Tag Archives: Architecture

Evolving Essex Street

The sight of the poster announcing the arrival of the new Korean fried chicken chain restaurant Bonchon on Essex Street reminded me of how main streets are always in transition: you can trace the history of a town just by examining the evolving nature of its buildings and hardscapes. Essex Street is fronted by structures from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries—residential, commercial and institutional. It has been covered with dirt, cobblestones, tracks, and pavement, widened several times and in several places, and (unfortunately) transformed into a pedestrian “mall” (on which cars–or I should say trucks and trolleys–still drive)–in its central section in the 1970s. I have posted about Essex Street many, many times, so I thought I would feature some seldom-seen images today, and examine the physical evolution of this storied street.

Essex Street Perley Map

Essex Street has run right down the center of Salem since the seventeenth century; Below, Essex Street from the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries, as imagined and in reality.

Essex Street 1776 Bowditch

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Essex Street 1870

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Essex Street HNE 1880s

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Essex Street envisioned in 1776 in Carry On, Mr. Bowditch; and in the 1820s on an old Essex Institute postcard; photographs of the street in 1870, 1874 & 1880s (Historic New England & New York Public Library Digital Gallery). Below: a shopping street–until the 1970s–although the famous stores Almy, Bigelow, & Washburn and L.H. Rogers survived into the 1980s. Only the Almy’s Clock remains, and the Rogers store is now administrative offices for the Peabody Essex Museum. (1976 photograph from Jerome Curley’s great Patch column, “Then and Now” and L.H. Rogers photograph from the website “Hawthorne in Salem”).

Essex Street

Essex Street Paving

Essex Street LH Rogers

Below: a not-so-faithful street. It’s surprising to me how few houses of worship are located on Essex Street: at present, only one. Reverend Bentley’s Second Congregational “East Church” was on lower Essex, and before it was transformed into Daniel Low and Co., the imposing structure at the corner of Washington and Essex—the site of Salem’s first meeting house–served as the First Church of Salem–now further along (up) Essex Street. Salem’s only Jewish congregation, Temple Shalom of the Congregation Sons of David, established its first synagogue on Essex Street (its second on Lafayette Street is currently being adapted into academic offices and classrooms for Salem State University). The more mystical Swedenborgian Church was briefly located on upper Essex Street, on the present site of the Salem Athenaeum (American Jewish Historical Society, New England Archives; Weston Collection).

EssexSt Synagogue 1930s

Essex Street 1920s HH

Essex Street Swedenborgian Church

So many lost Essex Street houses! Too many to mention here–I’ve focused on them individually and will continue to do so. I don’t think I’ve ever featured the Sanders House at 292 Essex however, a site now occupied by the Salem YMCA. Alexander Graham Bell lived in the house in the 1870s and conducted experiments in its attic that led to the invention of the telephone: why it couldn’t have been preserved just on this basis I do not know. It reminds me of the beautiful Pickman house down the street, also gone. This particular block of Essex was definitely trending commercial in the late nineteenth centuries, however, and Georgian structures were not long for this world. The new YMCA came in, and just across the street a bit later-the Colonial Revival structure (with its new facade) that will soon house Salem’s Bonchon.

Sanders House 292 Essex

Essex Street YMCA 1920s

Essex Street Bon Chon


Southern Exposure, Part Two

Just finishing up with vacation pictures and notes before I move on to other topics this coming week: lots going on in Salem, and I also have a bunch of historical and horticultural things I’m working on. First of all, I must say that Charleston is of course a lovely city, I didn’t mean to cast aspersions on it in my previous post (people keep coming up to me!): I just preferred Savannah slightly more on this particular vacation. This was likely due more to my mood than anything else. Charleston was quite crowded when we were there, with the Spoleto festival just wrapping up, and we never really found quite the right restaurant or bar: the celebrated Husk was right near our inn, so we felt we needed to go farther afield, which was probably a mistake. And while Charleston is full of great art galleries and antique stores, King Street is all chain stores, and I couldn’t find the perfect little local shop that I’m always looking for. But the crowds and the sun drove us into the really interesting Charleston Museum, which is not much to look at on the outside but full of lots of curiosities in the inside (if arranged in rather old-fashioned exhibits): I continue to be saddened by Salem’s lack of a similar venue. And there are few avenues than can compete with the Battery and Tradd Street: very few.

A bit more of Savannah. My favorite house and a really neat shop: Prospector Co.

Savannah Favorite Townhouse

Savannah Prospector Co

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In Charleston. Tradd Street, a “Charleston Door” opening up to the porch, the Battery, King Street, many Massachusetts-made guns in the Charleston Museum!

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Charleston Tradd Street

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Charleston Battery

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Charleston Museum


Southern Exposure

We are just back from a brief vacation down south, to Raleigh, Savannah and Charleston: three very different cities! Raleigh is clearly booming, but it’s hard to find its center in the midst of all the ring roads and housing developments, while Savannah and Charleston have long embraced their urban cores, first out of necessity, later for tourism. They are perfect walking and biking cities while you clearly need bigger wheels in Raleigh. I’ve been to Savannah and Charleston several times, and always together, inviting comparisons. This time I preferred the former, though it might have been due merely to our better accommodations (The Gastonian) and the fact that we were there on weekdays when it was a bit quieter. By the time we got to Charleston I was tired of walking around with a sheen of perspiration on my forehead, and my camera was so tired it just quit! Savannah is–of course–a city of squares and townhouses, and we saw them all, large and small. We bypassed the more touristy waterfront in favor of downtown, and sought out the full architectural spectrum, which is uniform in form but incredibly diverse in style: townhouses from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, English, French, Spanish, and even Dutch in inspiration, or so they seemed to me. We ate and drank very well (Pinkie Master’s Lounge, Crystal Beer Parlor, Alligator Soul)–probably another reason we were a bit worn out by the time we got to Charleston!

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The courtyard garden at our inn and all sorts of Savannah townhouses, above; below: some notable detached houses in Savannah, including the Richardson-Owens-Thomas House (and slave quarters) and the Isaiah Davenport House. Obligatory shots of the impressive cathedral and moss.

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A few more observations, some comparative, some not. I love all the outdoor gas lighting in Savannah–and the garden statuary:  people really embellish their homes and gardens. Both Savannah and Charleston are cleaner (yes, even Savannah, the “beautiful woman with a dirty face”) than Salem: we should do better. Savannah is very serious about dog poop: there are special receptacles in all of the squares and cemeteries. Both cities are also quieter and more traffic-calmed–the squares of Savannah are particularly effective at that. The educational institutions in both cities, Savannah College of Art and Design and the College of Charleston, are much more integrated than our Salem State University, rehabilitating older structures downtown rather than just building new and big outside. More on Charleston in my next post, and shopping.

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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. 


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.


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