The city’s museums and galleries are among its most powerful draws. The American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art all house massive collections and host spectacular exhibitions. When you combine these with the numerous galleries throughout the city, visiting New York becomes a visually striking experience.
However, the museums listed above are not the only ones worth seeing in New York City. The Merchant’s House, complete with the family’s household objects, original furnishings, personal possessions, and even their clothing, offers an intimate peek at domestic life during the era when New York changed from a mercantile seaport to the center of US commerce and a thriving metropolis.
This row house, built in 1832, was home to an affluent merchant-class family, the Tredwells, and their Irish servants for almost a century. You can find more information about the Merchant’s House Museum here.
What Is the Merchant’s House Museum?
Formerly known as the Seabury Tredwell House and the Old Merchant’s House, the Merchant’s House Museum is New York City’s only intact nineteenth-century family home, both inside and out. It was built in 1832 “on speculation” by a hatter by trade, Joseph Brewster, and is located at 29 East Fourth Street in Manhattan, between the Bowery and Lafayette Street. George Chapman, the family’s cousin who once lived there, founded the museum in 1936.
The house was one of the first 20 buildings under the city’s new landmarks law in 1965. It’s the only historic house museum in Greenwich Village, Soho, and NoHo.
History of the Museum
Miracle on Fourth Street
Joseph Brewster constructed a brick and marble row residence on Fourth Street in an exclusive, quiet suburb of New York City in 1832, 190 years ago. Three years later, in 1835, wealthy merchant Seabury Tredwell bought the house and moved in with his wife, Eliza, eight kids, and four Irish servants. They resided in the house for nearly a century.
Thankfully, that merchant’s house still exists today. Since 1936, it has been accessible to the general public as a museum.
When Gertrude Tredwell, the youngest of the large Tredwell family, died in the dwelling in 1933, her heir and niece, Lillie Nichols, planned to auction off the house and its contents. Recognizing the historical significance of a historic house that kept its original décor and furniture, George Chapman, a distant family relative, arranged to buy the house and hand it over to a nonprofit organization he established to run it.
Chapman personally supplied almost all of the museum’s funding for the past 25 years. When he died in 1959, however, time caught up with the old house, which was dangerously close to being beyond repair.
After three years with short-term caretakers, The Decorators Club of New York City took on the museum in 1962 as a project. They hoped that by fundraising, restoring the furniture, and replicating the carpet and draperies, they would be able to keep the house open to the public.
At the first conference in 1965 of the newly established Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Old Merchants House, as it was originally known, was assigned a New York City Landmark. It was declared a National Historic Landmark a year later.
Severe water damage compelled the Decorators that the house requires major structural repairs in 1968. They enlisted the help of Architect Joseph Roberto of New York University.
It wasn’t long before Joseph Roberto and Carol, his wife, fell in love with the home and committed to a full structural restoration that took nine years to complete in four stages. Grants from the state and federal governments, private foundations, and individual and corporate donors provided funding.
Exterior work was extensive in Phases One and Two. Interior structural work was covered in Phase Three, and painting and restoration of the interior, including restoration of the stunning ornamental plasterwork in the parlors, was covered in Phase IV.
Throughout, Roberto meticulously upheld the original design’s integrity, reusing original materials whenever possible. The Tredwells’ furniture and personal belongings were then restored and reinstalled by Robertos and The Decorators Club members.
The museum opened to the public again in November 1979, with reproductions of the original carpet and draperies in storage. New York City officially recognized the Merchant’s House interior as a landmarked site in 1981. It is now among the 119 interior landmarks.
Following Roberto’s early demise in 1988, the museum helped raise seed funds to recruit its first professional staff with the assistance of some of the city’s preservation organizations.
The museum got a $1 million grant in 1997 from the Vincent Astor Foundation, securing an endowment for the first time that would ensure its financial security. The house entered the Historic House Trust of New York City in 1999, ensuring its preservation for future generations.
Design and Architecture
Although the exterior is reminiscent of early Federal-style homes, the interior, particularly the formal double parlors, is New York’s best demonstration of Greek revival architecture. The interior also features original Tredwell family furnishings, including New York cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe pieces.
The house is a miracle survivor of old New York and is considered among the finest surviving Greek Revival American rowhouses. The house is significant for its outstanding collection of original Tredwell family furnishings, brilliantly preserved 19th-century clothing, decorative objects, and other personal effects.
Stepping through the front portal transports you to a time when New York City established itself as the most important seaport in North America. The house represents these fortunate circumstances.
In 1971, interior designer Carolyn Roberto and architect Joseph Roberto completed a major restoration of the structure.
Throughout the year, the MHM hosts a variety of lectures, performances, exhibits, presentations, and special events in addition to its magnificent period rooms. Ongoing research and cutting-edge conservation and documentation techniques ensure that more is constantly discovered about the house, its furnishings, and exceptional textile collections, together with what life was like for a 19th-century New York family.
In alliance with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Merchant’s House Museum debuted the educational program “Greenwich Village: History and Historic Preservation” in 1991. They created the program to teach students about local history, architectural terminology, and the basics of historic preservation.
The program ran at the museum until the end of the 1990s, but it eventually relocated to the West Village, where it keeps trying to reach out to students from all five boroughs.
The possessions of the Tredwells, a wealthy merchant-class household who lived in the home from 1835 to 1933, are represented in the museum’s collection of more than 3,000 items. Furniture, clothing, decorative arts, household items, photographs and books, and personal items are among the items in the collection. A pair of twin six-globe gas chandeliers, a set of 12 mahogany side chairs traced back to famed furniture maker Duncan Phyfe, and numerous fashion accessories and 40 dresses belonging to the Tredwell women are among the highlights.