If you’ve read any Edith Wharton novels you’ll know that being a woman in the Victorian Era was not easy. Ms. Wharton wrote about “old” New York society and her contemporaries who lived by a strict moral code. Those who strayed out of those boundaries paid a heavy price as Ellen Olinska found out in The Age of Innocence. However, even if you followed the prescribed standard of conduct, life was not always so great either.
In Henry James’ Washington Square, Catherine Sloper, like many women of her time, is encouraged to stay in the paternal home and be a spinster rather than marry a man below her social position or worse, a fortune hunter.
That was a bygone era and life for women in New York City has certainly changed but luckily there is still some “old” New York around.
The Merchant’s House museum is one such piece of history. Located on the lower east side at 29 East 4th Street, it is one of the most unique museums of its kind and it is the only 19th century family home in NYC that has been preserved intact.
Built in 1832, the home was purchased by a wealthy merchant, Seabury Tredwell, who lived in the home with his wife, Eliza, and their seven children. Their eighth child, Gertrude, was born and died in the home at the age of 93. After her death a cousin stepped in and purchased the home and turned it into the museum that it is today.
When you step through its doors it feels like you are stepping into a Henry James novel. In fact, for years the rumor was (recently disproved) that James’s heroine was based on Gertrude Tredwell. While this may not be true, the interior of the home was the inspiration for the set design of the original Broadway play based on Washington Square called, The Heiress.
The family’s station is reflected in the home’s interior with the latest conveniences and modern furnishings of the day. Nearly all of the furnishings and personal effects are those that the family and their servants actually used on a daily basis. This is very rare. In most house museums, even those owned by one family, generations of relatives have usually altered and cherry-picked their valuable contents. Lucky for us, the Tredwells were not a flashy bunch and they did not like change. In fact, four out of the six daughters never married and three lived in the home all their lives.
At the time the Treadwells moved into the home, the neighborhood was a wealthy and fashionable enclave of upper middle-class homes with the uber-elite families just around the corner. South east of here was the notorious Five-Points neighborhood (now part of Chinatown and the Lower East Side) which just goes to show you how small NYC was back then. Over the years, the area has changed dramatically and at one time consisted of boarding houses and industrial businesses. Gertrude would be happy to know that the neighborhood (now Noho) is back to being a well-to-do area and the property’s value is probably comparable to what it was worth in the 1830’s, if not more.
Tours are conducted daily or you can do a self-guided tour. I highly recommend a guided tour. Our tour guide was highly knowledgeable about building techniques and life in New York during the 19th century.
The Merchant House is a tough nut that has survived the demolition of buildings on either side (thereby losing the structural support that row houses were meant to have). A recent threat is a several story hotel that is proposed to go up next door. The digging of foundations for this building could likely destroy the already delicate plaster moldings or worse cause foundational cracks in the outer walls. You can check out the museum’s website to find out more about how to prevent this from happening.
Books to read before you go: