Gertrude Tredwell’s neighborhood has changed.
She was born in 1840 at 29 East Fourth Street, in a Greek Revival row house erected by her father, Seabury Tredwell, an upper-middle-class merchant. Gertrude was Seabury’s youngest daughter, the last to be born in the house in his 60th year of life.
Like her father, Gertrude died in that same home in 1933. She’d lived to be 93, and when she was gone the house, at last, stopped being a home.
It quickly found a new purpose: An enterprising Tredwell relative, perhaps noticing how quickly and how often city neighborhoods grow and contract and grow again, had the good sense to turn the home into the Merchant’s House Museum. For the last 50 years, New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike have visited the rowhouse, which allows them to step into the lives of those who lived here before us. The Merchant’s House was one of New York City’s first designated landmarks, and many of the contents people see today actually belong to the Tredwell family.
But now, the nearly 200-year-old house’s future is uncertain. It’s managed, in spite of the dizzying changes that time and gentrification and money hath wrought upon the East Village, to stay standing, but the threat of development poses a direct threat to the structural integrity of the building. Developers looking to build an eight-story boutique hotel on the site directly next to the house are perilously close to getting the okay from various city agencies (frustratingly, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has already approved the plan), and a series of votes this summer will determine its fate.
Advocates for the museum, including preservationists and the local community board (which recently voted against the proposal), point out that construction in New York City isn’t just construction on one lot, but on its neighbor’s. Possible damage from the new building could very well render the Merchant’s House uninhabitable and unusable to everyone. And the cost of the fight has steadily mounted. In October of last year, during my annual Halloween visit (among other seasonal programming, the museum puts on a mean ghost tour), I was met with signs reminding visitors that lawyers’ fees alone could put the museum in jeopardy.
House museums aren’t an especially sexy subject, even among those who generally push back against changes that alter the social and historical fabrics of city neighborhoods. Nearly everyone has a dusty memory of being dragged around a—literally—dusty house that once belonged to the third-richest man in town, or a boardinghouse where someone related to George Washington maybe stopped to spend the night. Full of objects you can’t touch and maybe wouldn’t want to even if you could, house museums are associated with a kind of death: structurally, they have the bones of a house, but what’s a home that no one lives in?
Preserved in stale air, these homes often depict the lives of wealthy and white elites, and it’s seductive to envision a version of New York City history that does away with spaces like the Merchant’s House in an attempt to foreground the stories of millions of New Yorkers who couldn’t have afforded to live in a fashionable row house on a chic downtown street in 1837—or in 2018.
But like any good New York story, it’s not that simple.
On a recent visit to the Merchant’s House I climbed not just to the third floor, to see where the family slept, but up one more flight to the house’s small servants’ quarters. In the mid-19th century, those rooms would have housed young women from Ireland who came to New York to make their way in the world, and making my own way to the top stairs made it easy to think about what it might have been like for them: tired, in a country and a home not their own, responsible for the care and feeding and cleaning of people who slept just one floor below—but lived in another world entirely.
A few years ago I saw a small exhibit at the museum on nightclothes the Tredwells might have worn, and I was touched by the intimacy of the display. In this very room, I thought, a woman like Eliza Tredwell, Gertrude’s mother and Seabury’s wife, would have slept, been intimate with her husband, given birth, and died. To see the loose chemise she might have worn there, her only truly private space, made me feel more than anything like an intruder, though not in an unpleasant way. I felt lucky to be standing in Eliza’s room amid Eliza’s things—a connection forged between the two of us that I carried back to my own home, thinking about the scarcity of aloneness that is so much a part of living in a city.
Events at the Merchant’s House allow visitors to go a step further. In the fall, the museum stages a series of period-appropriate funerals, challenging us to consider what it might be like to hold such a service in one’s living room; a recent tour pegged to St. Patrick’s Day expanded the world of the home’s Irish servants, positing what moving around the city for work and for play might have looked like for them.
It’s an indisputable fact that Gertrude Tredwell is dead, though the ghost tours allow us to wonder if she’s still home in one way or another. Her father, mother, and siblings are, too, and the Merchant’s House notes that there are only a handful of living people who can trace their lineage back to the family who lived on East Fourth Street.
The Merchant’s House, though, is not dead. For now, it is alive, and we owe it to ourselves to try and keep it that way for as long as we can.