Tag Archives: great houses

Stonehurst

Waltham, Massachusetts is a bustling little city just west of Boston that manages to be urban, suburban, and rural all at the same time, depending on what sector you find yourself in. There’s a lot there: an impressive industrial heritage, two universities, Bentley and Brandeis (where I got my Ph.D.), a pretty vibrant downtown, lots of corporations along the Route 128 beltway, and three historic “country” estates preserved as house museums: the Lyman Estate (also known as “The Vale”, built in 1793 and owned and operated by Historic New England), Gore Place (built in 1806 and saved in the 1930s by the Gore Place Society), and Stonehurst (completed by 1886 and owned and operated by the City of Waltham since 1974). Because of my predilection for early American architecture, I have visited the older houses many times: Samuel McIntire designed the foundation structure of The Vale and Gore Place is just about the most elegant Federal house anywhere (outside of Salem, of course). But despite the fact that it is the product of a collaboration between two giants of late nineteeth-century design, architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886) and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), I have to admit I have dissed Stonehurst: I saw it long ago and never returned. The other day I was driving home along Route 128 at just the wrong time on a beautiful day: it was rush hour(s) and the northern lanes were jam-packed. I just had to get out of the car, and as I happened to be in Waltham, I thought I’d go look at the Lyman Estate for a bit and wait out the traffic. After I turned off the highway, however, I saw the sign for Stonehurst and remembered that it is situated on far more land: 109 acres of Olmsted-designed walking trails, to be precise–and I needed some exercise. So there I went, but got slightly distracted by the house, which is a bit……………intimidating? perplexing? provocative?

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Stonehurst is really a combination of two houses built for Robert Treat Paine, a Boston lawyer, philanthropist, and advocate for workers’ housing (scion of a real Brahmin family: his namesake grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Massachusetts’ first Attorney General) and his wife Lydia Lyman Paine: her father had financed the Second Empire house that constitutes the western end of the structure, which was later deemed too small for their large family. So Paine (who served on the building committee which oversaw Richardson’s masterpiece, Trinity Church in Boston) commissioned the architect to relocate the house and integrate it with a structure of his own design. The exterior (again, to my untrained eye!) is therefore quite an amalgamation: of the pre-existing Second Empire house, combined with Richardson’s more organic “Richardsonian Romanesque” and Shingle styles. I found the interior far more integrated, with large rooms that related to one another (and the outdoors) in a very pleasing way, and lots of crafted built-in features: window seats, benches, bookcases, mantles, staircases, mouldings: a warm and inviting Arts and Crafts house encased in a somewhat more imposing envelope.

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Interior of Stonehurst and a trail not taken; the line inscribed on the second-floor landing mantle, “Build Thee More Stately Mansions, O My Soul” is from the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem, The Chambered Nautilus.


Fleeting Phlox

I’m going take a break from berating ugly buildings and stop and smell the….phlox, because it’s that time of year, or maybe even past time. My garden is shaded quite a bit by Hamilton Hall next door so my bright white “David” phlox is in full bloom, but I took a walk around the beautiful gardens of Glen Magna Farms in Danvers yesterday afternoon and saw that their multiple varieties were on their way out. Still lovely, though. I always think of phlox as the ultimate country New England perennial–in Vermont and Maine and western Massachusetts you see it everywhere adjacent to old houses but less so in the old seaports like Salem. It’s a North American native that became so beloved in England in the later nineteenth century that English botanists created unique varieties that they then sold back to American gardeners, who were desirous of colorful versions of “antique” flowers for their Colonial Revival gardens. When I was planting my own garden, I just wanted a mildew-resistant variety, so I went with “David”, but the phlox in all shades of pink at Glen Magna have made me a bit envious. The source for all varieties of phlox is Perennial Pleasures up in northern Vermont, and their annual Phlox Festival is on right now, so if you have the time and the inclination this weekend by all means go—it’s well worth the trip, believe me.

My small patch of phlox, and the more lavish display at Glen Magna Farms, set against the McIntire main and summer houses:

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Phlox in its heyday: adopted by English illustrators, artists, and horticulturists: Frederick William Hulme (1816-1884; Victoria & Albert Museum), Bertha Newcomb (1895, Southwark Art Collection), and a seed packet from the 1930s (Victoria & Albert Museum).

Phlox Hulme VA 19th century

Phlox Seed Packet V and A 1930s

Can you find the phlox in the pioneering Cubist painting by the French artist Albert Gleizes, La Femme aux Phlox (1910, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)?

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An Abandoned House in Essex

Brakes literally screeched, disturbing a quiet neighborhood, as I spotted a beautiful abandoned house in Essex yesterday. I was on my way from Ipswich to Beverly to home on a rather circuitous route, and then I spotted this stately house on Western Avenue: striking in both its elegance and abandonment. Neighbors looked warily on as I took some pictures, and then I hopped back in the car and drove home so I could research the house, forgetting all about my Beverly errand. Here it is.

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Barr Farm Essex 1979

The Col. Andrews House (Barr Farm) yesterday and in 1979.

We are fortunate in Massachusetts to have MACRIS, a digital database of inventories of historical properties undertaken for the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and I quickly found the Essex house, which was identified as the Colonel Andrews House, built in 1806 and better known as the “Barr Farm”. Besides the decaying elegance, that’s what caught my attention: this is no country Colonial but a pristine Federal farmhouse. The inventory, which dates from 1979, is largely based on an interview with the 99-year-old Mrs. John Barr, who had lived in the house nearly her entire life and still lived there at that time. She notes that it had always been a farm (I didn’t even notice outbuildings–I only had eyes for the house) up until the death of her husband 40 years previously, and then it became “inactive”. And so it remains–or does it? That chimney looks rather rebuilt to me, and the surrounding lawn is mowed……

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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 Museum


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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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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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. 


The First Preservationist

It’s time to return to the life and work of the Salem photographer Frank W. Cousins (1851-1925), whose camera created a reverence for colonial architecture in his native city and elsewhere at a crucial time. He has popped up here in many a post, including one devoted exclusively to his work and business, but I’m still assessing the reach of his influence: in the years between then and now I have seen his photographs in countless books on Colonial and Colonial Revival architecture, architectural libraries and archives, contemporary periodicals about architecture and photography, and newspaper articles. He was clearly identified as Salem’s “First Preservationist” a century ago and he should be acknowledged as such now:  before Rantoul and Northend and Historic Salem, Inc. and Ada Louise Huxtable, there was Frank Cousins. As May is Preservation Month, this seems like a good time to bring him back into the spotlight–though I’m still in the early stages of assessing his impact. Clearly there needs to be a proper inventory taken of his printed photographs, both in collections and in publications, and a serious assessment of his life’s work; last summer I was contacted by a young woman in Germany working on a dissertation focused on Cousins so I have hope. And I did find a (little) photograph of the man himself!

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Features on Frank Cousins from Country Life in America (1913) and some of my favorite Cousins photographs of Salem: his own birthplace on English Street, previously part of the Old Sun Tavern, the Charter Street cemetery, a Derby Street house with a “double door”, one of several plates he exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in 1893.

The little biographical blurb in Country Life in America is charming and revealing: “That old scrub, Cousins of Salem,” is the genial way her announces  his arrival to his many friends in the architectural fraternity. They  welcome his coming, for few men know and appreciate Colonial architecture as he does, and none can talk more interestingly and enthusiastically about it. A native of Salem, Mass., Mr. Cousins has studied her notable early architecture all his life, and during the past thirty years he has made thousands of architectural photographs in Salem and the neighboring towns, and in Portsmouth, Boston, Philadelphia, Germantown, and Baltimore.  Mr. Cousins in the author of “Fifty Salem Doorways”, the first of a notable series of books on “Colonial Architecture” and is much sought after by art societies and other bodies for the lecture on “Old Architectural Salem” which he has delivered many times. Of late Mr. Cousins has been extending his efforts to the furniture and garden features of Colonial houses, and we expect occasionally to publish the cream of his labors.”  Old Scrub! This narrative does seem to confirm what I had gleaned elsewhere: that it was the appreciation of Salem’s architecture that came first, and that inspired him to pick up the camera, around 1888. His membership in the “architectural fraternity” of the era is a testament to the detailed examination (and preservation) of architectural details captured by his camera, rendering him not only a preservation pioneer but also one in the fledgling field of architectural photography.

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Cousins Peirce Nichols Mantle

Doorway of Well-Meeks House in Salem, 1918 and Mantle of Peirce-Nichols House, “the best Adams mantle in the U.S.A, 1913.

Cousins disseminated his thousands of prints in a variety of ways, transcending artistic and editorial photography into the commercial realm. He sold them in his own Salem shop on Essex Street, the Bee-Hive, and through his own publishing company, the Frank Cousins Art Co., he published them in his aforementioned “Colonial Architecture” series and later in several books (Wood Carver of Salem: Samuel McIntire, His Life and Work, 1916 and The Colonial Architecture of Salem, 1919, both co-authored with Phil Riley), he formed partnerships with regional and national photographic publishers, and he donated them to scores of cultural institutions and publications. Given the size of his market share and his focus on Salem, you can imagine just how influential the “Cousins Colonial Salem House” would become in shaping the national image of colonial architecture in the early part of the twentieth century. Yet even though he identified himself as “Cousins of Salem”, he also transcended his native city and was recognized for his preservation and photographic expertise up and down the Eastern seaboard. In 1913 he was commissioned by the Art Commission of New York City to document buildings that were in danger of imminent demolition in the rapidly-expanding city, and effort that was recognized by a prominently-placed article in the New York Times in May 2014:  “The Camera to Preserve New York’s Old Buildings”. Cousins’ New York photographs are stunning:  equally as reverential as his Salem shots but somehow more poignant because of their context, the city that never sleeps, and ascends ever upwards. But surprise: the 61st Street building below, known in the nineteenth-century as “Smith’s Folly”, survives to this day as the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, owned and operated by the Colonial Dames of America (and I’m sure it’s all due to Frank Cousins)!

Cousins NYT Article May 1914

House on 86th Street Between Park and Madison Avenues. Red brick house on north side of street.

photographic print (7.5 x 9.5 in.), mount (9.5 x 11.5 in.)

Mount Vernon Hotel Museum

Houses at 86th Street and 421 East 61st Street (“Smith’s Folly”) in New York City, photographed by Frank Cousins in 1913, and the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden today.

Repositories of Frank Cousins’ photographs: the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum; Duke University Library; the New York Public Library Digital Collections; Archives of the Art Commission of the City of New York.


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.

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Deliverance Parkman House stereoview

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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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