Category Archives: Salem

Ropes Mansion Refresh

I’ve been anticipating the reopening of the Ropes Mansion for some time so it was with great excitement that I crossed the threshold yesterday for the first time in a decade or so: the house was shuttered for restoration after an accidental fire in 2009 and I remember it being a bit tired even before that. Not now: refreshed was the word that came into my mind almost as soon as I set foot in the front hall. It’s not just the new paint and paper (and absolutely beautiful carpets): it feels like the house’s spirit has been renewed. Most appropriately, the interpretation focuses on the Ropes family, who donated the house–as a Memorial— to the Peabody Essex Museum (then Essex Institute) in 1907, almost as much as the interior architectural features. Their possessions are all around you as you walk through the rooms: their china, their pictures, their books, their trunks, their own memorials. There are touches of modern whimsy in several of the rooms which added to the overall feeling of renewal, and details, details, details, galore. I think I’ll have to go back again and again: it’s open every weekend this summer from noon until 4pm.

The house was built in 1727 but extensively remodeled in the 1890s, so it feels (to my untrained eye) almost like a perfect blend of the Colonial and the Colonial Revival. This was most apparent on the first floor: as you walk front to back you move forward in time–from 1727 (or more precisely 1830, the date of the Asher Benjamin-influenced entrance) to the perfectly-preserved 1894 kitchen, with all its “new” equipment. Two dining rooms on the right–or I suppose a breakfast room and dining room decorated in a later 19th-century style–and on the left a double parlor with an amazing front-to-back fireplace. I’ve always loved this room, and when I walked into it yesterday it instantly reminded me of one of my favorite architectural drawings: Arthur Little’s sketch of the parlor of the long-lost Benjamin Pickman house further up Essex Street, from his (now-reissued by Historic New England) 1878 book Early New England Interiors. And for cupboard connoisseurs, the first floor of the Ropes Mansion is heaven, with fully-stocked butler’s and kitchen pantries and dining-room china cabinet.

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Pickman House Parlor Arthur Little Early New England Interiors

The Benjamin Pickman House Parlor by Arthur Little, Old New England Interiors, 1878. Courtesy of Historic New England.

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The second floor of the Ropes Mansion is even more intimately interpreted than the first, with one side of the house devoted to lavishly-recreated bedrooms and the other side to displays of possessions, some quite touching: I was struck particularly by a leather fire bucket (after all, this was a family, and this is a house, that experienced three major fires: besides the 2009 fire, there was a fire during the 1894 restoration and most tragically Abigail Pickman Ropes died in 1839 after her dress caught fire on this very floor–the posthumous portrait of Abigail by Charles Osgood is also on view) as well as a lovely watercolor memorial wreath dedicated to the memory of Abigail’s niece, Elizabeth Ropes Orne, who died of consumption at age 24 in 1842 (see her own sketches here). The bedrooms with their canopy beds are lovely: one rather ghostly and/or innocent, the other displaying a much more vibrant reproduction textile, and there is a fully-outfitted bathroom in the 1894 back of the house, just as “modern” as the kitchen below. Altogether a beautiful house bearing testimony to lives lived: the best kind of memorial.

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Ropes Mansion Salem Marine Society

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Ropes Memorial

A true Ropes Memorial: watercolor memorial wreath for Elizabeth Ropes Orne by her former teacher, Eliza B. Davis, who presented it to Elizabeth’s mother Sally in 1851. Elizabeth’s signature, presumably from a letter, is in the center. 


Casting Dice

The sheer beauty of the Chestnut Street park this spring–just outside my bedroom window–combined with the solicitousness of my neighbors in picking up after their dogs (newly allowed this year) has got me thinking about lawn games, played, of course, on a perfect summer day (or early evening), g&t in hand. There is always croquet or bocce, but somehow three pictures of lawn dice popped up on my computer screen in the last few days, so right now that’s my focus: I’m not quite sure what you do with these jumbo dice, but I like the concept. When looking around for some game possibilities, I fell down the rabbit hole that is the history of dice–back to antiquity. What we think of as a simple game certainly had some weighty symbolism attached to it in the past: the die is cast for Julius Caesar, Roman soldiers casting dice to determine who would get the bloodstained garments of Jesus after the crucifixion, dice games played with Death Personified during the Middle Ages, vice, vice, and more vice. Think about the evolution of the verbs associated with dice: casting is somewhat suspicious, but once it evolves into a game of throwing, it becomes an increasingly harmless activity. And tumbling dice are clearly even more innocuous.

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Dice Players Walters Art Gallery

DES94132 Fashion textile design depicting tumbling dice, French, c.1930s (gouache on paper) by French School, (20th century); © The Design Library, New York, USA; French,  it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories

Jumbo Wooden Dice sets from Paper Source, Crate and Barrel, and The Grommet; lazy (half-naked!) dice players in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (The Smithfield Decretals, British Library MS Royal MS 10 E IV; Walters Art Gallery MS W4492V by Master Jean de Mauléon, c. 1542); the modern design motif: tumbling dice fabric from the 1930s, ©The Design Library, New York.


May it always be May

May seems especially sweet this year after our cruel winter, and last week was particularly beautiful–with the wisteria and the dogwoods in full flower along with many of my favorite plants: bleeding hearts, Solomon seals, Alexanders, and lilies of the valley. It was also one of the busiest weeks of the academic year, with grading, senior events, and graduation, so I rushed around from place to place while still managing to stop and smell the lilacs. Warm days, cool nights: perfect hair and cotton sweater weather. Gorgeous, golden light in the late afternoon and early evening spilling into my north-facing front parlor. The only off-key event of these lyrical days was the Mad Men finale which was just not worthy, in my opinion:  I don’t want to see Don Draper chanting om! Sorry for the digression–I just had to get that out there. Back to the real world, which I would like to always be May-like, but then, of course, May would not be May, but just everyday.

Pictures of May in Salem starting with a colonial musician walking down Chestnut Street, then the view from my bedroom, the view from my office, and lots and lots of flowers.

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Stickwork in Salem

Stick sculptor Patrick Dougherty has been working on an installation in Salem over the past week, constructing several stickwork structures on the grounds of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Crowninshield-Bentley House. They are nearly completed, and we went over on Friday evening to check them out. Situated on a prominent corner in Salem, there were already lots of people gazing at them when we arrived, but they must have been tourists who didn’t know that these grounds are actually quite open from the back, so we were very much in the houses while they were gazing on, from the other side of the fence (we eventually told them how to get in). These structures are both solid and seemingly ethereal: almost like fairy houses in some fantasy kingdom. Another immediately apparent contrast was the whimsical and airy outline of the sculptures against the background of the very solid, seemingly (and hopefully) eternal Crowninshield-Bentley and Gardner-Pingree Houses. Here’s a few photographs of the work-in-progress:  I will return to take more when they are completed.

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Video of the Stickwork installation here.


Three Hancocks

If I were to participate in the Outings public art project featured in my last post, the image that I would convey from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum to the streets of Salem would be a small mezzotint of John Hancock made by Salem engraver-silversmith Joseph Hiller after a John Singleton Copley painting from the early 1770s. There are actually two of these Hiller prints extant (at least), and I would love to see them side by side (I guess I can!). The Peabody Essex print is actually the second state: the Shepard Fairey-ish image in the collection of the National Museum of American History is an earlier impression. The Hiller prints were made about 1775, after Hancock has assumed the role of President of the Continental Congress, as is a third print after Copley rendered by the British engraver William Smith: the smuggler patriot was now famous on both sides of the Atlantic. I think there is an interesting comparison to be made here: the close-up, unframed impressions of the American Hiller are more intimate and immediate than Smith’s version, even though the latter’s techniques seem to have stood the test of time a bit better.

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Joseph Hiller (1746–1814) after Copley, The Hon. John Hancock, Esq., ca. 1775. Inscribed lower left border “Jos. Hiller fecit.” Mezzotint with watercolor, 9-7/8 x 7-7/8 inches. Courtesy, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem; and The Hon. John Hancock, Esq., ca. 1775, National Museum of American History; William Smith (1750-1825?) after Copley, The Hon. John Hancock, Esq., ca. 1775, National Portrait Gallery.

I think I’m drawn to these images because Hancock has always been one of my favorite founding fathers: certainly the one with whom I had the earliest and most immediate connection because of his still-standing wharf and warehouse in my hometown. Later on, when I moved to Massachusetts and became interested in preservation issues, the images and story of his martyred mansion became the cautionary tale. And I must admit that his portrayal by the British actor Rafe Spall was just about the only thing that kept me watching the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty miniseries a few months ago.

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Two more Hancocks. The source: John Singleton Copley’s portrait, c. 1770-72, Massachusetts Historical Society; a Salem-printed broadside from the end of Hancock’s term as president of the Continental Congress and “the first year of American Independence”, National Portrait Gallery.


Dark Etchings

Though he is primarily identified as a New York artist, the German émigré etcher Charles Frederick William Mielatz (1864-1919) also produced many New England images: port scenes, a few pastoral landscapes and many more urban streetscapes, and detailed depictions of structures. When in Salem, he apparently ignored the wharves (which seem to have captivated him in Nantucket and Boston) in favor of an old house–which he calls the “Witch House”, but it doesn’t really look like the Witch House would have looked in 1903, the year in which the etchings below were made. This makes sense in context: Salem’s harbor must have looked rather dreary at the turn of the last century and its Witch City identity was forming, a decade after the commemoration of the bicentennial anniversary of the Trials with all its commercial tie-ins. Mielatz’s Witch Houses are dark indeed, in contrast to his most of his urban scenes, which include some rather pioneering colored etchings. As if he could not resist, he does give us a pop of contrasting red in the second Witch House etching, which emphasizes the darkness of this mystical olde Salem house.

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Witches House 1903 CF Mielatz

Witch House Pencil Drawing Mielatz

Mielatz Houston Street Door

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Charles Frederick William Mielatz, Witch House etchings, 1903, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Bonhams Auctions; Pencil Sketch for the same and Houston Street, NYC door, both also 1903, Kramer Fine Arts & Prints, Inc.; “No. 7 State Street”, NYC, 1908, Skinner Auctions.


First Flowering

Yesterday was the first truly warm day of 2015 in Salem so I took a long, long walk in order to escape department drama and find some color: successful on both counts! Everyone had the same idea, and so young and old, firm and infirm, and fully-dressed and half-dressed were out and about. This is the time to see flowering shrubs and trees: the dogwoods are not quite out, but the magnolias certainly are, and I’ve got three notable examples below: one particularly lush shrub that everyone drives by without due appreciation on busy North Street, an older, sparer tree in the garden of the Gardner Pingree House, and a perfect tree on the Common (which I think I feature every year at about this time–along with various spring bulbs). There was just one single flower on the old Wisteria that climbs up the Andrew Safford House, so I gave it a spotlight.

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