Gothic Salem

Salem is quite Gothic in several ways, but this post is specifically about Gothic buildings.  I spent my early childhood in the picturesque village of Strafford, Vermont, the site of the Senator Justin Morrill homestead, a perfect pink Gothic Revival houses that made quite an impression on me as a child.  Surely you can see why. (Sigh)

As an adult, I think I prefer the austerity of colonial and Federal houses, but Gothic buildings have a lot of charm, and Salem has quite a few nice examples.  Even though Salem was decidedly urban by the time that the Gothic Revival style became fashionable in the middle of the nineteenth century, there are still some structures that are clearly based on the “bible” of the style, Andrew Jackson Downing‘s Cottage residences, or, A series of designs for rural cottages and cottage villas, and their gardens and grounds (1842). Several of these urban Gothic Revival cottages are in the previously pastoral North Salem, including these houses on and around Buffum Street, a lovely street that runs parallel to North Street/Route 114, one of the main entrance corridors in and out of town.

  I’m not sure if this adorable cottage is Gothic Revival or a later “storybook” style from the early twentieth century.  The proportions seem a bit different than those of the verified Gothic buildings, but it’s such a great house I wanted to include it anyway.

The cottage near the entrance to Harmony Grove Cemetery, in the later nineteenth century and today. 

Closer to downtown, there are two Gothic Revival houses facing each other on Broad Street:  The Pickering House and the William Brown cottage.  Actually, the Pickering House is only masquerading as a Gothic Revival house; it is really a “First Period” structure, indeed Salem’s oldest house, built in 1651. Successive generations of the Pickering family have lived in the house until just recently, including Timothy Pickering, Secretary of War and of State in the 1790s, and in the 1840s it was updated or “gothicized”.  The very distinctive Gothic Revival fence was added at that time as well.

The Pickering House and fence today and in 1940 (HABS, Library of Congress), followed by the William Brown House, built in 1847.


The gold standard for Gothic Revival houses seems to be the  Timothy Brooks House on Lafayette Street, built in 1851.  It is certainly a stately mansion, not a cottage, and the architectural details are incredible, including the entryway, windows, and trim. It also looks to be quite closely modeled on Downing’s Design no. II:  A Cottage in the English or Rural Gothic Style.  I believe that it was a single-family house until the 1980s, and then it was converted into condominiums, with additional built units in what might have been a carriage house or other outbuildings.

HABS, Library of Congress, 1953

The Gothic Revival style was suitable for both residential and institutional architecture, and ecclesiastical and educational institutions really embraced it in the mid-nineteenth century. Think of the campuses of Princeton, Yale, and Boston College, to name  just a few.  Two of Salem’s most influential churches, the Unitarian First Church and Episcopal St. Peter’s, rebuilt their very old churches in a remarkably similar (Normanesque) Gothic style at the same time:  the 1830s.  Perhaps friendly competition for the newest, latest (most inspirational?) style?  It is certainly ironic that nearly thousand-year old motifs were considered “new”!

  A Frank Cousins’ photograph of the First Church in the 1890s from the NYPL Digital Gallery and the First Church today; St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

THE KEY DETAIL:  the quatrefoil.  Once you start looking for them, you see them everywhere…..

Quatrefoils from the First Church (above) and St. Peter’s Church (below), a quatrefoil bracket from the Brooks House, and the Pickering House quatrefoil fence.


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