Tag Archives: Interior design

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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Pickman House Parlor Arthur Little Early New England Interiors

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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Ropes Mansion Salem Marine Society

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Ropes Memorial

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. 


Green and Purple

At this time of year I crave two colors: green and purple, alone but especially together. This is one of my favorite color combinations, in all shades: lavender and spring green, purple and emerald, violet and chartreuse. I’ve never had a house that could carry off these colors either on its exterior or interior—I suppose I wouldn’t want to live with them–but they always catch my eye. I grew up in the Laura Ashley age, and two of my favorite prints (on a dress and a comforter) bore purple and green rather boldly, and my late spring wedding featured touches of these two colors, anchored by more neutral gray and ivory. The spectrum of green and purple can take you through the year if you’re so inclined: with paler shades for spring and summer and richer tones for fall and winter. So here is my palette, starting with a wonderful picture of the Elizabethan scholar, art and cultural historian, public intellectual, super gardener, and all-around Renaissance Man Sir Roy Strong, standing in the midst of his Laskett Gardens in Herefordshire.

The remaking a garden the Laskett transformed

Green and Purple Historic Palaces WP Cole

Cole and Son Wallpaper Versailles Grand

Green and purple Warner House

Green and Purple House Salem Oliver Street

Green and Purple House Salem

Green and Purple Plaque

Photograph of Sir Roy Strong by Clive Coursnell from Remaking a Garden:  the Laskett Gardens Transformed (2014); “Royal Garden” and “Versailles Grand” wallpapers from Cole & Son; Bedroom at the 1716 Warner House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire (photograph by Geoffrey Gross for Antiques & Fine Art Magazine); two Salem houses on Oliver and Daniel Streets (the first one looks rather blue in this photo, but more purple in real life–love the chartreuse trim–and the plaque on the second house: Historic Salem’s plaques are not usually so informational).


Mary Harrod Northend

I’m not bound to such designations, but as we’re almost running out of Women’s History Month and our mayor has declared March 29 Salem Women’s History Day I’ve decided to feature a notable Salem woman on this last weekend in March. After much deliberation–as there are many notable women in Salem’s history–I’ve settled on the author and entrepreneur Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926). She has interested me for some time, and she’s popped up in several posts in the past, but she deserves her own. Northend was from old, old Massachusetts families on both sides, and this heritage is key to her life and work. Both parents were actually from northern Essex County, but moved south after their marriage: her father, William Dummer Northend, became a prominent attorney and a state senator for Salem. Mary was born at 17 Beckford Street, a side-to-street late Federal house, but the family moved over to Lynde Street, in the shadow of the Federal Street courthouses, in the later 1850s. Their grand Italianate double house, photographed for Mary’s books later, is now sadly chopped into 12 apartments by my count. The few biographical details I could gather refer to a childhood sickness; in fact by all accounts (or by no accounts) Mary led a quiet life in her childhood and adulthood, until she burst out in her 50s and started writing all about colonial Salem and colonial New England, necessitating regional travel, which she clearly embraced. Eleven books were published between 1904 and 1926, when she died in Salem from complications sustained from a car accident, and many, many articles for magazines such as Good Housekeeping, The Century and The House Beautiful: I haven’t had time to compile a proper bibliography. But she was an incredibly prolific woman: an acknowledged expert on New England architecture and antiquities, with a touch of Martha Stewart-esque domestic stature as well, forged by her publications on decorating and party-planning. Let us, she writes in a very Martha tone in The Art of Home Decoration: link the old and the new, working out entrancing combinations that are ideal, making our home joyous and bright through the right utilizing of great grandmother’s hoard.

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Mary Harrod Northend (and dog), circa 1906, in the early phase of her writing career, Historic New England; her birthplace at 17 Beckford Street, Salem; her father William Dummer Northend, newly-elected State Senator from Salem, 1862, State Library of Massachusetts.

Her books and articles reveal Mary to be a fierce advocate for “Old-time” New England; she is at the forefront of that (second?) generation of strident Colonial Revivalists, fearful that the (changing) world around them hasn’t developed proper appreciation for colonial architecture and material culture. She is evangelical in her love of clapboards, mantles, arches, doorways, garden ornaments, pewter and seamless glass. The phrase “detail-oriented” doesn’t even come close to capturing Mary’s appreciation of the things that were built and made in the colonial past: these things are her life and her world. And like any good educator–which she was–Mary wanted her (growing) audience to see her world and so she spared no expense when it came to photography, first taking her own photographs and then “directing” commercial photographers in the manner of a cinematographer, according to Mary N. Woods’ Beyond the Architect’s Eye: Photographs and the American Built Environment (2011). The end result was a vast collection of still images (there are 6000 glass plate negatives in the collection of Historic New England alone, though the entry in the biographical dictionary Who’s Who in New England for 1915 indicates that Mary has “20,000 negatives and prints of American homes”) which she used to illustrate her own books, sold to other architectural writers, and colorized in the style of  Wallace Nutting to sell directly to the public.

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Two of Northend’s most popular titles, Historic Homes of New England (1914) and Historic Doorways of Old Salem (1926); the Cook-Oliver House on Federal Street in Salem, featured in Historic Homes and sold as an individual colorized print, “The Half Open Door”.

It’s relatively easy to research the work of Mary Harrod Northend: her books are still readily available in both print and digital form and prints from her photographic collection are at Historic New England and the Winterthur Library. But I wish I knew more about her business, the business of publishing books and photographs, writing, lecturing, collecting. I’m also curious about money: there’s definitely a bit of voyeurism in Northend’s books and I can’t discern why she remained in the family home on busy Lynde Street rather than move to the McIntire District just a few blocks away. In one of her most personal, yet still fictionalized, books, Memories of Old Salem: Drawn from the Letters of a Great-Grandmother (1917), the great-grandmother in the title lives on Chestnut Street, but Mary never did. This might have been a family matter: her widowed mother and sister lived right next door in the Italianate double house, which was also an appropriate “stage” for some of her photographs. I also think it was quite likely that Miss Northend was seldom at her own home, as she was so busy documenting those of others!

A very random sampling of Mary Harrod Northend photographs, mostly from Historic Homes and Colonial Homes and their Furnishing (1912), all from the Winterthur Digital Collections:

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Northend 10 Chestnut Door

Northend Robinson House Summer Street

Three very different Salem houses:  doorway at the House of the Seven Gables, entrance of 10 Chestnut, side view of the Robinson House on Summer Street.

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Northend Waters House Mantle

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Salem mantles: a pewter display, McIntire mantle at the Waters House (LOVE this louvred fire screen), Whipple and Pickman mantles.

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Northend Ropes Windowseat

Northend Saltonstall House Haverhill Hall

Northend Kittredge House Yarmouth Remodeled Farmhouses Cape

Northend Bright House Beds

Details & decor I love:  hallway of 29 Washington Square, Salem, Ropes Mansion windowseat, entry hall at Saltonstall House, Haverhill, Attic and twin canopy beds on the Cape (from Remodeled Farmhouses, 1915–but all of Miss Northend’s books feature canopied beds! I would place them headboard to headboard.)

Northend Kate Sanborn House Spinning Wheel

Northend House Winterthur

Flagrant displays of Colonial Revivalism: Spinning wheel and fire buckets at the Kate Sanborn House, and Miss Northend’s own house on Lynde Street, all dressed up for Spring.


British Bakers

I am certainly saddened by the end of Downton Abbey’s season last week, but I am devastated by the conclusion of its lead-in, The Great British Baking Show, to which I became positively addicted. Everything about this show drew me in: the amiable (never snarky) contestants, the chatty hosts, the authoritative judges, and (most of all) the setting: a turreted tent in the midst of a perfect green English field dotted with sheep and bordered by blooming perennials. Under the tent, all is pastel perfection: the set designers seem to have taken their cues from the classic 1903 Book of Cakes by T. Percy Lewis and A.G. Bromley (which was reissued in 1991 as The Victorian Book of Cakes).

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Great British Baking Show (Bake-Off in Britain) judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, this past season’s contestants under the tent, and a page from Lewis & Bromley’s Book of Cakes (1903).

I never knew baking was so difficult, requiring so much precision and patience! The weekly technical and “showstopper” challenges make those on Top Chef look like cakewalks. And all for the title of “star baker” and (the ultimate prize) an engraved cake plate. Victoria sponge cakes, Farthing biscuits, Swedish Princess cake, twenty-layer Schichttorte: these British bakers can do it all. I learned a lot (not that I will ever really use this knowledge) and really enjoyed being plunged into this cozy world on a weekly basis. I’ll miss all the people and all the pastry, and most especially all those beautiful Gorenje refrigerators on set, so much so that I might have to buy one for my own kitchen!

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THE refrigerator; Berry and Hollywood with this season’s best baker, Nancy Birtwhistle.


Casabella Covers

For the most part, I think I’ve been pretty productive during this snowbound February, but I’ve also frittered away a fair amount of time: reading not very scholarly books and searching through some of my favorite databases for anything that might catch my attention: images, fonts, ideas. I love magazines about architecture and interior design, so I browsed through digital collections of twentieth-century publications and found several that intrigued me, not so much for their content (traditionalist that I am) but for their striking covers. Magazine covers are so boring now (with the exception of the New Yorker and a few other titles): there’s no abstraction or design, just a literal representation of what’s inside. This was not the case in the mid-twentieth century, when the images and letters of design magazines like Casabella seemed to (literally) leap off the page. La casa bella, a monthly magazine of “radical” modern architecture, commenced publication in 1928 in Milan and is still published today. Its first covers are pretty sedate, but in the 1930s (about the same time that the title was changed to Casabella) they get quite a bit more interesting, reflecting not just what’s inside but their time. Here’s a portfolio of images from 1929-73, all taken from the magazine’s current website.

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Casabella 1930

Casabella Covers 1932 collage

Casabella 1950s

Casabella 1960 collage

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Casabella Covers from 1929, 1930, 1933, the 1950s, 1963, 1969 & 1973.


Floorcloths

There is one small place in my house where the dreaded fake brick vinyl flooring that once covered an entire hallway still lies: in my mudroom. I kept it there for sentimentality’s sake and because it is a mudroom, so it is mostly covered by sneakers, boots and flip-flops, depending on the season. But now “bricks” are tearing off and I think I’ve had enough: rather than replace with vinyl or tile, neither of which I particularly like, I might go for a custom reproduction floorcloth, based on a sample secreted under one of my china cabinets. I’m thinking this pattern covered the entire dining room, as this part of the house was built at just about the time that new “linoleum” (flax and linseed oil) floorcloths replaced the less durable cloth and canvas varieties following Sir Frederick Walton’s 1860 invention: despite his patent, these new “carpets’ often based on older patterns spread like wildfire on both sides of the Atlantic. My husband says the original flooring was wood, but then what is this little demilune patch of linoleum doing in the cabinet?

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I suppose he could be correct: this covering might date from the 1920s, when “linoleum rugs” seemed to be all the rage. Glancing through Frank Alvah Parsons’ Art of Home Furnishing and Decoration, conveniently published by the Armstrong Cork Company in 1919, I spotted “linoleum designs for every room” including several that are similar to my china cabinet sample. Floorcloths seem to evolve from area coverings to wall-to-wall “carpet” over the nineteenth-and early twentieth centuries, following Walton’s invention. And then wooden floors came back into fashion, and my little linoleum went into the closet.

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Floorcloth Crawford House BIG OLD HOUSES

Floorcloth 1919

Floorcloths from c. 1810 to 1920: the Drawing Room of the Craig House in Baltimore, c. 1810, a period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Captain David Crawford House in Newburgh, New York (from the great blog Big Old Houses); illustration of a living room from Parsons’ Art of Home Furnishing and Decoration (1919)

Whenever it dates from, I do like the pattern (though not the colors), and there are many floorcloth options out there; in fact we seem to be in the midst of a floorcloth Renaissance. One major manufacturer for both museums and individuals (out of her Vermont farmhouse) is Lisa Curry Mair of Canvasworks Floorcloths. There are all sorts of patterns on her site, available in different sizes, and custom options too:  I might request a reproduction of my linoleum patch in a less muddy color for my mudroom and something a bit more 1827ish (the year my house was built) for our entry foyer—now covered rather inconveniently with carpet.

Tumbling Blocks

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“Tumbling Blocks” and “Blocks and Scrolls” floorcloths from Canvasworks Floorcloths


Too Much @Terrain

I’m ashamed to admit that a relatively large part of my paycheck goes to Anthropologie each month or season, so as I became aware that I was in the vicinity of one of their rarer garden stores as I passed through Connecticut last week, I had to make a slight detour for the Westport Terrain. What a store–I was a bit overwhelmed, which doesn’t often happen to me in a shop scenario. Actually, it’s a combination nursery/garden store/ housewares store/gift shop/bar-restaurant–there was a lot going on when I arrived, too much for me! I certainly hadn’t planned on getting any plants as I was on the road (and I like nurseries to be a bit more dirty) but I thought I might get some planters–as I had never really replaced the ones that were stolen last summer. But there were too many planters to choose from! And too many watering cans, baskets, and vessels of all kinds–along with candles and lanterns and wreaths and everything else. Sensory overload–though I plan to return, better prepared, in the not-too-distant future.

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