Category Archives: Restoration

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

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).

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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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Filed under Central Park, Merchant's House, Museums, New York City, New York Theater, 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

When Is a Window Not a Window?

Answer: when it’s between rooms instead of between a room and the outdoors. You’re not expected to look through a Borrowed Light Window. In fact they are usually positioned high on the wall. Their purpose is to bring light from a room that has outside windows into an otherwise dark interior space like a closet or a hallway.

When the 1832 New York City rowhouse now known as the Merchant’s House Museum was opened to the public as an historic house museum in the 1930s, some minor modifications had to be made to provide for public amenities. Recently, research was undertaken to find out just what those modifications consisted of. Much to everyone’s surprise, a Borrowed Light Window was discovered under the plaster of the original kitchen.

The borrowed light window  at the Merchant's House Museum, recently discovered and restored.

The borrowed light window at the Merchant’s House Museum, recently discovered and restored.

That window has now been restored so that visitors can be reminded of what was certainly one of the greatest domestic concerns before the introduction of gaslight and particularly electricity.

It’s hard for us to imagine just how demanding the task or how different life was without the instantaneous availability of artificial light.  To supplement the natural light of the sun during dark days and of course always at night, it was necessary to have a fire of some kind, and all fires tend to be accompanied by smoke. Candles smoked and dripped; oil lamps  smoked and smelled and wicks had to be trimmed, candle wax scraped off of holders and glass shades cleaned every day. Oil spills were common and were a mess! Kerosene came along in 1859, but though the light burned brighter, other drawbacks persisted. Once the sun dropped below the horizon, most of the house was enveloped in total darkness. Typically there was a pool of light—what we would consider very dim light— where the family sat together around a single light source.

Borrowed Light Windows helped some during the day. They were a common feature of houses built before the introduction of electric lights.

On a recent weekend trip to Philadelphia we stayed in a bread and breakfast located in a colonial home built in 1769. And what do you know? In the bedroom we discovered—a borrowed light window!

Borrowed Light Window in the Thomas Bond House, Philadelphia.

Borrowed Light Window in the Thomas Bond House, Philadelphia.

P.S. Since posting, I’ve received a photo of a Borrowed Light Window in the Steinway Mansion in Astoria, Queens from Kevin. A 19th-century Italianate villa, the mansion is privately owned, but Friends of the Steinway Mansion have mounted a campaign to purchase the house and open it to the public. https://www.facebook.com/steinwaymansion

Does anybody else have a picture of a Borrowed Light Window?

Borrowed Light Window in the Steinway Mansion

Borrowed Light Window in the Steinway Mansion

 

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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

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 Theaters of the Great White Way Still Cast A Magic Spell

The New Amsterdam Theater

Of course, the ultimate New York theater experience happens in the theaters of the Great White Way that were built during the first quarter of the 20th century and have been restored to their former grandeur. The greatest actors of

The beautiful, beautiful Belasco

the legitimate theater played these houses and it was here that the golden age of the musical theater transpired. The Belasco, the Shubert, the Palace, the Winter Garden, the Al Hirshfeld, the Nederlander, the Music Box. . . the very names connote the magic. These were the days when more was more, and the theater space was considered very much a part of the magic. They shimmer with gilding and tinted glass. Painted panels and plaster frescoes adorn the walls and the heavy proscenium curtain conceals another world, which remains secret as people take their seats.

The Shubert, where I saw Chorus Line and fell in love with musical theater.

At the top of my list of favorite things is the musical theater. I like to be on hand as soon as the House opens so I can soak up the surroundings as I watch the theater fill up. And then, finally, there is that utterly delicious moment when the house lights dim, and the overture begins.

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