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.

17 responses to “George Washington Slept Here

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    You’re so right that the house has witnessed silently the changes going on around it. Fortunately, it was allowed to survive, rather than be torn down, enabling this bit of history to continue.

    The photos alone show remarkable change, and they only date back a century or so. (I particularly like the photo of the steam locomotive pulling out of the Boston and Maine station, with the horse-pulled wagon visible to the right).

    And, yes, how many Dunkin’ Donuts/McDonalds/Wal-Marts does a town have before it completely loses that identity which made it unique? Most U.S. communities have long since passed that point.

  • Jennifer K.

    We are moving to Salem (once we finish the seemingly endless task of painting!) and I want to thank you for another great post about the city’s history. Higginson Book Company sounds like the perfect tenant and steward for this property. They publish history and geneaology books and undoubtedly pick up too many DD cups and food wrappers blown over from next door. I see that they are currently offering 20% off orders of $60+.

  • Dave

    From “Old Naumkeag” (1877), concerning the aftermath of Washington’s stay at this house, apparently, “an exhibition of antique articles, given at Plummer Hall, December, 1875, Mrs. E. Putnam exhibited the plate from which Washington dined, and Mr. R. C. Manning exhibited the damask drapery, from the hangings on the bed in which he slept at that time. The same drapery ornamented the bed occupied by General Lafayette, when he visited Salem a few years earlier.” It would be interesting to know what became of these articles.

  • bellegroveatportconway

    We are working on opening a bed and breakfast in a very historic home in Virginia. It was the property where James Madison was born and his mother grew up. In my recent research on the history of the property, I found out that not only did George Washington visit our property several times, but as a child, his father grew up playing there! George Washington was born about 15 mintues away. Great post!

  • The Dusty Victorian

    Hello Donna,
    I love to read about successful preservation stories and this one has so many interesting ingredients, fame, infamy, ghostly. Perfect recipe for a rich post.

  • Sidney L. Phillips

    In 1938, Hotel address 150-1/2 Washington St. Entrance to lobby up flight of stairs to comfortable lobby; past entrance to “Old Part”. Registration desk to right, comfortable chairs in lobby. Large room for hotel manager served as kitchen. Manager bedroom at front facing B&M Depot. Streamline diesel powered train “Flying Yankee” passed nonstop through Salem Depot. More details available, on request.

  • Steve

    I went by the Ward house today and took some pictures front and back. Its up for sale for close to a million . Some one mentioned it might become a bed and breakfast. The real estate company has a lot of pictures of the inside including the room where Washington slept. I forget the site name but if you google ” Joshua Ward home for sale” you will find it.

    • daseger

      Hi Steve, My husband is actually the architect beginning to work on the house now, and you’re right–it is under agreement and the plan is for it to be a bed and breakfast. He’s promised to get me in there soon: I want close-up pictures of all the architectural details, So stay tuned!

  • Boris Pickets

    Hi Donna,
    I had a relative that actually was the proprietor of the Washington Hotel for a number of years….. He was simultaneously the assistant RR station manager at the depot. The railroad office building was the building built forward of the Josh Ward house.
    My cousin or uncle. was Irving Tebbetts.He rented the hotel and ran it.
    I share the same (many times removed) grandfather , possibly several successive. I am am a direct descendent of “Henry the Immigrant” Tibbetts, tybot, tibbets,tebbetts(spelled many ways)My 9th or tenth great grandfather). who settled in Dover Neck NH in between 1631 and 1635.
    I am also a direct descendant of John Hood (my 9th great grandfather). of Lynn Ma , He was here by 1638(Cambridge most likely) and in Lynn prior to 1650.
    I recently discovered the family connection to the Joshua Ward House and the Washington Hotel with the added bonus of finding out Irving was an assistant manager of that beautiful Norman castle depot.
    I love this stuff!

    • daseger

      That’s so great: I wonder if you have any materials on the house? It is being restored now by a wonderful couple who are going to turn it into an inn and I know they’d be grateful for any information.

      • Boris Pickets

        I have nothing but records from the census nothing physical, sadly. I will look around… Of course the LOC has some good interior images… If I come across anything I will send it over to you….The census (of 1900) page lists the people that live there and I believe their current employment status … I do not see that being a big help but maybe a novelty item. If they wish to have a digital copy.


        Great story! I was just at the dunk and donuts next to this house and a piece of plywood was covering one of the top windows. I hope the storm didn’t do any damage. The history of the house and land is fascinating..

      • daseger

        No, no–they’re renovating. No damage!

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