25 October 2012

The Merchant in Mourning

Old houses hold a lot of fascination for me. I love climbing their stairs and peeping into their rooms, imagining the people who lived there before. And so the Merchant’s House Museum in Manhattan is just my type of place—a preserved home from the 1830s that allows visitors a glimpse at what life was like in 19th-century New York.

Built in 1832 in the then fashionable Bond Street area, the Federal-style house was purchased for $18,000 in 1835 by Seabury Tredwell, a well-to-do merchant. His family would live in the home for almost 100 years. Tredwell’s youngest daughter, Gertrude, died there in 1933. Three years later the house was turned into a museum and opened to the public. Today the house, owned by the City of New York and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the only 19th-century family home in New York that's been preserved intact.

The house is decorated like it was circa 1835-1865 and filled with original family furnishings including 12 balloon-back chairs, four-poster beds, and gas chandeliers. The Greek Revival design found in the rooms includes Ionic columns in the double parlours and ceiling medallions. There are four floors to explore including the newly opened servants quarters at the top (ironically, they got more light than the other rooms in the house). 

There is also a back garden, which makes for a peaceful place to stop and read the self-guided tour binder or to simply take in the final lingering colours of the season.

I had been to the house before but went the other weekend for a special exhibit—“Death & Mourning in a Mid-19th Century Home”—that recreates the mourning period following Seabury Tredwell’s death on March 7, 1865.

In the house, the curtains were drawn and the mirrors covered with black cloth. The coffin surrounded by lilies (it helped with the smells in those pre-embalming times) was laid out in the front parlour where visitors would come and pay their respects. And upstairs, Tredwell himself was in his bed (the docents give visitors a warning ahead of time; apparently a woman on a previous visit had screamed when she entered the room). Even with the gas lights burning, the room was incredibly dark with everything covered up. I can only imagine how cold and somber it must have felt at the time.

The exhibit runs through November 5. To really get into the spirit this month, there are candlelight ghost tours and a reenactment of Tredwell's funeral on October 30, which culminates with his coffin being carried to the nearby New York City Marble Cemetery. For more information, check the museum's site here.

Photos by Michele.

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