The history of the Tredwell family, inhabitants of the Old
Merchant's House, spans more than a century, from the American Revolution to the New Deal! When Seabury Tredwell was born, he was, technically, a subject of King George III. George Washington became America's first president when Seabury was 9. Andrew Jackson was the seventh president when the Tredwells moved to the house. When Gertrude Tredwell died, Roosevelt had begun to guide America through the Great Depression and Hitler was rising to power.
Seabury Tredwell, head of the family, had a conservative heritage. He was
born Seabury Tredwell in North Hempstead, Long Island, in 1780, the son of a physician who was rumored to have supported the Tories at the time of the Revolution. He was closely related on his mother's side to the first bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in North America and traced his ancestors back to John Alden and Priscilla Mullens of "Mayflower" and Longfellow fame.
His wife, Eliza, came from a different background. It has been said that she was the daughter of a sea captain who abandoned his family. It is generally accepted that her mother ran a boarding house on Pearl Street near Mr. Tredwell's shop. Possibly it was here that Eliza and Seabury met.
In 1835 Seabury Tredwell, long a partner in Tredwell and Kissam, prosperous marine-hardware merchants, decided to retire from commercial trade. He was now able to live on his investments and the interest gleaned from personal
loans. First he had a major decision to
make: where to live? In 1821, a year after he married Eliza Earle Parker, he bought a house at 12 Dey Street. It was near City Hall, at that time the heart of the finest New York neighborhood. Fourteen years later, New York had exploded in size. Seabury decided to sell the old home and leave the growing congestion of downtown New York for a house in the Bond Street area (later known as Astor Place).
He chose the house at 361 East Fourth Street (the address at the time) and paid the builder/owner, Joseph Brewster, $18,000 for the three-year-old house. It was to be a home in the newest and most desirable section of the city. Seabury was 55 and Eliza was in her late thirties. They would live here together for thirty years.
With them came their seven children, Elizabeth (born 1821), Horace (1823), Mary Adelaide (c. 1825), Samuel (1825), Phebe (1829), Julia (1833), and newborn Sarah. Five years later, they were blessed with Gertrude, the only child born in the house.
The house was larger than their former home, decorated in the latest fashion, furnished with pieces ordered from the finest cabinetmakers and equipped with all the conveniences of the day. The picture on the left was copied from a postcard at the Museum depicting the "Greek Revival Palor".
It was an exciting time to be living on East Fourth Street. Just around the corner, Lafayette Place was lined with the homes of millionaires; the Delanos, Astors, van Warts, Landons and Brevoorts all lived there. The Bowery and lower Broadway were lined with theaters and restaurants. The finest shopping in the city was near by on Canal Street.
As the children grew up, beaus came calling and the parlors were the scene of wedding receptions for Elizabeth and Mary Adelaide. Samuel married and left home. Phebe, Julia and Gertrude remained at
home unwed. Though Horace and Sarah never married, they also chose to leave home; Horace around the corner on Lafayette Place and plucky Sarah to the Hotel Cadillac in Times Square.
Over the course of time, various members of the family lived in the house. The 1855 City Census reported fourteen people dwelling here. They included Mrs. Tredwell's widowed sister, the Tredwell's eldest daughter, Elizabeth, with her husband and a new baby, and four servants from Ireland and England.
The parlors witnessed funerals as well as weddings. Papa died in 1865; Eliza in 1882. Horace returned home to die in 1885. Finally just Phebe, Julia and Gertrude were left in the house, living on their inheritance.
While the once splendid
neighborhood was transformed over the next fifty years into a quarter of factories and tenements, Seabury's daughters valiantly held on. .
The theaters and shopping districts moved uptown, first to
14th Street then to 23rd. Eventually, all the fine residences on Broadway were demolished. Shining carriages no longer drove up to the front door.
In 1906 the parlors held another funeral...Sarah's. Phebe followed her the next year after a fatal fall, possibly down the stairs. In 1909 Gertrude's last surviving sibling, Julia, passed away, leaving her essentially alone for the next twenty-four years trying to keep the house "as Papa wanted." Considered an eccentric recluse, she led a life that declined from elegance and comfort to bare subsistence. She died at the age of 93 in a world she no longer recognized or understood.
Although the Tredwells left us few written records, most of their personal possessions remain to give a very complete example of what life in 19th-century New York was really like. Not only is this house a monument to a family and a way of life, it is the most intact surviving pre-Civil War row house in Manhattan...and it is wonderful.
Anthony Bellov has been an OMH volunteer for several years. He is currently
working on a tour book, of which this is an
From the "Old Merchant's House & Museum Newsletter"
Spring/Summer 1990 Edition
Pictures by Jan Miller of the kitchen on her recent visit to the home.