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Old N.Y. Merchant's House

November 20, 1988|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — OK, so granted that you--along with everybody else--visit New York City for the frenetic pace, teeming street life and sophisticated glitz of the place.

But when the maddening crowds and social whirls threaten to unravel the delicate threads of late-20th-Century sanity, consider heading for the early 19th-Century refuge of the Old Merchant's House.

The nondescript brownstone at 29 East 4th St. in the East Village, just a Thunderbird-bottle's throw from the Bowery, gives no hint of the 150-year-old, perfectly preserved time capsule in the four-story mansion.

Take those first few strides down stone steps, past the graceful wrought-iron balustrade spun like a spider's filigree design, and you enter a house that looks exactly as it did more than a century ago when Miss Gertrude Tredwell, the last inhabitant, trod the opulent carpets and grassy back yard gardens in her restless spinster prowls.

Built in 1832

This New York town house was grand when Joseph Brewster built it in 1832 and grander still when prosperous hardware merchant Seabury Tredwell bought it three years later. It was the era when fashionable New Yorkers relocated from their downtown Wall Street-area residences to the more pastoral inclines of Washington Square, Lafayette and East 4th streets.

North of them sprawled farm lands; Central Park was no more than a green dream in the heads of master park builders Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux.

Today it's eerie how the Old Merchant's House looks at once lived-in and untouched, as if the Tredwells had left just moments before, climbing gaily into their horse-drawn carriage to take in a play.

The home contains all of its original furnishings. Elaborate rooms combine the best of the Federal and Greek Revival styles, polished mahogany sliding doors and silk draperies glisten in the affluent bourgeois parlors and 1835-era cast-iron stove and embroidered muslin dresses and Worth gowns of draped silk hang upstairs in untouched cupboards.

Docents discovered a hidden bookcase with the predictable cache of Bibles as well as more esoteric fare such as "Hygiene of the Voice" by Dr. Ghislani Durant, 1870, and "The Autobiography of an Actress" by Mrs. Mowatt, circa 1850.

No Bathrooms

Two things set this house apart from similar mansions-as-museums. One, which becomes obvious within moments of entering, is that the Old Merchant's House has a remarkably unselfconscious air. There are no curatorial flourishes here, no straining to re-create an era: You simply step inside and are whisked into another time and place. It evokes a long-ago New York and a cloistered, claustrophobic way of life that Henry James depicted in his classic novel, "Washington Square."

The other amazing fact, especially for New York, is that only one family lived here from 1835 to 1933. They steeped the home with their personalities, quirks and 19th-Century tastes that persisted stubbornly despite the march of the 20th Century. (The house has no bathrooms, and the kitchen contains no refrigeration or other modern conveniences, for example.)

Seabury Tredwell, who made the brownstone his home in 1835, had six daughters. Two married and moved away but the other four remained at home, cautiously updating the furniture from Federal and Greek Revival to early Victorian as the century progressed, but always keeping the family residence intact, "as Papa wanted it." And indeed, the house is a monument to their prosperous merchant sire; they were obedient daughters till the end.

Gertrude, the last surviving daughter and a recluse in her later years, died in 1933 at age 93 in the same canopied bed where she had been born. Gertrude was a pack rat who kept everything--from the Duncan Phyfe and American Empire furniture pieces and handsome chandeliers to the green, etched-glass lamp and mahogany newel posts on the hall stairway.

Renovated in the 1970s

But the house sagged after her death, passing to a distant cousin who lacked the means to renovate it. From the early 1930s to the late '60s it languished, empty, victim to vandalism, its richly ornamented ceilings slowly crumbling as the plaster moldings rotted.

The turning point came in the 1970s, after venerable New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable laid the fate of the Old Merchant's House before the public. City historic and private grants followed, and New York University architects and 19th-Century decorative arts specialists descended to restore the home and shoo away the Bowery habitues who lolled on the building steps amid broken bottles and refuse.

The disintegrating carpets were rewoven, following the red and gold Pompeian pattern of tiny blue flowers. Rotting crimson damask curtains were reproduced with their original tassels and trim. The marbleized foyer entrance was discovered under coats of gray. Glass, china and household artifacts were all dusted off.

In 1980 Huxtable penned a happy epilogue to her saga, reporting that "the survival of the Old Merchant's House has confounded cynicism in a city that celebrates despair."

The historic home is open for tours on Sundays between 1 and 4 p.m. Admission is $2 for the general public, $1 for seniors and students, free for children under 12 with adults. Groups can book special weekday appointments. The house is closed during August. For more information call (212) 777-1089.

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