Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Seabury Tredwell House - 29 East 4th Street

photograph by "Tony" from the Wikipedia Takes Manhattan Project
East Fourth Street in 1832 saw the arrival of elegant red brick homes with 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 six upscale homes on the north side of East 4th Street, between Lafayette Place and Bowery.  He moved into one of them, at what was then No. 361.

Although the identify of the architect is unknown for certain, modern architectural historians recognize distinct similarities to the work of Menard Lafever.  While the exterior reflects the elements of the Federal style--the elegant, arched entrance with marble Gibbs surround, and the dormered attic floor, for instance), the interior transitioned to the newer Greek Revival style.  Here the costliest materials were used:  matching black-and-gold marble mantels in the parlor and dining rooms, exquisite plaster ceiling moldings, a richly carved entry hall newel post of acanthus leaves, and mahogany doors.  To maintain symmetry, so important in Greek Revival architecture, one such door in the parlor opened onto a brick wall, installed simply to balance a second door.

Mahogany pocket doors slide closed to separate the dining room and parlor.  Contemporary critics would have called the interior appointments "pure Greek."  photo via merchantshouse.org
The house was purchased for $18,000 (just over half a million dollars today) 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 at the age of 55 to live off his interest and investments.  

The Treadwell family was already large.  He and his wife, the former Eliza Parker (who was 17 years younger than he) had six children.  Moving in to help were four servants.  The same year the family moved in, another daughter, Sarah, was born.  Five years later, in 1840, the couples' eighth child, Gertrude was born in the second floor bedroom.

Like their wealthy neighbors, the, Tredwells filled the house with the best furnishings, patronizing the workshops of New York cabinetmakers such as Duncan Phyfe and Joseph Meeks.  Outside their windows the elite of New York society rode by in sleek carriages on their way to the theaters just a few blocks away on the Bowery.  A New York newspaper, in 1835, extolled "The elegance and beauty of this section cannot be surpassed in the country."

The heat of New York City summers also brought odors and, often, diseases.  Wealthy families escaped to summer residences and the Tredwells' was a sprawling 850 acre estate estate in Rumson, New Jersey.  

Seabury Tredwell was, reportedly, a stern, religious father, the namesake of his uncle, the first American Episcopal Bishop.  The children grew up in an environment of class and refinement.  A piano offered entertainment in the evenings.  

Elizabeth was the first of the children to leave the house.  She was married to Effingham Nichols in 1845.  Three years later Mary Adelaide married hardware merchant Charles Richard.  Samuel Lenox Tredwell would be the only other of the children to marry.

Seabury Tredwell died on the evening of March 7, 1865 at the age of 84.  His funeral was held in the parlor four days later, on Saturday afternoon.  

While interior design fashions had changed, they had not arrived at what was now No. 29 East 4th Street.  There were no alterations made to the East 4th Street house during his lifetime.  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."

The family added a modern parlor set sometime after 1865.  photo via merchantshouse.org
Eliza Tredwell died in 1882 and by the turn of the century only Gertrude and her sisters were left in the house.  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 entrance to Gertrude's home was no longer the enclave of the privileged.  Commerce had taken over.  The lower floors of once-proud residences not demolished were transformed into shops and warehouses.   Their 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 preserved.   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.

Gertrude died in this bed in 1933.  photo via merchantshouse.org

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.   

Unfortunately house museums in the Depression were not greatly popular; and he did not have the resources to maintain the aging structure.  When he died in 1962 its condition was perilous.  Water had seeped 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 hand-making 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 took on the project in a nearly single-handed effort to save the building. 

One night during the restoration the house 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 knife boxes on the sideboard.  Luckily for posterity, in their ignorance they stole the workers hand tools--the only things of value they recognized.

Over nine years of structural restoration brought the house back.  Roberto's wife Carolyn, an interior designer, worked with the Decorators Club to restore the furniture and interior accessories.  As evidence of Gertrude Tredwell's careful 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 laid protected from time, never having been touched since that last Tredwell sister nestled it into her pocket after the theater nearly a century earlier.

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 seriously altered, at Nos. 31, 33 and 35.  Because the Tredwell House and No. 31 shared a party 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 East 4th Street house extensively as research for the interior sets.

Today the Merchant House Museum 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 newels on the marble stoop to the gloves and parasols in the bedrooms upstairs, the Tredwell residence is a remarkable treasure.

3 comments:

  1. Because of this article, I decided to go to the Seabury-Tredwell house today! It's absolutely amazing to find so much of the early to mid 19th c. still surviving in Manhattan. The staff was really friendly, and they clearly have a passionfor the place. Thanks for pointing out this amazing survivor!

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  2. I have lived in NY my entire life and can't believe it took me until last year to see the Seabury-Tredwell house. It really is a must see. I can't wait to go back.

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  3. I can't believe I never knew of this museum. I like to think I'm a NYC history buff and that's the neighborhood where I grew up. My grade school building, St. Joseph's Academy, on Washington Square North is of the same period with a similar Gibbs surround. I'll have to visit on my next visit back to New York. Thank you!

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