Tag Archives: great houses

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

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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


My Favorite Portsmouth House

I was running early for Easter dinner in York Harbor, and by myself because of a sick husband, so I decided to take a detour off 95 into Portsmouth to take a look at my very favorite house. As I grew up just over the bridge and down the road apiece in southern Maine, Portsmouth was our go-to town for pretty much everything, and its downtown became my ideal setting: small New England seaport with plenty of historic housing. There’s no question I settled in Salem in large part because Portsmouth was just too far away from Boston. There are several Portsmouth streets to which I return to time and time again, but only one favorite house:  the Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street, which to my untrained eye looks like the purest of Georgian structures. I think I first saw it when I was maybe 16, and it’s been part of my life ever since.

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The Lear House, built in 1740, was home to several generations of a Portsmouth family including Tobias Lear, one of George Washington’s personal secretaries. After it passed out of the family in the later nineteenth century it descended into multi-family tenement status (along with much of Portsmouth’s South End), only to be rescued by Wallace Nutting, who purchased the Lear and neighboring Wentworth-Gardner House in 1917. Both properties were eventually transferred to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA–the forerunner of Historic New England) and then to the newly-formed Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear Houses Association in 1940, in whose possession they remain. It seems to me that the Lear House has always been overshadowed by the High-Georgian Wentworth-Gardner, which Nutting restored in the Colonial Revival style he preferred for his ghostly photographs. Here is the sentiment of the SPNEA directors in 1919 that captures this “underappreciation” perfectly: the Society was urged to buy this house, which came on the market in 1917 for $1500, a price considerably higher for which it eventually sold. While considerably out of repair, it was a house but little altered since the days when Tobias Lear, private secretary to Washington, was its owner. Although a house we would have gladly preserved, it lacked the distinction worthy of a campaign for its purchase. It was bought by Mr. Wallace Nutting, whose famous Wentworth-Gardner house adjoins it. [Old-Time New England, 1919] It appears that the present-day restoration of the Lear House will have to wait, once again, until the Wentworth-Gardner houses is put to rights; nevertheless, when President Washington visited Portsmouth in 1789 (just a few days after he left Salem and this house), it was the “best parlor” of the Tobias Lear House to which he came.

Lear House 1917 SPNEA Old-Time New England

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The Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street in 1917 and today, and adjacent Wentworth-Gardner House on Mechanic Street.


Fire Alarm

I was moving very slowly on Wednesday morning and so was still at home in the late morning when all sorts of sirens went off on Chestnut Street and three firetrucks charged in, accompanied by several police cars.The entire street was blocked off, and then a huge ladder truck arrived from Lynn (apparently there was a simultaneous fire in Salem so we needed aid).  The object of everyone’s attention was a roof fire at #12, the Jonathan Hodges house. I saw no fire (or even smoke) myself but apparently the contractors who were working on the roof–welding, I suppose–saw or smelled something, and so they called the Fire Department, which of course was absolutely the right thing to do. Once the ladder was extended to the top of this very large house, one firemen ascended to its end and started pounding away on the roof, which caused me to gasp, because after all this particular house is a Samuel McIntire house, in fact the only one so-documented on the street, and no one likes to see such a treasure attacked. But an attack by fireman is much, much better than an attack by fire, certainly. After a few minutes (maybe 15) everyone seemed satisfied that there was either no fire or it was out, and all the firemen and policemen left and the contractors went back to their work. A calm descended on the street almost as quickly as the alarm.

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The Jonathan Hodges house is three doors down from mine across the street; diagonally across is the Chestnut Street park, which used to be the site of another magnificent Samuel McIntire building: the South Church, built around the same time (1805). This towering building, with its 150-foot steeple, was completely consumed by fire one night in 1903: I can’t help wondering what would have happened if that huge ladder truck had been available then. But that’s a pointless exercise. On a much happier note, in 2009 (on a hot, muggy day I remember well) a fire broke out in the historic Ropes Mansion on Essex Street when contractors were on the job: another rapid response by the Salem Fire Department saved the house from any serious structural or water damage, though the attic floor was charred, and a single crystal water pitcher broken.

McIntire South Church PEM

Ropes Mansion Fire August 2009

The South Church on Chestnut Street in Salem, before 1903, from the McIntire microsite at the Peabody Essex Museum’s website; the Ropes Mansion fire of 20009, photograph courtesy of Frank Cutietta.


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!

Bowditch Birthplace Kimball Court

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.

Wesbster Avenue BPL

Hull Street Boston PBL

Henchman Street Boston BPL

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.

Dillaway House Roxbury BPL

Dillaway House 2 MIT

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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.

English Channel Islands 1680

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.


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