Merchant’s House

I turned the hottest corner in the world and almost walked past the 1832 home of only one family, ever: the Tredwells.

I would like to put in, here, that it is the oldest something or other, but that isn’t really the point of the place.  It is very old for a surviving building in Manhattan, and it is preserved with a lot of its original stuff inside it.

There is a buzzer to press, which is your first indication that no one goes there, especially on the hottest days of the year, but probably other days, too.  Someone buzzed me in, and I made that transformation you make from being anyone on the street to someone inside somewhere, accepted and on a mission.  Also it was slightly cooler inside.  Slightly.

I followed the hallway to its other end, and a small room was repurposed to sell tickets and also to house a collection of breakable this and that dishes and figures and a book about opera.  These items were for sale to benefit the house, and it was easy to imagine little old ladies carting them in in cardboard boxes, wrapped in newspaper.

I paid the lady, and the nice man and I agreed that Friday had been the worst of the heat, Saturday was better, and Sunday, that day, was the best, meaning Friday and Saturday had been hellfire punishing, and today was just extremely hot.  The people of New York’s smaller museums are a kind and grateful people.

“So, how did you hear about this place?” the tour guide asked.  She seemed genuinely surprised– maybe even suspicious– that we had all decided to tour a lightly air-conditioned historic house on a Sunday in August.

Two of us explained we had been to the big museums of New York and were working on the small ones.  A couple from Brazil said they had heard about the house on a Brazilian TV show.

“Well, right when everyone is paying attention to Brazil!”

I hoped they were airbnbing the shit out of their place back there.

I took the tour: basement family room and kitchen, main floor parlor and dining room with gorgeous gas chandeliers, upstairs adult bedrooms, and past the floor for childrens’ bedrooms, now the museum offices.

“They wanted to memorialize the merchant class,” our tour guide said, and I couldn’t figure why anyone wanted people to remember their class.  Their class?  Merchants?  New money that either got rich or fell off?

The top floor, the servants’ quarters, was much like the servants’ quarters of my mansion, both in the house, and my own home in the carriage house.  The cut-out windows, slanted ceiling.  It’s my favorite place I’ve lived.

They play up their ghost stories, one of our tour group asked about them.  “I haven’t seen one,” the tour guide said.  “But people see them, especially Hugo.  All the other children got their settlement in the father’s will, but Hugo got his in small payments over many years.”

Understood.

I also liked that the family were loyalists, like my ancestors.  The Tredwells were loyalists and people so attached to the past, so loving of the past, that when other families left the neighborhood, they said no, and stayed and stayed.  Seabury Tredwell, the patriarch, continued to wear his hair in a ponytail long after this was not cool (like an early ’90s ponytail, shiver), and when his commissioned portrait was delivered to his widow, she said, “No, he must have his ponytail,” and the artist painted it in.  You think you’re doing someone a favor.

They kept a lot of their junk, and the tour guide praises this, as historians will.  My mother is currently in the process of cleaning out her basement, and let me tell you, no one praises you for keeping your junk while you are alive.  There is this dark area that is just “old” between “new” and “how interesting.”  The Tredwells left their sewing supplies, so we could see them, their thread, their cases for pins.  No one wants to see mine, which is in a Lancome bag given as a free gift from the Prairie Village Jones Store, okay, Macy’s.  I also like to live in the past.

There was one last Christmas we got presents put in Jones Store shirt boxes.  There must have been a last Christmas people got presents in Harzfeld’s boxes.  My step grandmothers’ hats are still in Herzfeld’s boxes.

“Why did the grown daughter not move out with her husband?” I asked.

“What happened to the merchant class?” I asked.

The tour guide, although kind and well-informed, could not definitively answer either question.

She did, as we two were the last to descend the stairs, say, quietly, “I don’t tell everyone this, but one of the daughters fell down these steps and broke her neck.”

“Whoa,” I said.  And then, “Thank you so much,” and I picked up my bag, and my coffee, from the small back office.

We were new money, my family.  We did not save everything, but we saved some things, and some went to the curb when the basement flooded.  The Tredwell basement, it must never have flooded.  Who would remake our family room, circa 1985, when I had a coat rack with Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo, and footprint outlines and measurements of inches and feet on the back so you could see how you grew?

Merchant’s House Museum

 

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