The Razing of the Ruck House

Years ago central Salem was oriented both towards its harbor as well as around an adjacent pond formed by the South River: Mill Pond, which was filled in to accommodate the growing city in the later nineteenth century. The beautiful map of Salem in 1851 shows the centrality of Mill Pond, and a neighborhood between Margin Street, the Broad Street Cemetery, and the Pond which is dotted with homes–some large and some small. In the midst of this neighborhood was Mill Street, where a very old and storied house was situated: the Thomas Ruck House, built around 1650 and razed, by my best estimation, around 1902. The Ruck House was not a victim of the larger forces that decimated this neighborhood—the Great Salem Fire of 1914 which singed its western boundary, and the construction of the U.S. Post Office which leveled its eastern part in the 1930s. It was (apparently) gone before both of these events. Given its notability–Salem guidebooks were directing visitors to it because of its importance just before it was destroyed (and in some cases, after)– why was it razed?

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Salem 1871 Atlas

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Ruck House Essex Antiquarian Perley 1900

Ruck House Salem Map

Detail of Henry MacIntyre map of Salem, 1851, Salem Athenaeum; Salem Atlas, 1871 by Walling & Gray; Frank Cousins photograph of the Ruck House from his Colonial Architecture of Salem, 1919; Illustration of the House in Sidney Perley’s Essex Antiquarian, Volume IV (1900);  map of central Salem with the Ruck House marked, from Edwin M. Bacon’s Boston: a Guide Book (1903).

At this point, I really can’t answer that question, as discreet factors (condition, the will of the property owner) are more difficult to discern than global forces. However, I can offer some historical facts and opinions about the importance of the Ruck House. Edwin Bacon informs his readers that “South of the railroad station is a nest of old buildings in old streets, among them the Ruck house, 8 Mill Street, dating from before 1651, interesting as the sometime hope of Richard Cranch, where John Adams frequently visited (Adams and Cranch married sisters), and at a later time occupied by John Singleton Copley, the Boston painter, when here painting the portraits of Salem worthies”. Adams and Copley, quite a pedigree right there, and the house was also owned by Samuel McIntire’s father. Adams writes about the house in a journal entry from 1766: “Cranch is now in a good situation for business, near the Court House….his house, fronting on the wharves, the harbor, and the shipping, has a fine prospect before it.” Obviously that prospect changed dramatically with the filling in of Mill Pond, but the house retained its stature. The influential Salem architectural historian, photographer, and entrepreneur Frank Cousins asserts that: “In its U-shaped arrangement with wings of unequal length and virtually three gambrel-roof dwellings in one the Ruck House, number 8 Mill Street, has few if any parallels in American architecture”. Now here is where I am confused: Cousins is writing (in 1919) as if the house was still standing, but an article in the Boston Evening Transcript dated October 30, 1902 clearly states that it had been demolished, along with another notable Salem landmark, the Shattuck House on Essex Street. In addition to the great reference about baked beans, this article is just what I’m looking for–early expressions of a preservationist consciousness in Salem–but obviously I still need more information about the razing of the Ruck House.

Ruck House Razed 1902 Boston Evening Transcript

Post Office Construction c. 1933

Boston Evening Transcript, October 20, 1902. What came after: the construction of the Salem Post Office, c. 1933, Dionne Collection at Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.


Greek Revival Salem

I think I’ve covered just about every architectural style represented in Salem over the past few years: lots of variant Colonial houses, the very dominant Federal style, and many of the nineteenth-century styles, including Gothic Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne and Second Empire. But I haven’t featured many houses built in the so-called “National Style”:  Greek Revival, which dominated public and domestic architecture across the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. The very first house I lived in in Salem was assertively Greek Revival (built in the 1840s, the peak of the style) and my present house (built in 1827) should probably be classified as such too but it’s such a miss-mash it doesn’t really feel classical.  That’s a bit early for the Greek Revival in Salem, which held onto its Colonial and Federal styles longer, I think. For that reason, as well as the Great Salem Fire of 1914, it always seems like Salem has fewer Greek Revival structures than it should have: many of the public buildings, including the “new” City Hall, are Greek Revival, but you don’t find too many domestic structures as they would have been built in the “newer” neighborhoods along Lafayette Street, the center of the conflagration. Some of the most poignant “postcards from the Fire” show Greek Revival houses being devoured. Yet there are Greek Revival houses on nearly every street in the older sections of Salem too, signs of success in the mid-19th century city, no long a center of a global commerce, but still bustling. Two such houses, located on Winter Street, are now for sale, which prompted my long-overdue Greek Revival post.

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Walker Evans’ photograph of Salem City Hall, taken in the early 1930s when he visited Salem and shot only Greek and Gothic Revival structures–no Federal! (Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, more here) These were clearly his architectural preferences, and he captured similar structures wherever he went. Quite contrarily, Salem’s own Frank Cousins was quite condescending about the Greek Revival, probably because such structures replaced his beloved Colonial houses in downtown Salem. The now-mothballed Greek Revival courthouse on Federal Street.

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Bertram House Salem

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Winter Street Greek Revivals presently for sale:  The Captain John Bertram House at number 24, built in 1842-43 by Salem’s greatest philanthropist. The black & white MACRIS photo is from 1998 (An absolutely stunning house: check it out), and the Payson-Fettyplace House at number 16, built in 1845, which has been operating as an inn for some time. Below: more Salem Greek Revivals, by no means an exhaustive collection! A Greek Revival “cottage” on Northey Street, a recently-revived Greek Revival on Bridge, a row of Greek Revivals on Federal, a Greek Revival with many additions on Essex, and the stately Lee-Benson Mansion on Chestnut, all built in the 1840s.

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Flat Roofs

There is obviously continuity in the physical landscape as you leave New England (in either Vermont, Massachusetts or Connecticut) and enter New York but almost immediate contrast in the built environment. The older houses look different, and this difference becomes more pronounced as soon as you get into some towns. There are some universal styles (Greek Revival, High Victorian, all those post 1945 “capes”), but the New England colonial and federal styles do not seem to have penetrated New York, where you see far more center gables, little second-floor windows, board and batten, and most especially flat roofs. New York State really embraced the Italianate in the mid-nineteenth century, in a variety of forms: from the whimsical gothic and picturesque to the more straightforward and streamlined flat-roofed buildings–built of both brick and wood–that have always represented “New York” to me, because you just don’t see them in New England. Inspired by the rural villas of Renaissance Italy, these houses represent a more democratic diffusion of a style that seems to have spread everywhere in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This past weekend in Saratoga, when I was walking up Broadway (renown for its High Victorian mansions but obviously experiencing some McMansionization) it was these houses that captured my attention, and then I ran around the city looking for more.

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Flat Roofed Italianate House Saratoga

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The Inspiration: View of the Villa La Petraia: From Vedute delle ville, e d’altri luoghi della Toscana (plate 33), 1744, Filippo Morghen (Italian, 1730–after 1807), after a drawing by Giuseppe Zocchi (Italian, 1711/17–1767), Metropolitan Museum of Art, and flat-roofed houses in Saratoga Springs.


Trip to Bountiful

We took a very quick trip this weekend to New York State for a family wedding in Saratoga Springs and stopped at my brother’s house in Rhinebeck on the way back. The weather was midsummer dramatic: dark thunderstorms on the way there and back and hot, hazy and humid in between. The bride was the picture of cool nonetheless, and the wedding was held in the groom’s backyard, which features one of the most spectacular gardens I have ever seen: a powerful mix of the most colorful of perennials and the most architectural of vegetables! And so very well-tended by the groom’s father: I came home a bit ashamed of my weedy patch and more than a bit envious of all those vegetables. Though I’m a notorious non-eater of green things I am always struck by how beautiful they are as plants, and wish I had more land so I could grow some (to look at). In my urban garden, I grow perennials and herbs together because this is what the colonials (and their predecessors) did: in much the same way this Saratoga garden has integrated raised vegetable beds with surrounding perennials. Then there is lawn–which is where the wedding tent was, right on the edge of the garden, or rather in the garden. I’ve been to many garden weddings before, but this was a GARDEN wedding. We drove south on the way back and stopped at my brother’s house for lunch and saw more New York bounty on the way and when we got there–including a transplanted Massachusetts white hydrangea from my mother’s family house (why don’t I have any????)–which seems to be doing particularly well in New York. Once we were on the Pike driving back to Salem I recalled a very distant memory from my early childhood in Strafford, Vermont:  there was a well-established farmer who suddenly and inexplicably (to me, who could not imagine any place more perfect than Vermont) sold his farm and moved to New York State. I asked either my mother or my father (I can’t remember which) why? And they said:  the farms are so much larger in New York, and there is just MORE: more land, more crops, BIGGER vegetables. I am definitely paraphrasing here but that was the gist of it. I remember that at that moment “New York” became something different than, or additional to, the city, for me, and associated with bounty.

An amazing Saratoga Springs garden (encompassing a wedding celebration), including weird-looking brussel sprouts, and a flourishing white hydrangea (the best kind) in Rhinebeck:

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The Eagle has Landed

Last October, the wooden eagle carved by Samuel McIntire over two centuries ago for the north facade of Hamilton Hall was removed for restoration and preservation purposes and two days ago a resin replica was (re-)installed in its place, and once again I had a bird’s-eye view from my third floor window. The cherry picker, contractors, replica and a little crowd arrived first thing in the morning and by 10:00 the new eagle was firmly in place, looking (from relatively far away) like it had always been there. The original eagle had been painted in the later nineteenth century and gilded in the 1920s, but apparently it was white in the first half-century of its existence, and so white it will remain, blending in nicely with the adjacent–and original–McIntire swags. Kudos to the Board of Trustees of Hamilton Hall for making this happen–as this was the last in situ McIntire eagle in Salem it has been a topic of conversation for decades. Now the old wooden eagle–its rot removed (or at least stabilized)–will endure in interior perpetuity (one hopes!) while its better-equipped copy braves the elements outside.

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Eagle at Hamilton Hall


Were Wigs on their Way Out?

During the Revolutionary War? Here in Salem? I’m curious about wigs: for two centuries, one in which I have some expertise (the 17th), and one in which I do not (the 18th), wigs were big. Yet I don’t know much about them, especially of the Anglo-American variety. I have long been curious about a gravestone here in Salem featuring a be-wigged soul effigy, and the other day I was searching through lots of an upcoming Skinner Auction and became enchanted with a portrait of a man with a very fitted wig from about the same time, and I thought: who is wearing wigs and who is not? I know that wigs were on their way out in Britain after the very consequential Hair Powder Act of 1795, but I thought that democratic sentiments might have hastened their departure decades before over here–but I think not. There was definitely a hierarchy of wigs ( long and full for lawyers, shorter and tied for merchants, “bob-wigs” for clerics) worn by men across the pond: did it apply over here? The gravestone effigy of John Crowninshield (d. 1777) in the Old Burying Point on Charter Street here in Salem is curious to me because of the very conspicuous wig, which is hardly ethereal and quite a contrast with the wings–but also because I had it in my mind that Salem merchants just didn’t wear wigs, even of the restrained variety. They were too manly, too daring, too independent, too busy. But then I came across a portrait of one of the most independent-minded of Salem merchants, John Derby, with a new American flag proudly waving in the background, and realized I was wrong. Wigs were still quite in, even while the British were out.

Crowninshield Photo

Wig Crowninshield Gravestone

Wigs 1773 LWL

Skinner Portrait

John Derby Portrait Skinner

The be-wigged effigy of John Crowninshield, 1777, Old Burying Point, Salem; Wigs by Occupation, print by M. Darley of London, 1773, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University; C.F.C. Brandt Portrait, c. 1778, Skinner Auctions; American School, Late 18th Century Portrait of a Ship Captain, with Distant Ship Flying an American Flag (presumed to be John Derby), Skinner Auctions. Also see several posts of wigs–including one on Salem wigmaker William Lang–by J.L. Bell at Boston 1775.


Event-fully Salem

There is so much going on in Salem this summer that I’m a bit overwhelmed, and have taken to hiding in my garden! This was my strategy this past weekend, which was hot and sunny and jam-packed with things to do: sadly I inadvertently missed PEM Curator Dean Lahikainen’s lecture on the recent renovation of the Ropes House and the Salem Garden Club’s seaside garden tour, along with the “Paddle for Plummer” fundraiser for the Plummer Home, though I deliberately missed the Salem Willows Seafood Festival, which is not a community “festival” at all but a corporate event held in a (roped-off) public park. There’s still plenty of time to see the Thomas Hart Benton exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum and the exhibit on the alchemical activities of John Winthrop at the Witch House is just opening today. In a metaphor for this “close to home” summer, I also missed this weekend’s pop-up installation of giant inflatable rabbits down in Boston (Intrude by Australian artist Amanda Parer), but spent Saturday weeding with (three? four? rabbits) hopping (and napping) right in my backyard! On Sunday however, I could not avoid another event which happened right in my (de facto) front yard: Salem’s 4th annual Diner En Blanc pop-up picnic, which was held in the Chestnut Street park. You may be familiar with this……movement? (this sounds like too strong a word) in which people dressed in white “spontaneously” set up a picnic (with more white stuff, including food) in some secretive (right up to the afternoon of the event) location and dine together in pristine magnificence–it started in Paris nearly 30 years ago and now has spread to over 40 cities around the world, probably more, including Salem. As elsewhere, the dinner gets bigger every year as friends invite friends who invite friends….I wasn’t going to post on this happening (better word) as I thought it might seem a bit exclusive, almost as if we’re in Marblehead or Manchester-by-the Sea, but then I thought: what’s exclusive about this? Anyone can come, and they don’t have to pay for the privilege, like the Salem Willows Seafood “Festival”. Plus there was a great hat in attendance, which you simply have to see, and I am proud of my own blanc arrangement, made up exclusively from flowers from my garden.

Mid-July Weekend in Salem (and Boston–“Intrude” Rabbits courtesy of Mark Favermann):

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Intrude Mark Favermann July 12

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All that’s left is my ghost-like chair this morning.


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