December 19, 2011

A Visit to the Merchant's House Museum

One of the joys of a big city like New York is the profusion of museums. From the vast and varied collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the smaller more specialized institutions there is something for everyone. One of the more obscure offerings on the museum front, and one that I had never visited, is the Merchant's House Museum located on East Fourth Street in lower Manhattan.

I was inspired to visit the Merchant's House Museum by a very small blurb on the front page of the Greater New York Section of the Wall Street Journal that said "Catch This". Okay, I thought, why not?  So I hopped on the "B" train and headed downtown to East Fourth Street in the area known as "NoHo" or "North of Houston" for those of us not used to the lingo.

The Merchant's House is a private townhouse built in 1832 and lived in for nearly a century by the Tredwell family.  Seabury Tredwell was a wealthy hardware merchant with a warehouse near the seaport.  In the 1830s the area above Bleeker Street was an exclusive residential neighborhood and this was where Mr Tredwell chose to purchase the newly constructed townhouse (for the sum of $18,000) as the family home for himself, his wife Eliza and their eight children.  Fashions changed and the more desirable areas moved farther uptown but the Tredwells continued to live on East Fourth Street until the last family member died there in 1933 and the mansion became a museum three years later.

Now, I probably should have realized when the street was closed to traffic due to major construction that this was not an opportune time to visit the historic home, but I was on a mission and not to be deterred!  I climbed the stoop and rang for entry and was admitted by an elderly docent who informed me that the fourth floor servants quarters were closed to the public, the guided tours were suspended for the time being, but I could do the self-guided tour that included three floors but not the garden.  Okay, I thought, I'm here now so let's do it!

The Tredwell's red brick and white marble row house at 29 East Fourth Street is the only family home to have survived virtually intact, both inside and out, from the 19th Century.  Remarkably very few major renovations or modernizations have altered the structure and much of the original furnishings remain in situ.  Today's visitors are, in effect, stepping back in time and can experience how a well-to-do merchant class family lived in New York in the 1800s.

Well, nearly experience anyway.  As well as the aforementioned construction that involved scaffolding in front of the windows and protective plywood covering a good portion of the walls, there is also a special seasonal exhibition entitled "From Candlelight to Bubble Light:  A 1950s Christmas in an 1850s House" that can be a little disconcerting to the purists among us.  Imagine a perfect Greek Revival parlor with a superb square rosewood pianoforte and a Duncan Phyfe dining set "enhanced" with an enormous collection of Christmas kitsch ranging from silver flocked trees to plastic snowmen and everything in between.  It did bring back some fond memories of my childhood but I am not sure this embellishment was a positive addition to the d├ęcor.

I did do the prescribed tour including the ground floor with its comfortable family room and large kitchen (featuring a water pump and a cast iron coal stove), the main parlor floor with its impressive architectural details and 13 1/2' ceilings and the upper bedroom floor with Mr. Tredwell and Mrs. Tredwell's separate chambers, a small study and a primitive w.c.  As I mentioned, the fourth floor servants quarters where the four Irish girls, as the housemaids were commonly referred to, lived in rather less luxurious circumstances, were off-limits to the public.

Although my visit to the Merchant's House Museum was diminished by the intrusion of the renovations and the resulting inaccessibility to the displays, I am still glad I went and found it an enlightening look at New York and New Yorkers of long ago.

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