Discovering Old New York: A Visit to the Merchant’s House

Merchants HouseA list of things to do in New York City doesn’t commonly include house tours. Of the five major early east coast cities (also including Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston), it’s probably harder to get a sense of the distant past in New York than the others. From about the time of the Erie Canal, New York has been immersed in a continual process of renewing and rebuilding, a process that has made the city what it is, but has largely confined the past to museums.

Perhaps the best place to get a sense of New York around the time of the Erie Canal is the Merchant’s House at 29 East Fourth Street near Washington Square, in what was known as the “Bond Street Area.” Seabury and Eliza Tredwell were typical merchants in 1830s New York, then more of a prosperous seaport than the international center of finance, fashion and most everything else it is today. Tredwell, a hardware importer, might have been lost to history as many other merchant families from the era, except that the house survived.

When many of their neighbors later moved to more to more fashionable uptown neighborhoods, the Tredwells stayed. Their eighth child, Gertrude, was born in the house, never married, and died in an upstairs bedroom in 1933. Three years later, the house, and all its furnishings, was opened to the public as a museum.

Merchant HouseBuilt in 1832, the Merchant’s House exemplifies a transitional architectural style. The façade, with its steeply pitched roof, dormer windows, marble door surround, and elaborate fan light, recalls earlier Federal-style homes, while inside, the formal Greek revival parlors reflect the latest architectural fashion of the day. The Merchant’s House is considered New York City’s prime example of a Greek revival home.

The house today has few of the amenities that were later added to other early town homes. The kitchen is in the basement, and no bathrooms were ever added to the first or second floors. The parlor and dining rooms still have gas chandeliers, although they have been adapted with fiber-optic lights that give a sense of the look of gas lighting.

When you walk up to the house, it seems to be somewhat out of place in busy, modern New York. The left side adjoins a non-descript garage with a steel door, while on the right is a construction site. The Tredwells wouldn’t have recognized either, and the homes of their neighbors are long-ago removed.

Ringing the doorbell, you’d almost expect Gertrude to answer. Instead a buzzer sounds, and pushing the door open you step into a vestibule decorated with painted marble bricks, a popular scheme of the era. The hall is long and the check-in is in the back in an old sun porch. As you pass the parlor and the dining room along the way, it’s hard to pay much attention when it’s suggested the tours should start in the basement.

But it’s down the stairs and into a small room where the Tredwells spent much of their time. During the day it was the children’s play area; in the evening the family took its meals there, where they were brought by servants from the kitchen next door. One technological advance the Tredwells did adopt was a cast iron stove, which now accompanies a built-in beehive bake oven and large cooking hearth.

Merchant House Ceiling MedallionThe rear courtyard seems a bit strange, with the remnants of an old building acting as a wall to the east, and decorative plantings where once there would have been grass and even a cow.

Upstairs the rooms are filled with New York Furniture, some attributed to notable cabinetmakers including Duncan Phyfe and Joseph Meeks. A square grand piano sits in the parlor beneath an intricate ceiling with a recessed medallion and perforated plaster cornice. The mantles are granite and include carved classical columns. The dining room is furnished with a mahogany New York sideboard. The pairs of windows at either end of the house are centered by floor to ceiling gilt mirrors.

If there is one thing missing from New York, it’s this sense of what the city was like, a sense of the way early New Yorkers lived. If the Tredwells had lived in the present day, they might be living in a condominium, or even in a New Jersey suburb. The grand piano might be replaced by an entertainment center, gas by electricity, servants by restaurants, bells by phones–and the list continues. They would have been as out-of-place in our world as we are in theirs. Lucky for us their home is in our world, and through it we are able to get a glimpse of who they were, what New York was, and where it all has led.

Learn more at www.merchantshouse.com.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me