Are Hollyhocks Colonial or Colonial Revival?

And now for a really important question, but about all I can take on during these dog days of summer: are hollyhocks Colonial or Colonial Revival? The hollyhocks were simply beautiful and characteristically statuesque at the Saint Gaudens National Historic Site when we stopped by on the way back from Vermont a few weeks ago and I started thinking about them. Hollyhocks don’t look like a particularly useful plant but they are on the cover of so many books on “Colonial” gardens published at the beginning of the twentieth centuy: they seem to be the very symbol of the Colonial Revival garden (along with the sundial and the arbor). So what’s the story, Colonial or Colonial Revival?

Hollyhocks in Cornish, NH and on the cover of early 20th centuy gardening books: Shelton (1906); Ely (1903); Bennett (1919); McCauley (1911); “Colonial” woman and hollyhocks in font of the John Ward House, Salem in a c. 1911 photo by Mary Harrod Northend; layout for a Colonial Garden from Colonial gardens; the landscape architecture of George Washington’s time (1932).

So as you can see, hollyhocks were a mainstay in the “old-fashioned” gardens of the Colonial Revival era, but were they actually revived? Were they also present in gardens from centuries prior? I think that the answer is a qualified yes: hollyhocks were both Colonial and Colonial Revival, but the hollyhocks of the earlier era were a bit different than that of the latter. When horticultural authors in the early modern England referenced hollyhocks (which they spelled in many different ways, believe me), they meant Althea officinalis or what we call Marsh Mallow today. Marsh Mallow is a great old plant that I used to have in my garden but it disappeared last year. All mallows were utilized for their soothing effects, and John Winthrop included them in his order for “garden seeds” dispatched to London in 1631. The hollyhock in particular seems to have been an Asian variety brought west in the wake of the Crusades, and while it is often said that the naturalist William Turner fashioned the name hollyhock (or holyoke) in his 1551 Newe Herball, it dates from the fourteenth century at the very least. Turner’s Herball contained woodcut illustrations copied directly from the lovely colored engravings of Leonhard Fuch’s De Historia Stirpium (1543), and he also followed Fuchs in giving hollyhocks the scientific name Malva hortensis. The Fuchs illustration is below: as you can see, it is definitely a familiar hollyhock, but noticeably smaller than our modern variety. And that’s what happened to the Hollyhock: it was improved through hybridization in the nineteenth century. Malva hortensis became Althea Rosea and ultimately Alcea Rosea. The Boston nurseryman John Breck, author of the influential The Flower Garden or Breck’s Flowers (1851), disdained the popular dahlia and promoted the humble hollyhock, as a great improvement has been made in this old-fashioned, ordinary flower, within a few years, that has brought it before the public under a new phase; and it now bids fair to become as popular as many other flowers have been when taken in hand by the florist. Breck was referring to the cross-breeding success of his colleague across the Atlantic, Saffron Walden nurseryman William Chater, who had produced double hollyhocks with large flowers, “of better form, more substance in the petal, and more decided in colour.” And thus the hollyhook took off, its success limited only by the onset of a rusty disease that is still with us, unfortunately.

Sixteenth- and nineteenth-century hollyhocks: Wellcome Images; George Baxter’s print of Valentine Bartholomew’s Hollyhocks (1857), Victoria & Albert Museum.

Another major factor in the increasing popularity of the hollyhock must have been the many artistic depictions appearing on both side of the Atlantic from the 1870s: painters of all artistic schools, from impressionism to realism, painted stunning and soaring hollyhocks, often in the company of women. I could include hundreds of such paintings in this post, but I’ve limited myself to just a few of my favorite works. I’ve started out with Ross Sterling Turner’s Hollyhocks from 1876 because he is a Salem artist, but it’s not as representative as a painting fom the very same year by another New England artist, Eastman Johnson. Girls and hollyhocks just go together! It’s no wonder that the garden writers of the next decades, among them so many women, favored them. Hollyhocks were also a framing device, as Childe Hassam demonstrated in his many depictions of his friend Celia Thaxter’s garden on the Isle of Shoals in the 1890s (reproduced in An Island Garden in 1894): they could define an entrance, a view, or even the gardener herself. My favorite depiction of hollyhocks is in Abbot Fuller Graves’ painting Portsmouth Doorway (1910) at the Peabody Essex Museum, but everybody else’s impressionist over-the-top hollyhocks with a woman-in-white work seems to be Frederick Carl Friesek’s Hollyhocks from the following year.

Ross Sterling Turner, Hollyhocks (1876), LA County Museum of Art; Eastman Johnson, Hollyhocks (1876), New Britain Museum of American Art; Childe Hassam, In the Garden (Celia Thaxter in her Garden) (1892); Smithsonian Museum of American Art; Abbot Fuller Graves, Portsmouth Doorway (1910), Peabody Essex Museum; Frederick Carl Frieseke, Hollyhocks (1911), National Academy of Design.


A July Afternoon, Old Lyme

One hot morning last week I was looking at some paintings by the American Impressionist artist Matilda Browne (1869-1947) when I realized I wanted to see more. It was apparent that the best place to do that was the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, so I hopped in the car and drove down there, arriving in the early afternoon. I was supposed to be doing lots of other things but I ran (drove) away instead: I’m a firm believer in doing that from time to time and have always been grateful that I have the ways and means to do so. Old Lyme is a beautiful town: I’ve been there quite a few times but never to the Griswold Museum, and it was a real feast for the senses, especially at this time of the year, when the Colonial Revival garden in back of Miss Griswold’s mansion was at midsummer peak. There is the 1817 mansion, embellished with the art of Miss Griswold’s artist-boarders who established the Old Lyme Art Colony at the beginning of the twentieth century, the garden and grounds with trails along the Lieutenant River, the modern gallery with cafe and gift shop, and several studio-outbuildings which give the impression of an artistic community past and present. It was a perfect place to spend an afternoon in July, as everything was bathed in that golden midsummer glow, much like the painting by once-resident Edward Simmons of the same title. And I saw lots of Matilda Brown’s paintings too.

Edward Simmons’ July Afternoon, Old Lyme (1906) and the house, garden and grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum.

Florence Griswold’s life (1850-1937) was in some ways common, in other ways not. She was born into a wealthy family, exemplified by the grand 1817 mansion on Old Lyme’s main street, whose money was increasingly diminished to just the house and grounds with no means to keep both. After the death of her father in the 1870s, the house was transformed into a school for genteel ladies, and after the death of her mother in the 1890s, into a boarding house by Florence and her sister. The artist Henry Ward Ranger came to stay in 1899, and convinced other artists to follow suit in the years to come, and the house evolved into an artistic community with Miss Griswold very much in its center and her house the foundation of an emerging art colony in Old Lyme. Apparently extending patronage (in the form of credit) to artists became a higher priority than holding on to the family home, and she lost it before her death in 1937, but over the next decade the Florence Griswold Association was able to purchase it and establish the museum. The first floor of the house is maintained much as it was in her time, while the second floor has galleries devoted to the work produced there, including paintings of the house itself, illustrating her role as “the keeper of the artists.” Resident artists, including Matilda Browne, also painted the house itself, most prominently its door and mantle panels, leaving their mark in more ways than one. While the Old Lyme Art Colony is associated most prominent with American Impressionism because of the residency of Childe Hassam and others, you can also see works representative of the less well-known (at least to me!) school of Tonalism associated with Ranger. And there are also some very impressive cows.

ABOVE: Matilda Brown, Miss Florence’s; Charles P. Gruppe, The Griswold House at Old Lyme; Woodhull Adams, Miss Florence’s Parlor (1912); painted panels in the Griswold dining room. BELOW: Front hall and parlor of the Griswold House, Miss Griswold’s bedroom and a guest bedroom.

It was quite a shift to move from the mellow tones and painterly animals ensconced in the old Griswold House to the museum’s modern galleries, which are currently showcasing a retrospective of artist Dana Sherwood’s more whimsical work, including an installed Bedroom Bestiary (2021) below. Very charming images, but I wanted to stay in the past, as usual, and in the garden, which was lush, lush, lush. So back to Miss Griswold’s environment I went: to the realm of her boarders and borders. It was Matilda Browne who lured me to coastal Connecticut after all.

Works by Dana Sherwood in the 2002 Krieble Gallery; Matilda Browne’s Clark Voorhees House (1905) and Saltbox by Moonlight; William Henry Howe’s Repose, September Days in Normandy (1888-89); back in the garden—somehow I never thought of using sage as a border plant like this.


An Enigmatic Etcher

I wanted to share some examples of the work of the Salem artist George F. White, Jr., better known as George Merwanjee White (1849-1915), but I wish I could also share more details about his life. He’s a bit mysterious, particularly his chosen middle name, Merwanjee, a notable Parsi name. He was the proverbial “son of a Salem ship captain” whose most well-known works are quite local in focus, yet there is evidence that he also traveled widely, in both Europe and India. White’s father, George F. White Sr., made many voyages to the Indian Ocean for shipowners from Salem, Boston, and even New York, so perhaps his son might have accompanied him and was thus exposed to Indian influences, but this is complete conjecture on my part. In any case, by the time White Jr. married at the age of 27 he had shed the “F.” and acquired the “Merwanjee” and that is how he was known throughout his life. George M. White is recognized as part of an “Etching Revival” in Boston and Salem,, a movement which began in the last two decades of the nineteenth century in the latter city, exemplified by the little-known artists Harriet Frances Osborne and White and the more well-known Frank Benson. In addition to his etchings, White produced oil and watercolor paintings and was also recognized as a gifted producer of bookplates, but architectural etchings and drawings seem to be his preferred genre. There is a beautiful portfolio of his images of old Salem houses published by subsciption in 1886 entitled Etchings of Old Houses and Places of Interest in and about Salem which has been digitized for the “Peabody Essex Museum Publications” at the Internet Archive, and below are some of my favorite views. First, the process of production, followed by what was then generally known as the “Roger Williams House” and now the “Witch House,” the Philip English Mansion, the “Old Bakery” on St. Peter Street, later to be moved and renamed the John Ward House at the Essex Institute, the seventeenth-century survivor Narbonne and Pickering Houses, the lost Lewis Hunt and Richard Prince Houses, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location on Union Street.

 

White’s images are of both old Salem houses—emerging landmarks—which had survived the dynamic nineteenth century (or most of it) as well as fabled houses which had not, thus expressing the beginnings of a preservation conciousness which is also evident in the similar sketches of Edwin Whitefield’s Homes of our Forefathers series, which was published just about the same time. Whitefield is a bit more romantic; White a bit more realistic. White wants to show and tell us what was special about the English, Hunt, and Prince Houses, and he’s wistful about the “picturesque” past: this is a word he applies to both the lost Prince House and the “living” Pickering House, the exterior of which was “fashioned” in the picturesque style of a bygone age in the 1840s. You can’t help but feel that modernity is encroaching.

Heliotype prints from George Merwanjee White’s Etchings of Old Houses and Places of Interest in and about Salem, Limited Edition, 1886.


The Golden Goose

Last week Salem’s new Heritage Trail, or at least the foundation thereof, was revealed with a report to the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) and the launch of a new website. The outgoing “Red Line” has long been the object of derision, as it was a play-to-play route which made no meaningful distinction between the Salem Maritime National Historical Site and the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum. Concerns about the sign pollution which plagues downtown Salem and the now-common understanding that “redlining” refers to housing segregation apparently inspired the city’s tourism agency, Destination Salem, to put together a working group comprised of “stakeholders” representing Salem’s organizations, institutions, businesses and local government (but not, notably, neighborhood groups) to reconfigure the existing trail as something “new.” The end result will be a gold line running through downtown Salem, and very nice signs which will mark the stops along the way, including……………….the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum.

Believe me, I’m pretty tired of screaming into the void about how Salem values (or doesn’t) its long and notable history. I also realize that the people who have transformed a small subsection of this history into a valuable commodity have clearly won the day, as many of Salem’s heritage organizations, including Historic Salem, Inc., the Salem Historical Society, the Essex Heritage National Commission, and even the Salem Maritime National Historic Site had representative members in this working group, so are clearly supportive of this new trail. But this is a really important time for Salem, with its 400th anniversary only a few years away and so many of its historic houses shuttered, including the entire Essex Street Block campus of the Peabody Essex Museum. So I have a few things to say, of course! I’ll try to be as succinct and straightforward as possible: after some consternation I have limited and organized my thoughts (which might take the form of pleas) into three main points:

      1. Forprofit sites cannot be heritage. Salem’s heritage is a public good, not a private commodity. Packaging an historical event into a dramatic presentation creates an “attraction,” not a museum. Packaging a tragic historical event into an attraction is troubling if not enacted with great care, and the dated figures employed by the The Salem Witch Dungeon Museum and the Salem Witch Museum evoke more mockery than empathy. These attractions have no place on an officially-sanctioned “Heritage Trail”; I don’t think any for-profit site does. Call the trail something else: my friend Joe suggested the “Tourism Trail.” I would have no problem with that: it’s the equivalency of an actual historic site like the House of the Seven Gables or the Charter Street Cemetery or the East India Marine Hall (all sites on the trail) with a manufactured attraction that troubles me, especially as the latter are so obviously exploitative. The creators and consultants of the new Heritage Trail realize that there is an issue here, so they have come up with criteria that Salem sites which hope to be listed on the trail as it expands must meet. Here they are, included as Appendix B in the “Salem Heritage Trail Recommendation and Project Recap” report prepared by the consultant company MuseumTastic for Destination Salem and presented to the SRA:So, much of this seems fine, certainly the themes are great (more on them below), and the criteria professional. I’m having some difficulty envisioning the logistics of the vetting process, but will leave that to the experts. What does concern me, however, is the disassociation of “site” and “building” as referenced in #3 on. As you see in my graphic above, the Salem Witch Museum, the most profitable of the for-profits, is referred to as the former East Church, which is presumably how it made the cut. Why the East Church is deemed “historic” is beyond me, aside from its imposing Gothic Revival style: certainly it is no more historic than the nearby houses of ultra-philanthropist George Peabody and Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, or the birthplace of the illustrious Benson brothers across the Common. When I asked why and how the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, also located in a former church (built by the Christian Scientists and not the East Church parishioners), was included on the trail, I got this response from the Executive Director of Destination Salem: The Witch Dungeon Museum and Lynde Street are the site of early fortifications. English settlers knew that their presence in Salem immersed them in a web of global conflicts. Fearing reprisals from the indigenous people they were displacing and attacks from other colonial powers, the colony of Massachusetts erected a fort near this spot in 1629. Samuel Sharpe came from London with cannons to assume command of the militia. The first fort was probably made of tall wooden palisades, with extensions jutting out to prevent flanking. In the following decades, further fortifications were built along the Salem coast and a palisade was built along the western end of town. The early, feared attacks never happened. The East Church built a chapel on Lynde Street in 1897 and The Witch Dungeon Museum opened in the building in 1979. Visitors can watch a live-action reenactment of a witch trial and tour a recreation of the grim prison where the accused were kept. So basically: because a long-gone fort was once on the site of the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, it qualifies for the trail? I don’t think I need to spend too long discussing the implications of this “standard.” In a city as old as Salem, every structure downtown was built on the site of something else: there are layers and layers and layers. The Witch Dungeon Museum’s storefront sister “museum” on venerable Essex Street, the Salem Witch History Museum, could claim that it sits on the site of Salem’s first printing house or any number of historic structures and thus qualify for the new Heritage Trail. Perhaps the cumulative criteria above could mitigate against this, but it does not appear to have done so with the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum: I think we need to be honest about where we are leading people—and why.

        Mannequin City: mid-20th century interpretive “technology” reigns in Salem’s for-profit witch “museums” which have no incentive to innovate, as the City delivers visitors right to their doors; Witch Dungeon Museum hanging mannequins.

      2. The Trail is too restricted geographically. Salem has been a tourist destination for over a century, and there are previous incarnations of the Red Line, which was stamped on the City in the 1980s. (People seem to think that the big turning point in Salem’s tourism history is the filming of the television show Bewitched in 1970s, or at least that’s the story the rationalizes the placement of the Samantha statue in Salem’s most historic town square. But that’s clearly not true: it was the Haunted Happenings festival, initiated by the Salem Witch Museum in the early 1980s, that created our modern Witch City). All the pre-1980 trails were much longer, and included more Salem neighborhods and sites, including the entire McIntire District showcasing architecture, South Salem showcasing Pioneer Village and many more sites in the Downtown and Derby Street districts. If it really is going to tell Salem’s story in a comprehensive and authentic way (and accomodate all those themes!) the Trail has to branch out considerably. One of the reasons I find it so objectionable to direct people to a witch business on the basis of a seventeenth-century fort that is no longer there is the fact that Salem has a seventeenth-century fort that has been left to rot on Winter Island.
      3.  Salem tourism brochures from the 1950s through the 1980s: not until the last decade was the Heritage Trail restricted to downtown and the “story” increasingly restricted to witches. Love the sentiment of “traveling through history in Salem.”
      1. 3. A Plea for Authenticity & Creativity: I don’t really have enough to go on to speak to technology or  interpretive issues, but from what I can read I am struck by the relative conservatism in terms of the conceptualization of the entire trail: I expect more from a process of “strategic revisioning;” I don’t see any revisioning at all actually. Maybe that’s coming? This trail could have been recast as a “walking museum” as some cities have done (Memphis!), and thus accomodate both heritage and for-profit sites (in a pop culture category: the history of witchcraft tourism in Salem IS part of our heritage unfortunately) as well as the Peabody Essex Museum’s shuttered sites which are outfitted with “PEM Walks” interpretive audio “postcards“: why not integrate this ready-made interpretation into the Trail? Salem doesn’t have a history museum so a thoughtfully-constructed walking museum could really compensate for this deficiency: this approach could also add some chonological development to the trail, which is completely missing. Authenticity is everything in this digital, virtual age, which is why it is imperative to emphasize the unique geography and history of Salem with real places rather than artifical ones: besides the for-profit sites, I am also troubled by the selection of the new Charlotte Forten Park on Derby Street as a location to highlight Salem’s African-American history: African-Americans (including Charlotte Forten) did not live or work anywhere near it! And as I’ve written about before, the park has been “colonized” effectively by the Real Pirates Museum, which tells the story of pirates (some real, some not) from Cape Cod. More appropriate places to tell the stories of Salem’s African-Americans are Derby Square (which is on the Trail) where a variety of vibrant black businesses were located, and Hamilton Hall, where Salem’s Remond family lived and worked. Actually, a wonderful interpretive location for interpreting African-American history would be Higginson Square, which runs parallel to Derby Square: to tell the truth, the Remonds spent at least as much time at 5 Higginson Square as Hamilton Hall, and Charlotte spent considerable time there too. There could be some kind of creative installation there, which brings to my last point/question: why is Salem’s very dynamic creative community so absent from this revisioning project? My very favorite urban heritage trail is actually that of Asheville, NC, in which stories of the city’s past residents, both well-noted and not-so well-known, are woven together through public art, including commissioned sculptures and pre-existing artifacts. Lke all the best heritage trails, Asheville’s was a process of considerable community engagement: it is a work in process that is still engaging the community. That could happen here too, but only with the realization that all of Salem’s residents are “stakeholders” in our city’s Heritage Trail.
      2.  Higginson Square, 1893, Nelson Dionne History Collection, Salem State Archives and Special Collections. A big flatiron to highlight Asheville’s Flatiron building. It begs the question: no Parker Brothers site for Salem’s new Heritage Trail?

So those are my three main points but I do want to say a bit about the “future” of Salem’s heritage, which is kind of a funny phrase: isn’t heritage about the past and how can it have a future? Well, heritage has a past, a present and a future: we’re dealing with the present now. After the Executive Director of Destination Salem gave her presentation to the SRA last week, there were a few questions from the board (which only has authority over signage downtown, not content, so I was suprised to see this engagement), including, “why so much witch stuff?” (I am paraphrasing). She answered: (I’m still paraphrasing but this is very close) “well, 85% or our visitors come for the witch trials so we have to give them what they want.” I have no doubt that this is true, because we don’t have a heritage trail that showcases our Samuel McIntire mansions or our Revolutionary resistance or our 445 Revolutionary privateers or our industrious inventors or our treasure- (and history-) hunting Mormons or our dashing Civil War officers or our zealous abolitionists and suffragists or our amazing artists and craftsmen or our brave warriors on both the battle and home fronts or any of our immigrant communities as far as I can see. Maybe all that is coming, but it is clear to me that witchcraft-based tourism is only going to become even more pervasive in Salem if some sort of structural change does not occur because it is self-perpetuating. Destination Salem has always been a thoroughly professional, accessible and effective tourism office, but I’ve never understood how it came to be in charge of heritage, because for me, tourism and heritage are not necessarily the same thing. But in Salem, I guess they are. I suspect that the same old scenario which governed the creation of the first Heritage Trail was present here: the City did not invest enough effort or money, and so left it to the business owners, who quite logically advanced their own interests. So let’s just call it the Tourist Trail, or take advantage of this (golden) opportunity to do something more—and better.


The Justin Morrill Homestead

Another week: another pink Gothic Revival house! If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been on a Gothic Revival kick for a while. It’s a style you can’t help but notice, and Salem is fortunate to have some notable examples, but I think it was spending a couple of weeks last summer in the Hudson River Valley, a crucible of Gothic creation, which rejuvenated my interest. I saw Lyndhurst and Sunnyside there, along with many other romantic structures and motifs. There are wonderful Gothic Revival buildings in New England as well, and after I saw the Rotch house in New Bedford on my spring break I knew I wanted to see more, so it was off to see Kingscote in Newport, and Roseland Cottage just a few weeks ago. Now I have a long list of houses that I want to visit or revisit, including one with which I thought I was familiar: the Justin Morrill Homestead in Strafford, Vermont. I lived in this village as a child while my father was beginning his academic caeer at Dartmouth, and I remember running all around the estate in the summers: it was irresistable because it was pink, and the site of multiple outbuildings (also pink) which were the source of countless made-up stories and scenarios as well as a mystical, seemingly bottomless, pond. My childhood focus was much more on the grounds than the house, though I have been in the house a couple of times since then, but not with my current Gothic Revival gaze. So this past GLORIOUS weekend, my husband and I drove up to Stafford, where a pink quatrefoiled fence marks the entrance to the Morrill house and grounds.

This was the home of Justin Morrill (1810-1898), or I should say the summer home, as after he made his fortune he began a life of public service which placed him in Washington from 1855 until his death. He served as a US Representative from 1855-1867, and then Senator from 1867 until 1898. Unlike so many of today’s Washington politicians, Morrill was an actual lawmaker, distinguished first and foremost as the crafter of the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act which provided federal funding to establish public universities in every state, but he was also (again, notably different than today’s “public” servants) a remarkably effective committee chair, serving in that capacity for the House Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War and for the Joint Committee on Public Buildings thereafter, as well as on the Senate Finance Committee. He financed the Civil War and the completion of the US Capitol! This pastoral pink cottage must have been a welcome sanctuary for the very busy Morrill, and it was very much his house, completed just before his marriage to Ruth Barrell Swan of Easton, Massachusetts in 1851. Just as I had never really considered his house, I had not thought much about Morrill himself until my re-visit this weekend, but both of our guides, John for the exterior and grounds and Eli for the interior, were clearly both very much fans as well as purveyors of lots of detailed information about the Senator and his family. The house is also rather intimate, much more of a cottage rather than a mansion, and it is furnished with items taken from the Morrill home in Washington, so it feels as if you are visiting a home rather than a museum, albeit a home fixed in a particular place and time.

Interiors of the Morrill Homestead: some Gothic Revival orientation, including the Brooks House in Salem; the family (+dog) on the porch, pantry, downstairs hallway, Gothic door details, monogrammed china, the parlor, a downstairs bedroom, stained glass in the Senator’s study, second-floor landing, hallway, and back bedroom, attic details.

And now for some magic! The house has these amazing painted window screens clearly visible from the outside as European-esque landscapes in shades of grey and black, but inside you see only the mesh screen! I have seen painted window screens in Baltimore before, but never in New England. They seemed magical to me, as magical as the ice pond on the estate USED to seem to me as a child: surrounded by trees, you came upon it as a secret, dark place, and again, it was seemingly bottomless. But this weekend, cleared of about half of its guardian trees, it seemed very much like just a pond. In fact, that’s what my husband said to me: “it’s just a pond, Donna.” I couldn’t even take a good photo of it as it was so sunny, sorry. An older photograph conveying the dark and magical qualities it possessed in my childhood mind is also elusive: just imagine a black hole!

The Justin Morrill Historic Site is one of ten historic sites and National Historic Landmarks owned and maintained by the state of Vermont through its Division for Historic Preservation with the active support of the Friends of the Morrill Homestead. All the essential information about visiting the Morrill Homestead is at the Friends’ website, as well as evidence of their very active interpretation of the site:  https://www.morrillhomestead.org/. Special thanks to John Freitag who gave us such a great tour, but also gave me a very substantive historical answer to a question I’ve long wondered about the Strafford Town House (below): why such a large structure for such a small village? Of course it’s all about the local politics of the American Revolution—and after.


Roseland Cottage

In the last week of June I drove down to the “quiet” northeastern corner of Connecticut to see a house that was a major presidential July 4th destination in the later nineteenth century, Roseland Cottage, Historic New England’s sole property in the Nutmeg State. Home to several generations of the prosperous Bowen family from its construction in 1846 until its acquisition, fully furnished, by Historic New England in 1970, Roseland Cottage is a perfect Gothic Revival summer cottage located on one of the most picturesque roads in New England, Route 169 (the old Norwich-Worcester Turnpike), across from the Woodstock common which could accomodate the crowds that accompanied the first presidential visit of Ulysses S. Grant in 1870. Successive July 4 celebrations grew in size mandating their relocation to nearby Roseland Park, but three more presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley, still stayed at the “cottage” and its outbuildings include both a presidential “two-seater” outhouse and a bowling alley built for Grant. When you read the accounts of these post-1870 Independence Day celebations you kind of get the feeling that this was a “July 4th is back” moment after the turmoil and division of the Civil War and its aftermath. I’d like to think that we are in a similar moment now, post-Covid, but I don’t think we are quite there (though it was nice to see the Pops last night). Roseland, however, is much more than a presidential pink palace: it feels very much like a family home, centered, but at the same time, out of time, as if it sprung from a fairy tale.

Roseland Cottage, built in 1846 for Mr. and Mrs. Henry C. Bowen: downstairs parlor, presidential bedroom, and outbuildings (including a carriage house bowling alley built for President Grant’s visit).

Because of its distinct style (even the furniture was custom-built for the house in Carpenter Gothic style, which foreshadowed Frank Lloyd Wright according to our guide), the house feels like a stage set in some ways, but also like we’ve just stepped in to a family home moments after its inhabitants have left as there are so many personal items remaining: Mr. Bowen’s commendations and commissions (he was a stalwart progressive Rebublican, which meant pro-abolition and suffrage in addition to pro-temperance, and also the founder and publisher of The Independent newspaper), Mrs. Bowen’s wedding dress and the Gothic Revival crib in which she rocked nine of their children (she died giving birth to their tenth and Mr. Bowen remarried a local girl), family photographs, books, prints, games, and decorative objects. I like to think that the pink china below was her preferred shade of her favorite color: Roseland has apparently been 13 shades of pink over its history and is now quite salmony-pink.

The other contradictory feeling is formality and SUMMER: Roseland Cottage is bordered by lush box-bordered gardens (which used to enclose roses but now mostly annuals, I believe), lawn, and Woodstock green so vivid green surrounds you inside, along with the bright colors of the stained-glass diamond-paned windows and the flowers outside. There are some fancy woolen carpets, but also thin matting under foot, and all of the soft furnishings are cotton florals and lace. Such a contradition, this house: dark and light, formal and fairytale-ish, solid and airy, sunshine and shadow.

My “HNE booties” and the grounds, displaying another contradiction: I wonder why there is a Greek Revival folly among all this GOTHIC Revival?


I Went for the Wallpaper

love Waterhouse Wallhangings, a company which has been manufacturing wallpapers based on historical patterns for decades, and will do anything or go anywhere to see their papers in situ, so when I saw an instagram post about a recently-completed restoration project up in Amesbury featuring their work I drove right up there despite the fact that I had just returned from another road trip and was fairly exhausted. The Amesbury house was where Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science faith and church, had lived for a time, and it was restored under the auspices of the Longyear Museum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, an institution which is charged with presenting and teaching all aspects of Eddy’s life. Towards this aim, the Museum owns and operates 8 historic houses (all in New England) in which Eddy has lived, and the Amesbury house is the latest restoration. I confess to knowing very little about Eddy and the Christian Science church, even though I’ve lived in fairly close proximity to three of her houses: the Chestnut Hill Mansion in which she died, which is quite close to Newton Center where I lived while I was in graduate school (now undergoing an extensive restoration), and the Lynn and Swampscott houses which are not far from Salem. My motivations for running up to Amesbury this weekend were exclusively materialistic: I went for the wallpaper, and not for Mary Baker Eddy. But when I got to this lovely little c. 1780 house and talked to the Longyear staff on hand for its open house, I came away very impressed with the overall restoration effort: it was almost as if they had pursued preservation as an act of faith. It is not a grand house, and Eddy did not live there for very long, but it was part of her story and thus no detail was spared to make it shine again. We could only see the shine, but an extensive and costly restoration, inside and out, preceded the decoration. I came for the wallpaper, but left with a great deal of restoration respect, and now I need to see more Longyear houses!

A wallpaper tour of the Bagley House in Amesbury, where Mary Baker Eddy lived for brief periods in 1868 and 1870:

Waterhouse has extensive archives of wallpaper prints, and can also reproduce from fragments, as you see here. The aqua floral paper that you can see in the larger bedroom above is “New England Floral”, the same paper we have in our dining room (below) and library. 


After the Fire: a New Salem Saltbox

I like to recognize the anniversary of the Great Salem Fire (June 25, 1914) every year, or most years, as it was such a momentous event in so many ways, starting, of course, with sheer destruction and dislocation: 1376 buildings burned to the ground (out of around 5000 structures in Salem proper), 18,000 people lost their homes and 10,000 people lost their jobs. Only three people died, which seems incredible given the magnitude of this conflagration, but 60 people were injured. Like every disaster of this scale, there are so many topics to address about its aftermath: the immense shelter and aid effort, the rapid rebuilding program, the plans for a “new” Salem. New might not be the correct word, as the architects and planners and owners who sought to rebuild on the broad swath of fire-ravaged land along Lafayette streets and the harbor were very interested in fire-resistant building materials but their aesthetic preferences were more traditional. This is a moment when Colonial Revival Salem comes into full flower, after germinating for several decades. You could label the traditional brick, stucco, and wooden buildings which line lower Lafayette and its side streets “conservative” but I prefer the terms referential or contextual: I’m always impressed with the deep appreciation displayed by early twentieth-century architects for Salem’s colonial and federal architecture and their desire to study and emulate heritage buildings. Perhaps post-fire architects, builders and planners were a bit too deferential to the past (architectual author and photographer Frank Cousins seems to view the opportunity before Salem as one of colonial compensation after all those sub-par Greek Revivals and Victorians were swept away) but I’m alway happy to see the past privileged over the present. I thought I’d illustrate this Colonial Revival moment with just one “new” house: a saltbox built on Cedar Street for Mr. and Mrs. George A. Morrill as designed by architect A.G. Richardson.

Two Cedar Street, built 1815: today, in the 1980s, and as newly-built.

A.G. Richardson was a Boston architect who lived in Salem, and thus the recipient of quite a few post-fire commissions. His pre-fire work does not seem to be overwhelmingly reflective of colonial inspiration, but more like a mix of old and new. He did design a “new Colonial house” for a harborview lot on Lafayette which was featured in House and Garden magazine in June of 1907. But the Morrill house at 2 Cedar Street looks much more traditional, and Frank Cousins and his co-author Phil Riley even praised it as “practical” in their Colonial Architecture of Salem (1919): “the resulting house as it stands to-day represents virtually and exact copy of the Maria Goodhue house in Danvers, erected in 1690 and destroyed by fire in 1899. Its long roof-line, formed by the lean-to continuation of the same pitch, contributes a uniquely appropriate character to the modern architecture to the modern architecture of Salem and was found to provide a very practical way of bringing a piazza in the rear and all service appurtenances under one roof, thereby saving expense and avoiding all leadage complications common to roors considerably broken by gables or dormers.” Riley had praised the Morrill house earlier as “in the spirit of old Salem” in his 1916 article in The House Beautiful, but I think I should note that there were not many surviving saltboxes in early twentieth-century urban Salem, so Richardson had to look to nearby Danvers for inspiration! Fortunately Cousins had photographed the Maria Goodhue house (see below, from the Cousins Collection at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth) before it was destroyed by fire. The new door of Two Cedar Street was definitely old Salem, however: Richardson copied the entrance of the Captain John Hodges House on Essex Street.

There was something about the Fire that fueled preservation in Salem and elsewhere, as story after story in national newspapers and periodicals emphasized the fact that the older sections of Salem escaped its path: an early report indicated that the House of the Seven Gables had been swept away, and it seems like there was a collective sigh of relief when it was revealed to be false. Wallace Nutting, that exemplar of the Colonial Revival, featured ethereal ladies draped in timeless white dresses on the steps of Chestnut Street houses spared from the fire in his 1915 “expansable” catalog, and the equally timeless saltbox merged colonial charm, clean lines, and (space for) modern conveniences.


A Juneteenth Tour of Salem

I like to craft my own walking tours for every major holiday just for myself, so that I can get in the proper celebratory or thoughtful frame of mind. This weekend, I put together my first Juneteenth tour and it really took some time: I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to focus strictly on Salem sites related to abolition or spaces which are connected to more general African-American history. But it was time well spent as I reconsidered some special people from the past who have always inspired me, and also learned some new stories. There might be two tours leading off into different directions (literally), but I managed to do both pretty easily in an afternoon. As always, I started at Hamilton Hall, the home of the justly-celebrated Remond family of Salem because 1) it is right next to my house; 2) they have served as my “guides” to the nineteenth-century struggles, opportunities, and achievements of free blacks in New England; and 3) As an institution, I think the Hall has made the most serious commitment to African-American History in Salem and there is lots to learn there. This is a subjective tour but objectively I think that Hamilton Hall is the logical starting place for any African-American history walking tour of Salem. The Remonds of Hamilton Hall are being honored this coming week with a marker from the Pomeroy Foundation and the Womens Suffrage Celebration Coalition of Massachusetts for their commitment to the Suffrage movement: more information is here. While I think the overwhelming focus of their advocacy efforts was on abolition rather than suffrage the entire family was focused on improving human rights above all, and the youngest Remond, Caroline R. Putnam, was a dedicated suffragist.

Stop #1: Hamilton Hall, 9 Chestnut Street & the “northern” branch of my tour.

From the Hall I walked down Cambridge Street to the Ropes Mansion on Essex, because I really think it might be a good idea to consider that before this lovely Georgian mansion was known as the “haunted” home of Alison from Hocus Pocus there were enslaved persons held here by Samuel Barnard during his occupancy. If we are going to appreciate and understand  Juneteenth, we must consider what came before. Then I walked over to another house which belongs to the Peabody Essex Museum, the Peirce-Nichols House on Federal Street, to consider the setting of the wonderful 1907 portrait of the Remonds’ successor at Hamilton Hall. Edward Cassell. It’s one of my very favorite photographs of anyone: such dignity of place and person! Cassell is connected to the Remonds through their eldest daughter, Nancy Remond Shearman, so there was really a catering dynasty at the Hall. From the Peirce-Nichols House, I walked all the way down Federal Street to Flint, and then towards North Salem and Oak Street, where Caroline Remond Putnam lived with her husband James and his family, who were also active and prominent abolitionists from Boston. Charlotte Forten, the first African-American graduate of theSalem Normal School and Salem’s first African-American teacher, lived with the Putnams for a while. It’s a short walk from Oak Street along Mason to Harmony Grove Cemetery, where most members of the Remond Family are buried, and according to her diary, a place where Charlotte walked often.

Stop #2: the Ropes Mansion, Essex Street; Stop #3: the Peirce-Nichols House, Federal Street (photograph of Mr. Cassell courtesy of Historic New England); Stop #4: Oak Street (the Putnams’ house at # 9 no longer exists, this woodworking business occupies its site); Stop #5 Harmony Grove Cemetery.

So back at my house on lower Chestnut, I ventured south into a neighborhood associated with Salem African-Americans in the early nineteenth century around High Street, which descended almost down to the water at that time. That’s the thing: the landscape of Salem is so different now that we can’t really envision neighborhoods from this time. There was the large Mill Pond right in the center of Salem, with several African-American families on either side: around High Street on the western shore and on Pond, Ropes, Porter, and Cedar Streets on the easten side. These streets off Lafayette all got wiped out by the 1914 Salem Fire so it’s impossible to see the structures in which they inhabited, but the Salem Directories from the mid-nineteenth century document their residency. The Remonds had a house on Pond Street; Edward Cassell lived on Cedar Street and I came across the most amazing story of another Cedar Street resident in the 1850s: Bacon Tait, a notorious Richmond slave trader who moved north with his common-law, African-American wife, Courtney Fountain and their four children in 1851! What is going on here? I found Courtney Fountain (Tait’s) brother living on Cedar so I suppose that was the draw, but how did Mr. Tait escape the watchful eyes of Salem’s prominent abolitionists? I need to know more! Then it was on to the Derby House,, Derby (and Higginson) Square, the site of much commercial and community activity in the past and the present, and home via Norman and Crombie Streets. This was by no means an exhaustive tour of African-American heritage sites in Salem, but it was a meaningful one for me.

Mill Pond on Henry McIntire’s beautiful 1851 map of Salem; Stop #6: High Street, where Clarissa Lawrence, schoolteacher and aboliltionist, lived in the 4th house down the street; #7 Cedar Street, rebuilt after the Fire but home to several African-American families before, including Edward Cassell, and the family of the notorious Bacon Tait. #8 is the Richard Derby House of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site: constructed by Derby for his son Elias Hasket Derby while he lived just up Derby Street in what is commonly called the Miles Ward House–another example of slavery’s co-existence with Georgian elegance. The Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum has recently digitized a collection of broadsides, and one sheds a bright light on Derby’s slaveowning. Stop #9: Higginson and Derby Squares were very much the center of the Remond Family’s culinary enterprises outside of Hamilton Hall—and 5 Higginson Square was the residence for many Remonds at different stages of their lives. My last (#10) stop on the way back to Chestnut was at Crombie Street, where John Remond’s friend, fellow abolitionist, and culinary competitor Prince Farmer lived: such warriors were they!


Landmark Lineage

I’ve been obsessed with the work “landmark” ever since the Samantha statue incident of last week: a succession of news stories in the days following reported the vandalism inflicted on this famous Salem “landmark” and each time I heard or read that term applied to this horror installation I screamed “she is not a landmark!” in my head. Isn’t a landmark something notable, of value, an attribute of place or a place itself, but nevertheless something we admire and want to preserve? Several people pointed out that the word doesn’t have to connote subjective judgements: it is merely  something recognizable. I’ve just written a book which has chapters on both surveying and navigation, so you’d think I’d be a bit more confident in my understanding of this term. Its original use in navigation refers to a physical feature of the land with which you can find, or mark, your way, but I thought its meaning evolved in the past centuries with respect to architecture, historic preservation, and the recognition and  designation of built landmarks. My understanding of the term is coming more from those fields, so using the same term to apply to Samantha and say, the Ropes Mansion just seems wrong! Clearly it is time to look this word up, so I went straight to the Oxford English Dictionary (I am fortunate to have an institutional subscription but I go there only when I really need to, as it is a rabbit hole for me. But needs must.)

LANDMARK: object marking a boundary line; district;

 2. An object in the landscape, which, by its conspicuousness, serves as a guide in the direction of one’s course (originally and esp. as a guide to sailors in navigation); hence, any conspicuous object which characterizes a neighbourhood or district.

 3. (In modern use.) An object which marks or is associated with some event or stage in a process; esp. a characteristic, a modification, etc., or an event, which marks a period or turning-point in the history of a thing.

Ok, I’m going with the second part of #2 “any conspicuous object which characterizes a neighborhood or a district.” The key word for me here is characterizes. I’m just not comfortable with Samantha characterizing Salem: I want Samuel McIntire to characterize Salem. But obviously there has to be some sort of standard for designating a landmark, or is it all subjective? To try to answer this last questions, I decided to do a search for “Salem Landmark” in all of my newspaper databases. This query produced hundreds of hits, but I quickly determined that many of these references were to the Salem Landmark newspaper of 1835-36 which first published the wildly popular “Enquire at Amos Giles’ Distillery” temperance parable, which was reprinted all over the country. So I eliminated those entries, and came up with a clear succession of Salem landmarks.

For the most part, the word landmark was used in referenced to historic buildings in Salem, but there were some exceptions. Beginning in the 1870s, there seems to be an emerging concern that Salem is losing its historic structures because there is a succession of titles to the tune of “another Salem landmark gone.” Clearly the word could be used to ascertain an increasing interest in historic preservation, but it’s not just about loss: landmark appears when particularly old or otherwise notable buildings are sold or “substantially altered,” when there’s a fire, or some event happens in a well-know location. Here’s a few examples, starting with the “old Putnam Estate on Essex Street,” a house with which I’m not immediately familiar—I’m not quite sure about this Bridge/Osgood Street house either, but it has an interesting story! Sounds like part of it might still be around?

It’s easy to get caught up in the stories attached to these old buildings: I did so several times and forgot all about Samantha (which is good)! The two above are a bit more obscure landmarks, but anything to do with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel McIntire, the Witch Trials, the Revolutionary War, and political leaders or wealthy Salem merchants were designated as such. Sometimes I think the word was used a little loosely: a sailcloth factory? Well, it was a sailcloth factory that belonged to the legendary Billy Gray and was the studio of Ross Turner: I hope he didn’t lose any paintings! I had heard about the threat to the Pickering House before, which is why I am not expressing shock and awe now. Everything else below is pretty self-explanatory, but I should report the the Silsbee/Knights of Columbus mansion has just been completely restored and expanded and it looks great.

Besides Derby Wharf (above), the only designated landmarks I could find which were not buildings were a landmark store which closed after 114 years in business, and the famed “Brown’s Flying Horses” of Salem Willows. This carousel had been a major attraction of Salem Willows since the 1870s, and its sale to Macy’s Department Store in 1945 was big news and a big loss. By all accounts, it was a beautiful example of craftsmanship by a Bavarian woodworker, so comparing it to Samantha is a stretch, but both were/are popular “attractions,” so I guess that’s the landmark connection. I think I’ve worked myself out of my landmark labyrinth, but I’m still troubled by placement: certainly nothing could be more evocative and appropriate in a seaside amusement park than a carousel, but I still don’t think Samantha belongs in Town House Square.

Apparently this business had started in 1794 by the Driver Family and was run by relatives or in-laws until 1908, Boston Sunday Globe, September 20, 1908. Brown’s Flying Horses at Salem Willows, photographs from the “Essex Institute”/Phillips Library via Painted Ponies: American Carousel Art by William Manns et. al.