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.
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 décor.
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.