Merchant House Museum 400 copyNew York City has existed in one form or another since its founding as a trading post in 1624. It’s hard to believe that today’s concrete jungle of skyscrapers once consisted primarily of farms north of 14th Street. While New York is, at its essence, all about change and modernization, thankfully, there were those who had the foresight to preserve its early history.

The Merchant’s House museum is one such piece of history. One of the most unique museums of its kind, it is the only 19th century family home in NYC that was preserved intact. When you step through its doors you are stepping back in time to the 1800’s.

Built in 1832, the home was purchased by Seabury Tredwell who lived in the home with his wife, Eliza, and their seven children. Their eighth child, Gertrude, was born and died in the home at the age of 93. After her death a cousin stepped in and purchased the home and turned it into the museum that it is today.

Merchant House Museum ceiling copyA wealthy hardware merchant (hence the name), Tredwell was part of the new generation of self-made men who were establishing themselves in the City. The family’s station is reflected in the home’s interior with the latest conveniences and modern furnishings of the day. Nearly all of the furnishings and personal effects are those that the family actually used on a daily basis. This is very rare. In most house museums, even those owned by one family, generations of relatives have usually altered and cherry-picked their valuable contents.  Lucky for us, the Tredwells were not a flashy bunch and they did not like change. In fact, four out of the six daughters never married and three lived in the home all their lives.

The Merchant House is located on the lower east side at 29 East 4th Street. At the time the Treadwells moved into the home, the neighborhood was a wealthy and fashionable enclave of upper middle-class homes with the uber-elite families like the Astors and Delanos just around the corner. Over the years, the area has changed dramatically and at one time consisted of boarding houses and industrial businesses. Gertrude would be happy to know that its Noho neighborhood is back to being a well-to-do area and the property’s value is probably comparable to what it was worth in the 1830’s, if not more.

One other interesting tidbit about the house is that its interior was the inspiration for the set design of the Broadway play, The Heiress. The play is based on the Henry James novel, Washington Square and for years the rumor was (recently disproved) that James’s heroine is based on Gertrude Tredwell.

The most recent production of The Heiress is now playing on Broadway until February 10th and stars the yummy, Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey).

Tours are conducted daily or you can do a self-guided tour. I highly recommend a guided tour. Our tour guide was highly knowledgeable about building techniques and life in New York during the 19th century.

The Merchant House is a tough nut that has survived the demolition of buildings on either side (thereby losing the structural support that row houses were meant to have). A recent threat is a several story hotel that is proposed to go up next door. The digging of foundations for this building could likely destroy the already delicate plaster moldings or worse cause foundational cracks in the outer walls. You can check out the museum’s website to find out more about how to prevent this from happening.  

Reading List:

Washington Square by Henry James

An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City 1835-1865 by Mary L. Knapp

Angela is the History Buff Traveling Mom. In addition to her love of travel and books, she explores the history of NYC houses and their restoration in her blog, BrownstoneCyclone.com.