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The Merchants House Museum — A Tale of Survival

Mike Devonshire at last night's program
Michael Devonshire at last night’s program

Last night GVSHP held a public program co-sponsored by The Merchants House MuseumThe Merchant’s House Museum – A Tale of Survival, a lecture and slideshow with Michael Devonshire. The Merchants House is one of only a handful of interior and exterior NYC landmarks, and is one of the first designated NYC landmarks. Michael Devonshire is a commissioner at the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Director of Conservation at Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, the firm that has overseen all restoration work on the Merchants House since 1990.

The Merchants House has gone through several stages of renovation. From 1968-1979 it restored the exterior, shored up the interior through extensive structural work, and painted and restored the interior, including restoration of the one of a kind plasterwork. It opened as a museum to the public in 1979 and has undergone various renovation and restoration projects since then.

If you visit the Merchants House, you will see a vacant lot to its east and a one story garage to its west. The vacant lot will remain vacant, as it provides access and ventilation to the NYC Water Tunnel #3.

The three low rise buildings were demolished in 1987, causing $1 million in damage to the Merchants House, shutting it down for two years
The three low rise buildings in between The Merchants House on the left and The Skidmore House on the right were demolished in 1987, causing $1 million in damage to the Merchants House and shutting it down for two years. Photo via Merchants House

Before this use, three mid-19th century two-story buildings sat on this plot. In 1987, they were sold to a developer, who planned to demolish the historic buildings and construct a residential development on the site. The Merchants House was very concerned at the time that the demolition would damage their 155 year old building. According to the Merchants House: “Meeting after meeting after meeting took place, with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Merchant’s House consulting engineers and architects, the developers’ engineers, Council members, and neighborhood groups, to discuss ways to protect the house from damage. Protection never happened. On May 10, the developers bulldozed the buildings to the east, causing major structural damage to the Merchant’s House. The Museum was closed to the public for most of the 2 ½ years it took to restore the house. Repairs cost close to $1 million, in large part paid for by the Museum.” 

Merchants House Executive Director Pi Gardner addresses a GVSHP Continuing Education tour in the garden of the Museum. Much of the garden's natural light will be lost when the hotel is built next door.
Merchants House Executive Director Pi Gardiner addresses a GVSHP Continuing Education tour in the  Merchant Houses’s beautiful garden.

Unfortunately, history may repeat itself. In 2012, plans were submitted for a 9-story hotel on the lot to the west of the Merchants House. After two years of requests for modifications, the LPC approved plans for an 8- story building. GVSHP, the Merchants House, and other preservation groups are extremely concerned that the planned construction is a direct threat to the Merchants House’s structural integrity and interior plasterwork. According to GVSHP’s Landmarking Applications page: “Overall, the commissioners felt the design was bland, but ultimately they found it appropriate to the district as an infill building. Commissioner Perlmutter was the only one to vote against the project (it was approved 6-1), citing its overall drab design as something that should not be approved. The commissioners once again stressed their concern for the structural integrity of the neighboring Merchant’s House.” 

Much of the garden's natural light will be lost when the hotel is built next door. Photo via Merchants House
Much of the garden’s natural light will be lost when the hotel is built next door. Photo via Merchants House

According to the Merchants House: “The House will be damaged during construction, no question. According to studies performed by structural engineers, if our building shifts a mere ¼ inch – as anticipated by the developers, and the maximum allowed by law – our original and irreplaceable 1832 ornamental plasterwork, considered the finest extant in New York City and a national treasure, will suffer damage. “The integrity of the historic original plaster finishes is highly at risk.” But if the settlement is more than ¼ inch, as some engineers have predicted, our structural integrity could be compromised, which would mean closing the Museum immediately.”

GVSHP’s Executive Director said about the approval in The Villager, on April 17, 2014 “The fact that the city would approve this without explicitly sufficient safeguards of the Merchant’s House’s structural integrity is, quite frankly, shocking. And if there are any issues that come up during construction, we’ll definitely step in to push hard on the city agencies to make sure no illegal or shoddy work is going on.” 

For related reading, this recent blog post discusses the Merchant House’s neighbor, The Skidmore House, and this one discusses some of the Merchant House’s recent renovations and restoration project.

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