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If These Walls Could Talk: Merchant’s House Museum Edition

Merchant's House Museum
The entrance to the Merchant's House Museum

As our program schedule attests, we here at GVSHP love a good renovation story. So we were delighted when our friends over at the Merchant’s House Museum sent us pictures of their de-plastered wall, part of a $598,000 structural restoration project the museum is currently working on.  What’s even better than a restoration story? For the next two weeks, visitors to the Museum can actually see the original wall in all its un-restored glory, before the restoration work begins to repair cracks caused by time and water damage.

For those who can’t make the trip over to 4th Street, Eva Ulz, Education and Communications Manager at the Museum, explains what ‘s what.

Merchant's House wall without its "Fab-rik-o-na" canvas

A “Fab-rik-o-na” canvas was applied in 1935 by the Museum’s founder, George Chapman, to create a smooth surface over the aging plaster — a common practice at that time. When staff, led by Historic Furnishings Plan consultant Vincent Plescia, peeled away the canvas layer (and its coats of 20th century paint) last weekend, they revealed a 19th-century wall surface that hadn’t been seen in over 75 years. They also discovered a wealth of clues that will provide information about how the House was decorated, how the hallway was used, and when the Tredwell family (who lived here for nearly 100 years) made changes.

— 19th-century paint stratifications under the canvas correspond to findings throughout the rest of the House and will provide valuable handholds for dating paint and finish sequences in the Museum’s ongoing analysis.

The plaster is removed
Vincent Plescia, Historic Furnishings Plan consultant, at work

— A patch the size of a quarter in the plaster near the ceiling indicates that a substantial picture hook was once attached in line with the ceiling medallion for the hallway lighting fixture. It’s likely that a mirror once hung there, to reflect the light.

— A hole near the foyer shows where a pipe was attached for a free-standing coal stove, perhaps to help offset the cold air that swept in whenever the front door was opened. The stove-pipe hole is positioned where it could have connected to the chimneys of the house next door, built at the same time by the same builder. The stove was removed in the second half of the 19th century when the family installed an elevator in the same spot.

— Dark lines on the wall show where the elevator shaft was built out into the hallway, corresponding exactly with evidence of the elevator discovered on the hallway floorboards in an earlier investigation.

The goal of the Museum’s Historic Furnishings Plan is to present an even more authentic interpretation of the house and the family’s original furnishings, by ensuring that all aspects of the House and objects on display accurately represent our period – 1835-1865. The evidence provided by the newly-revealed wall will go a long way towards unraveling some of the more persistent riddles about the House.

The Merchant’s House Museum building is a New York City individual landmark and also on the State and National Registers. As with all such buildings in our neighborhood, you can find out more about its history by going to our Resources page and clicking on “Historic Districts and Individual Landmarks Reports.” Under “NoHo” you’ll find the information for the ‘Old Merchant’s House.’

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