Category Archives: Landmarking

Take Three Minutes to Tour the Wonders of Rockefeller Center

I have been absent from blogging because I am immersed in the writing of  a book about the history of The Merchant’s House Museum, and I don’t seem to do very well dividing my focus!  The work in progress follows the book published last spring, which was the story of the House when it was a family residence. Old houses over a hundred years old do not keep standing without a great deal of intervention and care. How the Merchant’s House was saved from the ravages of time and the willful destruction of man is a unique tale in the annals of historic preservation and I am eager to tell it. For today, I am turning to our friends at the Landmarks Conservancy to  pinch hit  for the blog. This is their latest episode of the “Tourist in Your Own Town” series.

The image that comes to mind when you think of the Great Depression of the 1930s is probably that of defeated men in shabby overcoats standing in a soup line. That was the sad reality of the time. Yet something else was happening then—a miracle that still stands at the heart of our great city.

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Filed under Architecture, Landmarking, Preservation

Ada Louise Huxtable, 1921-2013

The noted architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, died on January 7 at the age of 91. She was the first architecture critic for a major U.S. newspaper and will long be remembered for the eleven books and countless articles and columns she wrote for The New York Times where she was the architecture editor for many years and as architecture editor of The Wall Street Journal, a position she held at her death. She was still writing brilliantly and forcefully  until the very end of her life; her last article for The Journal in which she voiced her objection to the planned renovation of the New York City Public Library in typical trenchant prose, was published just a month before she died.

Ada Lpuise Huxtable and Joseph Roberto at a joint benefit for the Old Merchants House and the International Human Assistance Program, December 1980. Photo by Marilee Reiner

Ada Louise Huxtable and Joseph Roberto at a joint benefit for the Old Merchants House and the International Human Assistance Program, December 1980. Photo by Marilee Reiner

Few people today remember that in 1970, she penned 200 words that would result in the preservation of a cherished New York City landmark that would otherwise have faced certain destruction. The Merchant’s House Museum, a rowhouse built in 1832, had been open to the public as a Museum since 1936, but by 1965 it was sadly deteriorated and hard pressed for operating and maintenance funds. The Board was eyeing an offer from a developer who wanted to buy up sites on the Fourth Street Block, and the old house seemed to be headed for demolition.

But the deal never materialized and somehow the house hung on, continuing to deteriorate, until by 1970, it was literally on the verge of collapse. Joseph Roberto, then the New York University architect, volunteered to undertake what seemed to be an impossible endeavor:  a complete structural restoration of the house. But where was the money to come from for such an ambitious project? With the help of his wife, Carol, Roberto  spent a year and a half in a desperate and unsuccessful effort to raise the necessary funds.

Then in December of 1970, one of Roberto’s letters of appeal landed on Ms. Huxtable’s desk. She responded by ending  the column she was working on for The New York Times, with three short paragraphs—200 words— describing the plight of the Merchant’s House, which she noted was unlikely to make it through the winter.  She issued a challenge.  “Anyone for some nice civic-minded Christmas gifts?” she asked.

When Ada Louise Huxtable spoke, people listened. Roberto said the result was “electrifying.”

Joan Dunlop, then assistant director of the Fund for the City of New York, offered a gift of $5000, but more importantly  put Roberto in touch with state and federal authorities who were able eventually to come up with grants that would provide major funding for a decade-long restoration of the old house, a restoration that Roberto undertook with scrupulous care, using original materials where it was at all possible and accurately reproducing them where it is was not. When the structural restoration was complete, the original furniture was restored where necessary, and the entire collection reinstalled along with an accurate reproduction of the parlor carpeting and draperies.

The Merchant's House Museum

The Merchant’s House Museum

Ms Huxtable deplored the ersatz and the “doctored reality” of many restored historic buildings  and in the cultural landscape as a whole. She wrote compellingly on this theme in The Unreal America. (1997). But the Merchant’s House did not belong in that category, and in February of 1980 when she was able to inform her readers that in spite of all odds, the Old Merchants House (as it was then called) had survived, she explained why.

The distinction of this house—and it is a powerful one—is that it is the real thing. One simply walks through the beautiful doorway . . . into another time and place in New York. . . .An authentic original interior like this one is an extreme rarity among historic houses . . . . The completeness of these interiors is rarer still. There is all the period nostalgia that anyone would want at the Old Merchants House, but it is also a unique social, esthetic and historical document and its loss would have been a particular tragedy for New York.

Since the restoration of the 70s, the Merchant’s House has enjoyed a continuity of leadership that is rare among historic house museums: first by Roberto himself and since his death in 1988 by Margaret Halsey Gardiner.

Roberto performed the miracle, New York City Landmarks legislation provided legal protection for both the exterior and interior, and the current stewards are vigilant in meeting the many needs of a 181-year old house, determined to maintain this authentic landmark whatever it takes.

But it was Ada Louise Huxtable who got the ball rolling—with 200 well chosen words.

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Filed under Conservation, Historic House Museums, Landmarking, Merchant's House, Museums, Preservation, Restoration

Ten Reasons Why I Love New York

A professional group I belong to recently asked us to list on the discussion board what, in our opinion, were the ten most significant historic sites in New York City. We could decide what “significant” meant, so I decided to make a list of ten “personally significant” sites—places that for one reason or another meant the most to me. I’m glad they asked, because in making my list, I realized how incredibly rich the city is in material connections to the past. For tourists, they are attractions to visit; for New Yorkers, they are part of the fabric of our daily lives. Here are my picks—with my reasons.

Grand Central Terminal Concourse

Grand Central Terminal Concourse

Grand Central Terminal tops the list because of its significance in establishing the constitutionality of Landmarks Legislation, without which I am certain that many of the historic sites I cherish would have been demolished or defaced. And for me Grand Central is a gateway to family who live up the river. Continue reading

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Filed under Landmarking, Merchant's House, Monuments and Memorials

And To Think We Could Have Lost It

Sculptural group of  Mercury, Hercules, and Minerva on top of the entrance to Grand Central Terminal with Met Life Building in the background.

Sculptural group of Mercury, Hercules, and Minerva on top of the entrance to Grand Central Terminal with Met Life Building in the background.

Last Friday, I had the occasion to take a 5:30 a.m.train out of Grand Central Station. Usually I approach the station from below by climbing the stairs with the other passengers from the Times Square shuttle. But since it was so early, I indulged in a car service, and the driver let me out at the entrance to the Met Life Building where the lobby connects to an escalator going down to the concourse.

The Concourse, Grand Central Terminal in the early morning.

The Concourse, Grand Central Terminal in the early morning.

The commuters had not yet begun arriving at that early hour and without the distraction of a hurrying crowd and because of my elevated perspective, I saw the Continue reading

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The Old New York Cancer Hospital: A Resonating Landmark

As of this writing, some 28,500 buildings within the 108 historic districts and the 18 historic district extensions of New York City are protected by the Landmarks law; there are 1,316 individual landmarked buildings and 114 landmarked interior spaces (the Merchant’s House is one of them). The reason for the small number of landmarked interiors is, of course, that over the years, owners of old buildings customarily renovate them to one degree or another, obscuring the original design and architectural features. Continue reading

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March 6, 1965—The Day The Children Took To The Street

Merchant MarchOn 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 why the children did what they did, 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 had 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 a permanent advisory Landmarks Preservation Commission to survey potential landmark buildings and draft legislation to help preserve them.

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Filed under Historic House Museums, Landmarking, Merchant's House, Preservation

The Merchant’s House in Peril, Facing An Immediate Threat to Its Survival

Aside from a natural disaster like a flood or hurricane, or an accidental fire, there are two ways an historic building can be lost. Over slow time, insufficiently addressed corrosive effects of the elements, especially water, will result in a collapse—or, in a matter of days, a well maintained historic building can be destroyed by the swift and deliberate actions of man. Continue reading

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