Tag Archives: great houses

Bowditch’s Birthday

I hope that mariners all over the world are celebrating the birthday of one of Salem’s most eminent native sons, the nautical scientist Nathaniel Bowditch, who was born on this day in 1773. The author of the encyclopedic, and still authoritative, New American Practical Navigator, I like to think of Bowditch as one of the last self-taught, “practical” scientists: he was forced by family necessity to abandon his academic studies at a young age and taught himself classical and modern languages, algebra, calculus and astronomy while working as an apprentice at a ship chandlery in his teens. Here we have a perfect example of the determinative role of birthplace: Bowditch is clearly a product of worldly Salem in its golden age, when opportunities were many and limitations few, for men that applied themselves–and had connections and resources, of course. Even an apprentice ship’s chandler accountant, Bowditch had access to the 116-volume library of Irish scientist Richard Kirwan (1733-1812). Acquired by a Beverly privateer during the Revolutionary War and auctioned off in Salem in 1781, it is one of the foundational collections of the Salem Athenaeum. Armed with his self-education from books, Bowditch went to sea following the completion of his apprenticeship and in the course of seven voyages gained the empirical experience and data that enabled him to correct some 8000 errors in the then-authoritative navigational manual, John Hamilton Moore’s Practical Navigator and eventually issue his own American Practical Navigator in 1802. Thereafter his life was one of choices (except, of course, for his unfortunate death from cancer in 1838) and he chose the more practical role of insurance-company financial statistician rather than the academic offers that came his way, first in Salem and after 1823 in Boston: the laudatory speeches given at his farewell dinner at Hamilton Hall are still ringing in the eaves!

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Bowditch Apprentice Carry On 1956

Bowditch Navigator

Bowditch Hastings Smithsonian

Bowditch Bust Smithsonian

Nathaniel Bowditch’s birthplace on Kimball Court in Salem; Bowditch as role-model apprentice in Jean Lee Latham’s influential Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1956); The Title Pages of the first edition of The New American Practical Navigator (1802); Artist Pattie Belle Hastings’ take on the Practical Navigator, from the Smithsonian Institution’s 1995 exhibition “Science and the Artist’s Book”; Engraving of Bowditch by J. Gorss from a drawing by J.B. Longacre, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.  


Sepia Streets

The other day I came across a cache of historic photographs of Boston and its surrounding communities at the turn of the last century among the digitized collections of the Boston Public Library. The Salem scenes caught my attention but as I had seen most of them I moved on and examined the rest of the 320+ photographs: sepia scenes of lost Boston, lost Chelsea, lost Arlington, lost Medford….lots has been lost but some of the structures in these photographs still remain. I had to check on each and every one, of course, and so hours passed, maybe even days….I lost track. These photographs remind me of those taken by Frank Cousins in Salem around the same time; he may even be one of the photographers as no credits are given. There is an explicit reverence and respect for the pre-Revolutionary structures and streets captured, and an implicit message that they not be there for long. The collection was commissioned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, then quite a young organization, founded in 1890. Certainly the DAR has not been the most progressive of institutions over its history, but historic preservation was absolutely central to its mission then, and it remains so today. I certainly get that as I gaze at these photographs, and I am reminded of just how many early preservationists were women: Ann Pamela Cunningham and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Margot Gayle, the savior of Soho, fierce urban renewal opponents Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtable. Certainly we have had our share here in Salem: those avid advocates of “Old Salem” culture and architecture, Mary Parker Saltonstall and Mary Harrod Northend, Louise Crowninshield, an influential board member of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) who facilitated the acquisition of the Richard Derby House by the new Salem Maritime National Historic Site in the 1930s, and many of my own contemporaries who have contributed much to the preservation of Salem’s existing fabric in this challenging environment.

But I think I’m digressing a bit, let’s get to the pictures, starting with a few long-long scenes of Boston: Webster Avenue (Alley!), and Hull and Henchman Streets.

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Hull Street Boston PBL

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A bit further out, the Dillaway House in Roxbury, built by the Reverend Oliver Peabody who dies in 1752. The headquarters of General John Thomas at the time of the siege of Boston. The Dillaway House about a century later, and at present, at the center of the Roxbury Heritage State Park.

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Three seventeenth-century houses that survive to this day: the Pierce House in Dorchester, the Cradock House in Medford (more properly known as the Peter Tufts House, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, all-brick structures in the U.S.), and the Deane Winthrop House in Winthrop:

Pierce House Dorchester BPL

Cradock House Medford BPL

Deane Winthrop House Winthrop BPL

As I said above, most of the Salem photographs were familiar to me and I’ve posted them before: with a few exceptions. Clearly the DAR was looking for Revolutionary-related sites, so their photographer captured the much-changed locale of Leslie’s Retreat on North Street, along with a few other predictable sites like the Pickering House. Two houses identified as “Salem” in this collection are unfamiliar to me: the first (in the middle below) is–or was–obviously situated downtown, but I don’t recognize it: maybe someone out there will, or maybe it is gone. The second looks like it was located on a country lane: not very Salem-like, even a century or more ago, but it could be North Salem, or possibly even Salem, New Hampshire?

North Bridge Salem 1890 BPL

Old House in Salem 1890 BPL

Country House Salem BPL

North Bridge, Salem, “Old House” Salem, and a country house in Salem, c. 1890-1905, from the DAR-commissioned Archive of Photographic Documentation of Early Massachusetts Architecture at the Boston Public Library, also available here.


An Executive Mansion

For this Washington’s birthday weekend, I am thrilled to be able to feature photographs of the ongoing restoration of the Joshua Ward House, where our first President stayed when he visited Salem in the Fall of 1789. I featured the house in a previous post, where you can see historic photographs and read some of its history, but I was not able to access the interior at that time. Since then, the house has been purchased and is presently being transformed, with great attention to detail, into an inn. I have no name or link yet, but will certainly revisit this project: my strong impression is that the owner wants to pay homage to the house’s namesake builder, the worldly merchant, successful distiller, and every-hospitable Joshua Ward, and dispel its dubious haunted reputation forever. Even though it’s right around the corner from my own house, I am booking a room as soon as it is opened: the very room where President Washington slept, restored to all of its former glory.

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Washington on horseback 19th C

As I had never been in the house and long desired to, my expectations were…great, and I was not disappointed. Even in its present state, a work site, it is beautiful both in its entirety and its details. Seeing it so exposed made it even more beautiful perhaps: layers of paint being sanded off, ceilings opened to the rafters, pocked beams everywhere, doors on the floor. It seemed both vulnerable and stalwart to me, especially as I looked out the windows (of George’s second-floor bedroom, of course) and thought of all the things this house has seen: water and wharves when it was first built in the 1780s, then a filled-in busy downtown, then a huge Gothic fortress-train depot, then nothing because commercial structures blocked its view, then a notorious traffic-clogged “plaza”, now a mixed picture of preservation and poor planning. The Joshua Ward House has weathered all of these developments and is standing by, nearly fully-equipped, for future ones.

First floor: looking out at Salem; famous entrance hall and staircase; soon-to-be inn tavern room; front and back fireplaces.

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Second Floor: more of the famous staircase, Washington’s bedroom, opposite (southeast) bedroom, entrance to the back of the house.

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Through, back, up: stairs, second and third floor bedrooms, the attic.

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Details, details:

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Pieces of the past (even the relatively recent past):

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Some orientation: Jonathan Saunders’ c. 1820 map of Salem (house marked by * ) and Sidney Perley’s 1905 map, both from the Boston Public Library; the Ward House in the mid-20th century, obscured by billboards and facades, and today.

Salem 1820 Saunders

Salem 1905 Perley

Ward House Billboards

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A Salem Romance

I have a real romance author as a neighbor, so I am venturing into this territory with some trepidation, but as Valentine’s Day quickly approaches I want to shift the focus from snow, snow, snow, which is all we are talking about here. In Salem, the perennial romance that is dragged out nearly every year for this occasion is that of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, which I find boring, boring, boring. It’s been done to death, like so many Salem stories, because it is easy: they both came from conspicuous families and were great diarists, she painted some charming scenes, he was so very handsome. If I were going to pen a Salem romance, which I am not (I am not creative enough for fiction, which this post will verify) I would write the love story of Philip English and Mary Hollingsworth. Now I have no idea if these two people were actually in love (they come from a different time and are not so “open” as Nathaniel and Sophia) but their intertwined lives would sure make for a good story!

Actually, I don’t know why there is not more scholarly work on Philip English, whose life is intertwined not only with Mary but with two of the seminal events of the seventeenth century: the English Civil War and the Salem Witch Trials. He’s the perfect “transatlantic man”, with one foot on either side of the ocean: born on the English Channel island of Jersey to a very connected family in 1651, the very same year the Royalist Carteret family, including his godfather Sir Philip De Carteret (III), surrendered the island to Parliamentary forces. Philip d’Anglois grew up in the midst of a network of merchants, fishermen, and smugglers who had several North American ties–and after the Restoration, his Carteret connections would no doubt come in useful too. He emigrated to Salem by 1670, became Philip English, and immediately commenced making his fortune, no doubt using both his old Jersey and Royalist connections and the new ones forged in New England, most notably through his marriage (in 1675) to Mary Hollingsworth, the only daughter of wealthy merchant and tavern-keeper William Hollingsworth and his wife Eleanor. There followed: the death of William (lost at sea!) and a likely considerable inheritance for Mary and Philip, the construction of a stately, much commented-upon, mansion house in the east end of Salem, seven children, the acquisition of a fleet of over 20 ships, a wharf, and considerable real estate on the harbor, and in 1692, accusations of witchcraft brought forward first against Mary and then Philip. After brief bouts of imprisonment and the confiscation of their considerable property, they fled to New York, where they apparently lived in splendor, and returned home to extract their revenge after the hysteria was over. But it was too late for Mary, who died soon after her return to Salem, aged 42.

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English House

A 1680 map of the Channel Islands by Thomas Philips, British Museum; The English “Great House” in Salem, built between 1683-90 at the corner of Essex and present-day English Streets: later it was known as the “40 Peaked House”. The Reverend William Bentley records visiting in 1791, and observes that “the rooms are the largest in Town [and]….even the Cellars are plastered.” Image from Ralph Paine, The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem: the Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement (1912).

How would I romanticize these biographical facts? I would play up both Philip’s and Mary’s early years, his life in Jersey and at sea and her domestic life. I think I could turn him into a pirate pretty easily, and the Peabody Essex Museum has a sampler of hers, which would provide me with the opportunity to engage in a dreamy, internal narrative. Once he arrives in Salem, their courtship would obviously provide lots of romantic opportunities, and I would emphasize their cultural clash and his exotic “otherness” both before and after their marriage: he was “French” and Protestant, but not quite Protestant enough for Puritan Salem, which doubtless contributed to his accusation in 1692. Seven children! That has to point to some sort of attachment. He goes away, and comes back, away and back. She was first accused of witchcraft (there were rumors about her mother, who ran the family’s Blue Anchor Tavern, which I could certainly exploit in a work of fiction), he comes to her rescue, then he is accused, and they escape to New York: lots of room for embellishment in this course of events. And shortly after their triumphant return to Salem, Mary dies–either from the treatment she received in prison and the difficulties of life on the run, or tuberculosis, or complications stemming from her last childbirth. A tragic romance (and I think I’ll leave out his second marriage and the possibility of at least one illegitimate child).

(c) Grosvenor Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

English Keeping Room American Museum Bath

English Rinaldi

I’m really taking liberties here, but this is fiction! This couple is NOT Philip and Mary, but rather the marriage portrait of an “unknown couple” by John Souch, painted c. 1640 (© Grovesnor Museum): I want my Englishes to look slightly more “worldly” than the typical late seventeenth-century Salem couple, but this couple is probably too “English”. This is not the English “Great House” either, but rather the seventeenth-century “Keeping Room” at the American Museum in Bath. Ann Rinaldi’s A Break with Charity (1992), is told from the perspective of Susanna English, Philip’s and Mary’s daughter.


Searching for the Hunt House

I get fixated on houses which once occupied a prominent place in Salem but no longer exist: there are so many, unfortunately. It seems like much of last year was devoted to commemorating the Great Salem Fire of 1914 which swept away so many houses in one night, but individual demolitions have been a continuous factor in this ever-changing, ever-developing little “historic” city. I took advantage of my snow days to look into the history of a first-period house that occupied a very prominent place, on one of Salem’s main streets, for over 150 years, only to be demolished during the Civil War. It lasted long enough to be photographed, however, and perhaps to provide additional inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne in the form of yet another mossy, many-gabled house. The Lewis Hunt house was built between 1698 and 1700 by a first-generation Salem sea-captain, and descended in his family almost up to the time it was taken down in 1863.

Hunt House Cousins and Riley

Hunt House Perley illustration

Frank Cousins’ photograph of the Lewis Hunt house shortly before its demolition; illustration from Sidney Perley’s History of Salem, Volume III (1928).

I first “saw” this house when I found a charming painting of an adjacent mansion, the Pickman-Derby-Brookhouse-Rogers house, by one of its inhabitants, Mary Jane Derby. The image was painted in 1825, so the Hunt House probably looked far more dilapidated than portrayed by Miss Derby in her rather romantic picture, but it still provided a sharp contrast to her strident Federal mansion. Both buildings were threatened by their situation on busy Washington Street (Mary Jane’s house was taken down in 1915), but this same location would ensure that they were “captured” again and again by a succession of Salem views. The view of Salem in the 1760s by Joseph Orne–when Washington Street was School Street–somewhat obscures the Hunt House, but once the new McIntire Court House was built everything around it comes more sharply into view. I’m assuming the bright red color of the house in the last image below, a fireboard painted by George Washington Felt about 1820, is an example of artistic license, but maybe not.

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Hunt House holyokediaries Orne 1765

Hunt House Washington Street Salem 1760s HNE

Hunt House print

Hunt House Court and Town House Square Salem MA 1820

Mary Jane Derby, The Pickman Derby House, 1825, Detroit Institute of Arts; Two views of School Street/ Washington Street based on a painting by Dr. Joseph Orne, 1765: Holyoke Diaries and Historic New England Collections; George Washington Felt, Fireboard View of Court House Square, 1820, Peabody Essex Museum.

As its days were numbered, depictions of the Hunt House increase, and continue even after it is gone: my favorite is a sketch from the later nineteenth century in the vast collections of Historic New England: it seems wistful in its simplicity. The artist (or perhaps someone later–it looks like a different hand) has added additional location information–on Lynde Street–in the right-hand corner just so we know where the house once was. In this time, the commercial “Odell Block” filled out the corner of Lynde and Washington Streets in Salem, as it does today.

Hunt House on Washington and Lynde Streets Salem HNE

Odell Block Salem

The Lewis Hunt House in an 1890s (?) sketch, collections of Historic New England; the Odell Block on the same site today (or a few days ago, before our big snowstorm).


Holiday Happenings

Material girl that I am, my Christmas spirit starts to surface with the first parties, at which (I have to admit) I relish the setting and scenery almost as much as the company. While I am always very happy to see all of my friends on festive occasions, I love Christmas decorations, both for their own aesthetic, traditional and seasonal qualities as well as all for all the effort and creativity that goes into their display–and last week was most definitely one of display. I had to get my own house in order for a Christmas tea at the beginning of the week, and at the end came the Christmas Dance at Hamilton Hall, which always kicks my seasonal spirits into high gear. Each year the committee which organizes the Dance chooses a group of patronesses who host dinner parties before the festivities–and these parties are often just as major as the main event; speaking as a former patroness, I would say more so. Hosting 30 or 40 people for dinner while you’re in an evening gown is never easy, and so when we all finally get ushered into the Hall these women deserve the bows and curtseys that we give them! We were fortunate to attend a pre-Dance party at a beautiful c. 1795 gambrel-roofed house on Federal Street, at which our hostess (who had just finished putting up beautiful Waterhouse wallpapers) had enlisted her children to serve us our home-cooked dinner on (50!!!) Friendship dinner plates accompanied by silver and linen. Then off she want to stand in the line of patronesses, leaving us to enjoy her beautiful house until our own departures for the Hall. I don’t have too many pictures of the Dance itself, for two major reasons: 1) I like to dance myself, and 2) I just can’t get the light right–with the only camera small enough to fit into my evening purse. But let me assure you, it was a lovely night.

My Christmas Decorations:  I’m big on bunnies this year, and deer as usual. The tree has a nice shape, but it’s dropping needles like crazy–I hope it makes it to New Year’s.

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On Federal Street: this house has the most amazing details and scale. One of my favorite mantel displays any time of year, and great entry and dining room. Besides the mantel, the living room has a lovely chair rail detail.

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At Hamilton Hall: the dance floor from below and above; my Hamilton Hall ornament next door.

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Addendum:  The Caterer’s View of the Hamilton Hall Christmas Dance! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dHf5PnT8z0&feature=share.


Christmas in Salem 2014

I found this past weekend’s annual Christmas in Salem house tour to be rather eccentric as compared with previous years: centered on Lafayette Street and its side streets, it included both Colonial Revival houses that were built in the decade after the Great Salem Fire of 1914 and Victorian houses located just outside the conflagration zone. The focus on the Fire was more implicit than explicit–except for one house which featured a mantle of Christmas decorations made out of Fire devastation scenes! I did visit the Gove House of my last post, which has been subdivided into condominiums which feature original architectural details: lots of woodwork, beautiful doors and windows, and an amazing coffered ceiling and conservatory in one unit. Every single home on this year’s tour had a distinctive personality, presented as much by its architecture as the collections and creations of its owners, which were featured quite prominently. There were three homes open on Fairfield Street, the most distinguished post-Fire street, including one that was decorated by a group of very tasteful ladies (including, I must unabashedly add, myself), for two very tasteful owners. So of course, from a completely biased perspective, this house was my favorite!

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Six Fairfield Street a few years after it was built in 1915 (from Frank Cousins’ Colonial Architecture of Salem) and yesterday.

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Christmas in Salem 2014 Gove House

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The first floor of the Gove House on Lafayette Street.

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The colorful exterior of Seven Linden Street, built in 1855.

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Nine Linden Street: where the Gove family’s servants lived in the later 19th century. The tile around this fireplace has a subtle Greek key design which you can’t quite make out in the photograph.

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Sparkling Five Fairfield Street, built, solidly, in 1915.


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