Category Archives: Merchant’s House

A Time for Giving—Then and Now

These days almost every mail brings an appeal from a worthy charitable organization, warning us that there are only a few days left in the year to make sure our gift will qualify for a tax deduction on our 2016 return.

The cynic might claim that people need the incentive of a tax deduction to be persuaded to share their wealth with those less fortunate. But the spirit of generosity surrounding the Christmas season has been around long before there was an income tax. As rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein pointed out in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, giving has long been regarded as a “healing counterpoint to the darker sides of human nature.”  In the decade of the 1850s, receipts of the nation’s churches and voluntary Protestant societies were greater than the receipts of the federal government!

In her recent blog post, my friend Annie Haddad discusses one of the organizations supported by the Seabury Tredwells, a wealthy New York merchant family, I confess I was somewhat surprised by the choice of charities and amazed that it was founded very early—1823—by a woman and administered entirely by women. Curious? Read the post here.

Because we can’t possibly give to all who ask for our help. many of us simply choose a favorite charity and concentrate our giving. My charity of choice is Shriners’ Hospitals for Children, a network of 22 pediatric hospitals in North America that provides state-of-the-art treatment for orthopaedic conditions, spinal cord injuries, burns, and cleft lip/palette, regardless of the family’s ability to pay. They are also involved in research and in training physicians and therapists. The scope of their work is really remarkable.

As a child, I was hospitalized for months to correct an orthopedic problem. It was not a Shriners Hospital, but this medical intervention kept me from a lifetime of disability. I have therefore, a deep appreciation of this wonderful organization that transforms children’s lives. You can read more about it here. mlk

Shriners Hospitals for Children

Shriners Hospitals for Children transforms children’s lives

 

 

 

 

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How a 100-Year Old House Became an Historic House Museum

And now, 80 years later, The Merchant’s House Museum still offers visitors a unique window into the lives of  mid-19th century New Yorkers.

The Merchant's House Museum

The Merchant’s House Museum

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.

Enter 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 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.

Joseph Roberto inspects the roof of the Old Merchant's House

Joseph Roberto inspects the roof of the Old Merchant’s 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.

To read a sample chapter from Miracle on Fourth Street, go to http://girandolebooks.com.

 

 

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Ten More Reasons I Love New York City

This is the third list I’ve made of Reasons I Love New York. The other two are here and here. It is said that New York is a great place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. Actually, the opposite, it seems to me, is true. Hard to visit—there’s just so much to do and see in a short time— great to live here (same reason).

uber1

Way to Go!

I said the next time I made a list, Uber would be at the top. I love Uber because it has made my life easier. It’s that simple. It’s not the only summon-a-ride service available in the City, but so far the only one I’ve tried.

tulips3

Lovely neighborhood gardens

Located on vacant lots throughout the City are a number of neighborhood gardens. This is West Side Community Garden, just two blocks  from my building. Right now it is abloom with gorgeous tulips.

 

CityActivitieswithDancehall

Thomas Hart Benton at the Met

Benton is my favorite American artist. Like me, he lived much of his life in Kansas City. The ten-panel mural “America Today” depicts a panorama of American life in the 20s. I never fail to visit this work when I’m at the Met. It is installed in a space that recreates the board room where it originally hung.

VR19

Park Avenue Armory’s restored Veterans Room

Magnificent restoration of historic sites happens in New York, where there is access to plenty of money to carry it out. The most recent is this restoration in the Park Avenue Armory.

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Horses in Central Park

Okay; it’s controversial. Animal activists think these horses’ lives are too hard. But I don’t buy it. Their work in the Park is not hard. Walking to and from work through city traffic is somewhat hard, but it’s not far. Lots of us do it every day.

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Riverside Drive

A runner’s dream. The last westerly street on this narrow island so there are no intersections. You can run (or walk) for almost 20 blocks til you get to the highway access roads, and you never have to pause for a traffic light. After running down hill for a bit, you circle back through

RS Park

Riverside Park with Hudson River in the background

If you need a long view of water, Riverside Park is the place to go. More or less a straight line, it parallels the river. Beautifully planted, the park attracts moms and nannies with babies in strollers, bicyclists, runners, dog walkers, and me.

New Amsterdam

The New Amsterdam Theater

The Broadway theater is one of the best things about New York City. Nothing can compare to that delicious moment when the house lights dim and the overture begins. The old Broadway theaters, too, have been the beneficiaries of renovation. Most of them were built in the early-mid 20th century when more was more—and I love it.

dogs

Dogs and dog walkers in Riverside Park.

Big dogs, little dogs, cute dogs, ugly dogs—they are all vastly entertaining—and so patient. I’d like to have one, but the walkers are expensive, and I don’t relish the idea of taking Fido down eleven stories and outside on a cold winter morning.

Miracle on Fourth

Finally, The Merchant’s House in a repeat performance. It’s always on the list because it is so important to me, particularly this year—my second book about the house has just been released.

 

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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.

merchantshousemuseum.org

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

 

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

Time Changes Everything—Sometimes for the Better

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Recently while sorting through research notes for the book I wrote about the 19th century home of the Tredwell family, I ran across an interesting diary entry made by Samuel, the youngest son. When he was a teenager he dutifully noted he had borrowed five cents from his little sister so he could go see the “fat lady.” Apparently he didn’t have quite enough for the 25 cent admission fee to the American Museum on Broadway where the fat lady was on exhibit.

The American Museum

The American Museum

Founded by the flamboyant showman, P.T. Barnum, the museum was one of New York’s most popular tourist attractions from the time of its founding in 1842 until 1865 when a spectacular fire completely destroyed it.

It was a combination zoo, aquarium, wax works, and theater. Barnum filled his museum with all manner of curiosities including an exhibit of “freaks.”—persons who suffered rare and strange deformities and disabilities: among them Jo-Jo the dog faced boy, who had a th-1genetic disorder that caused him to have abnormal amounts of body hair; William Henry Johnson, a mentally defective African American who assumed the role of a man/animal, and ran around growling; Chang and Eng, the conjoined Siamese twins; Tom Thumb, largethe famous dwarf,—and of course the fat lady.
The freak show at Barnum’s museum was the forerunner of the sideshow, a component of carnivals and circuses throughout the country well into the 20th century. Gradually, however, thanks to the advances of medical science, an increased understanding of genetic disorders and mental illness developed. Many th-6conditions can now be successfully treated; even conjoined twins can sometimes be surgically separated (thank you, Dr. Carson). And with support and the proper assistance, the severely handicapped can live peaceful, sometimes productive lives. Legislation protects the Josephine-Myrtle-Corbin-4-gamberights of the disabled, and private non profits provide assistance for every type of disability and rare disease. Today the word “freak” applies to accidents, not people.

We can certainly point to many examples of the debasement of our popular culture from the twerking of Miley Cyrus to the foul language that sometimes seems to be the staple of ordinary conversation. But it is no longer acceptable for the malformed and handicapped to be the object of voyeuristic curiosity. In that respect, at least, we can say we are wiser, more sensitive, more compassionate than our 19th century counterparts.

LydiaMaya2

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What Did They Do All Day?

GirlAndACanary

It’s a question often asked by visitors to the Merchant’s House Museum, a 19th century home where four unmarried sisters and their widowed mother lived.

No children, no job, no electricity, no telephone, and four Irish servants to do the housework and cooking—so what filled their days?

They Wrote letters and notes by the dozens with a dip pen. They  fussed with their clothes. They read the Bible and  books (mostly non fiction) with tiny type and small black and white woodcuts. They shopped on Broadway and called on their friends. And their friends called on them. They filled the pages of albums with samples of seaweed they collected from the Jersey shore. And they spent hours on other popular 19th century craft projects like converting lobster claws to  toothpick holders.

Yet there were long dark winter afternoons when spirits must have drooped for want of amusement.

And that is why the 19th century home so often counted among its residents a songbird, most often a canary. Did the Tredwells own a canary? Probably. We know that their young neighbor, John Skidmore, did. On New Years Eve,1858, he recorded in his pocket diary that he had bought a “canary, cage, and fixings” for $5.00.

My Canary Bird

Did we count great, O soul to penetrate the
themes of mighty books,
Absorbing deep and full from thoughts, plays,
speculations?
But now from thee to me, caged bird, to feel
the joyous warble
Filling the air, the lonesome room, the long
forenoon,
Is it not just as great, O soul?
Walt Whitman

 

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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

http://a002-vod.nyc.gov/html/recent.php?id=2842&pn=1%20

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.

http://merchantshouse.org

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