Material girl that I am, my Christmas spirit starts to surface with the first parties, at which (I have to admit) I relish the setting and scenery almost as much as the company. While I am always very happy to see all of my friends on festive occasions, I love Christmas decorations, both for their own aesthetic, traditional and seasonal qualities as well as all for all the effort and creativity that goes into their display–and last week was most definitely one of display. I had to get my own house in order for a Christmas tea at the beginning of the week, and at the end came the Christmas Dance at Hamilton Hall, which always kicks my seasonal spirits into high gear. Each year the committee which organizes the Dance chooses a group of patronesses who host dinner parties before the festivities–and these parties are often just as major as the main event; speaking as a former patroness, I would say more so. Hosting 30 or 40 people for dinner while you’re in an evening gown is never easy, and so when we all finally get ushered into the Hall these women deserve the bows and curtseys that we give them! We were fortunate to attend a pre-Dance party at a beautiful c. 1795 gambrel-roofed house on Federal Street, at which our hostess (who had just finished putting up beautiful Waterhouse wallpapers) had enlisted her children to serve us our home-cooked dinner on (50!!!) Friendship dinner plates accompanied by silver and linen. Then off she want to stand in the line of patronesses, leaving us to enjoy her beautiful house until our own departures for the Hall. I don’t have too many pictures of the Dance itself, for two major reasons: 1) I like to dance myself, and 2) I just can’t get the light right–with the only camera small enough to fit into my evening purse. But let me assure you, it was a lovely night.
My Christmas Decorations: I’m big on bunnies this year, and deer as usual. The tree has a nice shape, but it’s dropping needles like crazy–I hope it makes it to New Year’s.
On Federal Street: this house has the most amazing details and scale. One of my favorite mantel displays any time of year, and great entry and dining room. Besides the mantel, the living room has a lovely chair rail detail.
At Hamilton Hall: the dance floor from below and above; my Hamilton Hall ornament next door.
The juxtaposition of crowded academic and social calendars at this time of year always makes me a bit grumpy. I try to contain (or hide) my scrooge-like sentiments, but I’m generally too tired to make that much of an effort, and consequently they pop out periodically. This year I am taking comfort in a book that I received from a thoughtful friend last year: The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, a 1993 collaboration between iconic illustrator Edward Gorey and John Updike. These terrors (a too heavily-laden Christmas tree, the threat of electrocution from all the electronic games under said tree, fears of not giving enough, not receiving enough, and returning all the stuff you did receive) are not quite my terrors (fatigue, rampant commercialism, over-consumption of food, drink, and stuff) but I like the overall sentiment, or lack thereof. And then there are the illustrations. “Christmas” and “Gorey” are not words that naturally go together, but he had tread that terrain previously–with a series of not-too-macabre Christmas cards for the Albondaconi Press and other publishers from the 1970s on–and the success of Terrors inspired a second holiday book: The Haunted Tea-Cosy. A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas Dispirited (1997), a parody of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. All very merry images, in that distinctly Gorey style.
First editions of Edward Gorey’s Twelve Terrors and The Haunted Tea-Cosy & Albondacani Press Christmas cards, Swann Auction Galleries; Gorey Christmas Cards, The Gorey Store/ Charitable Trust.
This weekend’s (35th) annual Christmas in Salem house tour is centered on South Salem and the neighborhoods along Lafayette Street which were rebuilt after the catastrophic Great Salem Fire of 1914. This seems like a very appropriate architectural focus for this commemorative year, and the tour poster really conjures up the era as well. All the tour information can be found here; it’s too late to buy advance tickets but they will be available on Saturday and Sunday at the tour headquarters, the Saltonstall School on Lafayette Street. Christmas in Salem is the most important annual fundraising event for Historic Salem, Inc., Salem’s venerable preservation organization which was formed in the 1940s to save the 17th century Corwin House (now unfortunately called the “Witch House”) from destruction. Generally the tour focuses on the downtown neighborhoods and Salem’s colonial and federal architecture, but occasionally it ventures out to the more outlying sections of town, including North Salem, the Willows, and now South Salem.
I’m looking forward to the tour because it will feature several (predominately Colonial Revival) homes on Fairfield Street, which I’ve featured on this blog several times. Now we get to go inside! Just after the fire, the property owners of this street commissioned the most renown Boston-area architects to rebuild their homes, with pretty impressive results. I have served as a tour guide for Christmas in Salem for many years, and I’m still not sure whether the majority of tour (ists? -goers?) are enchanted more by the architecture or the decorations, but for me it’s definitely the former. I walk to work along Lafayette Street two or three times a week, and there are several houses along my route that I examine in detail as I walk by–one of which is also on the tour. This is the William H. Gove house, an imposing Queen Anne mansion that survived the 1914 conflagration. Built by Salem attorney William H. Gove (who entered his profession through an apprenticeship, then went to Harvard College and Harvard Law School) in 1888, this mansion really dominates the streetscape and has a myriad of details that capture my attention every time I walk by. It was transformed into condominiums several years ago, and a ground-floor unit is on the tour. I know that Gove was a successful and wealthy man, but I can’t help wondering if some of his wife’s family fortune went into the construction of this house, as his mother-in-law was the one and only Lydia Pinkham, whose famous over-the-counter herbal remedy, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, made her the most successful female entrepreneur of the nineteenth century. Perhaps Mr. Gove would not be pleased with this suggestion.
The William H. Gove House (1888) today, in 1984 & 1918; Trade Card for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, 1880s, Baker Library, Harvard University; Lafayette Street facades.
We spent Thanksgiving up in my hometown of York Harbor, Maine, which is only about an hour north of Salem. When we arrived York looked very different than still-green Salem, coated in icy snow. Many people in the southern counties of Maine and adjacent counties of New Hampshire lost their power due to a Thanksgiving-eve snowstorm, but we were fortunate to have light and heat and lots of food and drink. While waiting to eat on Thanksgiving Day, we took a drive around the grey town: York (encompassing York Harbor, York Village, York Beach and Cape Neddick) is a summer town and it always looks strikingly stark to me in the winter. I’ve also got some pictures of my stepmother’s Thanksgiving table here–before we messed it up. When we returned to Salem, all was icy and white but today is forecasted for the 50s so the terrain is returning to that golden brownish-green hue so characteristic of November.
This cat o’nine tail exploded before we left; the rest burst while we were away (just one day and night!) Impossible to clean up all this fluff.
Thanksgiving table: Della Robbia plates and Shaker chairs.
Fifty shades of grey off Nubble Light.
White on white: one of my favorite houses in York, and the gargoyle outside my parents’ house.
My favorite childhood painting.
Back home; sunny Sunday.
I am sorry to drag out this hackneyed phrase, but Halloween morning in Salem really is the calm before the storm. I’m pretty calm myself, having managed to avoid most of the things that annoy me (the Salem Witch Museum–the most egregious trader on tragedy by far, Essex and New Derby Streets, tour guides–walking founts of misinformation) about this prolonged “holiday” for most of the month of October. I’m looking forward to November 1st (tomorrow!!!), but a bit concerned that I don’t have enough candy to get me through the night, as this is a Friday Halloween with projected good weather. I was praying for rain this morning as I took a walk under the clouds (that’s how much of a Halloween grinch I have become) but then the sun broke out, casting Salem in a beautiful light. Of course it will be even more beautiful tomorrow, or perhaps on Monday, when all of the porta-potties, motorcycles, and demons have left.
Big pumpkins and Big candy: there are big pumpkins on River Street every year, and every year I complain to my students about having to spend so much money on candy–so this year one of them (Samantha Ferraro) drew me with my very full shopping cart.
I am not really a dog person, but as I was driving into Newburyport the other day I spotted some BIG dogs that stopped me in my tracks. They were “gathered” on the Bartlett Mall, Newburyport’s Common, overlooking the Frog Pond and Essex County Superior Courthouse (the country’s longest-serving, I believe), as one recognition of the city’s 250th anniversary. [Newburyport is so young–compared to its sister port cities to the north (Portsmouth, est. 1653) and south (Salem, which is over 380 years old)– because it split off from the greater Newbury in 1764]. They are traveling dogs, the work of Haverhill artist Dale Rogers, who is a big believer in public art and strives to craft works that become “mental postcards”. These dogs will only be on the Mall until the 24th, so if you’re in the area stop by and see them; if not, here are some real postcards to remember them by.
I was not going to post on the (13th) annual Antique Car Meet sponsored by Historic New England’s Phillips House and held right here on Chestnut Street because I’ve been there, done that, but I changed my mind. It’s just such a great event: the cars are beautiful, the cars on the street are beautiful, the entire event joyous. This year’s meet was bigger and better than ever, and the spectacular run of weather that we have been having has put everyone in a great mood. But the main reason that I’m pushing cars is that I fell in love with one yesterday–and now nothing will ever be the same. I’m going to set the scene and give you some car context before I zero in on the object of my affection: fully half of the street was lined with classic cars (and a few vintage bicycles too) for a good part of a glorious day, and 20th century machines cast in bright primary colors popped against the 19th century background of neutral Federal facades.
All the cars had their particular admirers, but it seemed to me that the three-wheeled 1955 Messershmitt drew the most consistent attention. Very cute.
But once I spotted it, the only red that I could see was another little German car, a 1958 BMW Isetta 600 Limo! I have no words for how adorable this car is: it’s cuter than a Bug (for which it was built to compete), literally. I really want one, even though I heard it referred to as “death on wheels” several times. I’ll just look at it–for the rest of my life.