Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The 1832 Merchant's House

East Fourth Street in 1832 saw the arrival of rows of elegant red brick homes with white marble trim as the street became part of the most fashionable residential section of the city, the Bond Street area.  That year Joseph Brewster built the home at what was then 361 East 4th Street.  Drawing on both Federal and Greek Revival designs, the house boasted the finest interior details available.  Matching black-and-gold marble mantles in the parlor and dining room, exquisite plaster ceiling moldings, a richly carved entry hall newell post of acanthus leaves and mahagony doors.  In keeping with the Georgian demand for symmetry, one such door in the parlor opens onto a brick wall, installed simply to balance a second door.
The house was purchased for $18,000 by Seabury Tredwell in 1835.  Comfortable after years of successful trade as a partner in Tredwell & Kissam, an importer of English marine hardware, he had retired that year to live off his interest and investments.  He moved in with his seven children, his wife Eliza who was about twenty years younger, and four English and Irish servants.  The Tredwells purchased only the most fashionable and costliest of furnishings, patronizing the workshops of New York cabinetmakers such as Duncan Phyfe and Joseph Meeks.

Interior photographs The Merchant's House

Five years later their eighth child, Gertrude was born completing the family.

Seabury Tredwell was a stern, religious father, the namesake of his uncle, the first American Bishop.  While design fashions changed he did not.  There were no alterations made to the East 4th Street house in his lifetime.  The children grew up in an environment of class and refinement.  A piano offered entertainment in the evenings.  Outside the elite of New York society rode by in black carriages on their way to the theatres just a few blocks away on the Bowery.  A New York paper extolled in 1835 that "The elegance and beauty of this section cannot be surpassed in the country."

At some point Tredwell had the entrance hall stairway moved forward to accomodate a mahogony-cabbed hand-hoist elevator when his daughter Elizabeth was afflicted with a back ailment (the elevator has since disappeared).  As times changed, so did the family.  The parlor was the setting of the weddings of sisters Elizabeth and Mary Adelaide.  Brother Samuel also married and left.  Then in 1865 the same parlor saw the funeral of "papa," Seabury Tredwell.

After his death, the family cautiously updated the parlor with the addition of a few up-to-date Victorian upholstered pieces.  Otherwise, as Gertrude would later repeat again and again, it was left "as papa wanted it."

photo NYPL Collection
None of the other Tredwell children married.  Eliza Tredwell died in 1882 and by the turn of the century only Gertrude and her sisters were left in the house, now numbered 29 East Fourth Street.  

It would appear that the Tredwell fortune was by this time drying up.  In an October 1906 letter to the The New York Times G. Ellsworth chided the editor for an apparent expose of the sisters' finances.  "As one of the oldest subscribers to your paper, I beg to insert this paragraph to contradict and absolutely deny the erroneous statements set forth in the columns of the daily Times of Saturday last respecting the surviving daughters of the late Seabury Tredwell.   Suffice it to say, despite the assertions made to the contrary, they are only in comfortable circumstances, and are practical, thoroughly good loyal citizens of the substantial old type of character handed down from generations back..."

In quick succession the parlor saw the funerals of Gertrude's sisters:  Sarah died in 1906.  A year later Phebe fell down the staircase to her death and in 1909 Gertrude's last sister Julia died leaving her alone in the last elegant home in the neighborhood.

The city outside the marble-arched entranceway to Gertrude's home was no longer the enclave of the privileged.  Commerce had taken over.  The street levels of once-proud residences were transformed into shops and warehouses.   The marble stoops were removed, the interiors gutted.  Where hansoms and cabriolets once transported the wealthy, trucks now clattered.

Gertrude, however, remained isolated in her time capsule, keeping everything "as papa wanted it."  Nothing was discarded.  Dresses and combs, books and letters, everything was kept intact and in place exactly as things were in 1835.  Despite her finances running low until she was nearly destitute towards the end of her life, Gertrude fought against the progress beyond her curtained windows.

In 1933, just short of a century after her father purchased the house, Gertrude Tredwell died upstairs in the same bed in which she was born in 1840.  She was 93 years old.

A cousin, George Chapman purchased the Tredwell house, recognizing its importance and the need to preserve it.  He opened it as a private house museum in 1936, supporting the cause with his own funds.   While his efforts saved the house, its contents and its integrity, he did not have the resources to maintain the aging structure.  When he died in 1962 its condition was perilous.  Water had been seeping into the brickwork causing the facade to buckle outward.  The chimney tilted dangerously to one side.  Inside the carpeting and fabrics were faded and worn.

That year The Decorators Club of New York City adopted the house as a pet project.  Scalamandre reproduced the draperies including painstakingly handmaking the heavy tassels.  The "Pompeiian" patterned carpeting was reproduced from a swatch cut from the parlor.  Yet the structural problems were more than the Decorators Club could tackle.

New York University architect Joseph Roberto was consulted and he plunged in to almost single-handedly save the building.  Over nine years of structural restoration brought the house back.  His wife Carolyn, an interior designer, worked with the Decorators Club to restore the furniture and interior accessories.

One night while the house was closed during the restoration it was broken into.  The thieves roamed throughout the building searching for valuables they could quickly resell.  They passed by the Tredwell silverware, the 19th Century oil paintings and the mahogany Federal knife boxes on the sideboard.  Luckily for the house in their ignorance they stole the workers hand tools.

As evidence of Gertrude Tredwell's preservation of her family's things, a volunteer one day was going through clothing in an upstairs bedroom.  Putting her hand into an evening cape, she pulled from the pocket the program from a play that had taken place in the late 1800s.   Like almost everything in the house it lay protected from time, never having been touched since that last Tredwell sister nestled it into her pocket after the theatre nearly a century ago.

In 1971 Joe Roberto received The Victorian Society of America's Preservation Award for his work on the Merchant's House.  He was consulted again in 1987 when the house was again threatened, this time by the intended razing of the three houses, long since altered almost unrecognizably, at Nos. 31, 33 and 35.  Because the Tredwell House and No. 31 were built together and shared a wall there was a genuine possibility of collapse.  Through Roberto's direction, enough of No. 31's interior wall was left to buttress No. 29  so that the old house came down without any damage to the Tredwell home.

It is often suggested that Henry James based his novel Washington Square on Gertrude Tredwell.  Whether or not that is true, when the 1949 film version, The Heiress, was in process the filmmakers toured the Merchant's house extensively as research for the interior sets.

Today the Merchant's House is widely regarded as one of the finest surviving examples of early 19th Century residences both inside and out.  From the grand wrought iron basket newells on the white marble stoop to the gloves and parasols in the bedrooms upstairs, Gertrude Tredwell's house remains exactly "as papa wanted it."


  1. Astounding! It's still a house museum now, yes?

  2. It is. It is a lovely home to tour. I highly recommend it.

  3. Paul, I did some research on my mown because I became so intrigued by the Tredwell Sisters (there was a brother as well). They were related to the Vanderbilt Family, according to a newspaper article from the 1880's which I found on a historical website. Best!