Category Archives: Houses

The Prince of Chintz under Pressure

The very first old house which enchanted me–and still does–is the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford, Vermont, where I lived as a child. It’s a pink Gothic Revival confection, perfect in every way, and perfectly preserved. Here in Salem, we have several notable Gothic Revival houses, including conspicuous examples that were captured by Walker Evans when he passed through town and an Andrew Jackson Downing design that I walk by every day on the way to work. And then of course there is the gothicized Pickering House. All of these houses are very well-maintained: people who buy Gothic Revival houses really have to make a commitment to their preservation because the style is characterized by intricate exterior and interior detail and for the most part they do make this commitment, with the very notable apparent exception of Mario Buatta, the famous New York interior designer nicknamed the “Prince of Chintz”. In 1992, Mr Buatta purchased a very prominent Gothic Revival house located in a very prominent historic district:  the William H. Mason House (1845) in the midst of the Thompson Hill Historic District in Thompson, Connecticut. After some initial renovations he abandoned the project and the house, and its very prominent deterioration ensued. The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation placed the property on its Most Endangered list in 2004, and last summer an online petition was launched. Things heated up last month: with the cancellation of a scheduled appearance by Buatta on March 6 by Historic New England and an article in the New York Times in which one Thompson neighbor called the designer a “New York interior desecrater” and Buatta threatened to sell the house to a funeral parlor if the complaints don’t cease and desist. Closer to the scenethe Hartford Courant has published an article today which discusses the legal remedies open to preservationists (very interesting–involving environmental laws). “Demolition by neglect” has always been incomprehensible to me, except in situations of hardship–which clearly this is not. This particular case is even more difficult to understand: surely this notoriety is bad for Mr. Buatta’s business as well as his reputation. And this is a man who has served, or continues to serve for all I know, on the board of New York City’s Historic House Trust. Let’s hope that he comes to the decision to sell or save the Mason house soon.

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Demolition by Neglect Buatta

The William H. Mason House today and in 1986 (Hartford Courant and Gregory Andrews for the National Registry of Historic Places, 1986; a watercolor sketch of Mr. Buatta lounging in a Gothic-esque bed, Konstantin Kakanias for the New York Times (pinched from this great post at the Down East Dilettante).


A Willows Cottage

I was sad to see a request for a waiver of our city’s Demolition Delay ordinance on the agenda of the Salem Historic Commission this week, sad but not surprised. The request was made by owners of a beautifully-sited cottage in the Juniper Point neighborhood of Salem Willows. This is a neighborhood of once-seasonal Victorian cottages that were  occupied only in the summer, but are now primarily homes to year-round residents. This transition has been hard on the architecture:  people need more room if they are living in a house year-round, and they need more amenities. Given the neighborhood’s proximity to the water, people also want their homes to facilitate better views, thus they build them up and out. I’ve seen some terrible things done to Willows cottages: complete demolition, not-very-sensitive additions, and roof dormer windows filled in to create a top-heavy house that looks like it might topple over at any moment. But in the case of this cottage the culprit was a late-summer fire: it has looked forlorn ever since.

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The house was built about 1885 according to the inventory on MACRIS, and due to its location–on a corner lot adjacent to beach, park, and ocean, it features prominently in many turn-of-the-century postcards: the beginning of the residential Willows. Its basic outline remains unchanged–until the fire.

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Location, location, location. The sun was struggling to come out when I took these pictures the other day in the park just beside the cottage. You can see its views: of the Willows park with the ocean and Cape Ann beyond. Bakers Island, ostensibly part of Salem but quite a separate world altogether, is “glistening” in the fragile sun offshore.

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Beautiful Ruins

I have featured many abandoned or seemingly-abandoned buildings in varying stages of decline and disrepair on this blog–houses here in Salem, nearby and far away. Ruins stop me in my tracks as I’m driving down the road, like a car crash from which you can’t turn away. So when I read about a new exhibition at Tate Britain called Ruin Lust I went there (digitally) in a flash. My limited view from afar did not allow me to see the full sweep of the exhibition, of course, but I came away a bit disappointed by the preponderance of painting–beautiful as Turner’s Tintern Abbey ruins are, they’re soft, not stark. What draws us to the ruin is the stark contrast between what once was and what remains: to capture that, only photography will do. Picture John Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church, Essex as a crumbling stone ruin, perhaps with creeping greenery engulfing it, like the “feral houses” of Detroit (which you can see here and on the great blog Sweet Juniper).

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John Armstrong, Coggeshall Church, Essex, 1940. Tate Britain

There are several houses in Salem to which I return again and again if I want to behold beautiful ruins, most prominently the long-abandoned but still-stately c. 1810 brick house bordering the Ropes Mansion garden, built for Captain Jonathan Porter Felt around 1810 and occupied by his descendants until nearly 1970. Things are (slowly) starting to happen at this house, so I’m wondering if its ruinous days will one day be over. Walking by a month or so ago I noticed that some window replacement is going on, and it really startled me, and last summer someone mowed the lawn. Who knows what will happen next? It’s like the house is slowly “waking up”.

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There are books that I also turn to again and again for regular doses of beautiful ruins. When I wrote my first post on the house above, several of the commentators mentioned the work of Brian Vanden Brink, and I’m so glad they did! Amazing, and again: images you can’t turn away from–or look at just once. I also admire the work of photographers Susan Daley and Steve Gross, especially their interior shots. They don’t just do ruins, in fact their latest book is about revival, but their Old Houses is pretty much always by my bedside, and the images in their 2008 book Time Wearing Out Memory: Schoharie County (NY) define the term weathered.

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Images from Susan Daley’s and Steve Gross’s Time Wearing Out Memory: Scoharie County (2008).


Where Washington’s Ancestors Slept

For George Washington’s real birthday, I’m featuring his ancestral home:  Sulgrave Manor, in Northamptonshire. The early Tudor building still stands, and marks the point of departure for our first President’s great-great grandfather for America in the seventeenth century. On the eve of the First World War (and in commemoration of the War of 1812), the British Peace Centenary Committee bought the Manor and presented it jointly to the peoples of Britain and the United States in celebration of the hundred years of peace between their two nations. The Manor was endowed by funds raised by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America a decade later, and it also maintains itself as an event and educational venue. I visited the Manor years ago, when it seemed to me to be in excellent condition, but it has recently been placed on the watch list of the most endangered heritage sites in the world by the World Monuments Fund. On the website, statements by the Sulgrave Manor Trust note that Sulgrave Manor has suffered from a lack of investment and is struggling to cope with the repairs and on-going maintenance this Tudor house and its associated buildings desperately need and reveal the intent to establish archive and exhibit space for its large collection of George Washington memorabilia.

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Sulgrave Manor today and in vintage postcards by Reginald Blomfield (who designed its Arts and Crafts gardens) and the Detroit Publishing Company, c. 1910 (Library of Congress); reproduction of a Norman Wilkinson poster of the Great Dining Hall after its restoration, and wallpaper fragment which is identical to one from Sulgrave in the UK National Archives depicting Charles II and Queen Catherine–the Washingtons were LOYAL Royalists in the seventeenth century! (Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum); flags at Sulgrave’s entrance, 1930s.


Sun and Ice in Salem

A beautiful winter weekend for the 12th annual Salem’s So Sweet Chocolate & Ice Sculpture Festival.

There were lots of people downtown: I have no doubt that this Salem Main Streets event helps the restaurants at a quiet time of year (although Salem’s restaurant scene seems to be flourishing anyway); I really hope that it helps the shops too. The wine and chocolate tasting that kicks off the weekend is always such a crush that I skip it, but I would never miss the ice sculptures.

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Seeing yellow:  this tree was full of fat yellow-breasted birds–finches? Mr. and Mrs. Pac-man; the Miles Ward looked especially lovely to me today.

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It’s rather difficult to photograph ice, especially if there’s no background….my favorite sculpture is definitely that of the Salem Diner, acquired by Salem State University last summer and newly-reopened. On the way back home, I noticed that the Joshua Ward house is for sale: this is where George Washington slept when he visited Salem in 1789.

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Snow Showers

I really grasped the term snow showers yesterday afternoon when we had a flurry with the softest, biggest, snowflakes that I have ever seen. It seemed too warm for snow, but snow it did, for several hours in the early afternoon. Huge snowflakes fell, melting almost as soon as they hit the ground, yet we still managed some accumulation of the white stuff and this morning it is snowing again. All is calm, and white.

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Santarella for Sale

One of my favorite hobbies/timekillers is stalking historic houses for sale online. My “territory” used to be exclusively local (so I could hang on to the notion that I was actually searching for a house that I might possibly buy, I suppose) but now my real-estalking knows no bounds. The National Trust for Historic Preservation runs a property sale site that I check in with periodically; yesterday I popped on there and quickly spotted Santarella for sale! Santarella is the ultimate east-coast storybook house, built by the English sculptor Henry Hudson Kitson in the 1920s in the western Massachusetts town of Tyringham. I posted about it a couple of years ago on my way out west. At that time, I hadn’t realized the size of the Santarella compound, which includes not only the storied main house, but several romantic silo structures, a c. 1750 farmhouse, and an absolutely charming English shingle cottage, all on four acres and for $2,590.000. A bargain, I say: if I could make the mortgage (and the commute), I’d snap it right up.

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Santarella for Sale

Santarella colonial house

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Santarella for sale:  the main house in snow and summer, the colonial homestead, and the English cottage.

Even farther from home, several other houses appealed to me particularly on the National Trust site–actually all did, but this post cannot go on forever! My highlights:  the 1763 “Arch House” in Waterford, Virginia (I love 18th century rowhouses, and this one looks unique), “Eagles Nest”, a restored 17th century manor house in a beautiful Virginia setting, a Greek Revival in upstate New York (for under $200,000–in a really charming town), a brick Maryland Federal, and a stunning 1828 brick house in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania which features one of the most beautiful hallways I have ever seen. Obviously I could go on and on: you can check out plantations, churches, rectories, banks, taverns, hotels, a “whiskey bonding barn”, the site of Edgar Allen Poe’s honeymoon “suite”, and save an imperiled Connecticut saltbox/gambrel from pending demolition.

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RE Eagles Nest

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RE Cambridge Greek Revival

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From top: the Arch House in Waterford, Virginia; “Eagles Nest” exterior and front hallway/staircase; Cambridge, New York Greek Revival; the Davis House in Clarksburg, Maryland: exterior and architectural detail; front hall of the 1828 Harriet Lane House in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. All listings at the National Trust; another site to check out for Mid-Atlantic historic homes is the Historic Homes Network. For New England: Antique Homes Magazine.


Embracing Winter

What a difference a day makes: while we woke up to a rather brown and barren streetscape on New Year’s Day, yesterday we emerged from sleep into a winter wonderland. I love the day after a big snowstorm because everything looks so pristine, before the cars (and the dogs) make things less white. Because it was (and remains) so cold, this particular storm produced a light, fluffy, crystalline snow that was easy to shovel, so we were done in no time (plus a really nice guy came by with a bobcat and opened up our little driveway for us). As you can see from the pictures below, it was very grey in the morning but got progressively brighter throughout the day, creating some beautiful contrasts and shadows.

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I’m determined to embrace winter this year: my snowshoes and skates are by the door. Why shouldn’t I? I can walk to work (when I have to; our university cancels classes at the drop of a hat) and everywhere I need to go. For those that can bear the cold–and I’d much rather be too cold than too hot–winter is only a hassle if commuting by car is involved. Our preoccupation with–and anxiety over–winter storms seems to have intensified so much over my adult life; when I was a kid I associated winter with fun. And since I don’t have to brave the challenges of commuting by planes, trains and cars on a daily basis I should be able to approach winter with a sense of wonder, if I can ignore my heating bills.

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Houses on Chestnut and Broad Streets on a bright winter’s day in Salem: I love the way this last house–the colonial revival Wheatland-Phillips House designed by John P. Benson, marine artist and brother of Frank Benson–looks in the winter. Built in 1896, it is actually one of the newest houses on Chestnut Street.


Estate Sale

In the midst of all the festive houses decorated for the Christmas in Salem tour stood one cold and dark house, its contents spilled out and “displayed” for all to see and buy: this is the Captain John Collins house, beautifully situated on Turner Street with the House of the Seven Gables in front and a boatyard in back. All of the architectural authorities date this house to circa 1785, but it has that boxy (rather than rectangular) shape that gives me pause, or testifies to later additions. It has been in need of paint for quite some time, but inside it was relatively pristine–in need of work certainly, but possessing great bones. I could never be a good antiques picker because estate sales are a bit intimate for me (and here the sheets were still on the bed, literally), but this particular one offered me an opportunity to get into a house I’ve often wondered about, so I could not resist. My friend Carol and I wandered all through the house, focusing more on the architectural details (great paneling,distinct mantels, beautiful doors and floors, finely-plastered ceilings still in quite good shape, old wooden storm windows) than the stuff (although we did admire a 1950s roaster), and from a third-floor bedroom I gazed out at Salem Harbor (looking over the House of the Seven Gables), a view that Captain Collins must have taken in (without all those wires) many times. The word on the street is that the house has already sold, and I suppose condominiums are on its horizon.

The Captain John Collins House this weekend and in the mid-20th century, MACRIS (Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System).

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Estate Salem Capt John Collins House 1785

Interior views, and looking outside:

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Estate Sale Door

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Christmas in Salem 2013

The Christmas in Salem house tour, Historic Salem, Inc.’s major fundraiser, has been an annual tradition in Salem for over 30 years. It alternates between neighborhoods from year to year, and this year’s tour–Ports of Call–is centered on Derby and Essex Streets in the eastern end of the city. I’m always impressed with the effort that goes into this tour, as well as the generosity of the owners (and I speak from experience here–it’s quite a commitment), but of course it’s all about the architecture. Ports of Call suggests a maritime theme, but for me, this year’s tour was all about architectural diversity–as I walked through a succession of houses that included McIntire’s perfect Gardner-Pingree House and a stunning modernized house on Salem Harbor filled with the “souvenirs” of a global life well-lived with a bunch of super-insightful friends, I was, once again, blown away by Salem’s architecture. The tour is on today, so if you’re in our area you should go.

Starting out at Gardner-Pingree (1805):

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Some amazing floors at 91 Essex Street (1868):

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The very creative owners of Two Curtis Street (c. 1731), short on space but quite attached to their piano, turned their dining room into a “lounge” situated in its quadrilateral addition!:

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Various vignettes and views of the Captain John Hodges House (c. 1750):

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Captain Hodges himself, and exterior decorations of the house:

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26 Hardy Street (built 1851): a Christmas display with Lenin bust, and the dining room overlooking Salem Harbor. So much to see I was overwhelmed!

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Purple glass doorknob leading into the Sarah Silsbee House (c. 1807); “Three lobstermen” in a Derby Street shop window).

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