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BY LENORE SKENAZY | To me, “old New York” is the city I moved to in 1981. Back then, the subway cars were so covered with graffiti, you couldn’t see out the windows. You always added a 20-minute cushion to your commute, just in case. And Times Square…
Well, I’m getting off track. My point is, everyone’s got an “old New York.” The one Edith Wharton was referring to when she was writing a hundred years ago was the “old New York” before the Civil War, already a quaint and distant memory in the Gilded Age.
Old New Yorks are always being demolished, or updated beyond recognition, so it is astonishing to learn that one slice of the old, old New York not only still exists, it stands virtually intact, right down to its original furnishings from 1832. It is the Merchant’s House Museum (merchantshouse.org), at 29 E. Fourth St., and this month I went to hear a lecture about it at another amazing venue, the National Arts Club. (Hat tip to Gary Shapiro, the club’s dapper emissary, who alerted me to the talk.)
“We call it the ‘Miracle on Fourth Street,’ ” began the speaker, Carl Raymond, a tour guide at the Merchant’s House who is also a professional chef. He combines both those skills to sleuth out what the home’s original owners would have been eating 183 years ago, when they first moved in. But before getting to the meat of his talk — as it were — he explained how the miracle came to be standing at all.
When a young man named Seabury Tredwell moved to New York at age 18 to make his fortune in the hardware business, he lived in a boardinghouse. Perhaps predictably, he fell in love with his landlady’s daughter. They married and had seven kids. In 1832 they bought a brand-new house on Fourth St. — the suburbs at the time — and in 1840, when Seabury was 60, they had a surprise eighth child, Gertrude.
“Like my mother,” continued lecturer Raymond, “Gertrude never threw anything away.” She also never married. So when she died in 1933, just 20 feet from the bed she’d been born in 93 years earlier, she was surrounded by the very same objects that she had grown up with, right down to 39 dresses. These included the one her mom got married in more than a hundred years earlier, in 1825.
Gertrude’s heir was about to sell the place and all its dusty contents when a distant cousin, George Chapman, realized that this was no ordinary fixer-upper. Stepping inside was like walking into a time capsule — the King Tut’s Tomb of Manhattan. Gertrude had kept the house “as Papa would’ve wanted it” and Chapman wanted that for the rest of us. He purchased the place and turned it into a museum.
In 1965, Merchant’s House was one of the first 25 buildings on which our city bestowed landmark status. To this day, 90 percent of the items in the building are original.
So what did the Tredwells eat during the century or so that they lived there?
Alas, nothing particularly delicious at first.
Despite our modern pining for heirloom vegetables, early 19th-century New Yorkers generally boiled these to death. The watery mess was served alongside boiled or roasted meats with perhaps some melted butter as gravy. And since Eliza was raised in a boardinghouse, it is likely she served the same kind of food her mom did, including what one boarder back then described as “the dessert feared by every boardinghouse resident: a sour apple encased in dough.”
Historians contend that more change occurred in the 19th century than in any other era, and happily, some of that occurred in the kitchen. By the end of the 1800s, French cuisine was all the rage, along with the new practice of serving food in courses, instead of putting it all out at once.
You can still see the dining room table and chairs the Tredwells used, and some of their cookware, and the bells to call the servants, à la Downton Abbey. But threatened is the beautiful original plasterwork in the dining room and elsewhere.
The neighboring lots are not landmarked, and a boutique hotel is slated to rise on one side. Vibrations from nearby construction could crack the walls. The museum is hoping to ensure that doesn’t happen by working with lawyers and engineers to develop protection plans.
With any luck, the Merchant’s House will be around for another 183 years, when aged locals may remember an “old New York” back when food was created by cooks, not 3D printers, and delivered by bike, not drone.
Lenore Skenazy speaks at conferences, companies and schools about her book and blog, “Free-Range Kids.”