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Miracle on Fourth Street
Saving an Old Merchant’s House
by Mary L. Knapp
 
This sequel to An Old Merchant’s House takes up the story of a family home built in 1832 after the last family member died in 1933, almost a hundred years later. It tells how the house became a museum and recounts the extraordinary efforts expended over the years to preserve it for posterity.

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Excerpt:
Chapter 4: 1954–59, Taking Care
The year is 1954. Shelly and Phyllis Fox have been hired to replace the caretakers who have just retired. Florence Helm rents the third floor bedroom and handles publicity for the museum. George Chapman, the museum’s founder, does not always approve of Florence’s creative efforts to publicize the Old Merchant’s House.
 
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If Florence Helm had been a little more than Chapman bargained for, Shelly Fox was a lot more. The Foxes had been living in Greenwich Village where Shelly was a potter and Phyllis a painter. When he decided to close his studio on Cornelia Street, the chance to be on-site caretakers at the Old Merchants House appeared to be a godsend. Phyllis was to handle the visitors; Shelly, who arrived with a well-stocked toolbox and a thorough knowledge of electricity, plumbing, carpentry, and heating systems, was fully prepared to do what caretakers do.
       And that was the problem. It had been over five years since Chapman had been able to negotiate the stairs at the museum, and even when he could, he had paid little attention to maintenance. When circumstances demanded, he hired a contractor to make repairs, but he did not direct Harry Lonnberg to spend money on the kind of preventive maintenance an old building requires. He may not even have been aware of what that kind of maintenance entailed. The Lonnbergs had not revealed the need for repairs to Chapman because they feared, as Ellen Lonnberg confessed to Shelly, they would be accused of “letting things go,” which they certainly had.
       On March 12, 1954, just two months after the Foxes moved in, Florence Helm died suddenly, after being diagnosed with a case of light jaundice only ten days earlier. After her death, Chapman lost no time in hiring part-time clerical help to work on the endowment appeal and in renting her third-floor bedroom to David Swit, a young man who worked for the Associated Press, and his wife. A baby was born to the couple in December, and for the first time in over 100 years, an infant resided at 29 East Fourth Street.
 
 
       Eighteen years had passed since the house was opened as a museum, and it was in a dismal state of disrepair. Shelly was quick to enumerate the problems. Broken windows, sagging door frames, loosened hardware, ripped linoleum, cracked plaster, leaking pipes, splintered sash, and chronic dry rot, for starters, not to mention a menagerie of insects and rodents that had taken up residence— “roaches, winged black ants, garter spiders, water bugs, coal fleas, and two generations of mice and pack rats,” as Shelly put it in a letter he wrote to Chapman shortly after he and Phyllis moved in. The chimney needed capping, the roof needed work, and the boiler was broken. Shelly repaired the boiler, but he emphasized to Chapman that it was a temporary fix. He also urged him to have the heating system evaluated by the company, noting they were spending an inordinate amount on coal. He learned that the Lonnbergs, the former caretakers, were in the habit of scouring the Bowery each night for wood to burn in the fireplace to keep warm.
       Over the next year, the Foxes spent $1,100 of their own money in making repairs to their quarters. When Shelly submitted a bill for $39 for supplies he had purchased for repairs to the rest of the house, he proudly noted that if they had had to hire a plumber, welder, electrician, and mason to do what he had done, the total cost would have been over $300. Chapman’s response was not encouraging. On March 27, 1954, he wrote:

I am sure the things you are doing will put the house in better shape and make up for past neglect; however we must keep within our budget and try to get along without any expense except what is absolutely necessary. The alternative I am afraid is that we will have to give up the project entirely.

       Still Shelly continued to try to do his job as he saw it, cutting corners where he could, sometimes employing unorthodox techniques to save money, and convincing some suppliers to set up wholesale accounts for the museum because of its nonprofit status. Throughout his tenure as caretaker, his habit was to make a daily round of checkpoints, repairing leaks, patching plaster, making carpentry repairs, fixing what he could, and catching new problems as they arose. And he kept nagging Chapman about the critical need for major repairs. But Chapman did not want to hear about it, privately dismissing Shelly as an alarmist.

       In September of the Foxes’ first year on the job, however, he had no choice but to pay attention. Hurricane Edna slammed into the east coast, and the storm that hit the city shattered windowpanes in the parlor and ripped metal flashing and slate tiles from the long-neglected roof, causing water to pour through the ceiling into the Swits’ room at 3 a.m. Shelly was able to replace the windowpanes, but the roof was another matter, requiring the services of a roofing contractor and a rigger. To pay the bill of $700, Chapman found it necessary to dip into the endowment fund, selling ten shares of Standard Oil stock.
       Shelly and Phyllis canceled a planned vacation to be on hand for the roofing repairs. And if that wasn’t enough, shortly after the storm, the premises were invaded by a species of post beetle that stripped all vegetation within sight before spinning a web that blanketed the exterior walls, Shelly confessed to Chapman that he and Phyllis experienced a “near psychological reverse” when the beetles started coming into the kitchen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
       But as dramatic as hurricane-force winds and a Biblical plague of insects might have been, it was the boiler that gave Shelly the most concern. He pointed out to Chapman that visitors constantly remarked on the chilly condition of the house. On the coldest days of winter, the temperature on the parlor floor hovered around a frigid 45 degrees.
       But a new boiler was out of the question. Since the beginning, the museum had been a constant drain on Chapman’s personal resources. By the fall of 1954, he had made over $50,000 of contributions and advances. The endowment fund, which he had hoped would sustain the Museum after his death, had reached only $27,000. It is hardly any wonder he was loath to spend yet more on the house.
       Finally, on October 16, 1954, Shelly, exasperated, went on the record, warning Chapman that the house was approaching a dangerous state of safety.

       The buses rumbling by, the jolting of the trucks in the garages on either side, as well as the hammering from the heavy 50-ton power presses on this highly industrialized block combined with an era of basic neglect, have subjected the entire structure to strains and vibrations that the architects could not have foreseen....What should have been constant vigilance on a minor scale was willfully overlooked, with the property value steadily declining and official condemnation looming closer.…I will not be responsible for the potential consequences, nor could I logically be held to account for conditions which were allowed to fester these many years ... provided they are allowed to continue unattended.


 
       Still Chapman was unmoved. After enduring another winter in the cold house, Shelly decided to approach Mrs. Chapman. He had concluded Chapman was simply unable to focus on the problems of the museum because of his ill health. A long letter to her in April 1955 laid out two priorities for attention. First was the boiler. A very technical explanation seems to have worked, for by the summer of 1955, Shelly was negotiating the purchase of a new gas boiler. But of course the boiler was just the most pressing priority; a lot more needed to be done, and much to Chapman’s annoyance, Shelly kept up his request for more funds. In September 1956, Chapman finally okayed an expenditure of $295 for the second priority on Shelly’s list, repairs to the ground-floor windows and door. He then immediately asked James Wood, secretary of the board, to help him find a couple to replace the Foxes. Wood said he would try, but nothing came of the endeavor.
       In 1957, two years after the installation of the boiler, a visitor, noting the decrepit appearance of the house, offered to donate interior painting. Shelly passed on the offer to Chapman but advised him to turn it down. As he pointed out, before any painting could be done, expensive repairs to the peeling plaster in the kitchen would have to be made; doors would have to be re-planed and rehung; and areas around the radiator that had rotted would need to be repaired. “New paint,” Shelly wrote, “is the last mile on the long road to restoration.” Other more pressing needs, he pointed out, included storm windows for the north side of the house and electrical repairs to augment the inadequate lighting. Chapman declined the painting offer, but Shelly never did convince him to have storm windows installed nor to update the lighting.
       Shelly Fox undoubtedly was a thorn in Chapman’s side, but he came along at a fortuitous time. Even though he wasn’t able to undertake the major projects that he knew were essential for the long-term survival of the house, he pulled it back from the brink—at least for a little while.
       Writing to a contributor in 1957, Chapman looked back on over two decades of effort. “We have not done so badly in the 20 years since we took over the Tredwell house,” he began. Considering he had done it all practically single-handed, he was entitled to feel a sense of accomplishment. He had rescued a nineteenth-century house that, except for his efforts, would certainly have been destroyed and, through constant infusions of his own money, had kept it going as a museum for over 20 years.
       Yet things had not turned out exactly as he had hoped. Early on he had given up the idea of acquiring other properties and being the New York equivalent of SPNEA. He had fallen far short of establishing the $100,000 endowment fund he had envisioned. He had really never attempted to marshal a large enough cadre of reliable supporters who could be depended on to support the museum financially after his death, and his repeated efforts to interest another institution in taking over the museum had failed. And though he still did not completely accept Shelly Fox’s judgment, he had to admit the house was in a serious state of deterioration. As Chapman felt his own life drawing to a close, he could not see how the museum could keep going without his financial support. In addition to $37,500 that he had contributed to the society from 1935 to 1956, Chapman had made advances of $14,650 over the same period.
Before he died, he persuaded the society to pay him $2,000 in consideration of these sums. Upon payment, it was agreed that the Historic Landmark Society would be released from all debts and claims that Chapman or his assigns might have against it. He also convinced the board to purchase the furniture from him for $5,000, thus transferring the ownership of the chattels to the society. Financial records of the society show these amounts were, in fact, duly paid.
       It has been rumored for many years that Chapman’s second wife, Frances, as Chapman’s heir, somehow managed to force the Historic Landmark Society to pay her $75,000 for the furniture, which belonged to Chapman, thus exhausting the endowment fund. The origin of the rumor is unknown, but its persistence illustrates how tenacious inaccurate information can be, for the story has been around for at least 50 years even though it is false in every particular. The furniture did not belong to Chapman at his death; the endowment fund never came near to totaling $75,000, and the legal agreement Chapman reached with the Historic Landmark Society with respect to the outstanding advances would prevent any claims against his estate on that account. He made no bequest to the museum in his will. Perhaps he felt he had done quite enough already.
       In May 1958, his health failing, Chapman finally relinquished direction of the Historic Landmark Society, and Clarence Michalis was elected president of the board. In December, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society honored Chapman with this citation for achievement in historic preservation:
       

George Chapman, For your unpretentious and sincere advancement of New York’s antiquarian culture by rescuing from commercial encroachment and preserving intact the Seabury Tredwell house, generally known as “The Old Merchants House” and for making available to the public this record of a gracious fashion of living now long forgotten save for projects like yours, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society takes pleasure in awarding to you this citation for honorable antiquarian achievement.


        George Chapman died at “Airlie” on October 23, 1959. He was 89 years old. Someone less stubborn, less driven, some would say less naïve and arrogant, would probably have given up on the Old Merchants House years earlier. In 1959, it certainly would have seemed to any objective observer that George Chapman’s dream of preserving the home of an early New York City merchant was destined to die with him.
       But you just never know.