Daily Archives: May 22, 2011

Houses on the Move

There are countless ways that our ancestors were more environmental than us, though of course they didn’t see it that way:  they just didn’t like to waste.  Anything.  The whole idea of  “tear downs” would have been repellent to most people (maybe not nouveau riche millionaires) a century and more ago; if they wanted a bigger house or a house in another location, they just added on or moved the entire structure:  with horses, with oxen, by rail.  This still happens; the huge new courthouse project that is now coming to a close in Salem involved the moving of a huge brick Baptist Church and the preservationist practice of selling endangered houses for a dollar with the stipulation that they be moved is pretty standard.  But it is far less common than it was in the nineteenth century, when one gets the impression that there were many houses on the move.

The First Baptist Church on the move, January 2009 and the moving of the Peter Green house in Providence last year.

This post is one of several that I could do on houses that have been moved in Salem.  Like many older cities in the east, both public and private motivations have resulted in lots of building relocations. I have excluded the houses that have been moved by the House of the Seven Gables and the Peabody Essex Museum, both of which created “museum neighborhoods” by moving historic structures.  The latter wins the award for the house that has moved the farthest distance:  its eighteenth-century Chinese house, Yin Yu Tang, came from halfway around the world!  But even excluding these institutions, there are lots of Salem houses that have been moved, in their entirety, or in pieces.

I’m starting out with one of my very favorite houses, the Robert Manning cottage on Dearborn Street in North Salem.  This adorable  Dutch Colonial cottage was built by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s maternal uncle Robert Manning for his widowed sister, and Nathaniel lived there with his mother after his graduation from Bowdoin College.  The cottage was then across and down the street from its present location, adjacent to Manning’s own house and famous nursery, orchard and garden.  After the house passed out of the Manning family in the 1850s  it was relocated, though its original ell remained behind.

Frank Cousins Photograph, 1901

A more challenging move, both in terms of bulk and distance,  involved the Mason-Roberts-Colby-Nichols House, which was transferred from the Common to Federal Street by 60 oxen in 1818.  The relocated house then underwent a Federal makeover and acquired several additions, including the “Beverly jog” seen below.

Relocation following redevelopment: many houses in Salem were moved because of street widening and other infrastructural modifications and larger institutional building projects.  The two Georgian colonial houses below were removed from St. Peter Street to nearby Kimball Court to make way for the St. John the Baptist Church complex at the turn of the last century.  The white house on Kimball Court (which acquired some interesting pillars after its move) is one of  several houses in Salem associated with the famed navigator Nathaniel Bowditch; the other Bowditch house (the present-day headquarters of Historic Salem, Inc.), where he lived for over a decade was moved (along with the Jonathan Corwin house) to make way for street-widening in 1944.

The Bowditch (Curwen) House in its original Essex Street location: a Frank Cousins photograph circa 1900

Bowdith house corrected

And here in its proper (past) situation–thanks to Mark Coughlin!

The Bowditch House today: around the corner on North Street

The sum of all their parts:  often houses were not moved in their entirety, but in pieces, and either reconfigured in a new enlarged house or attached to a pre-existing house in another location.  It is a quite a feat to figure out when and where and how precisely all this disassembling and reassembling happened in Salem, or any other similar town, but here are a few examples of  it:  another house with Bowditch connections, a portion of which was the Samuel Curwen house and store, an interesting house moved to a side street off Derby Street in 1856 which seems to consist of at least three, if not more, earlier houses, and the amazing Benjamin Punchard house on Federal Street, whose origins are somewhat shrouded in mystery but is believed to be a product of a colonial building moved to the site a decade before the American Revolution and later Federal-era additions.

The most interesting example of a partially relocated and reconstituted house is the Phillips House on Chestnut Street, now one of Historic New England‘s properties.  The house was erected (or assembled) in 1821 by Captain Nathaniel West, who moved part of  Oak Hill, the magnificent country estate of his deceased ex-wife (Elizabeth Derby West, daughter of Elias Hasket Derby, Salem’s wealthiest merchant and perhaps America’s first millionaire) in nearby South Danvers (now Peabody) to Chestnut Street and added additional rooms to create a new (late) Federal mansion.  Mrs. West had wanted the Captain to have nothing to do with Oak Hill, but after both her death and that of one of their daughters, he inherited a third of the estate and promptly removed his inheritance to Salem, creating a “spite house” of sorts just down the road!  A century later, the Phillips family commissioned architect William Rantoul to remodel the Chestnut Street house in the Colonial Revival style, and later still, sadly, Oak Hill was demolished to make way for the Northshore Mall.

The Phillips House in 1940, HABS, Library of Congress.  Frank O. Branzetti, Photographer.