There are several houses in Salem which have brick sides or ends, even though the majority of the house is constructed of wooden clapboards. Sometimes there is brick on each end of the house, sometimes on the front facade, sometimes along a rear wall. I’ve always found the aesthetics of the brick and clapboard combination very pleasing, but never took the time to wonder about the utilitarian reasons behind the design. The buildings below were all built between 1805 and 1820, in the central residential and commercial districts of an increasingly congested town. The first two are located on lower Essex Street, Salem’s main street then and now, and the latter two are situated off Derby Street in the (then busy) Wharf area and on more residential Federal Street, respectively.
As these houses were built concurrently with and just after Chestnut Street, with its grand display of brick merchants’ mansions, I thought perhaps there might be a socio-economic explanation for these single brick walls: showing a bit of brick to keep up with the China Trade Joneses. However, the architects and preservationists whom I’ve consulted say it’s all about fire prevention. And as you can see from the pictures above, the brick side is generally built around the chimney and proximate to another building. It’s hard to imagine the constant danger of fire in these mostly wooden, clustered towns; in the same decade that these buildings were built, there were devastating fires just up the coast in Newburyport, Massachusetts, (1811) and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, seaport cities very similar to Salem. Portsmouth actually experienced three terrible fires in the first decades of the nineteenth century: in 1802 (see below), 1806, and 1813–this last fire destroyed over 270 buildings. With only a bucket brigade and a rudimentary hand-pumped water pump to protect them, it is easy to see why Salem’s householders might have put up a brick wall or two.