Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

The Prince of Chintz under Pressure

The very first old house which enchanted me–and still does–is the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford, Vermont, where I lived as a child. It’s a pink Gothic Revival confection, perfect in every way, and perfectly preserved. Here in Salem, we have several notable Gothic Revival houses, including conspicuous examples that were captured by Walker Evans when he passed through town and an Andrew Jackson Downing design that I walk by every day on the way to work. And then of course there is the gothicized Pickering House. All of these houses are very well-maintained: people who buy Gothic Revival houses really have to make a commitment to their preservation because the style is characterized by intricate exterior and interior detail and for the most part they do make this commitment, with the very notable apparent exception of Mario Buatta, the famous New York interior designer nicknamed the “Prince of Chintz”. In 1992, Mr Buatta purchased a very prominent Gothic Revival house located in a very prominent historic district:  the William H. Mason House (1845) in the midst of the Thompson Hill Historic District in Thompson, Connecticut. After some initial renovations he abandoned the project and the house, and its very prominent deterioration ensued. The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation placed the property on its Most Endangered list in 2004, and last summer an online petition was launched. Things heated up last month: with the cancellation of a scheduled appearance by Buatta on March 6 by Historic New England and an article in the New York Times in which one Thompson neighbor called the designer a “New York interior desecrater” and Buatta threatened to sell the house to a funeral parlor if the complaints don’t cease and desist. Closer to the scenethe Hartford Courant has published an article today which discusses the legal remedies open to preservationists (very interesting–involving environmental laws). “Demolition by neglect” has always been incomprehensible to me, except in situations of hardship–which clearly this is not. This particular case is even more difficult to understand: surely this notoriety is bad for Mr. Buatta’s business as well as his reputation. And this is a man who has served, or continues to serve for all I know, on the board of New York City’s Historic House Trust. Let’s hope that he comes to the decision to sell or save the Mason house soon.

Demolition by Neglect

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Demolition by Neglect Buatta

The William H. Mason House today and in 1986 (Hartford Courant and Gregory Andrews for the National Registry of Historic Places, 1986; a watercolor sketch of Mr. Buatta lounging in a Gothic-esque bed, Konstantin Kakanias for the New York Times (pinched from this great post at the Down East Dilettante).


A Willows Cottage

I was sad to see a request for a waiver of our city’s Demolition Delay ordinance on the agenda of the Salem Historic Commission this week, sad but not surprised. The request was made by owners of a beautifully-sited cottage in the Juniper Point neighborhood of Salem Willows. This is a neighborhood of once-seasonal Victorian cottages that were  occupied only in the summer, but are now primarily homes to year-round residents. This transition has been hard on the architecture:  people need more room if they are living in a house year-round, and they need more amenities. Given the neighborhood’s proximity to the water, people also want their homes to facilitate better views, thus they build them up and out. I’ve seen some terrible things done to Willows cottages: complete demolition, not-very-sensitive additions, and roof dormer windows filled in to create a top-heavy house that looks like it might topple over at any moment. But in the case of this cottage the culprit was a late-summer fire: it has looked forlorn ever since.

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The house was built about 1885 according to the inventory on MACRIS, and due to its location–on a corner lot adjacent to beach, park, and ocean, it features prominently in many turn-of-the-century postcards: the beginning of the residential Willows. Its basic outline remains unchanged–until the fire.

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Location, location, location. The sun was struggling to come out when I took these pictures the other day in the park just beside the cottage. You can see its views: of the Willows park with the ocean and Cape Ann beyond. Bakers Island, ostensibly part of Salem but quite a separate world altogether, is “glistening” in the fragile sun offshore.

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Where Washington’s Ancestors Slept

For George Washington’s real birthday, I’m featuring his ancestral home:  Sulgrave Manor, in Northamptonshire. The early Tudor building still stands, and marks the point of departure for our first President’s great-great grandfather for America in the seventeenth century. On the eve of the First World War (and in commemoration of the War of 1812), the British Peace Centenary Committee bought the Manor and presented it jointly to the peoples of Britain and the United States in celebration of the hundred years of peace between their two nations. The Manor was endowed by funds raised by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America a decade later, and it also maintains itself as an event and educational venue. I visited the Manor years ago, when it seemed to me to be in excellent condition, but it has recently been placed on the watch list of the most endangered heritage sites in the world by the World Monuments Fund. On the website, statements by the Sulgrave Manor Trust note that Sulgrave Manor has suffered from a lack of investment and is struggling to cope with the repairs and on-going maintenance this Tudor house and its associated buildings desperately need and reveal the intent to establish archive and exhibit space for its large collection of George Washington memorabilia.

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Sulgrave Manor today and in vintage postcards by Reginald Blomfield (who designed its Arts and Crafts gardens) and the Detroit Publishing Company, c. 1910 (Library of Congress); reproduction of a Norman Wilkinson poster of the Great Dining Hall after its restoration, and wallpaper fragment which is identical to one from Sulgrave in the UK National Archives depicting Charles II and Queen Catherine–the Washingtons were LOYAL Royalists in the seventeenth century! (Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum); flags at Sulgrave’s entrance, 1930s.


Santarella for Sale

One of my favorite hobbies/timekillers is stalking historic houses for sale online. My “territory” used to be exclusively local (so I could hang on to the notion that I was actually searching for a house that I might possibly buy, I suppose) but now my real-estalking knows no bounds. The National Trust for Historic Preservation runs a property sale site that I check in with periodically; yesterday I popped on there and quickly spotted Santarella for sale! Santarella is the ultimate east-coast storybook house, built by the English sculptor Henry Hudson Kitson in the 1920s in the western Massachusetts town of Tyringham. I posted about it a couple of years ago on my way out west. At that time, I hadn’t realized the size of the Santarella compound, which includes not only the storied main house, but several romantic silo structures, a c. 1750 farmhouse, and an absolutely charming English shingle cottage, all on four acres and for $2,590.000. A bargain, I say: if I could make the mortgage (and the commute), I’d snap it right up.

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Santarella for Sale

Santarella colonial house

Santarella Cottage

Santarella for sale:  the main house in snow and summer, the colonial homestead, and the English cottage.

Even farther from home, several other houses appealed to me particularly on the National Trust site–actually all did, but this post cannot go on forever! My highlights:  the 1763 “Arch House” in Waterford, Virginia (I love 18th century rowhouses, and this one looks unique), “Eagles Nest”, a restored 17th century manor house in a beautiful Virginia setting, a Greek Revival in upstate New York (for under $200,000–in a really charming town), a brick Maryland Federal, and a stunning 1828 brick house in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania which features one of the most beautiful hallways I have ever seen. Obviously I could go on and on: you can check out plantations, churches, rectories, banks, taverns, hotels, a “whiskey bonding barn”, the site of Edgar Allen Poe’s honeymoon “suite”, and save an imperiled Connecticut saltbox/gambrel from pending demolition.

RE Arch House

RE Eagles Nest

RE Eagles Next Hall

RE Cambridge Greek Revival

RE DAVIS House

RE Davis House detail

Re Gilded Arch Hall

From top: the Arch House in Waterford, Virginia; “Eagles Nest” exterior and front hallway/staircase; Cambridge, New York Greek Revival; the Davis House in Clarksburg, Maryland: exterior and architectural detail; front hall of the 1828 Harriet Lane House in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. All listings at the National Trust; another site to check out for Mid-Atlantic historic homes is the Historic Homes Network. For New England: Antique Homes Magazine.


So Many Gables

It would be fine with me if the House of the Seven Gables was the iconic symbol of Salem rather than the witch: it seems to me that these two images were competing for that role in the earlier part of the twentieth century, but the witch definitely won out in the second half. I can’t tell you how many House of the Seven Gables postcards I have–maybe 50 different images, some only slightly different–and I have seen Gables puzzles, plates, patches, pens, pillows and all sorts of other items that don’t begin with the letter P.  Such souvenirs are pretty common, so I’m a bit more interested in artistic representations of the house and the book. There are many of these as well: illustrations from the multiple editions of the latter (which never seems to go out of print) and drawings, prints, etchings, and paintings of the former. I’m always looking for works by some of Salem’s renown early twentieth-century artists–Frank Benson, Philip Little, Ross Turner–but they don’t seem to have been inspired by the house (although there is a nice etching by Little’s friend and studio-mate Philip Kappel), which is understandable, given the fact that our Gables is not their Gables. What we call the House of the Seven Gables was known as the old Turner Mansion (or more formally the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion) in their time, and before preservationist/philanthropist Caroline Emmerton transformed it and adjoining buildings (some of which she made adjoining buildings) into the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association after 1908, the old house really didn’t look that inspirational. This was a pretty run-down neighborhood, and part of Emmerton’s mission was to change all that, with a rather romantically “restored” mansion at its center. And so the old Turner mansion acquired several more gables and became the House of the Seven Gables.

The Making of the House of the Seven Gables, 1908-1915

House of the Seven Gables 1890s

Gables and Seamen's Bethel

House of the Seven Gables 1910s

The Turner-Ingersoll House in the 1890s and 1910s, after Mrs. Emmerton bought the house and established the Settlement Association. The middle picture, dating from around 1914, shows the house from the other side and the developing museum “neighborhood” and its vicinity, including the Seaman’s Bethel on the water, which Mrs. Emmerton later removed to Turner Street. Photographs from the Library of Congress and National Park Service.

With time–and long after Mrs. Emmerton’s death–the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association not only cleaned up, but cleared out, its previously “derelict” neighborhood, and now there is a large parking lot to the left of those hanging sheets below. But that’s another story. A succession of artists from the 1920s on did indeed find the revitalized mansion inspirational, beginning with two female artists who occasionally came down from their Cape Ann summer homes to capture old Salem on canvas:  Felicie Waldo Howell (1897-1968) and Theresa Bernstein (1890-2002). Two very different visions, as you can see, followed by the equally variant views of Dorothy Lake Gregory, Frederic Coulton Waugh, and the contemporary artists Jim Leggitt, Philip Eames, and Matthew Benedict. Just a few images that appealed to me, among many, many Gables out there.

Portraying the House of the Seven Gables, 1921-2010

Gables Howell 1923

House of Seven Gables 1940s Theresa Bernstein

Gables Gregory

Gables Frederic Coulton Waugh

House of Seven Gables Legget

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Gables Benedict 1998


Lynde Street Variety

Walking to and from my polling place on a bright November election day, I was struck, not for the first time, by the architectural diversity that is Lynde (rhymes with blind) Street, a downtown cross street between Salem’s major commercial thoroughfare, Washington Street, and one of it major entrance corridors, North Street. Lynde Street is one of those old-city streets that had no preservation protections until relatively late in its development, so it features structures that date from the 1750s to the 1950s, and everything in between. The 1750s house is the Georgian Colonial James Barr House, with expansive additions in back, and across the street is the 1950s house, which is one of the more unprepossessing structures in Salem, in my opinion, though now that I’m looking at pictures of it and the Barr house side by side, I’m wondering if its builders were going for a 1950s version of a gambrel roof?

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Lynde Street 109

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Lynde Street 108

In the middle of Lynde Street are three structures that further testify to its architectural diversity: adjacent to each other on one side of the street are the former East Church Chapel and Christian Scientist Church (1897), now the Witch Dungeon Museum, and the Rufus Choate House (1787), while on the other side is Temple Court, a brick apartment complex built in 1910. The red line that runs along Lynde Street’s brick sidewalk was no doubt bought and paid for by the owners of the Witch Dungeon Museum, who also purchased the sign that was affixed to a structure situated on the site of the original jail building over on Federal Street in the early 1980s—not until a decade or so later were they called to task for this and compelled to put up a second plaque informing tourists that their Victorian structure was not in fact Salem’s seventeenth-century “gaol”.

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Lynde Steet Church

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The red line, bringing tourists to “heritage” sites, the Witch Dungeon Museum and Rufus Choate House, the former in the early 1980s, Massachusetts Historical Commission, the two plaques.

The Rufus Choate house is named after the famous congressman, senator, and lawyer who resided on Lynde Street from 1828-1834. Choate (1799-1859) spend considerable time in Washington after his elections, but he is more famous for his Salem and Boston displays of courtroom tactics, including the origination of a successful “sleepwalking defense” for one of his clients. The Lynde Street house in which he lived experienced considerable deterioration in the twentieth century, and at one point was apparently condemned by the city of Salem before it was purchased and restored in the 1980s.

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Lynde Street Choate House MACRIS

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The Choate House in photographs from 1891 (Frank Cousins), 1981 (Massachusetts Historical Commission), and yesterday.

And finally we come to the comparatively massive Temple Court, an apartment complex built in 1910 almost opposite the Choate House. I wonder what was here before! This seems like an unusual structure for Salem:  you see these turn-of-the century courtyard complexes on Commonwealth Avenue as it extends westward out of Boston into Brookline, but they are more rare in the outer suburbs. Perhaps its existence indicates that Salem did not think of itself as a “suburb” in 1910.

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Fenced In

While taking a twilight stroll around Salem the other day/night, it seemed to me as if the street-fronting fences were straining to contain the abundant shrubs, flowers and vines within. September is such an abundant time–even in the city. Salem has some great fences, although it once had many more: when I look through pictures from a century ago I am always struck first by the elaborate fences that lined its streets. Most of the wrought iron ones have survived, many of the wooden ones have not. I think commercialization is the main enemy of the elaborate wooden fence–and a great case in point is the “Dr. Phippen House” on the Common (misidentified by the Historic American Building Survey at the Library of Congress as located on Chestnut Street):  pictured below in 1938 and the other day. It is now a funeral home with no fence in front, and a chain-link fence along its side yard.

Fence Phippen House Salem

Fence Phippen House Salem MA

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Most definitely a loss, as this house occupies a prominent position on the Common. But there are similar fences throughout Salem that survive, primarily, but not exclusively, in the McIntire Historic District.  Iron fences are sturdier survivals, and can be found all over downtown Salem, in varying states of repair. For those who read my post last year about the sad state of the Salem Common fence, I have great news:  it is being repaired and restored. We all benefit when a city, or any property owner, puts their best fence forward.

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More examples of front fences from my (increasingly-dark) walk around town, ending up at the Ropes Mansion garden, which is really stunning at this time of year–definitely worth a trip from near or far.

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Asylums Abandoned and Adapted

What is it about abandoned mental hospitals? There is a lure there; not quite sure why. For many years, the abandoned state mental hospital in nearby Danvers, formally and progressively known as the Danvers Lunatic Hospital, the Danvers State Insane Asylum and the Danvers State Mental Hospital (you can trace the evolution of the vocabulary of mental illness by charting the changing names of such institutions, so many of which were built in the later nineteenth century), drew many night-time visitors to its darkened doors after its closure in 1992. Constructed between 1874 and 1878 in the “Domestic” Gothic style and according to the Kirkbride Plan which dominated asylum architecture at the time, you can see why it cut a rather menacing silhouette when lifeless. Even before it was abandoned, Danvers was inspirational (it is said to be the model for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanitarium in “The Thing on the Doorstep” and several other stories) but somehow became even more so in its abandonment: inspiring preservationists, photographers, and movie producers.

Abandoned Asylum Danvers Trask

Abandoned Asylum Danvers 1930s

Abandoned Asylum Danvers 1895

Danvers in its heyday:  photographs from Danvers Town Archivist Richard Trask History of Danvers State Hospital at the Danvers Archival Center and from the Eighteenth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Danvers Lunatic Hospital, 1895.

Below are pictures of the hospital dating from 2000-2001, when preservationists were engaged in an intense battle to save the building, or at least its central administrative section, for adaptive re-use. They were successful in placing Danvers on Preservation Massachusetts’ Most Endangered List that year, but not in saving the structure: both its wings and its central section were demolished by the Avalon Bay Communities, Inc., an apartment development and management company, following its acquisition in 2005. What “remains” was really reconstructed rather than renovated, so my alliterative title is a misnomer, at least as it applies to Danvers State.

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Abandoned Danvers SSU

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The Shuttered Hospital:  Preservation Massachusetts Flikr. (The steeple was removed in 1970, apparently for safety’s sake).

The shuttered era of Danvers State has inspired some hauntingly beautiful images, most notably by photographers Roger Farrington and John Gray. Farrington is the historian-photographer, capturing the institution’s interior at the moment of its closing in 1992, while Gray comes along a bit later and expands the geographical context of Danvers and its decline in an extremely compelling way in his beautiful book Abandoned Asylums of New England: A Photographic Journey. I particularly like his image (below) of Worcester State Hospital, another Kirkbride building built and closed at the same time as Danvers, which met much the same fate. Looking through Gray’s book, my question is no longer what is it about abandoned mental hospitals but why do we build monumental buildings that we can’t, or won’t, maintain? Maybe we no longer do.

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Abandoned Asylums Danvers Rooftops Gray

Worcester State John Gray

Photographs by Roger Carrington (interior) and John Gray (Danvers turrets at sunset and Worcester State in the dark).

The consensus among preservationists is that Danvers didn’t have to be demolished/reconstructed: there were other options and there are other models of adaptive reuse among the remaining (sadly small number) of Kirkbride buildings. There is a great blog/website which provides a one-stop resource of information and images for these institutions and their fates. The list of demolitions is much longer than the list of saves, and most of these complexes seem to be crumbling, but there are a few rays of hope:  the Traverse City Mental Hospital in northern Michigan (alternatively known as the Northern Michigan Asylum), now redeveloped and reconsecrated as the residential Village at  Grand Traverse Commons, seems to be  the best example of preservation and conversion. Things look good for the Fergus Falls State Mental Hospital in Minnesota as well but, like Danvers, it’s been abandoned for years.

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Fergus Falls Hospital 1928

Traverse City in 1990 and The Village at Grand Traverse Commons today, photograph by Gary Howe for the New York Times; Fergus Falls Hospital in 1928, Minnesota Historical Society.

I could go on and on about each and every one of these abandoned buildings, both those that remain (Athens, Ohio, Buffalo!!!) and those that have been lost, but I’m going to go back to Danvers, which has provided a dramatic backdrop and inspiration in both its open and shuttered eras. Two films have been filmed there, the Jean Simmons  film Home before Dark (which I saw long, long ago and have no memory of the Hospital; I’m going to look at it again) and the 2001 horror film Session 9, which I have not seen and have no desire to see.

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Poster and Screen shot from Session 9 (2001).

Perhaps the most creative expression inspired by Danvers State Hospital has simultaneously preserved a piece of it. A year ago, I came across an article about Danvers resident John Archer’s “Scrap Mansion” in the New York Times. As a board member of the Danvers Preservation Commission, Archer was a key part of the fight to save Danvers State, but when it came down, he salvaged a turret and installed it in his ever-expanding house.  So pieces of Danvers State Hospital remain intact, both in the reconstructed facade on its original site and a house nearby.

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Danvers State/Avalon

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John Archer before his Danvers Wing, and salvaged doors from Danvers State, Trent Bell for the New York Times; Danvers State administrative building/Avalon Danvers, last weekend.


Georgian Houses in Salem

“Georgian” can be a deceptive architectural designation, especially here in Salem: there are Georgian colonial houses built before the Revolution, and Georgian colonial revival houses which date from the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They might share the distinctive gambrel roof and other architectural details, but the proportions are often very different. Within the colonial category, it is readily apparent that “Georgian” is both a style and a period, and not all houses built in the period conform to the styleThere is also the issue of construction conservatism:  walking through my neighborhood I easily spotted many houses that looked “Georgian” to me, but they date from the 1780s and 1790s and even after 1800: now you can’t have a Georgian house after the end of King George’s rule, can you?

On this same walk, I did find several Georgian houses that conformed to both the style and the period, at a few more that left me confused (see below). This is just a sampling from the McIntire Historic District; I am omitting several of the iconic Georgian houses of Salem, including the Derby House, the Crowninshield-Bentley House, and the Miles Ward House. No one could mistake these houses for anything but Georgian, but I have written about them before in various posts and doubtless will again. The houses below are hardly off the beaten track, but I haven’t featured (most of) them before.

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Georgian corner: at the intersection of Essex and Cambridge Streets, the Ropes Mansion (later 1720s) faces the Capt. Thomas Mason House (1750).

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Walking down Essex Street, there are smaller Georgian houses on either side of the street, and the amazing Cabot-Endicott-Low House, built in the 1740s for Salem merchant Joseph Cabot. The house remained in the Cabot family for more than a century, and was then purchased by William Endicott, Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and Secretary of War under President Grover Cleveland. The house is spectacular in terms of both scale and detail, and it has great outbuildings too. Unfortunately the other really stately, and unabashedly Georgian, house on Essex Street, the Lindall-Barnard-Andrews House (c. 1740, below) is not as well-preserved as its neighbors: the present owner maintains it as a commercial establishment, complete with vinyl siding and hot top parking lot on what was once fenced-in garden. I’ve never been inside, but its interior has been preserved in photographs, at least, and wallpaper taken from its walls is now in the collection of Winterthur. The beautiful fence that you see in the c. 1910 Detroit Publishing Company photograph below (Library of Congress) is long gone.

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Georgian Houses 2 008Georgian Houses Lindall Barnard Andrews LOC

Over on Federal Street, there are houses that are both Georgian in period and style, and a few that require a bit more interpretation and expertise–a bit more than I have! I’m curious about the three houses below: they have Georgian elements, but as you can see, alterations have been made over time.

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A narrow–and charmingly crooked!–house with a modified gambrel roof and a gambrel-roofed addition:  is it Georgian in style and period? I’m not sure.  And look at the brown house below: it has two roof styles in one!  I wonder which one came first? I assume the gambrel. Apart from the roof, it looks like a mirror image of its neighbor, and that house’s plaque indicates that it is solidly Georgian, at least in period.

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Back to where I began, the Ropes Mansion on Essex Street, where the gardens are in perfect high summer bloom.

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A Victorian Firehouse

With all the new development going on in Salem there is, happily, also news of an upcoming preservation project: the city just received a matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission to restore the masonry and windows of its oldest firehouse, an 1881 structure very much in service. All the newspaper stories reporting the grant referred to Station #2 as the third oldest continually operating firehouse in the United States, but I found a few more that were older:  it is the fifth or sixth by my count. Everyone seems to agree that the oldest operating station is a charming Greek Revival structure in Madison, Indiana, built in 1850.

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Fire Station 2

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Salem’s Station no. 2 (1881) and Washington Fire Company no. 2 (1850), Madison, Indiana.

There are many people who know much, much, much more about the history of firefighting in Salem than I do, so I’m not going to provide too much historical context here, but a few interesting facts did surface in my very brief foray into this field. From almost the date of its founding, Salem’s government seems to have been focused on fire prevention, indicated by some rather notable initiatives: in the 1640s Salem’s residents were compelled to have ladders in their homes (presumably to stop chimney and roof fires before they got out of control), and a century later, Salem was one of the first American colonial towns to import a Newsham hand-pump fire engine, the cutting-edge firefighting technology of the eighteenth century, from Britain. At the same time, and  into the next century, Salem’s firefighting clubs or companies were established, leaving their material legacy of decorated–and much sought-after– leather fire buckets. There were certainly firehouses in Salem before Station no. 2, built both before and after the acquisition of  steam engines by the city, as there are several references in the municipal records to the “accommodations” made to transform them into “steam houses”.

Fire Engine Newshams NYPL

Fire Buckets Northeast Auctions

Fire Engine 1880-90 NYPL

Player’s Cigarettes Fire Engine Series cards, New York Public Library Digital Gallery, and a pair of McIntire family fire buckets from 1833, which sold at a Northeast auction for $52,000 in 2007!

I do wonder if any accommodations were made to Station #2, particularly its entrance bay, for modern fire trucks. It was built to house steam engines–both horse-drawn and self-propelled–that were much smaller than the big red engine that is in there now. Again, Salem seems to have been an early adopter of fire engine technology in the second half of the nineteenth century, and owned several Amoskeag engines, which were manufactured in Manchester, New Hampshire from 1859 to 1913 and shipped worldwide. These replaced the  earlier “handtubs” in service, but the latter did not go away: they became the vehicles of intensely competitive fireman’s musters, at which crews would compete to see who could pump out the longest stream of water. In Salem and other New England towns (and elsewhere???), this tradition continues, creating events which mix athleticism and engineering, civic pride and historic preservation.

Firehouse Interior 1887

PicMonkey CollageThe interior of a New York City engine house, c. 1887, New York Public Library Digital Gallery, and Salem’s victorious White Angel handtub, c. 1894.


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