Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

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


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.


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

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

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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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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).


Deaccessioning Salem

The vast wealth accumulated by Salem entrepreneurs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created a cultural landscape that still characterizes the city to some extent, encompassing institutions that inherited this wealth in the form of both currency and treasures. When the former runs out, the latter are tapped, and priorities shift over time: such is the pattern of deaccessioning. The First Church of Salem sold 14 pieces of colonial silver nearly a decade ago, and built an addition with the profits. The Trustees of the Salem Athenaeum have considered the sale of their 1629 Massachusetts Bay Charter, sealed with the signature of King Charles I, from time to time, with the earnest approval of some and the deep disdain of others. Sometimes a deaccessioning will enhance Salem’s heritage rather than take it away: such was the case of the Richard Derby House, which was donated to the City by the Society of the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) in 1937 to serve as a cornerstone of the new Salem Maritime National Historic Site. When it comes to smaller treasures, I think more things have left Salem than remained, and apparently another prize is about to depart: this week the Salem Public Library announced that it had consigned a painting by Salem’s most notable modern artist, Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951), to Skinner Auctions for its January 23 auction of European and American Works of Art. The painting, entitled Figure in White, apparently depicts Benson’s older sister, Georgiana, and was completed about 1890: he retained it throughout his life, and after his death his children bequeathed it to the Library, for which Benson had served as a Trustee from 1912 until his death.

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Benson plaque Figure in White

Benson Photograph Phillips Library Collections

Figure in White (1890), by Frank Weston Benson, and frame plaque, Skinner Auctions; Benson c. 1907-1908, Benson Family Papers, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

I am very torn on this one: obviously this man demonstrated a life-long commitment to the Library and his heirs wanted to honor that commitment in both a personal and generous way. When you approach the sale from that perspective it looks rather cold and cavalier. On the other hand, I’ve never seen this painting: its value (it has an estimate of $350,000-$550,000) has necessitated its securement behind closed doors. The Trustees of the Library, the successors of Benson, have a duty to the public as well as to the institution, and there must a long list of wants and needs that could be funded by the proceeds from the sale: one project that has been mentioned is the restoration of the Victorian cast-iron garden fountain adjacent to the Library building. The painting is one bequest, the entire library complex (building and fountain) another: it was donated to the City by the family of Salem’s most eminent philanthropist, Captain John Bertram, in 1887. Should one be “sacrificed” for the other? I’m just glad that I didn’t have to make this decision!

Salem Public LIbrary 1910

Salem Heraldry Paintings Coles

Captain John Bertram’s House (and a bit of his fountain), built in 1855 and donated to the City of Salem by his heirs in 1887–now the Salem Public Library, Detroit Publishing Company, 1910; Let’s bring some Salem back! Beautiful heraldry paintings for the Vincent and Cogswell Families by Salem artist John Coles, c. 1794, from another upcoming Americana auction @ Christie’s.


Time Capsules

Greater Boston has been all abuzz this week about the opening of what has been called “the nation’s oldest time capsule”, a brass box deposited by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795. The box was opened by a conservator from the Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday, in the company of the Executive Director of the Commonwealth’s Archives and before flashing cameras. Inside were items that our founding fathers wanted us (or someone in the future) to see: a silver plaque engraved by Revere, a copper medal depicting George Washington, two dozen coins dating from 1652 (before the colonists were allowed to coin their own money), and a title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records. The box was not a big surprise: it had been discovered in 1855, and a few items (mainly newspapers) from that time had been placed within–so we have two generations from the past communicating to us through objects that they chose to represent their times.

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Photographs of the Revere plaque by Jessica Rinaldi @ Boston Globe and conservator Pam Hatchfield by Brian Snyder @ Reuters.

As I read the various accounts of the Boston time capsule’s contents and saw the face of the very excited conservator’s face (above) on television, several thoughts ran through my mind. The first was empathy: every historian (at least historians who work on periods before the twentieth century) has felt that feeling of sheer excitement as they see and touch (through gloves!) crusty old documents from their period for the very first time–or again and again. Working with manuscripts is often difficult but always intimate–much more so than with printed matter. But obviously there’s a difference between an archive of documents and a time capsule: the former is not a “composition”, in that the historian is crafting the interpretation and presentation rather than the historical subjects. And this (rather obvious) realization led me to my second thought, which I’m still considering:  the difference between “accidental” time capsules like Pompeii and Herculaneum and very intentional ones, like the “Crypt of Civilization” in Atlanta, sealed in 1940 and scheduled to be opened in the year 8113. Actually, according to the reigning time capsule expert, William E. Jarvis (author of the 2002 book Time Capsules: A Cultural History and one of the founders of the International Time Capsule Society), the Boston box is not really a time capsule, which much have a specified opening date like the Crypt of Civilization, but rather a “foundation deposit”, a practice that goes way, way back—to Mesopotamia. So I guess there are three forms of object messaging from the past to the present: the intentional time capsule, which Jarvis credits as an innovation of the nineteenth century, the foundation deposit–which is still an attempt on the part of contemporaries to shape the future’s perception of their era–and accidental entities like Pompeii, the uncovered Anglo-Saxon ship burial mound at Sutton Hoo, or the abandoned Antarctic buildings of Carsten Borchgrevink and Ernest Shackleton. Which, I wonder, is more revealing about these past people?

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The dedication of the “Crypt of Civilization” door in Atlanta, 1938, Oglethorpe University Archives; a royal belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo burial ship, British Museum; Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, Antarctica, ©Nigel McCall for the Antarctic Heritage Trust.


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