George Washington Dined Here

Of all the Georgian houses in Salem, the house that reminds me the most of the Lady Pepperell House up in Kittery is the Assembly House, formally known as the Cotting-Smith Assembly House, which has been in the possession of the Peabody Essex Museum since 1965.  It’s probably just the pediment and pilasters, because these are two very different houses in two very different settings.  The Assembly House was built in 1782 by an unknown architect commissioned by Salem’s Federalist-leaning merchants and shipowners, who financed its construction by selling shares.  In the 1790s it was substantially redesigned by Samuel McIntire for its transition to a private residence.  And just before that, President George Washington stopped by for a reception in his honor in October of 1789.

President Washington was on a grand tour of New England in the Fall of 1789, and he came to Salem after four days in Boston and a day trip up the North Shore.  His general impressions of  everywhere he went and everyone he met are all recorded in his diaries, which are easily accessible at the Library of  Congress.  It is so obvious that Washington was a farmer first and a President second from these diaries:  his longest observations are reserved for the landscape and the potential fertility of the soil.  He arrives in Salem after a short stop in Marblehead, where he observed that the houses are old—the streets dirty—and the common people not very clean.  Salem, by contrast, is deemed a neat Town, said to contain 8 or 9000 Inhabitants.  Its exports are chiefly Fish, Lumber & Provisions.  They have in the East Indies Trade at this time 13 sale of Vessels.  At the Assembly House reception on the evening of October 29, the President observed the attendance of at least an hundred handsome and well dressed ladies.

Nearly ten years after Washington’s visit, McIntire was commissioned to transform the rather plain building into a fashionable residence, and the house was expanded and redesigned and considerable surface detail was added, though the elaborate entrance was added several decades later.  I’m not sure when the carriage house out back was added, but it certainly lacks any McIntire-ish detail.

There are some great photographs of the Assembly House from the turn of the last century, as well as some taken by Walker Evans in the 1930s which I showcased in an earlier post.  Certainly the popularity of Frank Cousins’ works and those of other national photograph publishers raised the stature of the “Old Assembly House”, as did the whole “Washington Slept Here” movement.  As you can see  below, the house and its story even served as copy for a 1915 advertisement for (lead) house paint, though the history is wrong:  the Marquis de Lafayette dined at the Assembly House 5 years prior to General Washington’s visit, not with him in 1789.

Photographic Sources:  Andrew Dickson White Collection  of Architectural Photographs at Cornell University Library, The New York Public Library Digital Gallery, the Library of Congress.

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