Chestnut Street Days

In 1926, the year of Salem’s tercentenary, the residents of Chestnut Street threw open their doors and some old clothes and welcomed the world into their stately homes, setting the precedent for four more “Chestnut Street Days” over the next half-century. This weekend the tradition will be revived with “May Day on Chestnut Street”, an event to benefit Hamilton Hall, during which ten homes on the street will be open to ticket-bearing guests.  In a departure from the original Chestnut Street Days and the other big Salem house tour, Christmas in Salem, this tour promises to be a more low-key affair, with an emphasis on history and architecture rather than dress or decoration.

Brochures for this weekend’s tour of Chestnut Street, and the second Chestnut Street Day, held in 1939, featuring Samuel Chamberlain’s etching “Springtime in Salem”.

I am fortunate to live on this storied street and it is a privilege (and pleasure) that I never tire of, even as the tourist trolleys stop outside my bedroom window every half hour.  I see Chestnut Street as an early (circa 1805) planned development, as Salem’s merchant princes sought to distance themselves from the busy wharves from which they conducted their business and live only amongst themselves, on a big broad street of boldly American (Federal) houses, filled with the wares (to varying degrees) that they brought home from the East.  It is fortunate that the street and its houses were built, as both kept old money and old families (never a bad thing!)  in Salem as the city experienced maritime decline and industrial growth and its accompanying dynamic change later in the nineteenth century.  By the end of the century, the street had become one of the symbols of “old Salem” and a succession of postcards, produced for a national market, reinforced that image, while at the same time freezing the street in time.

Images (mostly cards) of Chestnut Street in (somewhat) chronological order, 1890s-1980s.

The first picture above, which I included in one of my very first blog posts, shows the opening of Chestnut Street–looking west–about 1891. You can see Samuel McIntire’s amazing South Church on the right hand side, and the second photo shows the church in its entirety.  It burned down in 1903, to be replaced by the Gothic Revival structure that you see immediately above, which also burned down, in 1950.  Apparently it was recognized that the lot was cursed at that time, so it remains a church-less “McIntire Park”.

Detroit Publishing Company postcard of Chestnut Street looking west, 1906, in black-and-white and colored versions.  These were reissued for many years as far as I can tell.  The last card is a rarer western perspective, printed in Germany and published by A. Kagan of Boston, Massachusetts.  The personal note on the back is dated 1918, but I can’t imagine American publishers ordering German postcards in 1918, so it must have been around for awhile.

The eastern perspective–looking towards the harbor and the center of town–is more common.  Above are examples from the first two decades of the twentieth century.  The “car card” is always striking because of its head-on view, but also because Chestnut Street has been one-way in the other direction for decades.  The canopy of elms always makes me sad; I have no idea why chestnut Street was lined with elms rather than chestnut trees, other than the fact that all great American streets seem to have been planted with elms in the nineteenth century.  Much of this land was an orchard belonging to the Pickering Family before Chestnut  Street was laid out; maybe chestnuts reigned at that time.

A bit further up the street and a bit later, but still looking east. The middle card (courtesy of the Dionne Collection) appears to have been taken in the 1950s, while the last card is from the 1980s.  Only the cars change!

I can’t resist closing with my own reissue of Felicie Waldo Howell’s (Mixter, 1897-1968) vibrant painting of the first Chestnut Street Day:  Salem’s 300th Anniversary, Chestnut Street, June 1926.  Such a great image–and a reminder that streets are all about people as well as houses.

6 responses to “Chestnut Street Days

  • Margaret McPherson

    I am doing my family tree and I find that a distant relative, Irish, Jane Taggart, sailed from Liverpool to New York to stay with her brother Henry Taggart at 3700 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia in 1901 – according to the ship Teutonic records. Can you tell me if I would be able to get a photograph of the type of house on Chestnut Street at that time? As far as I know she eventually moved to N. Mascher Street, Philadelphia and I am not sure if the brother stayed on in Chestnut Street but I am still searching. Your pictures are lovely, especially the colured one.
    Kind regards

    Maggie McPherson from Scotland

  • John Stiner

    I think I have a painting of Chestnut Street by Felicie Howell. Can I talk with someone and send an image of the painting to verify?
    John Stiner
    Washington DC

    • daseger

      Sorry John–just went back to this post and read your comment. I’m sure someone at the Peabody Essex Museum could give you more information about your painting–I’m not an art historian myself.

  • Meredith

    I remember hearing somewhere that Chestnut Street was th architectural perfection for many years and it’s one of my favorite places in Salem.

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