Stepping Back in Time at the Merchant’s House Museum

The Merchant's House Museum

A few friends and I were looking to spend a budget day in city last weekend. For less than forty bucks we had a decent Italian lunch, a glass of wine and pleasant trip the Merchant’s House Museum at 29 East 4th Street.

New York’s only fully preserved mid-19th century townhouse, the Merchant’s House Museum gives visitors a peak into the life of New York’s upper-class more than 150 years ago.

Home to merchant Seabury Tredwell, his wife Eliza and their eight children from 1832-1933, the four-story home displays a selection of the family’s nearly 3,000 personal items in the museums collection.  The family’s original furniture, appliances, decor and personal items create a time warp as you step off the street, enter the vestibule and traverse each lavish room just as family and friends. 

The family had an uncanny affection — nearing obsession — for the home. When built, the neighborhood was the pinnacle of class. The family once counted the Astors, Delanos and Van Cortlandts as neighbors. But over time, as the wealthy set moved uptown, the opulent homes were replaced with tenements and factories. Yet the Tredwell’s stayed. Several of the children lived in the home most of their life, including Gertrude, the last surviving sibling.

The Merchant's House Parlor

The home’s Greek revival double parlors

The headline says it all...

The headline says it all…

1906 New York Times article paints a pictures of the home’s last residents: the three remaining unwed Tredwell sisters. 29 East 4th Street was clearly that house in the neighborhood. It’s mysterious, rich inhabitants sparked idle school children and shopgirls to tell stories of the three women who lived their nearly seventy years, “yet no one had ever seen a man enter the old house.”

The home was repurposed as a museum in 1936 by a family cousin, just three years after Gertrude’s death. Certainly Gertrude’s ideal wish for the house, as in her old age she had become fixated on preserving the home “just as Papa wanted.” Her ghost is even said to still lurk through the house.*

Museum volunteer Anthony Bellov’s presents a rich account of the family’s history in his entry in “Old Merchant’s House & Museum Newsletter.”

*Side Note: the House does offer Halloween ghost tours, but I’m hoping they run others throughout the year. I’ll keep an eye on the events calendar and keep you posted.

A Few Recommendations:

  1. Make it time for a guided tour. We arrived too late and were handed a thick binder with descriptions of each room, their purpose and house rituals. Very informative, but a lot to digest, especially if you have kids in your group.
  2. If you do end up doing the self-guided tour give yourself around 90 minutes to get the full effect.
  3. Don’t skip the garden or the servants quarters on the fourth floor!
  4. If you have a student ID, use it. Admission for only 5 dollars.

Getting There:

29 East Fourth Street, between Lafayette Street and the Bowery

Open 12-5pm Thursday-Monday (Group tour available Tuesday & Wednesday)
Guided tour daily at 2pm

$10 General
$5 Students & Seniors (over 65)
Free for Members & Children under 12.


Magic at the New York Botanical Gardens’ Holiday Train Show

Amazing. Absolutely awe-inspiring.

I’m officially obsessed with the New York Botanical Garden’s Holiday Train Show. I want to get a hold of Honey I Shrunk the Kids’ shrink ray, zap myself and move into this miniature, horticultural version of the New York.

The Manhattan skyline as imagined by Paul Busse

The Manhattan skyline as imagined by Paul Busse. Seen in the Haupt Conservatory.

The show is the work of Paul Busse and his team at Applied Imagination. Busse and his team scour the forests outside their Alexandria, Kentucky workshop for the foliage that will become 140 of New York’s most remarkable landmarks from yesterday and today. Magnolia leaves become a roof, pine bark a stone façade, lotus pods a balcony, and moss to fill in the rest.

This year even some of the trains zipping through the scenes were created from plant material.

The Holiday Train show runs from mid-November to mid-January and is an absolute must see. It’s a bit of trek…especially on public transportation, but don’t let that discourage. This is the perfect kick-off to the holidays in New York.

If you get the chance, stroll up to Ross Hall and catch a viewing of PBS documentary Holiday Train Show with David Hartman. It offers you a look into Busse’s studio and the work that goes into the show every year, along with his commentary on some of the pieces.

Don’t be too upset if the doc isn’t playing while you’re there….the exhibit features an Inside the Artist’s Studio display demonstrating the step-by-step process of creating the replicas. You’ll miss the commentary and Busse’s awesome suspenders, but you’ll get the jist.

New This Year

The wonder of this year’s show starts as soon as you enter the Garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. A replica of the Macy’s flagship store — new this year — greets you in all its grandeur. Every minute detail is accounted from the Macy’s unmistakable star down to the Christmas window displays.

The show's replica of Macy's flagship store on 34th Street

The show’s replica of Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street

Arguably the most austere mansion in New York City history makes appearance in the show — Montana Senator William Andrew Clark’s home, once located Fifth Avenue and 77th Street. The 9-story, 121 room home only stood completed for 18 years before it was demolished shortly after Clarks’ death in 1925.  After taking 13 years to build, the mansion had fallen laughably out of style before it was even complete.

The Clark Mansion replica along side the home that stood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

The Clark Mansion replica alongside the home that stood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Introduced in 2006, the replica Clark mansion is framed with beech stick columns. It’s palm fronds balcony are adorned with ladies sculpted of pistachio hulls, okra, white peppercorns and eucalyptus buds.

Hudson River Paradise

I recognized painter’s Frederic Edwin Church’s Olana from my research of the Hudson River School blog post. Busse and his team did a magnificent job recreating the Moorish detail of the painter’s home with chestnut bark siding, eucalyptus leaf shingles with decorations of pussy willows, star anise, beech seeds and more.

The replica of Church's Olana alongside the house.

The replica of Church’s Olana alongside the house.

Built in 1870, the home was modeled on the buildings Church and wife saw on their travels through the Middle East — buildings of Beirut, Jerusalem and Damascus. Upon their return, Church commissioned Calvert Vaux to build his Persian palace in the hills of the Hudson Valley. And after 20 years of tinkering and repairs, Olana was essentially complete. It still stands today as a museum and monument to Church’s life and work.

Enid A. Haupt Conservatory

The precarious dome of the Haupt Conservatory was one of Busse’s most nerve-wracking undertakings. The latticework of reeds and resin was sculpted over a paper-mache form. Once the resin dried, the form was removed creating the translucent, glowing dome.  

The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Home to the Holiday Train Show.

The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. 

The Conservatory, built in 1902, was inspired by two British green houses, the Palm House of Royal Botanical Gardens and the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park. In the 1970’s it was renamed after Haupt as a ‘thank you’ for her patronage.

Just a Few More…I Can’t Stop!


Okay, I’m cutting myself off. I could write a book about this show and still not do it justice. Go. Now. See for yourself.

It will make your holiday season.

Getting There

The New York Botanical Garden
2900 Southern Boulevard
Bronx, NY 10458-5126

Weekdays: Tuesday–Friday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
Weekends: 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
Holiday Weeks (Monday, December 17–Tuesday, January 1): 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
Early closings: December 14 and 24; 3 p.m.


A Day at the Cloisters

The Cloisters has been on my ‘must-go’ list since I heard there was medieval conclave on the Manhattan’s cliffs. For 100 different reasons it took me a few years to get there. I made the trek up to Fort Tryon Park in Inwood this Saturday and spent the afternoon strolling through the medieval monastery. Surreal to say the least.


The Cloisters Then & Now

A 1935 New York Times Sketch of the Cloisters & the Cloisters today

The Cloisters, a branch of the Met, was constructed from remnants of five French abbeys disassembled and shipped to New York on the dime of John D. Rockefeller Jr..  From 1934 to 1938 they were reassembled in Fort Tyron Park. A park well worth the trip on its own.  Upon completion, the Cloisters was filled with American sculptor George Grey Barnard’s extensive medieval art collection once housed in a nearby church.

The Star Attraction.

At the center of The Cloister’s collection are seven tapestries depicting the hunt, capture and rebirth of the mystical unicorn. The Unicorn Tapestries (1495-1505, South Netherlands) were donated to the museum by Rockefeller, himself an avid art collector.

The Unicorn Leaps out of the Stream (detail)

The Unicorn Leaps out of the Stream (detail), ca. 1495–1505
South Netherlandish
12 ft. 1 in. x 14 ft. (368 x 427 cm)

FUN FACT:These awesome tapestries once hung on the walls of his West 54th Street home…clearly wallpaper just wouldn’t do for the Rocks.

Detail from 'Unicorn Is Found At The Fountain' tapestry

Pheasant detail from the ‘Unicorn Is Found At The Fountain’ tapestry

Not much is known about the patron of the work, but many agree the tapestries are rich in Christian ideology with the unicorn representing Jesus Christ. The virgin and resurrection references are hard to ignore.

Hiding behind the symbolism and icons is a hidden picture puzzle to make Highlights proud. Millions of painstaking stitches created a complete world of wildlife, foliage and flowers from metallic, silk and wool threads.

The Met has a great interactive on the tremendous historic and artistic significance of the piece and the process used to create it. I’ll let the experts take it from here.


From Large to Small.

The Cloisters holds the only complete set of the playing cards from the era. The fifty two card deck, from Southern Netherlands (the Burgundian Territories to be exact), depict hunting tools as suits and pompously dressed face cards thought to be a satire of the ruling class of the day.

Unfortunately not much is known about the games played with these cards and the pristine condition of the set suggests they probably were not used at all. In the absence of fact, I’m going to say they had rousing games of ‘Go Fish’ and ‘Uno’ Over goblets of wine and turkey legs.

The Cloister's Playing Cards

Set of Fifty-Two Playing Cards, ca. 1475; South Netherlandish (Burgundian Territories)
Pasteboard with pen and ink, tempera, applied gold and silver
each ca. 5 7/8 x 2 5/8 in. (13.8 x 7.1 cm)

I have barely scratched the surface of The Cloisters collection, but if volumes of books on the subject can’t do it justice neither can a blog post! Give me break. Take a ride up to the Cloisters and see for yourself. Speaking of…

A View from Fort Tryon Park

A View from Fort Tryon Park

Getting There.

By Subway/Bus

Take the A train to 190th Street and exit the station by elevator. Walk north along Margaret Corbin Drive through Fort Tyron Park and follow signs to the Cloisters.

Or take M4 bus directly to the last stop (Fort Tryon Park–The Cloisters)

By Car

Take Henry Hudson Parkway northbound to the first exit after George Washington Bridge (Fort Tryon Park—The Cloisters). This exit is only accessible from the northbound lane; if coming from the north, take Henry Hudson Parkway southbound to exit 14–15, make a U-turn, and travel north one mile to the exit marked Fort Tryon Park—The Cloisters.

99 Margaret Corbin Drive
Fort Tryon Park
New York, New York 10040
Information: 212-923-3700
TTY: 212-570-3828

Getting In.

Tuesday–Sunday: 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m.
Tuesday–Sunday: 9:30 a.m.–4:45 p.m.
Closed Monday (except Met Holiday Mondays), Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1

Adults $25
Seniors (65 and older) $17
Students $12
Members Free
Children under 12 (accompanied by an adult) Free

Unseen Ellis Island

Another intriguing video from the New York Landmark Conservancy’s “Tourist In Your Own Town” series.

This episode investigates the South Side of Ellis Island. Home to the largest hospital complex of the day, thousands of immigrants were treated here before beginning their life in America.

Unfortunately, The South Side is not open to public. Together with Landmarks Conservancy, Save Ellis Island and The National Park Service are working to raise awareness for the South Side and preserve its building.

FUN FACT: 40% of Americans can trace their ancestry back to Ellis Island

Speaking of Shorpy’s…

I just posted — one of my favorite vintage photo sites — on my links page and look at that they’ve posted a great shot from old time New York.

New York circa 1908. “Piers along South Street.” Detailed panorama made of three 8×10 glass negatives. Detroit Publishing Company. (Click for full size)

I was down at the South Street Seaport this Summer for a few birthday party’s at the Beekman Beer garden…And last Winter for Santacon (a whole other story).  Despite the skyscrapers just a few blocks away and mobs of tourists (and thousands of Santas) the buildings lining the Seaport maintain an essence of the old world. It’s not difficult to transport back to 1908 with a little imagination.

Visible in shot is the Munson Steamship Line dock, an American steamship company operating freight and passenger service (but not until 1915) between the U.S., Caribbean and South America. And if you look closely, you can see cranes constructing the Manhattan Bridge. The Bridge wouldn’t be completed until 1912, but the towers look well on their way in this shot.

Take a look at some more New York photos from Shorpy.