I walk steadfastly to work, down Lafayette Street, nearly every day all semester long, but now that Spring has finally arrived in Salem I can stroll a bit in my own neighborhood. I did just that the other day when the sun was out, with a goal but looking for flowers along the way. Last week one of my favorite Essex Street houses came on the market: the Sprague-Peabody-Silsbee House, built in 1807 for Salem merchant Joseph Sprague (with interior carving attributed to Samuel McIntre), and later enlarged and remodeled by William G. Rantoul. This is a striking Federal house, cast in a fading yellow-painted brick, with one of Salem’s best carriage houses out back. I always smile when I see it, not only because it is pleasing to look at, but also because I remember the charming couple that lived there for many years.
Along the way: a field of flowers on Chestnut, an “antler” on Federal, and a window on Essex.
The Sprague-Peabody-Sillsbee House, 1807: front and sides (the Rantoul additions are on the right side, I assume, and in the back–plus the balustrade?), carriage house and interior shots from the listing; exterior detail.
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 scene, the 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.
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).
If you’ve read this blog for any time at all you know that I am a traditionalist when it comes to architecture, and a committed preservationist, but there’s a new storefront on Essex Street, Salem’s main thoroughfare since its foundation, which has definitely caught my eye–and it is very sleek and very modern. As a main street, for nearly four centuries, Essex Street has had to change with the times, and this particular block lost its really old structures long ago–in the past century it was home to two adjacent movie theaters, one which looks like it was a real palace (the Empire), and another which was a more modest mid-century construction (the Salem). The building with the bold new storefront was built in 1929 in a Colonial Revival style, complete with urns on top–like a McIntire fence! Its shiny new facade actually has a bit more integrity, I think, and hopefully draws a great new tenant.
The 390s block of Essex Street, present and past.
I used to disdain what I call “anniversary history”–the commemoration of historical events only on their centenaries, a temporary historical consciousness–as not serious and media-driven: a History Channel approach to history. I tried to engage in a bit of anniversary myself back in 2012, and the results were indeed a bit superficial! I still believe that “history” happens every day and everything is “historical” but I also realize that it’s impossible for the average person to go about their day (or their life) in a historical fog so the marking of anniversaries of events large and small, public and private, and global and local is important, and even necessary. They make people stop and think about the past–and its relation to the present–at least for a little while.
From my perspective(s), 1914 promises to be a big year for anniversary history: this summer marks the centenary of both the Great Salem Fire and the beginning of World War I in Europe. Over there, commemoration of the latter has already begun in earnest and will intensify over this year; I expect American engagement will really commence in 2017, the centenary of our entry into the Great War (although President Obama visited Flanders Fields a few days ago). This coincidence of local and global “Great” events is interesting to me because it mirrors historiographical and cultural trends, and because both events were so very disastrous, testing the mettle of men and women in myriad ways. Here in Salem, we began our commemoration of the 1914 fire last night with a presentation by the scholar Jacob Remes, author of the forthcoming Disaster Citizenship: Urban Disasters and the Formation of the North American Progressive State, to a standing-room-only crowd at the National Park Service Visitor Center (the former drill shed, or what remains of the Salem Armory, where the Fire relief efforts were based). Remes’ focus, on the aftermath of the fire both in the camps (where fire refugees were called “inmates”!) and the rebuilt factories a bit later, bridged the local and the global with its emphasis on labor, and started us off on a thoughtful and reverent note. There will be a centenary symposium in June, on the weekend before the date of the Fire (June 25) and just before the commemoration of the Great War really kicks off across the Atlantic.
Faces of the Great Fire and the Great War: In Salem, after the Fire, unidentified men and Mrs. Henry Reed and her daughter Helen, from the Dionne Collection at the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; Soldiers of the West Yorkshire Regiment sitting in a captured German pillbox awaiting their orders at the Battle of Polygon Wood, 1917, Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection, Imperial War Museums: ©IWM (Q2903).
Salem doesn’t have many “ghost signs” of commerce past–I think sandblasting was part of its urban renewal experience–but it does have one of the most famous and most-photographed, marking the former Newmark’s Department Store on Essex Street. As you can see from my photographs from yesterday and the postcard from a century ago, this is actually the second sign (at least) on the side of this building. With the adjacent two-story building below, it’s an urban billboard.
The F.W. Webb plumbing supplies building on Bridge Street, probably Salem’s most prominent “industrial” building, is a billboard on all four sides. When you’re coming into Salem on 114 over the North Street bypass bridge, you can’t help but notice it on the right, mostly because of its retro lettering and its sharp contrast with the nearby Peirce-Nichols house. You can “read” the history of this building through its surviving signage: I particularly like its rear wall where only shadows remain.
My last ghost sign is on Peabody Street in Salem, a street of brick multi-story residential buildings built just after the great fire of 1914. There’s very little room between them, so this is not a great streetscape for signage, but one has managed to survive: for Beeman’s Pepsin Gum, a nationally-sold product marketed primarily as an aid to digestion. Few people probably notice this sign today, but for decades it was right on one of the major pedestrian paths to Salem’s largest employer, Pequot Mills.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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”.
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.
Images from Susan Daley’s and Steve Gross’s Time Wearing Out Memory: Scoharie County (2008).
Samuel Emery (1787-1882) made compasses and other nautical and mathematical instruments here in Salem for more than half a century–both during and after the city’s great age of sail. His work can still be seen today, at auctions and in museums, but most often in museum shops. Recently I stumbled across one, and then another and another, reproduced and transformed into pendants and pins. What made Emery’s compasses so decorative? It’s not the fleur-de-lis marking north–that is traditional from the fourteenth century when French makers used a fancy “T”, resembling a flower, to mark the north wind or Tramontana. The two surveyors’ compasses below are nearly identical and were both made by Salem craftsman: the one on the left by John Jayne and the smaller one on the right by Emery, both sold at Skinner auctions.
Samuel Emery Box Label, Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University.
I’m sure Emery’s instruments were well-made or he wouldn’t have been in business for as long as he was, but his designs look pretty conventional for their time. I suspect that the reason Emery’s compasses are still for sale is the original copper plate in the possession of the Peabody Essex Museum, enabling fresh and adapted impressions and models to be made, as well as the traditional appeal of the compass rose (first in maritime communities, then more broadly), which has emblazoned textiles, pottery, and other decorative accessories for centuries, so why not jewelry–among other things–now?
Compass Rose brooches from the PEM and Morgan shops (just click on the picture and you’ll get there); Early Connecticut pieced quilt with Mariner’s Compass, Northeast Auctions; Sunderland Pink Lustre bowl, c. 1820-1830, Victoria & Albert Museum; Better than Jam fabric.
Spring break week for me, but unfortunately I have no warm destination in sight, just a series of day trips and various “staycation” cultural activities (and of course it is snowing again this morning). Oh well, Salem’s annual documentary film festival is on now, and nearly all of the films look interesting, first among them Maidentrip, which documents the amazing solo circumnavigation of Dutch teenager Laura Dekker in 2011-2012, and The Galapagos Affair: When Satan Came to Eden, which examines the still-unsolved disappearance of several members of a not-so-Utopian community of European expatriates on the Galapagos Islands in the 1930s. I love stories–real or otherwise–about displaced Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, always feuding and over-estimating their abilities!
Somehow I got completely confused over the screening times of the other two films I really wanted to see: they were both up yesterday so I’ll have to see them at other venues. The historian in me mandates that I see Here was Cuba, the latest examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis using recently declassified sources from U.S., Russian, and Cuban archives, and my inner architecture buff really wants to see The Human Scale, a plea for better urban planning–hopefully from the Renaissance perspective that its title implies. Just in time for Salem.
It’s not just contemporary video games that engage our children (boys) in virtual warfare: their paper predecessors had the very same focus. The majestic monarchs and large professional armies and navies of the eighteenth century inspired the transformation of traditional games of the goose into more strategic games of fortifications and war, and nineteenth-century manufacturing and marketing techniques intensified this shift, along with contemporary ideas about nationalism and education. Four things inspired me to dig into this topic: André Hellé’s Alphabet de la Grande Guerre, which I featured in my last post, the discovery of a board game dating from and “playing” the Crimean War of 1853-56 (too topical), a recent New York Times “Opinionator” column about “The Myriopticon”, a Civil-War parlor game which was “immensely popular with boys”, and an advertisement for Salem’s own Parker Brothers’ Spanish-American War games, The War in Cuba and The Battle of Manila. And then I discovered the Victoria & Albert’s Museum of Childhood “War Games” exhibit, which is closing at the end of the week.
I find these games a little disarming. I understand that the ABC was intended for “the children of our soldiers”, but do these children really need to see pictures of trenches and tanks (no gas masks, thankfully)? I’m just nervous about the Crimea. And Milton Bradley produced the Myriopticon during the Civil War (or Great Rebellion), a tactic that was followed by Parker Brothers at the end of the century. Both World War I and World War II challenged the glorification of war in many ways, but they did not put an end to war games; if anything, the intensifying competitive nationalism and focus on propaganda made them even more popular. The latter are of the bombs away variety, but games of the Great War seem particularly and personally destructive: German children targeted Britain with their toy u-boats, while the object of British children was to get rid of the Huns.
Get Rid of Huns Maze Puzzle, c. 1916, Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood.