Category Archives: History

Spider Web Windows

Sitting on the huge back porch of my parents’ house in York Harbor the other day, I became fixated on the spider web design of the windows of the house next door. This house (unfortunately) blocks quite a bit of our view of the ocean, but is (fortunately) a magnificent creation: large and white and gleaming, with lots of architectural details. It has the appearance of a Colonial Revival house and I know it was built after our Shingle “cottage”, so the dates fit–but the spider web windows do not: they look a little whimsical for this classically-constrained house. I’ve been looking at these web windows my whole life but never really considered them before. Years ago my mother transformed a small window in the front of our house into a stained-glass mosaic in the design of a web; I doubt she was inspired by the web windows in front as a veritable forest existed between that house and ours at that time.

Spider Web Windows 4

Spider Web Windows York

Spider Web Windows 3

Apparently the spider web was a prominent design motif of the Arts and Crafts movement, along with the dragonfly, the firefly and the crane, all indicating the influence of Japanese visual culture in the later Victorian era on both sides of the Atlantic. Just a few minutes of web research brought me to the spider web windows in the famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, and more interestingly (to me) to the work of Chicago-era architect R. Harold Zook (1889-1949), who incorporated spider webs motifs in all of his houses and even as his trademark. I had never heard of Zook before: wow!  And just to illustrate how ageless and universal the spider web window can be I’ve included a charming little pane from the Zouche Chapel at York Minster, dating from the late medieval era and encased in a chapel panel in the sixteenth century.

Spider Web Windows Winchester Mystery House

Spider Web Window Zook House

Spider Web Window

Spider Web Zouche Chapel York Minster 16th century

A great site for R. Harold Zooks Houses, both lost and surviving.


Blue Moons

Today offers a great opportunity to widen my focus a bit and celebrate the appearance of the Blue Moon of 2015. These “extra” seasonal full months, the 13th full moon of a calendar year, happen about every three years: our last blue moon appeared in the summer of 2012 and we won’t see another one until 2018. These occasions are a perfect examples of how man and nature are seldom in sync: the creation of the calendar created the blue moon, which is apparently never really blue unless there some even more unusual astronomical conditions are present. It is always nice to wonder, and be reminded that Nature is our master and will not be boxed in by man’s organization of time. Cultural representations of the blue moon all focus on its rarity: “once in a blue moon” the earth is cast in a new/blue light and anything can happen.

Blue Moon Poster

Blue Moon Barbier 1928

Blue Moon Kingman MFA

Lunar Rocket Squires

Metropolitan Printing Co. poster c. 1906, Library of Congress; Ball Under the Blue Moon, Georges Barbier illustration for ‘Fetes Galantes’ by Paul Verlaine, 1928; “Blue Moon” by Dong Kingman, 1942, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Frank Ward, Blue Moon over Wolverhampton, 1958, Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; “Lunar Rocket” furnishing fabric by Eddie Squires (amazing! celebrating Apollo 11), 1969, Victoria & Albert Museum.


The Razing of the Ruck House

Years ago central Salem was oriented both towards its harbor as well as around an adjacent pond formed by the South River: Mill Pond, which was filled in to accommodate the growing city in the later nineteenth century. The beautiful map of Salem in 1851 by Henry MacIntyre shows the centrality of Mill Pond, and a neighborhood between Margin Street, the Broad Street Cemetery, and the Pond which is dotted with homes–some large and some small. In the midst of this neighborhood was Mill Street, where a very old and storied house was situated: the Thomas Ruck House, built around 1650 and razed, by my best estimation, around 1902. The Ruck House was not a victim of the larger forces that decimated this neighborhood—the Great Salem Fire of 1914 which singed its western boundary, and the construction of the U.S. Post Office which leveled its eastern part in the 1930s. It was (apparently) gone before both of these events. Given its notability–Salem guidebooks were directing visitors to it because of its importance just before it was destroyed (and in some cases, after)– why was it razed?

railway-map-015

Salem 1871 Atlas

Thomas Ruck House Mill Street Cousins

Ruck House Essex Antiquarian Perley 1900

Ruck House Salem Map

Detail of Henry MacIntyre map of Salem, 1851, Salem Athenaeum; Salem Atlas, 1871 by Walling & Gray; Frank Cousins photograph of the Ruck House from his Colonial Architecture of Salem, 1919; Illustration of the House in Sidney Perley’s Essex Antiquarian, Volume IV (1900);  map of central Salem with the Ruck House marked, from Edwin M. Bacon’s Boston: a Guide Book (1903).

At this point, I really can’t answer that question, as discreet factors (condition, the will of the property owner) are more difficult to discern than global forces. However, I can offer some historical facts and opinions about the importance of the Ruck House. Edwin Bacon informs his readers that “South of the railroad station is a nest of old buildings in old streets, among them the Ruck house, 8 Mill Street, dating from before 1651, interesting as the sometime hope of Richard Cranch, where John Adams frequently visited (Adams and Cranch married sisters), and at a later time occupied by John Singleton Copley, the Boston painter, when here painting the portraits of Salem worthies”. Adams and Copley, quite a pedigree right there, and the house was also owned by Samuel McIntire’s father. Adams writes about the house in a journal entry from 1766: “Cranch is now in a good situation for business, near the Court House….his house, fronting on the wharves, the harbor, and the shipping, has a fine prospect before it.” Obviously that prospect changed dramatically with the filling in of Mill Pond, but the house retained its stature. The influential Salem architectural historian, photographer, and entrepreneur Frank Cousins asserts that: “In its U-shaped arrangement with wings of unequal length and virtually three gambrel-roof dwellings in one the Ruck House, number 8 Mill Street, has few if any parallels in American architecture”. Now here is where I am confused: Cousins is writing (in 1919) as if the house was still standing, but an article in the Boston Evening Transcript dated October 30, 1902 clearly states that it had been demolished, along with another notable Salem landmark, the Shattuck House on Essex Street. In addition to the great reference about baked beans, this article is just what I’m looking for–early expressions of a preservationist consciousness in Salem–but obviously I still need more information about the razing of the Ruck House.

Ruck House Razed 1902 Boston Evening Transcript

Post Office Construction c. 1933

Boston Evening Transcript, October 20, 1902. What came after: the construction of the Salem Post Office, c. 1933, Dionne Collection at Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.


Greek Revival Salem

I think I’ve covered just about every architectural style represented in Salem over the past few years: lots of variant Colonial houses, the very dominant Federal style, and many of the nineteenth-century styles, including Gothic Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne and Second Empire. But I haven’t featured many houses built in the so-called “National Style”:  Greek Revival, which dominated public and domestic architecture across the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. The very first house I lived in in Salem was assertively Greek Revival (built in the 1840s, the peak of the style) and my present house (built in 1827) should probably be classified as such too but it’s such a miss-mash it doesn’t really feel classical.  That’s a bit early for the Greek Revival in Salem, which held onto its Colonial and Federal styles longer, I think. For that reason, as well as the Great Salem Fire of 1914, it always seems like Salem has fewer Greek Revival structures than it should have: many of the public buildings, including the “new” City Hall, are Greek Revival, but you don’t find too many domestic structures as they would have been built in the “newer” neighborhoods along Lafayette Street, the center of the conflagration. Some of the most poignant “postcards from the Fire” show Greek Revival houses being devoured. Yet there are Greek Revival houses on nearly every street in the older sections of Salem too, signs of success in the mid-19th century city, no long a center of a global commerce, but still bustling. Two such houses, located on Winter Street, are now for sale, which prompted my long-overdue Greek Revival post.

walker-evans-city-hall

Greek Revivals 055

Walker Evans’ photograph of Salem City Hall, taken in the early 1930s when he visited Salem and shot only Greek and Gothic Revival structures–no Federal! (Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, more here) These were clearly his architectural preferences, and he captured similar structures wherever he went. Quite contrarily, Salem’s own Frank Cousins was quite condescending about the Greek Revival, probably because such structures replaced his beloved Colonial houses in downtown Salem. The now-mothballed Greek Revival courthouse on Federal Street.

Greek Revivals 039

Bertram House Salem

Greek Revivals 042

Greek Revivals 023

Winter Street Greek Revivals presently for sale:  The Captain John Bertram House at number 24, built in 1842-43 by Salem’s greatest philanthropist. The black & white MACRIS photo is from 1998 (An absolutely stunning house: check it out), and the Payson-Fettyplace House at number 16, built in 1845, which has been operating as an inn for some time. Below: more Salem Greek Revivals, by no means an exhaustive collection! A Greek Revival “cottage” on Northey Street, a recently-revived Greek Revival on Bridge, a row of Greek Revivals on Federal, a Greek Revival with many additions on Essex, and the stately Lee-Benson Mansion on Chestnut, all built in the 1840s.

Greek Revivals 046

Greek Revivals 026

Greek Revivals 058

Greek Revivals 063

Greek Revivals 071

Greek Revivals 074


Were Wigs on their Way Out?

During the Revolutionary War? Here in Salem? I’m curious about wigs: for two centuries, one in which I have some expertise (the 17th), and one in which I do not (the 18th), wigs were big. Yet I don’t know much about them, especially of the Anglo-American variety. I have long been curious about a gravestone here in Salem featuring a be-wigged soul effigy, and the other day I was searching through lots of an upcoming Skinner Auction and became enchanted with a portrait of a man with a very fitted wig from about the same time, and I thought: who is wearing wigs and who is not? I know that wigs were on their way out in Britain after the very consequential Hair Powder Act of 1795, but I thought that democratic sentiments might have hastened their departure decades before over here–but I think not. There was definitely a hierarchy of wigs ( long and full for lawyers, shorter and tied for merchants, “bob-wigs” for clerics) worn by men across the pond: did it apply over here? The gravestone effigy of John Crowninshield (d. 1777) in the Old Burying Point on Charter Street here in Salem is curious to me because of the very conspicuous wig, which is hardly ethereal and quite a contrast with the wings–but also because I had it in my mind that Salem merchants just didn’t wear wigs, even of the restrained variety. They were too manly, too daring, too independent, too busy. But then I came across a portrait of one of the most independent-minded of Salem merchants, John Derby, with a new American flag proudly waving in the background, and realized I was wrong. Wigs were still quite in, even while the British were out.

Crowninshield Photo

Wig Crowninshield Gravestone

Wigs 1773 LWL

Skinner Portrait

John Derby Portrait Skinner

The be-wigged effigy of John Crowninshield, 1777, Old Burying Point, Salem; Wigs by Occupation, print by M. Darley of London, 1773, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University; C.F.C. Brandt Portrait, c. 1778, Skinner Auctions; American School, Late 18th Century Portrait of a Ship Captain, with Distant Ship Flying an American Flag (presumed to be John Derby), Skinner Auctions. Also see several posts of wigs–including one on Salem wigmaker William Lang–by J.L. Bell at Boston 1775.


Lost Houses of Salem

Part six or seven or eight or more: I’ve certainly featured a fair amount of Salem houses lost to the Great Fire of 1914, casual neglect, deliberate demolition, or structural “redevelopment”. But today’s houses have something in common: they are all featured in John Mead Howells’ Lost Examples of Colonial Architecture. Buildings that Have Disappeared or Been so Altered as to be Denatured (1931–love the word denatured!).  For some reason, I have only recently discovered this book; in fact it was recommended to me by a reader of this blog to whom I will be forever grateful. I say for some reason because I was quite familiar with Howells’ other books: I remember leafing through his Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua time and time again in my childhood home in York, Maine and I think he was probably my first guide to Portsmouth. But now I have this book, which includes all sorts of pictures of buildings and details of buildings from up and down the East Coast, and it has seldom left my side for the past month or so. Howells was an architect, an architect of skyscrapers, so it seems somewhat curious that he should be so focused on these much earlier, much lower structures, but he certainly was. As Fisk Kimball, the Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and author of Mr. Samuel McIntire, Carver: The Architect of Salem (1940, among several other architectural histories), points out in his introduction: “the assembling of these views has been no light task nor one likely to be duplicated; some seven years of loving labor has been necessary to track down the buildings shown and the old photographs here brought together for the first time”. But Mr. Howells was determined to (again, in Kimball’s words) “preserve for architects and all lovers of early America the aspect of buildings which have disappeared or which have been so altered as to lose their character and quality.” “Preservation” through photography–this was an undertaking that had begun in earnest decades before by Frank Cousins and others, and Howells relies on Cousins’ photographs quite a bit, as well as the ongoing HABS surveys and other sources, but he also took his own photographs. His primary role in this sideline pursuit was that of an assembler, compiler, recorder, and visual historian: he wasn’t perfect (see Simon Forrester House below) but he was passionate.

Houses lost to the fire:

Howells 422 Essex

Howells Chipman

Howells Tontine

Howells Downing Street Door

Howells Margin Street door

Howell's Houses Felt House

Howells Houses West

Howells West

That Chipman House at 442 Essex is a revelation to me–what a contrast to today’s parking lot! How majestic Lafayette Street must have been before the fire…….I featured the West House in a previous post.

Houses just lost, or “taken down”:

Howell's Houses Dow House

Howells Hubon House

Hubon Staircase

Howells Hubon

Howells Peabody House

Howells Peabody House

Howells Waite House

Howells Mansfield Mantel

Howells Mantels Putnam Hanson House

Howells Pickman House

The Hubon House on Charter Street is long gone, but at least its beautiful staircase is preserved in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum (New York Public Library Digital Gallery); The Peabody House–wow! I’m going to explore that particular house a bit more in a future post. I’ve featured the Benjamin Pickman House on Essex many times in this blog, but never fully appreciated this door.

Houses “denatured”, moved, saved:

Howells Gideon Tucker House

Gideon Tucker House with commercial storefront

Howells Knapp House

Howells Curtis

Howells Forrester House

Howells Simon Forrester

Howells doesn’t show us too many “denatured” buildings: this is a category I intend to explore much further in future posts. He doesn’t show us the full extent of the “denaturement” of the Gideon Tucker House, like this later photograph does (MACRIS). I had no idea the Knapp House still survived on Curtis Street, and contrary to Howells’ assertion, the Simon Forrester House on Derby Street is still very much still standing.


Salem’s Very Own Wallace Nutting

I have a little gallery wall of Salem images I’ve collected over the years in my downstairs hall, mostly prints, but a few photographs–among them a faded hand-tinted image of an ethereally-dressed woman descending the steps of the Andrew Safford house which I long-presumed was by Wallace Nutting. It has all the Nutting touches: the hand-coloring, the colonial-esque setting, the dreamlike character, and of course there are thousands of Nuttings out there, maybe more. But when I actually took it off the wall the other day to see the signature, the attribution was to “Florence Thompson” rather than Nutting:  Florence Thompson of Salem, a “Nutting-like” photographer of the early twentieth century. It didn’t take long to find more Florence Thompsons in auction listings, particularly those of the Nutting and “Nutting-like” expert Michael Ivankovich, but I haven’t been able to flesh out her life here in Salem or any of the details of her background or business. There were so many women entrepreneurs in this little city at this time–and then there was Frank Cousins, who must have shared her Colonial Revival leanings if not her predilection for fanciful settings. I wonder if she learned her craft from the master, and was one of the many women who worked for Nutting at his Framingham studio. I wonder where she produced her works—and where she sold them. I’ve got a lot of questions about Florence Thompson, but for now, just a few examples of her Nutting-like work from the 1910s and 1920s: more evidence of the seemingly-insatiable demand for calm and crafted antiquarian images in an age of dynamic change. When I look at these “compositions”, I can’t help but think how radically our artistic sensibilities have changed over a relatively short amount of time, a mere century.

Thompson 2 002

Thompson 003

Florence Thompson Clarks Door Salem

Florence Thompson Cushing Door

Florence Thompson Hillside Pasture Auction Listing

Florence Thompson Annisquam Auction Listing

Wallace Nutting Salem Dignity aUCTION lISTING

My Florence Thompson print, “The Safford Door” (which looks very similar to the popular Nutting print, “The Sea Captain’s Daughter”, which you can see here); “The Clarks’ Door”, 1911, Etsy seller Bittersweet 13; (same model?  Maybe Thompson just moved her from door to door); “The Cushing Door”; “Hillside Pasture”; “Annisquam”, all from Ivankovich Auctions, along with Wallace Nutting’s own “Salem Dignity”, a bit more dignified without the waif. Its title was based on the Alice Morse Earle quote: Salem houses present to you a serene and dignified front, gracious yet reserved, not thrusting forward their choicest treasures to the eyes of passing strangers; but behind the walls of the houses, enclosed from public view, lie cherished gardens, full of the beauty of life.


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