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Book Review: Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House

Book Review: Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House

October 25, 2016 | by Lisa Ackerman, Secretary, New York Preservation Archive Project
Article from the Fall 2016 Newsletter

Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House by Mary L. Knapp is an inspiring look at the way in which history is championed for the benefit of us all. For those who doubt the importance of saving historic places, the book may seem an unnecessary contribution to a reading list. Those people would be mistaken. Knapp has chronicled a fascinating tale of the randomness of what gets saved and how it is a true miracle that a house lived in by one family across two generations is now a thriving house museum in New York City. Indeed the author notes that the Tredwell family might be surprised that their lack of interest in renovating and modernizing the house, coupled with their penchant to save everything, is now delighting curators, conservators, and visitors.

The Merchant’s House Museum is a portal to the life of the Tredwell family, as well as the barometer through which we can judge the evolving nature of the East Village. As Knapp notes, the family’s patriarch Seabury Tredwell lived from 1780 to 1865 and occupied the house on Fourth Street with his family from 1835 into the early decades of the 20th century. After the death of Seabury’s youngest daughter, Gertrude, George Chapman, a great-nephew, famously prevented the house from being sold and undertook an initial restoration. The house opened to the public as a museum in 1936 and has been in continuous operation since then.

Miracle on Fourth Street chronicles the league of champions from Chapman, who is portrayed as the enthusiastic savior of the house, to an array of notable New York City architects, conservators, decorators, and philanthropists who took on the heavy tasks of preserving the house and presenting it to the public. The Archive Project is intimately familiar with some of these figures because the Merchant’s House Museum has been the recipient of two of our Archival Assistance Fund grants that helped the Museum process and re-house the institutional archives of George Chapman and architect Joseph Roberto, who completed a restoration in the 1970s. Together, these archives—made up of ephemera, architectural drawings, photographs, slides, newspaper clippings, phone logs, guest registers, member rolls, and correspondence—contain more than 50 years of history during the building’s restoration and second life as a historic house museum. This history includes the struggle to survive during the difficult times of the mid-20th-century in the East Village and the house’s 1960s designation as a New York City landmark. Through this grant-funded project, the Museum was able to guarantee the long-term preservation of this material while also making it more accessible for researchers (including Mary L. Knapp). These materials can now also be safely displayed and used in exhibitions and educational programming.

Today the house welcomes visitors and has been recognized over the years for its inventive programs, but the book makes clear that the path from 1936 to 2016 was not an easy one. And yet, the extensive archival research evident in the book shows that those striving to preserve the house over the decades have given us a legacy that is much more than the physical structure of the house. It is a compelling narrative of the Tredwells and those champions who would not be stopped in their quest to help us remember why places matter. 

Above: Detail of a photograph of the Old Merchant's House by John Barrington Bayley, c. 1965; Courtesy of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission