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2 historic homes in New York City

If you’re on a budget in New York City and want to visit historic homes, the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum is an obvious choice. After that visit, I ended up also checking out the Merchant’s House Museum. These two historic homes in New York City both lend some insight into the lives of the 19th century elites of the city.

The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum

the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum exterior: a brownstone with an American flag fluttering in the breeze
The front of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum

The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site particularly intrigued me. I knew a bit about him and his presidency, but the house was billed as being renovated to the period when he was a child, and I love that sort of thing. Walking through recreated rooms helps me imagine what life was like for the people involved.

In fact, the whole house is a reconstruction from the 1920s, built to exactly match the original floor plans, but with additional rooms next door for galleries, a library and an auditorium. The period rooms include some items originally owned by the Roosevelts.

Roosevelt was born in this house in 1858 and lived here in what is now the Greenwich Village neighborhood in Lower Manhattan until he was 14. Because it is a national historic site, admission is free.

You can’t wander around randomly, but there are regular tours. On the day I went, we were guided by an enthusiastic young woman named Lindsey.

This is one of five period-furnished rooms in the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum.
The very ornate living room in the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum

She was clearly very knowledgeable, able to answer whatever we asked, but the planned talking points were mostly limited to the house itself, who lived there and how they lived.

There were some original furnishings in the five period rooms, but most of the interior has been recreated from contemporary descriptions. I liked hearing things like “This was where little Teddy was tutored.” It helped me to imagine it. I also enjoyed reading the antique political cartoons hanging along the corridor in the entry hall.

It’s a good little museum, but it didn’t wow me. This was partly because of my awareness that the interior was a recreation, not the original. Or perhaps it just wasn’t quirky enough for me.

Visitors Information

Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum: 28 East 20th Street, between Park Ave. S and Broadway. The nearest subway stations are Union Square/East 14th Street (The Q, N, or L line), East 23rd Street at Park Ave. South (6 train), and East 23rd Street at Broadway (R train). Open Wednesday-Sunday 9:00-17:00. Tours start on the hour on a first-come, first-served basis. Your best bet is to try the later tours at 15:00 or 16:00. Admission: free.

For more ideas of things to see in New York City, check out my article “New York City on a Budget: Free or cheap things to do“!

Merchant’s House Museum

After our tour, Lindsey suggested that I check out Merchant’s House next. It is also an old New York row house, she told me, but much more authentic: most of the furnishings are original and unchanged from how they were in the 1850’s.

a photo of the exterior of Merchant's House Museum: a brownstone
Merchant’s House Museum

So there I went. And Lindsey was right: it was more authentic. Unfortunately, it also cost $10 to visit. (Note: Since I wrote this article, the admission charge has gone up to $15.)

Entering and paying my fee, I was handed a loose-leaf binder that spelled out a route through the house as well as including information about each room. That meant, then, that there were very few signs in the rooms to ruin the ambiance. It was all in the binder.

in Merchant's House Museum, a view of the kitchen showing the worktable and the oven hearth behind it
a view of the kitchen at Merchant’s House Museum

The reason Merchant’s House Museum is so much more authentic and has so many of the original furnishings is down to two factors. The last time it was extensively redecorated was in the 1850’s. From then on, the same family, the Tredwells, lived there and didn’t change anything. Then it became a museum very early, in the 1930’s.

The binder was specific enough to explain about particular pieces of furniture and their history. For example, a sofa that was in the family sitting room downstairs was moved there from the living room when the family redecorated in the 1850’s. I love that sort of detail!

view of a period sofa in the sitting room of Merchant's House Museum
This became the second-best sofa when the upstairs reception room was redecorated.

The Tredwells, were, as the name suggests, merchants: in their case, hardware merchants. In the mid-1800’s there was big money to be made in trade, and this house showed their middle-class prosperity. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace museum, which has been recreated because of who he was, this house has been preserved because of the house itself and the light it sheds on a prosperous merchant’s life in that period.

In Merchant's House Museum, a view of the attic room of the servants, showing two plain metal twin beds and modest furnishings
The “Irish Girls’ Room” up in the attic

My favorite room was the “Irish girls’ room” in the attic, where a succession of servants, not all of Irish descent, lived. The simple, homely room contrasted starkly with the rest of the house, showing the other side of the Tredwells’ wealthy lifestyle.

Despite not feeling any connection to the historic occupants, I found Merchant’s House Museum well worth the money and, in the end, much more interesting than the Roosevelt museum. And it was delightful to be able to investigate each room at my leisure, without a tour.

Visitors Information

Merchant’s House Museum: 29 E. 4th St. between Lafayette and Bowery. Open Thursday 12-8 and Friday-Monday 12-5. Admission: $15.


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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments!  Read more…
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I love small museums! Not too overwhelming and usually full of little details that make a period come to life. If you like social history next time you are in NYC check out the Tenement Museum on lower east side. Really well done and very interesting look at how immigrants lived.

I really enjoy this type of museum as well. I visited one in Dublin, Ireland. It’s quite amazing that the Treadwell house managed not to get renovated since 1850. It’s very convenient that the two houses are so close to each other. You can just make it a nineteenth-century day.

These small museums are part of the reason you can visit NYC over and over again and see something new every time! NYC has SO many things to see. LOVE!

Adding this to the long list of things to see in NYC!
Natalie, The Educational Tourist

I like the idea of House Museums, they are like a travel to the past… You can see the lifestyle, the furniture and how was to live many years ago.
Thanks for sharing the tips!

I didn’t know these homes still existed in New York, lovely – I will have to visit them some day.Please do share this on my link up for Travel Photo Mondays, love to have you join us today!

I think I would enjoy Merchant’s House Museum as well. I like its authenticity and the information about how furniture had been moved, etc. would be so interesting.

Makes me realize how complicated our lives are when I see these beautiful old homes. No cable wires, piles of business cards, paperwork:-)

Love these museums!

I love the small museums of NYC and try to visit a few every time I am in town. I’ve added Merchant’s House Museum to my list based on your recommendation. You might find my blog posts about other small NYC museum of interest, http://travelswithcarole.blogspot.com/search/label/NYC-small%20museums

So glad to learn about two small museums in New York that we have never seen. We will be sure to check them out next time we get the chance. Thanks!

The next best thing to quirky museums is finding quirky museums by accident. I’m glad you followed the advice of Lindsay at the first stop. Next time I’m in NYC, I’ll check out these little gems.

Gosh! I was born and bred in NY and never visited either of these wonderful NYC landmarks. The city has such a rich history. Thanks for sharing these treasures.

These little gems are perfect for us (just a shame the Roosevelt house is closed)!

We love homes that have been left as they were, something of a living museum.

I think we’ll have to check out the Merchants Row House ourselves in a month or so (where in New York is it?)!

The Theodore Roosevelt Museum and Merchants Museum are two that I haven’t been to in NYC. Thanks for the exposure — will definitely visit them next time.!

It’s interesting the Merchant’s House was already appreciated enough to be made a museum back in the 1930s. Both museums would be fun to see next time we visit New York City.

I really love those small museums 🙂 great post!

It’s great to read about some of the much less famous museums, especially in cities as widely covered in travel writing as New York and Amsterdam. I love reading about all the quirky little things that people have kept in museums.