Museum Historian Mary Knapp’s new book, Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House, is coming soon.
Here’s what Mrs. Knapp has to say:
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 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.
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.
This week, Blueprint: New York City featured a brilliant and beautiful 30 minutes of the Merchant’s House on NYC Media, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.
“… nothing inside or out has changed … a time capsule hiding in plain sight.”
Watch the full episode below.
Even after 182 years, the interior of the house remains remarkably intact. Extensive paint analysis of each room, an in-depth examination of the layers of alterations made over the years, and research into our Tredwell archives have revealed the family undertook a house-wide redecoration in the 1850s.
Last fall, we completed a major and meticulous restoration and re-interpretation of the ground floor kitchen, family room, and hall, the first phase in implementing the recommendations of our Historic Furnishings Plan.
In preparation for painting the stair hall on four floors, we removed 80 years of long-outdated 20th century technology: phone jacks, fire detectors, intercom systems, doorbells. And wires, wires, wires.
The colors are the same delicious warm ochre as the newly restored ground floor hall.
In an effort to present an even more authentic interpretation of the House and the family’s original furnishings, we are in the midst of extensive research to ensure that window treatments, carpeting, and placement of the Tredwell furniture accurately represent our period – 1835-1865. For example, we have removed the badly worn hall carpet to study the floor beneath for evidence of nail holes and paint to guide us in choosing appropriate replacement. The bedroom carpets were taken up to provide access for the removal and reinstallation of the recently conserved gas chandeliers in the parlors.
As part of the research for the Historic Furnishings Plan, we have conducted extensive analysis of the paint and decorative finishes in our period rooms. Microscopic and chemical analyses of samples taken tell us what kinds of paints and what colors were used during different periods of the house’s history. All evidence points to a top-to-bottom redecoration of the House in the 1850s.
On Friday, September 16, 2011, in preparation for the next stage of our structural restoration project, sheets of 20th century architectural canvas were removed from the east wall in the parlor floor hallway — revealing the original plaster, complete with 19th-century paint. The cracks caused by water and the passage of time have now been repaired and a temporary paint coat applied.
The “Fab-rik-o-na” canvas was applied in 1935 by the Museum’s founder, George Chapman, to create a smooth surface over aging plaster — a common practice at that time. When the canvas layer (and its coats of 20th century paint) was peeled away, it revealed a 19th-century wall surface that hadn’t been seen in over 75 years. It also uncovered a wealth of clues that will provide information about how the House was decorated, how the hallway was used, and when the Tredwells (who lived here for nearly 100 years) made changes.
- A hole near the foyer shows where a pipe was attached for a free-standing coal stove. No doubt cold air swept in whenever the front door was opened. The stove was removed when the family installed an elevator in the same spot following daughter Sarah’s carriage accident in 1872.
- Dark lines on the wall show where the elevator shaft was built out into the hallway, corresponding exactly with evidence of the elevator discovered on the hallway floorboards in an earlier investigation.
- A plaster patch the size of a quarter near the ceiling indicates that a substantial picture hook was once attached in line with the ceiling medallion for the hallway light fixture. It’s likely that a mirror once hung there, to reflect the light and create the illusion of moore space.
- The 1870 paint color in the hallway is now visible. It has oxidized to an ocher and the glaze over it is also clearly visible. Further paint analysis will determine the original color, of course. It also matches the color that the house was painted in the early 1930s, when it became a museum.
- A fragment of 1840s/50s floor cloth was found under the plumbing chase on the wall.
The evidence provided by the newly revealed wall will go a long way towards unraveling some of the more persistent riddles about the House. Stay tuned.
Maintaining our 1832 landmark building requires ongoing work. The current phase of restoration includes repairs to the decorative plaster finishes in a number of our period rooms; a complete upgrade of the Museum’s electrical system; repair and painting of the rear façade and 13 original windows; and restoration of the decorative wood cornice on the front façade.
The $598,000 project, which has been generously funded by our Council Member, Rosie Mendez, is nearing completion. While we remain ‘open for business” during the restoration work, unfortunately we are not able to display any of the Tredwell dresses in the collection.