Category Archives: Preservation

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

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

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

March 6, 1965—The Day The Children Took to The Streets

The Children's March

The Children’s March

On 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 an explanation of the crisis that prompted the children’s march, how it all turned out, and why today the Merchant’s House is in need of another mobilization of public outrage.

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.

Th old Pennsylvania Station—heartbreakingly beautiful

Th old Pennsylvania Station—heartbreakingly beautiful

In October of 1963,  Pennsylvania Station, one of New York City’s most glorious structures was demolished. Public opinion was galvanized, for there was a growing understanding that old buildings give character, dimension, and beauty to the city.

The old Pennsylvania Station—interior.

The old Pennsylvania Station—interior.

Fast Forward to the spring of 1964. An advisory commission appointed by Mayor Robert Wagner had finished drafting landmarks legislation. It called for a Landmarks Preservation Commission that would have the power to designate landmarked buildings. Such designated buildings could not be demolished until a series of alternatives had been explored, and then only with permission of the Commission.

And that wasn’t all. The proposed legislation also empowered the Commission to designate historic districts. The Commission would have the power to determine whether proposed new structures or modifications to the exterior of existing structures in these districts were appropriate to the aesthetic and historic character of the district. And there was teeth in the proposed law, for the commission would have the power to impose criminal sanctions to enforce its decisions.

But months passed without action on the proposed legislation, and then on September 17, 1964, it was announced that a prized New York City landmark, the former Brokaw Mansion at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, was going to be demolished and replaced with a high rise apartment building.  The public was outraged; the press was outraged; pressure for action became intense.

The Brokaw Mansion at 79th and Fifth Avenue.

The Brokaw Mansion at 79th and Fifth Avenue.

But the Landmarks legislation had still not been passed and so on a Saturday morning in February of 1965, the Brokaw Mansion began to come down. New Yorkers winced and howled as stained glass, carved architectural moldings and marble ornamentation were shattered.

At the same time, a developer who hoped to assemble East Fourth Street lots for commercial use offered to buy the Old Merchant’s House. It had survived as a museum for three decades, most of those years by the skin of its teeth and now it was on its last legs. The Board was tentatively eyeing the offer.

AND THAT’S WHEN THE CHILDREN MOBILIZED

Children from the Downtown School were aware of the outrage of their parents. They understood that somehow the final enactment of the Landmarks legislation might help save the Old Merchant’s House—the destination of many of their field trips. So they, too, were outraged. And with the encouragement of their teachers, they decided to do something about it.

Lilliputian protesters, some playing guitars, some carrying placards, marched through the East Village singing, “Where have all the landmarks gone? Gone to ruins, most every one. When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” After weaving their way through East Village Streets, they gathered at the Old Merchant’s House, where they collected petitions of protest to be sent to the mayor and recited original poems on the steps: “Save the Old Merchant’s House, please. Or else it will fall on its knees.”

Whether it was the destruction of the Brokaw mansion or the Children’s March that finally prompted action on the part of the City Council and the mayor, I really couldn’t say. But on April 6, 1965, the legislation passed unanimously, and the mayor signed it into law on April 16, 1965.

The children had their wish. On September 21, 1965, the Commission met for the first time all day and into the night.  By nine o’clock, 20 structures had been designated. The Old Merchant’s House was one of  them. Though it did not exactly have a new lease on life just yet, the designation had bought it some time. It had escaped being sold and razed. For seven years, it limped along, and beginning in 1972, it was closed for almost a decade while a thorough structural restoration was undertaken. Today the Merchant’s House is one of the City’s most valuable historic documents.

However today the Museum faces another crisis. A developer plans to build a hotel next door to the west. The demolition of the existing building on that site and construction of such a project poses a grave danger to the delicate 1832 brick building. Not only is the structural integrity of the building endangered, at great risk is the beautiful plaster work within. It was restored in 1988 under the direction of Edward Vason Jones, White House architect, by his team of master craftsmen. The amazing plaster ceiling medallions are probably the finest example of this type of Greek Revival interior ornament in the country.

We are counting on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to do what they have done so many times before and that is to protect an historically important, irreplaceable New York City treasure. We are keeping our fingers crossed, holding our breath, and praying!

To learn more about the Merchant’s House Museum,  www.merchantshouse.org.

And visit when you can! 12-5 p.m. Thursday-Monday

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Filed under Historic House Museums, Merchant's House, Pennsylvania Station, Preservation

Ten More Reasons Why I Love Living in The City That Never Sleeps

Last year I posted ten of my favorite sites in New York. Here are ten more reasons I love living here.

"Three Dancing Maidens"

“Three Dancing Maidens”

11. Realistic Public Sculpture. New York has plenty of it. There are lots of stalwart men on horseback, but this bronze statue of the Three Dancing Maidens by Walter Schott is my favorite. It is an expression of pure joy. Located in The Conservatory Garden of Central Park, the maidens dance around the Untermeyer Fountain, looking  very much alive. See how their wet dresses cling to their bodies?

Alpples and anthuriaum on Broadway

Alpples and anthurium on Broadway

12. The lovely symmetrical arrangements of fruit and flowers that appear outside all of the small markets. This is sidewalk art at its best!

Edgar's Cofee Shop at and Amsterdam

Edgar’s Cofee Shop on Amsterdam

13. Edgar’s Cafe. All New Yorkers have their favorite neighborhood coffee shop. This is mine. Edgar’s is named after the poet Edgar Allen Poe because for years it was located on the site where Poe lived for a time, just around the corner from my building.  They had to move because of rising rent. Fortunately Edgar’s is still within easy walking distance.

Bryant Park

Bryant Park

14. Bryant Park. Located smack dab in the middle of the City, it’s everything a city park should be: moveable chairs, tables, lots of green grass, a merry-go-round, food kiosks, a canopy of plane trees for shade, verdant ivy. But I love it most of all for its transformation from a dangerous  place where drug dealers dealt and homeless drug addicts lived, if you could call it living. That was in the seventies when I first became aware of it. Now look at it! Just shows what can be done if there’s a will to do it.

Frank Lloyd Wright Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Frank Lloyd Wright Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

15. The Frank Lloyd Wright Room at the Met. My favorite thing in the Metropolitan Museum is not a painting nor a sculpture but this room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Originally it was the living room of the summer home of Frances Little on the shores of Lake Minnetonka in suburban Minneapolis. The furniture doesn’t look very comfortable—none of Wright’s furniture does—but the room to me is just sublimely beautiful

Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center

16. Lincoln Center. Three subway stops brings me to this 16.3 acre complex– home to the very best in the performing arts. What’s your pleasure? Opera, ballet, theater, orchestral music: it’s all on offer. Lincoln Center also has a sentimental attraction of a sort. In my first visit to New York City in 1964, I watched some of it being built.

The Way to Go—New York City

The Way to Go—New York City

17. Public Transportation 24/7. Don’t laugh. This really is one of the most important benefits New York offers as far as I’m concerned. The busses are slow, the subway is unpleasant. the taxi drivers are terrible, and the car service expensive. But I hate driving and haven’t for many years. So much is available by foot in New York, that it all adds up to a very positive plus.

The Frick Museum Fragonard Room

The Frick Museum Fragonard Room

18. The Frick Museum. An historic house and an art museum all in one. What could be better! The Fragonard Room pictured is delicious. Go here for a virtual tour. I was once offered the opportunity to visit the parts of the house not open to the public. And yes—there really is a bowling alley in the basement.

Welcome Home!

Welcome Home!

19. The Lobby. Instead of a front yard, I have a lobby. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer, it’s a welcoming transition from the street to my front door on the 11th floor. It says, “Welcome Home.”

The Merchant's House Museum on a Winter Day

The Merchant’s House Museum on a Winter Day

 

19. The Merchant’s House Museum. This is a repeat from last year. I include it again because it is so important to me. This is an 1832 row house preserved as an historic house museum complete with the furniture and personal belongings of the family who lived here for almost 100 years. I’ve spent a lot of time here in the last 19 years working in many capacities, currently as the historian. Right now, the Museum is facing a threat from a developer who plans to build a hotel next door. The demolition of the existing building on that site and construction of such a project poses a  grave danger to the delicate 1832 brick building. At great risk is the beautiful plaster work within. It was restored in 1988 under the direction of Edward Vason Jones, White House architect, by his team of master craftsmen. The amazing plaster ceiling medallions are probably the finest example of this type of Greek Revival interior ornament in the country. We are counting on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to do what they have done so many times before and that is to protect an historically important, irreplaceable New York City treasure. We are keeping our fingers crossed, holding our breath, and praying!

The House , incidentally, has looked like this a lot this winter. If you want to know more about the Merchant’s House, go to the website: http://www.merchantshouse.org.

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Filed under Central Park, Historic House Museums, Merchant's House, Preservation

What Happens to History When the Paper Trail Disappears?

The past on paper

The past on paper

This is a question that keeps coming to mind as I do the research for the book I’m writing —a sequel to An Old Merchant’s House, published last year. That book covered domestic life in the 19th century home, now known as the Merchant’s House Museum. The work in progress is about how that house was saved for posterity as a museum. It begins in 1933 with the death of the last surviving family member and continues through the restoration of the 1970s. I think I’ll call it “Miracle on Fourth Street,” for the more I learn, the more it seems that’s what it was.

My source material resides in three steel filing cabinets filled with paper records: correspondence, minutes, progress reports, memos, a daily work log, grant proposals, canceled checks, to-do lists, press releases, envelopes with dated cancellation stamps. Beginning in the thirties, most of the records are carbon copies on yellow (and yellowing) “second sheets.” Those eventually give way to photocopies, and from the beginning there are also handwritten records, rough drafts, telephone messages, and “memos to self.”

Some of these records are 80 years old. In 2093, 80 years from now, there is a good chance they will still be available because when they are archived (and they will be), copies will be made on archival-quality paper, paper being the operative word. When information is committed to paper, it is essentially forever. Sure, paper disintegrates, but before it does, one can make another paper copy, which will last another hundred plus years. So unless someone decides to throw paper records away or there is a destructive flood or fire, the past recorded there will be accessible as long as anyone wants to access it.

But what about the records being created today? Unless special measures are taken, digital records become inaccessible as technological advances make them obsolete. Now big brains are at work on figuring out the measures to take to preserve important institutional and governmental records by forwarding them to more recent platforms, and I would not venture a comment on this subject about which I know nothing.  However, such measures undoubtedly involve technological savvy, efffort and expense.

What I am concerned about are the records of the small fry— small businesses, clubs, local governments, charitable organizations, churches, museums, individuals. Today virtually everyone is communicating or keeping records electronically in one way or another.  Yet, in 80 years and God knows how many technological changes later, these records simply will not be available. Huge chunks of history will be lost—indeed have already been lost.

And what about our personal history? In our own family, we have precious photographs dating back to the 1890s  that connect us to those of us who went before. I think most people would say that in case of fire, they would sorely lament the loss of family photos. What about all those photos on our computers? Will they be accessible in 80 years? Maybe we should order some prints.

As of this writing, I am suspending the blog while I work on the book about the Merchant’s House. My last posting was a month ago, and I appropriated that one from the Landmarks Conservancy. Seems I am not at all good at multi-tasking, and I do want to finish the book before Christmas! So I’ll be back around the first of December. Thanks for listening!

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Filed under Historic House Museums, Preservation, Technology

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