Daily Archives: February 21, 2012

George Washington Slept Here

Last summer, I wrote about George Washington’s visit to Salem in a post on the Assembly House where he dined; today I’m featuring the house where he spent the night (October 29, 1789) after he was feted by the city’s notables:  the Joshua Ward house, built between 1784 and 1788 on what was then waterfront and what is now busy Washington Street.  Like my post on Lincoln last week, I’m trying to recognize and remember American statesmen on the days they were actually born (February 12 and 22) rather than on the generic “Presidents’ Day”.

Teddy tries to take over:  Puck Magazine, February 1909.

President Washington came to Salem as part of a New England tour in the Fall of 1789.  His diary entries indicate that he was impressed with the commerce of the town, but he has little to say about its architecture.  Washington was no Jefferson; he was clearly more interested in the quality of the land and the roads along his route than he was in culture, material or otherwise.  The Joshua Ward house was a brand new mansion when he arrived, ostensibly the finest residence in town, but he refers to it only as his “lodgings”.  He spent the night in the second-floor northeast bedchamber, on the right in the pictures below.

A bust of Washington appears to peer out at Salem from a window over the entrance of the Joshua Ward House.

The house is now home to the Higginson Book Company and appears well-maintained and seemingly-secure, despite being wedged in between a Dunkin Donuts (one of 57,000 in Salem), modern condominiums, and an office building.  Its location has determined that the Ward House has had an interesting history, to say the least.  At this point in time, it is far better known as a haunted house than a historic one, due to the fact that it was built on the former site of the house of  George Corwin, the High Sheriff of Essex County who issued the warrants for those arrested in the Witch Trials of 1692 and infamously placed the sequential stones on Giles Corey’s body which crushed him to death for failing to enter a plea.  Sheriff Corwin dropped dead of a heart attack 4 years after the trials at age 30, and the combination of a series of shady stories involving a curse and his corpse, along with an equally shady “spirit photograph” ostensibly taken in the early 1980s, have created a ghostly reputation for the Joshua Ward House.

Its location has threatened not only its reputation but also its preservation.  The Ward house was originally built on a bluff overlooking the South River, but as Salem developed the river was filled in to create the major commercial thoroughfare of Washington Street, and Salem’s massive Boston and Maine Railroad Station was built virtually in its front yard.  Eventually it became the “Washington Hotel”, indicating that its association with Washington was well-known, and commercial storefronts were built in front of it and a “New Washington House” adjacent.

The view looking south on Washington Street in the later nineteenth century and the Boston & Maine terminal in 1910, Detroit Publishing Company. The Ward house is located just beyond and behind the “Boston” building on the right:  quite a change from the river view of a century before!  A postcard from the late 1920s.  Below, a northwestern orientation, FACING but still obscuring the Ward House:  the New Washington House  (Dionne Collection, via Salem Patch), Washington Street in the 1930s, and today.  The posts in the lower left-hand corner of the modern picture are those of the Joshua Ward House fence.

The house is obscured in all of these pictures of its streetscape, but fortunately it is revealed in the photographs of Arthur C. Haskell, taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1937 and accessible at the Library of Congress. These pictures show a house (labelled the Joshua Ward “Washington” House) that looks like it has fallen upon hard times on the outside, but relatively well-preserved on the inside.  The first two exterior views show appendages growing out of both front and back, and a missing balustrade, but the interior views show an empty but still elegant interior, with woodwork which is often attributed to Samuel McIntire.  I think that the second-floor landing between the front and rear stairs is particularly impressive.

A sketch of the house; you can see all the stuff that has been built in front of it.

HABS photographs by Arthur C. Haskell, 1937:  Ward House front and back exterior, first-floor parlor mantle, second-story landing, and the room that George Washington slept in on the second floor.

It’s so interesting to see a city–the world–grow and change from the perspective of one house, bearing silent witness.  Things will get worse for the Joshua Ward house before they get better. In that horrible time of urban renewal, the 1960s and early 1970s, a developer approached the Salem Redevelopment Authority (which has planning jurisdiction over downtown) to tear down the  “junk” in back of the Washington Street storefronts at no. 148, meaning the Ward House!  In the ensuing uproar the way was cleared for an extensive restoration supervised by Salem preservation architect Staley B. McDermet, revealing the elegant mansion of Washington’s time–and ours.

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