily lives that the present is not all there is, that we are not the end-all and be-all, that in many ways we owe who we are to what went on before we existed.

The connection is not always conscious, but it exists nevertheless—like background music you don’t particularly notice but that affects your mood. A city with no old buildings would be an Orwellian nightmare.

 

18.a rear bedroom

The rear bedroom of the Merchant’s House with its original furniture.

The place where we can most easily connect to life beyond memory is a domestic space.

Here is where people actually ate their dinners, entertained their friends, climbed the stairs to bed. These places are rare and rarer still are those that still contain the furniture and personal possession of the family that lived there,

Those who know me and have heard me repeat the “really real table” story more often than they wanted may now skip the following two paragraphs.

 I was giving a tour of the house to second graders. The children were seated on the parlor carpet in front of me. I explained that a family with eight children lived in the house over 100 years ago and today the house was still here, just as it had been then. The furniture was theirs; the big sister played the piano; the family sat on the chairs.

 A hand shot into the air. The seven-year-old’s eyes were wide. He pointed to the center table. “You mean . . . you mean . . . that’s the really real table?”

This little boy “got it.”

He obviously realized that there were those who came before him and were no longer here, and in that moment he had connected to them. Caught up with our personal ambitions, we sometimes forget that we too will pass into history and someday other youngsters will judge us and find our homes and habits and possessions quaint and queer. The historic home serves to remind us of this humbling fact.

So thanks, City Council, and all those who worked so hard to convince them that the Merchant’s House is worth saving!

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The Really Real Table

For more about the Merchant’s House see An Old Merchant’s House and the sequel, Miracle on Fourth Steet by me. You can read more about these books here.