Monthly Archives: July 2011

Midsummer Garden

Early to mid-July is about peak time in my garden, though over the years I’ve tried my best to make it as attractive as possible all summer long and into the Fall.  The garden has been shaped much more by my preference for individual plants rather than overall design, however, and several plants are pretty dominant right now.  Several cases in point:  the huge hosta which was here before me, and really thrives in its shady location in the back (sorry, I don’t know the varietal; if anyone does, I’d appreciate it), the double meadowsweet (filipendula ulmaria flora plena) that I purchased bareroot from Perennial Pleasures Nursery up in Vermont only three years ago, and the red baneberry (actaea rubra)  in the side garden along Hamilton Hall.  The last plant has a nice fluffy white flower in the spring, which turns into these bright red (poisonous!) berries that last all summer long.


There are so many plants–probably far too many plants–in my garden that I’m particularly grateful at this time of year for those that just exist looking lovely without any need of tending.  In my opinion, the best low maintenance plant of all time is this shiny European ginger (Asarum europaeum) groundcover that thrives in the shade.

The last of the June roses; they’re definitely on a midsummer break now but come back with a vengeance in August (IF I take care of them properly):


After the Duel

I’m a day late to commemorate the infamous duel which took place on July 11, 1804 between sitting Vice President Aaron Burr and the first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, resulting in the latter’s death.  Better late than never, however, as this was a shocking and momentous moment in the new nation’s history.  If you just run a cursory search in a digital database such as Early American Imprints, you can easily uncover a litany of literary tributes to the martyred Hamilton, in the form of eulogies, sermons, letters, poems and accounts of the dreadful event and its aftermath published in newspapers all over the country in the summer of 1804.

With time came more deliberative reactions to the Duel and attempts to memorialize it, in the form of historical accounts, prints of the scene (Weehawken, New Jersey) and even souvenir plates and historical romances (after all, what is more romantic than a duel?)The first marble statue to be produced in the United States, sculptor Ball Hughes’ Statue of Hamilton, was erected in the Grand Rotunda of the New York Merchants Exchange in 1835, only to be destroyed six months later in the Great Fire that swept the city later that year.

Print illustration of the Hughes Hamilton Statue, NYPL

1830 Print of Caleb Wheeler Etching, NYPL

Booth's History of New York, 1886

Duel Souvenir Plate, Collection of the New York Historical Society

Cover of Blennerhassett, or the Decrees of Fate. A Romance founded upon Events in American History by Charles Felton Pidgin, 1901

Salem was no exception in the expressed immediate outpouring of anger and grief at the killing of Hamilton, but the most lasting tribute the Federalist icon was built of bricks, not words:  the soon-to-be completed “new” Assembly House on Chestnut Street, designed by Samuel McIntire, was named Hamilton Hall in his honor.  For me, this building is quite literally the monument next door.  I enjoy seeing the aged russet bricks and McIntire’s spectacular carved eagle and swags every day, but I must admit that I don’t immediately think about Hamilton when I do so.

Hamilton Hall in 1940, HABS, Library of Congress


Map Rooms

The phrase “Map Room” conjures up images of the headquarters of a strategic military command or a rare book library, but map bedrooms run in my family for at least several generations, from Great-Great Uncle Morris’s dark map-lined bedroom off the kitchen in the old Cape house of my mother’s family to the present-day bedrooms in my parents’ house in York Harbor and that of my brother and his partner in Rhinebeck, New York.  I have dormer bedrooms on the third floor that are perfect candidates for a map room but have yet to get around to it:  as a distant observer of the creation of these map rooms, I know that in both cases it was not an easy process!

First up is the York Harbor map room which is a second-floor corner bedroom wallpapered with maps by my mother and then carefully restored by my stepmother several decades later.  My mother used standard National Geographic maps, yellow nautical charts with New England coastlines, and “historical” maps of Great Britain which she purchased by sending over her request and a blank check.

Now for my brother’s map room, another second-floor bedroom which has an interesting sloping ceiling, kind of the reverse of dormers.  He too used National Geographic maps, along with city maps, State Department maps, and French and Italian road maps from the 1950s and 1960s.  According to him there are tons of considerations you must take into account when making your map room:  the size and shape of the map, whether it has a border, content, and process.  He applied three coats of polyurethane after his placement was completed, sanding in between.

If you don’t want to bother with all that, you can just buy map wallpaper or decals, or blow up one map for a single wall as opposed to a whole room.  You often see such examples in shelter magazines, like this room in a recent House Beautiful:

Attractive but obviously not as impressive as a custom map room.  And now from the present and the attainable to the inaccessible past and future, a few fantastic map rooms:  the sixteenth-century map room of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome and New York photographer Lori Nix‘s futuristic diorama of a map room gone feral.


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.


Lady Pepperell and Her House

On our way up to York Harbor last week we stopped at one of my very favorite houses, the Lady Pepperell House in Kittery Point.  I can’t remember when I first saw this house, but by my teens I was biking over from York to gaze at it and sneak around the grounds.  It just seemed so effortlessly elegant and graceful, when compared to both the colonial architecture of York Village and the Victorian cottages of York Harbor.  We didn’t have to sneak around this time, as the owner graciously let us walk around the grounds and take some photographs.

Dolphins over the front door!

The house was built in 1760 by the newly-widowed Lady Mary Hirst Pepperell, and its architectural history has already been carefully recounted by The Down East Dilettante.  Actually I find myself a bit more interested in the lady than the house at this point in my life, for some reason.  Lady Mary appears to have been a woman who was surrounded by very powerful and ambitious men all her life, until the latter part, when she clearly lived life on her own terms.  She also had solid Salem connections:  her paternal grandfather William Hirst was a prosperous Salem planter and her maternal grandfather, the diarist and Judge Samuel Sewall, was on the bench during the Witch Trials.  Her father, Grove Hirst, apparently made a fortune as a Boston merchant, making her a very good catch for her husband, the up-and-coming William Pepperell, also a successful merchant (out of Kittery, then part of Massachusetts) who would go on to reap military and noble honors after he organized and led the New England expedition that captured the French garrison at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in 1745 and became the first colonial Baronet shortly thereafter.  And so Mary became a Lady, although many references establish that her privileged Boston background and education had already made her one.

Two of Mary’s and William’s four children died in infancy, prompting her to write the poignant poem A Lamentation &c. On the Death of a Child.  Their son Andrew died in early adulthood, leaving only one surviving child, Elizabeth Pepperell Sparhawk.  Shortly after Sir William’s appointment as acting Governor of Massachusetts and Lieutenant General in 1759, he too died, leaving Mary a very wealthy widow.  She left the older Pepperell family homestead in Kittery to her grandson (who was made heir to the residue of the Pepperell fortune with the condition that abandon the surname of his birth, Sparhawk, for Pepperell) and promptly built her Georgian mansion.  When the War of Independence began 15 years later, the conspicuous Tory William Sparhawk Pepperell fled America for Britain (where he was rewarded with a new Baronet title) but his grandmother “weathered the storms of Revolution” at her home.  Mary Hirst Pepperell died in 1789, with the New England Gazetteer noting a few years later that her natural and acquired powers were said to be very respectable, and she was much admired for her wit and sweetness of manners.

A few images of Lady Pepperell and her house from Everett Schermerhorn Stackpole’s Old Kittery and her Families (1903), and two early nineteenth-century views of the house from the Detroit Publishing Company (Library of Congress) and Illustrated Memories of Portsmouth, York, York Harbor, York Beach, Kittery, Isles of Shoals, New Castle, and Rye (after 1900):


Independence Day Idyll in York Harbor

We spent the long holiday weekend in my hometown, York Harbor, Maine, with family and friends. Part of the larger and older town of York, the Harbor is a former Gilded Age “summer colony” where wealthy families from Boston, New York and Philadelphia whiled away their summers in 20-room shingle “cottages”, most of which still stand.  I grew up in one of these cottages, only partially winterized then and now, even though we lived in there all year long and my parents still do.  Like much of coastal York, York Harbor was and is a very different, much livelier place in the summer, and it seems to have been specially created for a warm, sunny and celebratory time such as this past weekend.

Some very random views of York Harbor, past and present, beginning with displays of the weekend colors, on a meticulously restored building on York Street, our family house (front and back, morning and early evening), and in our neighbors’ patriotic garden:

More color, and more cottages:

The first (real) cottages in York Harbor, built in the early eighteenth century, today and in the 1920s.

Historic New England’s Sayward-Wheeler House (1718), where I interned in college.

Lots of antique cars were out and about this past weekend, including a BMW 2002 which I have long coveted.

The York Harbor Reading Room, built in 1910 as a place for men to read newspapers, smoke cigars, and generally escape their families, and some men doing just that from the New England Magazine of that same year.

Artistic impressions from the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries:  Martin Johnson Heade’s luminescent painting and small bronze beachcombers in the park overlooking York Harbor Beach.

Martin Johnson Heade, York Harbor, Coast of Maine, 1877. The Art Institute of Chicago


The Fourth in Salem: Horribles and Hawthorne

Actually, I’m not in Salem for this holiday weekend; I’m in southern Maine with my family.  But I’m very aware of what is going on (down) there, as July 4th is a day not only for commemorating the birth of the United States, but also of Salem’s own Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The day begins with two very different traditions:  a public reading of the Declaration of Independence on the Common and the Horribles parade in Salem Willows.  I’m sure that the reading will be very reverent (as well as relevant) and the parade will be very irreverent (but also relevant).  Horribles parades, which happen up and down the North Shore and I think in other areas of New England as well, feature often rather racy costumes, makeshift bands and floats, all adding up to political and social mockery.  I am sure that the reading of the Declaration on the Common, at about the same time, will be a more solemn occasion, but probably not as much fun.

a 1776 Declaration printed by Ezekiel Russell in Salem about July 15 or 16.

To mark Nathaniel’s birthday, the House of the Seven Gables will host a marathon reading of their namesake book, all day long from 9:30 to 6 pm.  Besides the House of the Seven Gables (the house, not the book, formally known as the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion) the Gables campus features a beautiful colonial garden and Hawthorne’s birthplace, moved from nearby Union Street in 1958.

a print of the dashing portrait of Hawthorne by George Osgood, 1840. The original painting is in the Peabody Essex Museum

Hawthorne's birthplace in its original location, HABS, Library of Congress

And of course fireworks at the end of the day, preceded by a concert on Derby Wharf.  Happy Fourth to everyone, everywhere.


Combustible Cards

At the turn of the last century Fourth of July postcards were extremely popular, purchased in six-packs to send out to family and friends.  There are patriotic cards, featuring eagles and flags, George Washington, Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam, warm-and-fuzzy cards with lots of children and pets running around, and humorous cards, but all of these cards generally feature the prominent placement of firecrackers:  as symbols, as motifs, and as active devices that are blowing up people and animals.

It is a paradoxical coincidence that just as these postcards were being published, several thousand people were sustaining injuries every year from firecracker-related incidents, prompting a “Safe and Sane July Fourth” movement in the first decade of the twentieth century.  Still, even the most sacred American symbolic figures–Lady Liberty, George Washington, Uncle Sam, and the Patriot–are still pictured going literally going up in the flames of firecracker fire.

There are several Independence Day postcards illustrating a darkly humorous acknowledgement of the dangers of firecrackers like the one below:  this particular holiday’s version of “Vinegar Valentines”.

It is always mischievous boys causing trouble, to themselves and some poor animal, even rather illogical ones. Girls are generally more decorative than active, but they always have firecrackers in their midst, even if they’re not setting them off.

Two competing cards:  one that actually asks you to light it up (it’s a piece of paper, I can’t discern any special effects other than burning) and another that encourages you to have a safe and sane holiday.  A pretty boring passive image; I can see why firecrackers were more in demand.

Probably the most effective postcards in terms of their stylistic simplicity are those that don’t picture people (or animals) at all:  merely firecrackers.



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