Friday, August 20, 2010

A Trip to the Merchant's House Museum

Most of us who work at the Tenement Museum are, as you might expect, museum geeks. We read the trade papers (such as they are – you go Museum magazine!) and keep an eye on what other institutions are doing. As NYC museum employees, we get free admission to other city museums (an amazing job perk), and we often take staff field trips together.

Tredwell home, circa 1899.
Courtesy MHM.

Recently, we got the chance to see the Merchant’s House Museum, located on East 4th Street between Lafayette and Bowery. This row house, inhabited by Seabury Tredwell and his family from 1832 to 1933, is considered “the best preserved” federal building in New York City, according to the New York Times.

It’s an especially interesting house museum because it contains artwork and furniture that belong to the family. Some of the artifacts include a collection of 12 chairs credited to Duncan Phyfe (a renowned New York-based cabinet maker who also made fine furniture), two matching gas chandeliers (circa 1852), and over 40 dresses and other fashion items that the Tredwell women wore.

Glass chandeliers.
Courtesy MHM
Seabury Tredwell made his money from a hardware importing business on Pearl Street in the first part of the 19th century. Like many other merchants, he and his family lived in fashionable Washington Square, which was less crowded than areas further downtown. Over time, as that neighborhood in turn became busier, the wealthy tended to move north, but the Tredwells stayed.

Our guide Elizabeth couldn’t say for sure why that was. Records show that the Tredwells re-furbished their home in the 1850s and might have been reluctant to leave a property into which they’d just invested a large sum of money. Perhaps they’d planned to retire to their farm in New Jersey and simply never got around to it. In any case, members of the family lived there until the youngest, unmarried Tredwell daughter died in 1933.

Since the Merchant’s House Museum interpretation encompasses roughly the same time period as the Tenement Museum, our sites are complimentary, though very different. While 97 Orchard Street’s residents were working-class laborers, the Tredwell family was quite well to do (for most of Seabury Tredwell’s life, at least). It is estimated that 7,000 people lived at 97 Orchard for its 72 years as a residence, whereas 29 East 4th Street was home to roughly 14 people over a 101-year span, with a single person, Gertrude Tredwell, inhabiting the four-story residence for several decades.

It’s interesting to observe how different the lives of these two buildings’ residents were during the same time period. The Tredwells had a parlor for callers and bells throughout the house for ringing servants. Mr. and Mrs. Tredwell slept in separate bedrooms. 97 Orchard Street’s residents lived in three-room apartments and didn’t even get front door buzzers until sometime after electricity was installed around 1924. Married couples were lucky if they got to share a bedroom – and didn’t also have to share it with several children.

We were curious to hear about the daily lives of the family’s servants, since someone like our own Bridget Meehan probably worked as a domestic servant before marrying Joseph Moore in 1865. She might have spent hours in the basement kitchen, baking in a beehive oven and scrubbing pots before retiring to her fourth-floor bedroom, like the Tredwells’ scullery maids did.

We were very fortunate to be able to visit the building’s top floor, normally off limits to visitors, to see the former maids’ quarters. While the space has abundant light coming from several dormer windows and a large skylight, it’s easy to see how it might have been hot and stuffy in the summer and cold in the winter. And domestic servants rarely got a respite from their work, not even up here – Elizabeth told us that the large, open space in between the four, small bedrooms was used for ironing, mending, and other household chores. The only free time a servant had was typically Thursday evenings. You can imagine why marriage might have seemed a cheerful alternative for many working girls.

Gertrude Tredwell.
Courtesy MHM.
I heartily recommend a visit to all those interested in American social history. Check the calendar and find a day when they’re offering a special program, like a restoration and furnishings plan tour (August 25) or Gertrude Tredwell’s 170th birthday party (September 17). And don’t miss the ghost tours in October!

Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for students and seniors, and they're open Thursday - Monday, 12-5 pm. Click here for more information.

- Posted by Kate

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.