Category Archives: Houses

Housework

For every sleazy developer who destroys an old house, there are many, many more Salem homeowners who take great care to restore and preserve their old houses, showering them with effort, energy, and money. I’ve been dwelling on the former too much lately, and not enough on the latter, even though I am literally surrounded by ladders in my own neighborhood. This summer I believe that I have heard the sound of saws every day, often all day, and I don’t mind a bit! I think there is a cyclical pattern to home improvement in neighborhoods, although to tell you the truth “housework” is intermittently never-ending for an old house. We’ve done a lot of interior work this summer to repair the damage from February’s ice dams, and in the fall roofing and chimney work will begin. At some point we need to take on our 1960s kitchen (the original one is in the basement and is now my “potting shed”): some people actually think it’s deliberately retro! Clapboard repair on the back next year, and then…….something else. Still, our challenges are nothing compared to what some of our neighbors have been through, and I truly appreciate their efforts, each and every day.

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Just one walk’s worth of housework: houses in varying stages of renovation and painting projects in the McIntire Historic District.


De Facto Demolition

One year ago contractors working for a developer/convenience and liquor store owner named Jewel Saeed tore the roof off a Federal house on Carlton Street here in Salem and exposed it to the deluge of an approaching tropical storm: in the following weeks they ripped out all of the original (soaked) fabric, including its massive center chimney, and rebuilt it as petrochemical-clad condominiums, surrounded by blacktop. I may rant against the huge generic buildings which are gradually transforming the Salem streetscape, but no Salem development has ever troubled me more than the mutilation of 25 Carlton Street. The act was so brazen, and the response so tepid. Carlton Street is not located in one of Salem’s four historic districts, so it is not subject to overview by the Historic Commission, but all Salem structures are subject to the city-wide Demolition Delay Ordinance and Mr. Saeed did not apply for a demolition permit or a waiver. He didn’t have to bother. But make no mistake: the structure that now occupies the lot designated 25 Carlton Street is not the same building that existed a year ago.

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25 Carlton Street in 1985, 2014, and this (very foggy) morning. The fine grain of vinyl siding.


The Reverend Billy Cook, Salem’s Self-Published Poet

As I am typing this, beside me is a little hand-bound and -printed pamphlet of verse, what one might call a chapbook, dating from 1852: it is one of many similar publications produced by the Reverend William “Billy” Cook (1807-1876) in the middle of the nineteenth century and sold to family and friends. The son of a prosperous ship captain, Cook spent his entire life in Salem except for stints at Phillips Academy in Andover and Yale University, from which he failed to graduate because of illness–both physical (typhus) and mental: his sole biographer, Lawrence Jenkins, writes in 1924 that “unkind Nature” had failed to outfit this “gentle soul” with a “complete and well-balanced headpiece”.  After his return to Salem, Cook studied for the ministry but never made it beyond the level of Deacon: nevertheless he and everyone else seems to have referred to him as “Reverend”. To make ends meet (as the captain’s money seems to have run out), Cook tutored private students in Latin, Greek and mathematics and began writing and sketching. He maintained what is referred to as an “art gallery” in his home on Charter Street and included woodblock illustrations in all of his publications. These woodblocks are quite primitive, nevertheless they highlight the fact that Salem was Cook’s entire world as numerous street scenes and buildings are intermingled among his verse whether they have anything to do with Salem or not. According to Jenkins, the woodblocks were carved from maple or birch wood by Cook with a jack-knife, and touched up with lead pencil or paint after they were printed–one page at a time–on a hand-press that he had built himself. This rather rudimentary process is revealed by the folk nature of the prints, but I think it also renders them a bit more timeless, and charming.

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Cook Tollhouse Print

Cook Pickering House Print

I wish I knew more about William Cook. Jenkins’ article definitely paints him as a rather eccentric figure, but isn’t he in a similar situation as his contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne? The old Salem money had run out for both of them, and they had to depend on the their well-placed friends and ink-stained hands to provide for themselves. And they were both so so shaped by Salem. (I think the similarities must end here). The poem that illustrates Cook’s life the best for me is his “Chestnut Street”: not only did he include the names of all the contemporary residents of the street but also accompanying illustrations of nearly every building by my estimation (including the McIntire South Church). He had to: these were his patrons. So here we have quite a different Chestnut Street than that portrayed later in the photographs of Frank Cousins or the etchings of Samuel Chamberlain. Cook’s style emphasized the elemental fundamentals–chimneys and windows–and all those top-heavy, twisting trees–the lost elms of Chestnut Street, I believe.

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All illustrations from The Euclea collection of Cook’s poetry, 1852;  For more on Cook see the only source: Lawrence Jenkins, William Cook of Salem, Mass.: Preacher, Poet, Artist and Publisher,” in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, New Series, Vol. 34, April 9, 1924-October 15, 1924.


Old Homes Made New 1879

After I came across a little book named Old Homes made New. Being a Collection of Plans, Exterior and Interior Views, Illustrating the Alteration and Remodeling of Several Suburban Residences, published in 1879 by architect William M. Woollett, I really understand the “alterations” made to my 1827 house by its owners in the later nineteenth century. Like the simple colonial and Greek Revival houses used as Woollett’s “befores”, my own house must have been far too spare for the exuberant sensibilities of my Victorian predecessors, and so they added bay windows, French doors, arches, etched glass, a curved mahogany banister, and lots more space–up and out they went, into the attic and out back: I guess I should be thankful I don’t have a tower or a turret! The 1920s owners of the house attempted to restrain the house’s exuberance under their stewardship, but I bet they liked the light provided by the bay windows and I know they needed the space: they had 12 children!  And so what remains is an amalgamation, just like Stonehurst, and most houses, I suppose.

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“Modern” houses, a modernized hallway, and a modern man from William Woollett’s Old Homes Made New (1879).


Stonehurst

Waltham, Massachusetts is a bustling little city just west of Boston that manages to be urban, suburban, and rural all at the same time, depending on what sector you find yourself in. There’s a lot there: an impressive industrial heritage, two universities, Bentley and Brandeis (where I got my Ph.D.), a pretty vibrant downtown, lots of corporations along the Route 128 beltway, and three historic “country” estates preserved as house museums: the Lyman Estate (also known as “The Vale”, built in 1793 and owned and operated by Historic New England), Gore Place (built in 1806 and saved in the 1930s by the Gore Place Society), and Stonehurst (completed by 1886 and owned and operated by the City of Waltham since 1974). Because of my predilection for early American architecture, I have visited the older houses many times: Samuel McIntire designed the foundation structure of The Vale and Gore Place is just about the most elegant Federal house anywhere (outside of Salem, of course). But despite the fact that it is the product of a collaboration between two giants of late nineteeth-century design, architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886) and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), I have to admit I have dissed Stonehurst: I saw it long ago and never returned. The other day I was driving home along Route 128 at just the wrong time on a beautiful day: it was rush hour(s) and the northern lanes were jam-packed. I just had to get out of the car, and as I happened to be in Waltham, I thought I’d go look at the Lyman Estate for a bit and wait out the traffic. After I turned off the highway, however, I saw the sign for Stonehurst and remembered that it is situated on far more land: 109 acres of Olmsted-designed walking trails, to be precise–and I needed some exercise. So there I went, but got slightly distracted by the house, which is a bit……………intimidating? perplexing? provocative?

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Stonehurst is really a combination of two houses built for Robert Treat Paine, a Boston lawyer, philanthropist, and advocate for workers’ housing (scion of a real Brahmin family: his namesake grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Massachusetts’ first Attorney General) and his wife Lydia Lyman Paine: her father had financed the Second Empire house that constitutes the western end of the structure, which was later deemed too small for their large family. So Paine (who served on the building committee which oversaw Richardson’s masterpiece, Trinity Church in Boston) commissioned the architect to relocate the house and integrate it with a structure of his own design. The exterior (again, to my untrained eye!) is therefore quite an amalgamation: of the pre-existing Second Empire house, combined with Richardson’s more organic “Richardsonian Romanesque” and Shingle styles. I found the interior far more integrated, with large rooms that related to one another (and the outdoors) in a very pleasing way, and lots of crafted built-in features: window seats, benches, bookcases, mantles, staircases, mouldings: a warm and inviting Arts and Crafts house encased in a somewhat more imposing envelope.

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Interior of Stonehurst and a trail not taken; the line inscribed on the second-floor landing mantle, “Build Thee More Stately Mansions, O My Soul” is from the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem, The Chambered Nautilus.


Fleeting Phlox

I’m going take a break from berating ugly buildings and stop and smell the….phlox, because it’s that time of year, or maybe even past time. My garden is shaded quite a bit by Hamilton Hall next door so my bright white “David” phlox is in full bloom, but I took a walk around the beautiful gardens of Glen Magna Farms in Danvers yesterday afternoon and saw that their multiple varieties were on their way out. Still lovely, though. I always think of phlox as the ultimate country New England perennial–in Vermont and Maine and western Massachusetts you see it everywhere adjacent to old houses but less so in the old seaports like Salem. It’s a North American native that became so beloved in England in the later nineteenth century that English botanists created unique varieties that they then sold back to American gardeners, who were desirous of colorful versions of “antique” flowers for their Colonial Revival gardens. When I was planting my own garden, I just wanted a mildew-resistant variety, so I went with “David”, but the phlox in all shades of pink at Glen Magna have made me a bit envious. The source for all varieties of phlox is Perennial Pleasures up in northern Vermont, and their annual Phlox Festival is on right now, so if you have the time and the inclination this weekend by all means go—it’s well worth the trip, believe me.

My small patch of phlox, and the more lavish display at Glen Magna Farms, set against the McIntire main and summer houses:

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Phlox in its heyday: adopted by English illustrators, artists, and horticulturists: Frederick William Hulme (1816-1884; Victoria & Albert Museum), Bertha Newcomb (1895, Southwark Art Collection), and a seed packet from the 1930s (Victoria & Albert Museum).

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Phlox Seed Packet V and A 1930s

Can you find the phlox in the pioneering Cubist painting by the French artist Albert Gleizes, La Femme aux Phlox (1910, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)?

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An Abandoned House in Essex

Brakes literally screeched, disturbing a quiet neighborhood, as I spotted a beautiful abandoned house in Essex yesterday. I was on my way from Ipswich to Beverly to home on a rather circuitous route, and then I spotted this stately house on Western Avenue: striking in both its elegance and abandonment. Neighbors looked warily on as I took some pictures, and then I hopped back in the car and drove home so I could research the house, forgetting all about my Beverly errand. Here it is.

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The Col. Andrews House (Barr Farm) yesterday and in 1979.

We are fortunate in Massachusetts to have MACRIS, a digital database of inventories of historical properties undertaken for the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and I quickly found the Essex house, which was identified as the Colonel Andrews House, built in 1806 and better known as the “Barr Farm”. Besides the decaying elegance, that’s what caught my attention: this is no country Colonial but a pristine Federal farmhouse. The inventory, which dates from 1979, is largely based on an interview with the 99-year-old Mrs. John Barr, who had lived in the house nearly her entire life and still lived there at that time. She notes that it had always been a farm (I didn’t even notice outbuildings–I only had eyes for the house) up until the death of her husband 40 years previously, and then it became “inactive”. And so it remains–or does it? That chimney looks rather rebuilt to me, and the surrounding lawn is mowed……

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