Category Archives: Books

Just Released! Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House

What Makes the Merchant’s House a Miracle

August, 1933—The country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Gertrude Tredwell had just died at the age of 93 in the 1832 rowhouse her family had inhabited for almost 100 years. A century of urban progress meant that the house, once located in the New York City’s most desirable neighborhood, was now just steps from the Bowery, the nation’s skid row. It was a time capsule, complete with the original owners’ furnishings dating to mid 19th century, and personal belongings as well—books, decorative objects, textiles, and even 39 dresses belonging to the women of the family.

Miracle on FourthEnter George Chapman, a distant cousin who made what can only be described as a foolhardy decision to “save” the old house from the auction block and turn it into a museum. Not only had the old house been long neglected and was then well along the road to disintegration, but certainly no one at that time was inclined to donate money to preserving the home of an early New York City merchant—a rich merchant, to be sure—a good man certainly—but not a person of historical significance.

But George was a wealthy man and in spite of increasing physical infirmity he just barely managed to hold his beloved museum together at great personal cost for over 20 years. However, he was not inclined to make major repairs let alone the needed thorough restoration of the collapsing house.

Eventually, after an improbable chain of events, an impeccable authentic restoration did take place, undertaken without charge by Joseph Roberto, an accomplished restoration architect who exercised a scrupulous regard for the original fabric of the building and recruited some of the most talented craftsmen in the country as well as White House architect, Edward Vason Jones and noted 19th century authority on American decorative arts, Berry Tracy, as pro bono consultants.

The restoration was a story of creative solutions to structural calamities, heartbreaking setbacks, personality conflicts, and an unceasing struggle to find funding, but Joseph Roberto simply would not give up, and eventually the house was restored to its original beauty, structurally stronger than ever. The textiles had completely deteriorated, but instead of replacing them with period appropriate examples, The Decorators Club, who were responsible for the interior refurbishment, wisely had the original silk curtains and the carpeting reproduced at extraordinary expense.

The story doesn’t end there, however, for there was to be one last crisis, which could literally have brought the house down were it not for the wise direction of the current director and the support of government and corporate grants, and the generosity of private donors.

Since the beginning, The Merchant’s House has held an unworldly attraction for all those who have been involved in its long life. It is not an exaggeration to say that people simply fall in love with it and are willing to devote extraordinary effort to its preservation.

Maybe that’s because of what happens when you cross the threshold.A mirror reflecting the 19th century.

Which brings me to the most miraculous circumstance of all. Here we come as close as we ever will to those who came before us. As we tune in to the height of the ceilings and the nearness of the walls, as we travel a path from room to room, observing the light, seeing what the family saw in those rooms—the piano, the mirrors, the Duncan Phyfe chairs, their four poster beds—we learn with our bodies as well as our brains what it was like to live in a 19th century urban rowhouse owned by one of the early merchants who laid the commercial foundations of this great city.

Once there were hundreds of such homes lining the streets of the neighborhood north of Bleecker. Now there is only one left to tell the story.

Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House



Filed under Architecture, Books, Historic House Museums, Merchant's House, Museums, Preservation, Restoration

Remember Hopscotch? Cooties? Miss Mary Mack? “I’m Rubber; You’re Glue”?

Click on image to read Amazon reviews

Click on image to read Amazon reviews

Years ago, before the personal computer had become part of all of our lives, Herb and I wrote a book about the folklore of children: the rhymes, games, customs, superstitions and jokes that children pass on to each other without the mediation or often even the knowledge of adults.

The thesis of that book is that this body of children’s knowledge, while it may seem trivial, is critically important in helping children in a number of developmental tasks. We interviewed hundreds of ten-year olds who eagerly told us—and showed us—their traditional past times. But whenever we talked to their teachers or parents, often we were told, “Oh kids don’t do that sort of thing anymore.” That’s why we originally subtitled the book The Secret Education of American Children.

Now that was a long time ago, and although the book is still in print (and to our amazement has been translated into Chinese) we have moved on to other interests so we don’t really know the state of children’s folklore today. After all, it requires face to face interaction. And today children are spending more and more time in the virtual world playing with their “devices” rather than “going out to play,”.  So maybe children really don’t do this sort of thing much anymore. Still, not long ago we observed two girls on a crosstown bus happily engaged in a rapid rendition of “Miss Mary Mack,” a traditional clapping rhyme with deep roots. Watch to the very end of this 32- second video and you’ll get some idea of why this particular past time has endured.

Seen on the terrace in the park

Seen on the terrace in the park

And then there’s this—observed on the terrace of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park. This doesn’t look exactly like the hopscotch of my childhood or that of the children we interviewed for our book. But that’s not surprising. Like any oral tradition, children’s folklore undergoes a sea change as it’s passed along from one generation to another. And new folklore emerges as children make up formulaic solutions to counteract boredom, solve disputes, conquer fear or cement new friendships.

Do you know any ten-year olds? If so, ask them if they “do this sort of thing anymore.” I’d love to know!

oil by HerbKnapp

Oil by HerbKnapp


Filed under Books, Education, Folklore

Why I ‘d Much Rather Read a Tree Book Than an E-Book

Tree book and E-book(s)

Tree book and E-book(s)

I appreciate the digital revolution; I really do. For starters,  Amazon has changed my life because shopping—for everything —is so simple. I don’t tweet, but I do have Facebook friends. My cell phone is so dumb all it knows how to do is to make and receive phone calls; however I do own the latest model of the Kindle e-reader.

But after six months or so, I’ve come to the conclusion that reading a tree book—or a real book,  if you will—offers subtle satisfactions that reading the same book on an e-reader simply does not, and I much prefer the real thing.

My objections to the Kindle stem mainly from the fact that you have to deal with it one page at a time. I hadn’t realized until I got the Kindle how often I fan the pages of a book, looking for information I’ve forgotten or to see what’s coming, or to see if I have time to finish the chapter before I have to struggle with the slotted spoon. I like to feel the weight of the pages on the left increasing as I read. in other words, I like to relate to the whole book at once.

Also, I like to write in my books. I figured out long ago that it’s okay. God doesn’t care. They are, after all, my books. Of course I would never write in someone else’s book or a library book (curses on those who do) but I love to scribble in mine. I like to pick up a book I’ve already read, fan the pages looking for the stars, the underlines, and the marginal notes I’ve made in my own handwriting and read those best parts again.

I like the fact that the real books have different personalities quite apart from their content. Some of them are fat, some thin. They are different colors. Some of them are friendly; some are not. As far as I’m concerned a really friendly book lies flat when it’s open, and has pages with ample margins. If there are notes, they’re in the margin or at the foot of the page, not at the end. If there are illustrations, I like them near the related text, not stuffed in the middle together. If, in addition the book is well written and tells me something I don’t already know, then it’s a good friend indeed. All e-books look more or less the same. That’s boring

I like to know where my books are—and I do. They’re on the bookshelves and I can identify them just by looking at the spines; I don’t want them dancing off into the atmosphere when I’m not looking. Finally, I love bookmarks. I collect them—and like to use them.

To be fair I should say there are advantages to the Kindle that I appreciate: you can make the type bigger, it’s easier to read lying down (something I like to do) because the book literally weighs nothing. All you have to hold is the reader itself. You can read in the dark (good if the person next to you is trying to sleep), there are lots of free books available from various sources, including the library. And if you read on the go—on the bus, in the line at the grocery store, or on an airplane or train, then I suppose an e-book is preferable to a real book. But when all is said and done, for me it’s no contest.

The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis  Reservoir in Central Park

The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park

MY LOCATION As I write this, I’m sitting on a bench next to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park. When it was built in 1862, it provided water for the city. Today it is maintained as a scenic attraction and wildlife refuge. A 1.58-mile track encircles it, and waterfowl make it their home.

Behind me is an allee of cherry trees, now in bloom. Their beauty is breathtaking. And somewhere there is something fragrant blooming. Herb is here too, reading— on his Kindle.

A perfect day.

The Cherry Trees Behind Me

The Cherry Trees Behind Me and a Runner in Hot Pink Shoes


Filed under Books, Central Park, Technology

The Heiress Comes (Back) to Broadway!

The Heiress, starring Jessica Chastain in the title role, is now in previews at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway. It will run for a limited engagement of 18 weeks.

Washington Square by Henry James tells the story of a young woman, her domineering physician father, and the man she loves.

Based on Henry James’ novel Washington Square, it is such a powerful story that audiences can’t get enough of it. The novel is one of James’ most popular and certainly one of his most readable books. In 1947 Ruth and Augustus Goetz wrote a play based on the book called The Heiress, which opened that year on Broadway and ran for a year. A movie, starring Olivia de Havilland, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the pathetically shy Catherine Sloper, came out in 1949. In 1995 the play returned to Broadway with Cherry Jones turning in Continue reading


Filed under Books, Historic House Museums, Merchant's House, Movies and Videos, New York Theater

Now Available—An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65

The first time I visited New York City’s Merchant’s House Museum as a tourist, some sixteen years ago, I asked if there was a book I could buy that would tell me more.

I felt sure there would be, but there wasn’t. So I offered my services as a volunteer and started learning about life in a 19th century New York City rowhouse.

After a few years, it occurred to me that I should write the book I had wanted to buy, and finally the time came when I felt I knew enough to do it or at least knew where to find out what I needed to know. Continue reading


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