This Old House

Over the last two years, I have been living my very own tale of two cities. I’ve moved from Austin, Texas to New York – from Bat City to Gotham. The atmospheres of these cities could scarcely be more different, and I’m not just talking about the New York winters.

Austin is wide, open, and vast. It rolls over hills and sprawls into suburbs. New York is famously tall, narrow, and crowded. It teems up skyscrapers and burrows into the subway.

If you go to Austin, you will encounter many easygoing people flashing you winsome smiles between bites of taco or amiably walking down the sidewalk with their shelter dog. If you go to New York, you will see scores of priceless artistic masterpieces, many beautiful old buildings, and businessmen in fancy suits bolting dollar hotdogs and yelling into their phones.

Every city yearns for a calling card. Austin has done pretty well for itself here, earning its reputation as the live music capital of the world. New York, with characteristic brusqueness, dispenses with the silly qualifier. As far as New York is concerned, New York is the capital of the world, straight up.

Unfortunately for me, New York charges accordingly. Not infrequently, Mary Cate and I find ourselves sitting at our plastic card table, reminiscing about the days when we could trip out the door and go see a movie on a whim. (The price of a movie ticket in Austin is roughly equivalent to the price of a ticket to see the first four trailers in New York.) On the first day of every month, we write a staggeringly large check for an apartment that contains more books than it does square feet ­­– and most of our books still live with our parents. All of which is to say that a life spent in Manhattan would make a bargain hunter of anyone, let alone two kids who used to hop in the car and drive someplace new every weekend.

I’ve heard that creativity flourishes when it encounters constraints. I was testing that theory one day, trawling the internet in search of an affordable outing, when I came across the website for the Merchant’s House Museum near Washington Square Park. Three things struck me about this place: It’s a house-museum, which reminded me of a few tiny Wisconsin museums I would visit as a child; there was a section of the website called “ghosts”; and they were planning an 80th anniversary celebration that included a 1936-authentic 50-cent admission fee. We put it on the calendar.

I remember having a brief conversation with Mary Cate on the morning of the fête concerning what one should wear to a museum’s birthday gala. The fact that this struck us as worthy of conversation now seems silly, for it turns out that the Merchant’s House Museum is a very informal kind of place. We were greeted by a pair of enthusiastic volunteers, who suggested no fewer than four places to loiter while other guests arrived for the afternoon tour. They bustled over to confer with a few of their colleagues, and we overheard phrases like, “Does anyone know if we have a tour guide?”

Before I go on, a little history: The house was built in 1832, and the merchant was Seabury Tredwell. Tredwell and his descendants lived there for nearly 100 years, and though the world outside underwent a slew of sea changes, the world within the Tredwells’ brick walls changed very little. Happily, it still hasn’t. The outside of the house looks like this:


Inside, it’s Greek revival. In spite of its large windows and light walls, it manages to be rather dark:


The Tredwells had funny taste in rugs:


And the museum seems particularly proud of some nice old plasterwork up on the ceiling:


Back to the birthday party.

A smattering of others had congregated in the back garden by the time a suitable tour guide was located. We were a motley crew. A few tourists, somewhat surprised to have found themselves at this particular museum. One or two New Yorkers, genuinely interested in the place. A few real estate agents, who just wanted to get a look at the building. (“We would knock this wall down, put a kitchen here, and make a killing if this thing was a duplex,” one sighed to us later.) And us, rounding out the group.

The tour guide turned out to be an elderly gentleman who spoke in a hoarse sort of stage whisper and demonstrated a Clear Passion for History. He knew every detail there was to know about the old place, the story of every chair and every piece of décor – we just couldn’t really hear what he was saying. One thing we’re certain he didn’t mention: the ghosts. (One got the impression that this was a conscious choice.) Forty-five minutes later, we were heading out the door and on our way to lunch.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Merchant’s House Museum is that it is located in New York City. There’s something about it that seems distinctly small-town. Its scope and its staff reminded me of the Paine Art Center, a house-museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin that I visited as a boy. There’s an interesting difference, though. The Paine hosts revolving exhibitions to supplement the fine old rooms with their antique furniture and family trinkets. Ansel Adams one season, Norman Rockwell the next. It’s what keeps people coming back. But the Merchant’s House is just a house. Nothing distracts from its houseness. I kind of like that – it is a snapshot of what “ordinary” looked like in 1832. Nothing is out of context, nothing has been put into a gilded frame, nothing that wasn’t already there has crossed the house’s threshold. In the end, the 50-cent admission was only the first thing about the place that made us feel like time travelers.


One thought on “This Old House

  1. Fifty cents! As you say, that’s a real step into the past. Glad you liked the time travel. Getting to physically sense history is something special. Hope the Merchant’s House continues to stay frozen in time… No knocked down walls and duplex plans, please.


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