Etching Salem

This is generally a beautiful time of year to take photographs around Salem but it’s been rather cold and dreary for the past few weeks, with the exception of a few isolated days. I’m sure that when everything dries out we will be living in a lush and green world, but for right now I’m more predisposed to take out a book than go outside. So after I finished my grading (always a celebratory moment), I curled up with some old architecture and photography books and soon realized that one “Salem artist” whom I have never featured is Philip Kappel (1901-1981), an etcher and book illustrator who spent several years working with Philip Little and in his waterfront studio off Derby Street. Kappel was not really a Salem artist: he was born in Connecticut, educated in New York City, and as he was employed by several steamship lines over his career, he traveled the world six times over, gathering materials for his etchings everywhere he went. But he did publish a lovely book in 1966 titled New England Gallery with several Salem images inside, as well as some interesting commentary on his time here.

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20190514_142244 See what I mean about the weather? But Kappel’s Ropes Mansion and Witch House hint at brighter and warmer days, even with no color!

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Little Studio

20190514_161348The Custom House (which is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year) Derby Wharf Lighthouse, The Little Studio (just above the compass star)–where both Philip Little and Philip Kappel worked, in different seasons—and the House of the Seven Gables.

Kappel relates the standard histories of most of the Salem structures presented in New England Gallery but is more effusive about Chestnut Street because that is where his friend and mentor, Philip Little, lived. Little summered on MacMahan Island off Boothbay Harbor every year, and during a visit to the mainland he chanced upon a small exhibition of Kappel’s drawings and sought the young artist out. Kappel was teaching art in Boothbay, but Little thought he should and could do better, and offered him his Salem studio on Daniels Street Court, “hard by Salem Harbor, in the heart of the area which made Salem a great seaport in its heyday.” There, Kappel reveals, “inspired by its moods and reveling in its historic past, I never worked harder or produced more work. Every summer passed too quickly.” Kappel’s depiction of the Little house at 10 Chestnut Street includes the entrance pillars of Hamilton Hall, which gives him an opportunity to pass along a charming little anecdote:  Many years ago Philip Little took me on a tour through Hamilton Hall. As we were descending the long flight of stairs that led to the second floor from the first, I notices a series of large white circles painted on the top step, and a similar treatment accorded the last step. (I have since learned that the circles have been removed.) When I asked the purpose of this unusual feature, Philip Little forthrightly informed me that the circles served as warning signals for those who might have “sipped too long and too much at the punchbowl,” alerting them to the impending dangers of a fall when taking the first step into the space, the circles on the last step indicating that all was well; a successful landing had been effected. There is carpet on those stairs now, but having been to one or two enthusiastic events at Hamilton Hall over the years, I’m wondering if we should put those circles back!

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Step it up, Salem

Nothing helps to define the distinguishing characteristics of where you live better than travel. I’ve been traveling quite a bit over the past year, near and far, in the US and abroad, but generally to places which are identified as tourist destinations, like Salem. I’m always happy to return home, where I am more appreciative of Salem’s many advantages and resources, but also its lost opportunities, for lack of a better phrase. There are quite a few places that make do with with a lot less than Salem has: they might or might not have streets of historic architecture (though most of the places I visit do), they might not have a “marketable historic event,” they might not have a harbor, they might not have 100 restaurants, but they do have: 1) historical societies and/or museums that provide free exhibits and walking tours for the public; 2) museums that are actually museums–nonprofit institutions with collections and curators; 3) attractive and informative signage; and 4) a sense of pride expressed by effective stewardship of public properties—historical and otherwise. I think Salem could do a lot better; I think we need to step it up in these four areas in particular. I’m not sure how to do that, however, as I’m not really sure who is in charge of Salem’s tourism planning and administration. Free enterprise seems to reign over the city’s tourism, with private institutions taking primary responsibility for selling our city’s heritage, with a few very notable exceptions like the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the House of the Seven Gables. There should be some role for our city government, but I’m not sure if that role has been defined or exists, so I’m going to make my key points in the form of questions and just cast them out there into the unknown.

Why can’t we ditch the Red Line? I’ve written a whole post about this and my feelings have not changed, so I’m not going to belabor the point, but the Red Line–as one of the few truly public history initiatives visible in the city—makes Salem look regressive (I’m sure it must be based on Boston’s Freedom Trail, which dates to 1951! Come on, times have changed in historical interpretation! Where is our app?) exclusive (there is no African-American history on the Red Line; at least Boston’s Freedom Trail intersects with its Black Heritage Trail. Salem has no Black Heritage Trail and no markers on black heritage sites), and exploitative (because it’s really all about shops and witch “museums” obviously). Plus it just looks bad. We can and should do a lot better: the foundation is already laid with some great tours produced by Salem Maritime and Essex Heritage  (here and here), among others. We just need to consolidate, repackage and go digital.

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20190506_142906Is the Red Line going to take us across North Street to the beautiful Peirce-Nichols House? Of course not, sharp left to the Witch House, after we’ve just been to the Witch Dungeon Museum.

Why can’t we transform this beautiful Greek Revival courthouse which is currently empty into the Salem History Museum and Visitor Center?  There is a nice display of placards providing an overview of Salem’s history called the Salem Museum at Old Town Hall and a Visitors Center with much more regular hours run by Salem Maritime in the drill shed of the former Salem Armory, but I think we need to consolidate these two services into one building and this former courthouse happens to be empty and in the possession of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA). I’m sure the SRA wants to develop it–and its adjacent courthouse next door–but this would be a great spot for Salem to really own its history. It’s right across from the train station and its parking lot. Salem needs permanent and professional exhibitions of its entire history, including the Witch Trials, which has always been its biggest draw. Doesn’t Salem Maritime have its own story to tell? Why does it bear the primary responsibility for visitor orientation in Salem? We know that the Peabody Essex Museum is not interested in historical interpretation, but they might be persuaded to loan some things, as would the Salem State Archives (I think!) which has been collecting quite a bit of local history over the past few years. 

20190511_124916Two empty courthouses downtown: can’t ONE play a key public role?

Why can the city of Salem regulate tour guides but not “museums”? Most historical interpretation in Salem is offered by private tour companies and private “museums” which are really not museums at all: they offer presentations and dioramas rather than collections and context. (This is not just my opinion! Check out reviews for the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, the Witch History Museum, and the Salem Witch Museum on Yelp or TripAdvisor: even the people that like these places say “this is not what you would think of as a museum.”) The City of Salem licenses tour guides, but anyone and everyone can open a museum. This seems like an inconsistent public policy regarding historical interpretation to me. The other issue with the “museums” and haunted houses is their seasonality: they can be absolutely deadening if situated in a central location, as is the case with the juxtaposition of the Witch History Museum, Count Orlock’s Nightmare Gallery and the delightful Witch Mansion or whatever it is called along central Essex Street. This is Salem’s main street and you can hear a pin drop on a Friday night as these places are shut up tight; I think the last two were open only in October even during the day–but as you will notice, the Red Line runs right by.

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20190508_153716Thank goodness for Wicked Good Books and the Hotel Salem, otherwise there’s not a lot going on on the Essex Street pedestrian mall, day or night. 

Why can’t we have consistent, attractive, and informative signage? And why do these private “museums” get to stick their signs on all over town on public utility poles?

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Look at these signs! Clearly the owners of the Salem Witch Museum and Witch Dungeon Museum can just place signs wherever they like. I’m assuming the numbers on this last sign refer to the Red Line and (obviously) the Salem Trolley tour, another private purveyor of history in Salem. I think we need some contrast here, so here’s just one of a succession of well-designed signs I spotted around North Adams last weekend.

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While I’m on the subject of signs, I would be remiss if I didn’t commend the City of Salem for putting up some lovely neighborhood and park signs—which they have—but the information presented on these signs has to be correct. I’m particularly concerned about the sign for the relatively new Remond Park adjacent to the Beverly Bridge. This is a memorial to the Remond family, a very successful free black family in mid-nineteenth-century Salem whose members advocated for school desegregation, abolition and myriad other social justice issues while operating several successful businesses. It’s great that they have a park! It’s great that this park is one of only two Salem sites on Tufts University’s acclaimed African American trail project. But the sign has the wrong information: Salem had a vibrant African-American population in the nineteenth century downtown; there was not “a large population of African Americans” who lived in this rather remote section of Bridge Street Neck. As if the location of this park wasn’t off the beaten path (Red Line) enough, Salem’s African-American population is marginalized geographically by this sign, just as they are marginalized (or omitted) from Salem’s history.

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20190511_132347Bridge Street Neck was not “home to a large population of African Americans” in the 19th century: just check the city directories!

Why can’t we protect Salem’s sacred sites? Salem’s downtown cemeteries, especially the Old Burying Point or Charter Street Cemetery, are besieged during October: why can’t the gates simply be shut? I have seen terrible things in Charter Street: many tourists don’t seem to realize that it is a real cemetery rather than some sort of stage set. The City of Salem has an obligation to protect this sacred site, and it could do so by simply locking its gates. Salem’s Quaker Cemetery on Essex Street is always locked up; why can’t Charter Street be locked up for the month of October? This is a question that people have been asking for years and there is never any answer.

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Streets of North Adams

I found myself in the western Massachusetts city of North Adams on this past Saturday morning, having driven across the state to sit on a panel for an honors thesis defense at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts the day before. I love the Berkshires, but I must admit that if I’m driving out on Route 2 I generally drive right through North Adams to reach more pastoral destinations except for a few visits to Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, splendidly housed in an old textile/electrical factory in the city center. But as I woke up in North Adams (in a beautiful bedroom at Porches, quite literally in the shadow of Mass MoCA), I was determined to stay there and explore for a bit. So I set off on foot, armed only with my phone, which was loaded with a walking-tour app provided by Historic North Adams, a collaboration between MCLA’s History Department, the North Adams Public Library, and the North Adams Historical Society. After I got the downtown down, I headed up one of the city’s several hills to discover its houses.

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Judging from the simple house plaques that adorn many of North Adams’ eclectic Victorians, North Adams became a boomtown in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, with the Arnold Print Works (1862-1942) turning out textiles for a global market from its complex of mill buildings along the Hoosac River—later the home of Sprague Electric, and now Mass MoCa. The Hoosac Tunnel was completed in 1875 (at great cost of treasure and lives—its workers named it the “Bloody Pit”) making North Adams a railway gateway to the west. Walking the streets of the city, you can feel and see the expansion of that era through the architecture: every single structure seems to date from the 1870s and 1880s with nary a Colonial in sight. The sound of hammers must have been constant in this period, along with the smell of smoke. There were several larger Victorians in divided and dilapidated states, but it was also clear that preservation was at work in North Adams, and as our entire region was plunged into a prolonged period of gloomy rain last week, it was nice to be among more colorful houses. This is just a small sampling: I’ll need to go back!

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20190504_090957Some of the larger Victorians on Church Street (just above) need some help, but just up the hill is a lovely neighborhood of mostly-restored structures. Below: the Arnold Print Works produced a full line of textiles over their long history, but one of their popular products in the 1890s were these stuffed animal templates (examples below from the collections of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum & Cooper Hewitt): the finished products are very collectible and you can buy reproductions too (here are some Etsy examples). 

North Adams RISD North Adams 1892

North Adams Arnold Print Work Owl Cooper Hewitt

North Adams Cat


Wonders of Winterthur

I am still processing Winterthur, so this is a rather premature post, but I wanted to get my first impressions and thoughts out there and sometimes posting is processing! It was just so wonderful, in so many ways, especially as my friends and I toured its many period rooms in the company of Wendy A. Cooper, Curator Emerita of Furniture and conservator Christine Thomson. If the majesty of the rooms and their furnishings was not enough, the commentary of these two brilliant women on style, detail, condition, context, and provenance provided a soundtrack of sorts which enhanced the whole experience. And we got to go where more scheduled tours could not–which is always fun: if we did not make it through Winterthur’s 175 rooms, we came pretty close, and by the time of the closing bell we were on the top floor. While Ms. Cooper’s specialty is furniture, she seemed to have a mastery of every object in every room, as well as the history of Winterthur itself, so the takeaway was a very personal, even intimate, view of both the museum, its collections, and its founder, Henry (Harry) Francis du Pont (1880-1969). During our tour, I was so focused on absorbing every little detail that I didn’t really process, but afterwards, and all this week, I kept comparing Winterthur to another famous house museum, across the pond: Sir John Soane’s Museum. I needed context, I needed a comparison, and while I know that Winterthur is comprised of parts of many different houses and inspired more by the tradition of installing period rooms that started right here in Salem with George Francis Dow’s exhibits at the Essex Institute and Soane’s (much smaller) house is uniquely his place and collection, and fixed at a more exact point in time, the two houses seem both stuffed and the stuff of very personal passions for collecting: materialistic rather than “scientific” wunderkammers.

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the_south_drawing_room_derry_moorePort Royal Parlor at Winterthur and South Drawing Room at Sir John Soane’s Museum, photograph by Derry More.

The personal was my window into Winterthur: somehow stories of Mr. du Pont entertaining antique dealers over dinner and then proceeding to invite them to help rearrange the furniture reminded me of the more eccentric Mr. Soane. As I did when I first visited the London museum, I really felt the stamp of Mr. du Pont on Winterthur: period rooms can be rather cold, detached places (as they are literally detached), but Winterthur felt warm. The big, showy parlors and dining rooms of the main floors less so than the upper stories, but still, altogether an inviting installation—impressive for a museum of such scale.

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20190427_145051So many rooms—and stuff—for eating and drinking, of course, but dining rooms can be very revealing in their details. After the famous Chinese Parlor are several shots of the Du Pont Dining Room, with the Derby family’s green knives and knife boxes (+ McIntire chairs and Needham secretary, and adjacent candlestick closet. I can’t remember the name of the second, simple dining room, which is one of my favorite Winterthur rooms, but the photograph just above is of Queen Anne Dining Room, which really represents Mr. du Pont’s creative abilities (as well as his collecting efforts).

Some more observations and thoughts not yet fully developed, impressions: you really have to put your New England preferences aside and pay tribute to Philadelphia and New York furniture when you visit Winterthur (particularly the former, wow), but Mr. du Pont seems to have been just as passionate a collector of American (or should I say eastern American) folk art as high-style furniture. I knew I could get pictures of the grand rooms from the Winterthur website (plus they have a great digital database) so I took pictures of lots of little things that caught my eye (see some below). How many eagles are there in Winterthur? They seemed to be everywhere. And tea tables! Apparently Mr. du Pont’s collections started with pink transferware and he continued to assemble pottery collections with great conviction: there are several rooms devoted entirely to a variety of wares, even spatterware. And yes, parochial person that I am, I did seek out Salem items, which were not hard to find: there’s a whole room dedicated to McIntire, and other pieces scattered around. In just one room, of painted furniture pretty high up, Ms. Cooper casually pointed out a lovely silk chimneypiece embroidered by Sarah Derby Gardner and a Silsbee chair. The Du Pont Dining Room (above) featured not only knives from the Derby family, but also some McIntire side chairs, and an amazing secretary/bookcase made by Nehemiah Adams. In his own suite of rooms, Mr. du Pont worked on another Salem secretary, with a Nathaniel Gould chest of drawers nearby. An entire room is wallpapered with a mural painted by Michel Felice Corné for the Lindall-Barnard-Andrews House at 393 Essex Street in Salem.

Winterthur Secretery best

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Winterthur eagle

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Winterthur Tea Collage

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20190427_160227The Montmorenci stair, taken from a North Carolina house, replaced the “baronial” staircase which Mr. du Pont’s father installed. Folk objects and images, just a few tea tables, and just one china room. Several Salem items: the chimneypiece embroidered by Sarah Derby Gardner, a Silsbee chair, Mr. du Pont’s secretary (and bed), and the Corné mural from the Lindall-Barnard-Andrews House.

I could go on and on and on, but I’m going to wrap it up with just a few more of my favorite things/rooms, in no particular order. I really loved the William and Mary Parlor, pretty much every image of George Washington (and there were many), the detail on an otherwise simple chest of drawers, two pastels by John Singleton Copley of himself and his wife (and the amazing high-style parlor which they overlook), a very early billiards table, and an elegant curved settee for which Mr. du Pont built a wall. And just to bring in a touch of a real wunderkammer, a wonderful little anatomical plate.

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Brandywine Weekend

I am just back from a long weekend spent in the Brandywine Valley spanning the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware. A few friends and I drove down principally to visit Winterthur, but I think we were blindsided by all the attractions of this beautiful region: the lush landscape was a welcome escape from still-Spartan New England too! As usual, time was limited, so I felt like I was rushing around trying to see and capture as many houses, gardens, and treasures as possible, but there was simply too much. I’m going to have to go back and spend a week or more. So what you will see in these next two posts are rather impressionistic views of the region in general and Winterthur in particular. When I return, the first thing I’m going to do is drive down every single road slowly (or maybe bicycle) so I can see as many old houses as possible: stone, brick, wood, and combinations thereof, small and large.

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Just a sample of the many beautiful houses in the Brandywine Valley: you can see that I was drawn to the stone as it’s more unusual in New England. We were fortunate to be taken to see Primitive Hall, a 1738 manor house in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with its double (“pent”) roof, a common architectural feature of early houses in the region, including the Gideon Gilpin House at the Brandywine Battlefield site. The Battle of Brandywine was the Marquis de Lafayette’s first American battle, and he was quartered at the Gilpin House.

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Primitive Hall exterior and interior and the Gideon Gilpin House at the Brandywine Battlefield site; outbuildings of both houses—I could write an entire post on historic Brandywine sheds!

The region is beautifully preserved, in large part due to the work of the Brandywine Conservancy, as well as the institutional presence of the Brandywine River Museum, Winterthur, and Longwood Gardens, and the efforts of farm (horses! mushrooms!) owners as well, I am sure. What really stood out for me, besides the abundance of open land, were a number of really stately trees—and I am no tree girl. Looming over the public part of the Brandywine Battlefield site is an American sycamore tree dating to 1787–almost a witness to the Revolution. We saw a seventeenth-century “Penn Oak” on the grounds of the London Grove Friends Meeting House in West Marlborough, Pennsylvania, and many old trees in Longwood Gardens.

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Longwood Gardens, the lifetime passion and achievement of industrialist and philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954) was almost overwhelming in its beauty, scale, organization and administration. What a resource for this community! I would live there if I lived nearby. I think we visited at the perfect time with abundant spring blooms everywhere, but I’m sure it’s beautiful in every season and I intend to visit in every season. There was rather dreary day on the Friday we visited, but the sun miraculously appeared for the afternoon, so no filters were needed for these photos!

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20190426_153431Longwood Gardens + Conservatory and “Green Wall” surrounding restroom doors!

I don’t think that we were completely prepared (yet again) for just how charming the Brandywine River Museum of Art is, with its comprehensive yet intimate focus on multiple generations of the multi-talented Wyeth family. I was pretty familiar with patriarch N.C. Wyeth’s illustration work,, somewhat familiar with that of his son Andrew, and a bit familiar with that of his grandson Jamie, but I had no idea that all of his children were so talented, that he was mentored by my favorite illustrator of all time, Howard Pyle, and that he suffered such a tragic death (crushed by a train, along with his little grandson, in 1945). There was also a poignant tribute to Phyllis Mills Wyeth, the wife and muse of Jamie Wyeth, who died just this past January, in the form of an exhibition of Jamie’s works which depict and were inspired by her—including a series of charming Christmas cards which he made for her every year. A visit to the Wyeth family home and N.C.’s studio nearby enhanced the whole experience, and also highlighted how and why the Brandywine Valley was and is so inspirational.

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20190426_115536Treasures of the Brandywine River Museum of Art, including: Howard Pyle’s influential “historic” illustrations and a N.C. Wyeth cover, Andrew Wyeth’s Snow Hill  and Jamie Wyeth’s Lime Bag, N.C.’s studio exterior and interior and in Andrew’s North Light, N.C. Wyeth, framed by his parents and looking down on his talented family, a Jamie Wyeth Christmas card for his beloved wife Phyllis.


The Friendship Returns

Yesterday the reproduction East Indiaman Friendship of Salem returned to Salem Harbor after an absence of nearly three years after she was hauled-out in the summer of 2016 for what proved to be substantial repairs. Everyone was very excited, and when I finally made it over there towards the end of the day, the resident ranger told me that 400 people had come out to greet her, despite the dreary weather. It’s nice to have some history, even of the reproduction variety, return to Salem. I’m also struck, yet again, by how maritime history unites and illuminates, as opposed to the divisive and exploitative aspects of Halloween “happenings”. The arrival of the Friendship was a bit “exuberant”, we shall say, as it actually hit the pier alongside the Pedrick Store House, and apparently it’s going to take many months for her to achieve her fully-rigged glory (“there’s a lot of work to do”, said my ranger, in the midst of sails and ropes in the Store House, with a view of her masts out the window), but no matter, our ship has come in.

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Many ships named Friendship have returned to Salem Harbor over the years, as there was a succession of seven so-named ships in operation during the first half of the nineteenth century. I believe that our 21st-century Friendship was modeled on the ship built by Enos Briggs in 1797 which recorded fifteen long voyages before its capture as a prize ship by the British at the outset of the War of 1812 precisely because there is an extant model of this ship in the Peabody Essex Museum, but my colleague Dane Morrison, maritime historian extraordinaire, tells me that this Friendship was also the “perfect” East Indiaman.

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Model of the 1797 ship Friendship, c. 1804, Thomas Russell and Mr. Odell, Peabody Essex Museum; the Friendship in the Essex Institute’s Old-time Ships of Salem, 1917, and a bow view by Lewis Bridgman on the title page of John Robinson’s Marine Room of the Peabody Museum of Salem, 1921.

I envy Dr. Morrison his research because it’s fun to read the letters sent home from captains of the Friendship (and I presume other vessels as well), which were published in the newspaper: they are their era’s foreign correspondents! Captain William Storer gives us the first European accounts of the assassination of the Russian Tsar Paul I in 1801 in a letter from Hamburg dated only a few weeks after the crime was committed: thus putting an end to Paul. From Palermo, Captain Williams informs his owners that the Mediterranean markets are “gutted” due to the onset of the Napoleonic wars several years later. In 1811, the year before the Friendship was captured by the British, we can read about its entry into the Russian port of Archangel after the ice had finally melted in late Spring. The “market for imports was [still] uncommonly dull” and one wonders why the ship was not in warmer and more profitable waters in East Asia, but ultimately Archangel would be this Friendship’s last port as a free ship.

Friendship Paul 1801

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Letter from Capt. William Storer published in the Impartial Register, June, 1801 and portrait of Tsar Paul I (1754-1801) by Vladimir Borovikovsky; Letter from Captain Williams published in the Salem Gazette and painting of Palermo Harbor in the later eighteenth century by Luigi di Pietro; Letter from Archangel, June 7, 1811, Essex Register, and the port on the White Sea, 1829 map by Wilhelm Ernst August Schlieben, David Rumsey Map Collection.


Red Roofs

Patriots Day 2019 was not a very enjoyable day. It was certainly not as dreadful as Patriots Day 2013, but still a frightful day. I woke up to thunder, looked out at the dreary rain, made the decision not to drive to Lexington so I could walk the Battle Road as is my custom, did some errands, and then turned on the radio to hear the Marathon results and instead heard “Notre Dame is burning”.  And that was the story for the rest of the day: listening, watching (big mistake but I could not look away), and (towards the end of the day) drinking. I admire all historical architecture, but Gothic cathedrals are more than mere buildings: they symbolize the aspirations and abilities of an era and a civilization. Very early in my teaching career, I essentially turned my medieval survey into an “Age of Cathedrals” course, and I still teach through and around and with these monuments. At first reference that might sound like an approach that is simplistic and old-fashioned, but for me the cathedral has always been both a symbol and a conduit, connecting one to all the layers of medieval history, not just religious, but social, economic, political, cultural, and of course technological. Cathedrals can open up minds too: especially the minds of college students who are predisposed to think of the Middle Ages as merely “dark”,  and “backward”. It’s impossible to look at a cathedral and not be impressed by its creators, or maintain a presentist perspective.

aptopix-france-notre-dame-fire-20190415155934-12400800AP Photo by Thibault Camus

As the day wore on, I realized I was getting upset as much by the commentary and coverage as by the incessant fire. There was a lot of speculation, and little confirmation, and of course we could see the fire burning and burning and burning. So I turned everything off and went to bed. The next day, the fire had finally been stopped and Notre Dame was still standing: its roof and spire were gone but the bulk of its early Gothic expanse and vaulting, its bell towers, and even its trio of rose windows had been saved. I welcome the full report on the fire’s causes and damage because there is still a lot of contradictory information out there, but I learned a lot from a few select Twitter threads that found their way into my feed, mostly through architectural historians: about the protocol followed by the Parisian firefighters, put in place after the last time Notre Dame was ravaged during the French Revolution and sustained through two world wars, about the oak trees planted at Versailles after the last restoration of Notre Dame’s roof 160 years ago, and about the human chain created to rescue its treasures, with a fire-fighting chaplain serving as the essential link.  The combination of a still-standing Notre Dame, human heroism, and the resolute statement of President Macron reassured me quite a bit (French cathedrals have been owned by the state since 1905), but more than anything I am hopeful because of history: cathedrals were built over generations, in fits and starts, many sustained fire damage as well as human assaults but survived and were rebuilt. There are several precedents for the restoration of Notre Dame, but I think the most inspirational examples must be Reims Cathedral, which sustained devastating damage during World War I, and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes, which was bombed heavily during World War II and severely damaged by a fire in 1972.

Cathedral CollageThe Cathedrals of Reims and Nantes in their present glorious condition. Photographs by Nicolas Janberg for Structurae.

The restoration of Reims, the most royal of French cathedrals, was an epic achievement. It sustained intense shelling by German forces outside of the city in September of 1914, setting fire to the wood scaffolding that was in place, and then the cathedral’s oak roof, which caved into the nave below. Reims lay in a state of semi-ruin for the rest of the war, and was bombed again in 1917 and 1918, thus attaining its status as a “martyred cathedral”. I inherited a book from my great aunt by the American illustrator George Wharton Edwards titled Vanished Halls & Cathedrals of France which was published at the height of the war. Reims is on the cover and inside, looking beautiful in his pre-war paintings, but the text reads like a eulogy: the catastrophe is so unbelievable that one cannot realize it…….Reims can never be restored to what it was before the bombardment. Let it rest thus….a sacred ruin—the scarred, pierced heart of France. He goes on a bit later: Let it remain….the living, standing record of an infamous crime. Consumed by fire, soaked in blood, Reims, which crowned and sheltered a hundred kings, has passed. Deleta est Carthago.

Vanished Halls

Edwards Collage

Vanished Halls Reims_Cathedral_burning_during_World_War_I

Vanished Halls Reims PC

The burning of Reims Cathedral after the severe bombardment by the Germans, 17-24 September 1914Edwards’ book and paintings; two 1914 postcards; Charles W. Wyllie, The Burning of Reims Cathedral after the Severe Bombardment of the Germans, 17-24 September 1914. From The Sphere, 7 December 1914.

Edwards would not get his wish. Reims would be restored after the war (with a good deal of American money) and it served as the site of the signing of the peace treaty which ended the second World War in Europe in May of 1945. Only a year before, and more than 300 miles to the east, the city and cathedral of Nantes sustained significant damage from Allied bombing in June of 1944, but the more serious threat to the latter was the fire that broke out in January of 1972 related to ongoing restoration on the roof. Indeed, the post-war restoration was barely completed by that time according to most accounts, but the “resuscitation” following the fire was shorter, and detailed in a wonderful short video you can view here. President Macron’s five-year plan is perhaps ambitious, but not impossible: it’s been done before.

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[The Angel of the Resurrection on the Roof of Notre-Dame, Paris]Nantes Cathedral in flames on the night of January 28, 1972, Museum of firefighters Loire-Atlantique. Hervio Fund; Charles Nègre, Angel of Resurrection at Notre Dame, 1853, Getty Museum.


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