Tag Archives: Architecture

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 Bedroom

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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. 


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.

Stickwork in Salem

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Video of the Stickwork installation here.


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.

Witch House 1903 CW Mielatz

Witches House 1903 CF Mielatz

Witch House Pencil Drawing Mielatz

Mielatz Houston Street Door

Mieletz State Street NYC

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.


A Storied Salem House

Over the several years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been trying to ascertain both the history and the imagery of as many seventeenth-century Salem houses as possible in a rather sporadic manner. All the famous houses (the House of the Seven Gables, the Jonathan Corwin “Witch” House, the Pickering House) are easy: well-documented in terms of both literary and photographic evidence. Other houses–both those that still stand and those that are long-lost–are more elusive, so when I run into obstacles I leave them alone for a while. I’m interested in these houses for several reasons beyond basic appreciation: as an early modern English historian walking around this New English city the seventeenth-century structures are an accessible window into the past that I study, I’ve been rereading (and reading for the first time in many cases) Hawthorne over the past few years, and I like to imagine the Salem of his time, when there were far more standing first-period buildings, and lastly, I like photographs that show architectural and urban transition, and those that show leaning wooden multi-gabled buildings adjacent to stalwart stone multi-storied structures are particularly striking.

One very elusive house that I’ve been chasing for some time is (or was) the Deliverance Parkman House, which was built near what is now the corner of North and Essex Streets (right across from the Witch House) around 1673 and taken down by 1835, according to Cousins’ and Riley’s Colonial Architecture of Salem: long enough for Hawthorne to see it, but not quite long enough for it to be photographed, so no striking contrast picture. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this lack of realistic imagery, the house–or any remaining perception of it–is cast in a rather romantic light: Hawthorne refers to it twice (in his “Notes” and the short story “Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure”) in relation to the practice of alchemy and buried treasure within: what could be more alluring than that? The only image that I can find of the Parkman House was made by Salem illustrator J.L. Bridgman about 1900–and clearly based on Hawthorne’s characterization. As in the case of the House of the Seven Gables, the Deliverance Parkman house seems to have inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to “create” a storied house.

Deliverance Parkman House Bridgman

Deliverance Parkman House stereoview

Essex Street Salem c 1915

L.J. Bridgman sketch of the Deliverance Parkman House, individually and in stereo (NYPL Digital Collections); one block of Essex Street in 1915, long after the Parkman House was razed, to be replaced by the brick Greek Revival Shepard block, rear right.


Green and Purple

At this time of year I crave two colors: green and purple, alone but especially together. This is one of my favorite color combinations, in all shades: lavender and spring green, purple and emerald, violet and chartreuse. I’ve never had a house that could carry off these colors either on its exterior or interior—I suppose I wouldn’t want to live with them–but they always catch my eye. I grew up in the Laura Ashley age, and two of my favorite prints (on a dress and a comforter) bore purple and green rather boldly, and my late spring wedding featured touches of these two colors, anchored by more neutral gray and ivory. The spectrum of green and purple can take you through the year if you’re so inclined: with paler shades for spring and summer and richer tones for fall and winter. So here is my palette, starting with a wonderful picture of the Elizabethan scholar, art and cultural historian, public intellectual, super gardener, and all-around Renaissance Man Sir Roy Strong, standing in the midst of his Laskett Gardens in Herefordshire.

The remaking a garden the Laskett transformed

Green and Purple Historic Palaces WP Cole

Cole and Son Wallpaper Versailles Grand

Green and purple Warner House

Green and Purple House Salem Oliver Street

Green and Purple House Salem

Green and Purple Plaque

Photograph of Sir Roy Strong by Clive Coursnell from Remaking a Garden:  the Laskett Gardens Transformed (2014); “Royal Garden” and “Versailles Grand” wallpapers from Cole & Son; Bedroom at the 1716 Warner House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire (photograph by Geoffrey Gross for Antiques & Fine Art Magazine); two Salem houses on Oliver and Daniel Streets (the first one looks rather blue in this photo, but more purple in real life–love the chartreuse trim–and the plaque on the second house: Historic Salem’s plaques are not usually so informational).


The Carriage Houses of Oliver Street

Salem is rich in historic carriage houses and I’ve posted on them before, but this Oliver Street cluster definitely deserves a spotlight. This short street runs from the Common to Bridge Street, and is named after the diversely prolific Henry Kemble Oliver (1800-1885), who served as mayor of both Salem and Lawrence as well as in various prominent state positions, during which he managed to publish both mathematical and musical compositions. His namesake street features a variety of predominately nineteenth-century buildings, and obviously served as the “back” of larger estates on Washington Square and Winter Street, consequently the carriage houses. The first one below belongs to the impressive White-Lord estate, built on the Common in 1811–as does this beautiful side door (I just love this door–I go out of my way to see it as often as possible). The White-Lord carriage house has recently been converted to a residence while its neighboring structures remain utility outbuildings, but now housing cars rather than carriages, of course.

Oliver Street 1898 Salem Atlas

Oliver Street White Lord House

Oliver Street White Lord Carriage House

Oliver Street on the 1898 Salem Atlas (digitized here); Side Door and carriage house of the Washington-Lord House at 31 Washington Square, Salem, above; Carriage Houses of the Joseph Story House on Winter Street and the White-Silsbee House at 33 Washington Square, both also built in 1811, along (the other side of) Oliver Street, below. As you can see, the Story Carriage House even has its own plaque!

Oliver Street Carriage Houses Salem

Oliver Street Story Carriage House

Oliver Street Carriage House 2

All of these late-Federal brick structures–carriage houses and main houses, were built in the same year: 1811. This happens to be the very same year that the man who crafted material Salem, Samuel McIntire, died. So this year must be the absolute pinnacle of golden-age ascendant Salem, especially as the War of 1812 and its attendant consequences effectively ended Salem’s commercial heyday as a maritime port. A new era began, but these structures seem to have made that transition, and several more, quite smoothly. And here’s one more transitional Oliver Street outbuilding: not a fancy carriage house, but a good old barn, I think, converted into an equally utilitarian garage.

Oliver Street Barn


Two Days of Sun

Two days of sun has resulted in nearly (but not absolutely) all of the snow disappearing from the streets of Salem, so finally I am able to show you colors other than white. It is an early New England spring, so the predominant color out there is brown, and there remain several hills of dirt-covered snow out at the Willows–a striking reminder of just how much of the white stuff we received in February. It will be interesting to see when those hills actually melt: I’m thinking June! But I’ve decided not to show you those: they are impressive, but so dirt-covered they look like actual hills emerging from a muddy parking lot–not pretty. This was a pretty weekend, so I want to capture it by showing pretty (and very random) pictures of things I saw around town as I was simply walking around in the sun, like everyone else, noticing things I had not seen for months. First–one last image of predominate white: it was definitely a cats-seeking-sun kind of weekend.

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Spring First Muster Salem Common

Spring 2015 Muster Salem Common

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A Federal Street cat and rope wreath; the First Muster commemoration on Salem Common, colorful houses off the Common and Bridge Street; the view from a Salem Willows house.


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