Our house is part of a double house, in which a central party wall divides two autonomous units, a not-uncommon configuration in historic urban areas, large and small. Though, as you will see in my pictures below, double houses are not exclusively urban constructions. I love living in our half of the double house, primarily because we have great neighbors, but also because there are no restrictions on privacy and lots of economic benefits which derive from the common wall: I am certain that the heating bills for my very large house would be a lot higher without it! Our particular property has very private spaces out back as well, as the previous owners of my house (several previous owners ago) extended an addition to my neighbors’ barn, creating separate courtyard gardens on each side. While our houses started out as mirror images of each other, many changes have been made over the nearly 2 centuries of the building’s existence, mostly to my side. Even though they are semi-detached (to use the British term), we could even paint our houses different colors if we wanted to (but we don’t).
It seems that every double house has its own story: many were built by and for family members, but not all. Here in Salem, there are several instances of fathers constructing double houses for their marrying daughters (in one case, daughters who are marrying brothers!). There are also business partnerships behind the construction of double houses. Here on Chestnut Street and in the surrounding McIntire Historic District, I think builders were running out of land on which to build, and double-house construction offered an economic way to build two houses in a fashionable neighborhood. I know that’s the story with our house, which was built by the distiller-developer Deacon John Stone who lived across the street: he bought the lot as an investment, and constructed our house as an investment property, to be let out on both sides. Quite soon after its erection, both sides of the house were sold to different families, and then its separate-but-connected history began. Some double houses were converted from single houses; some single houses were extended to become double houses.
My favorite double house (besides my own, of course) is not in an urban setting or even in Salem: it is in Byfield, Massachusetts, on a rural country road. I don’t know anything about its construction, but the fact it is built in the midst of isolated farm/marshland leads me to believe there was a family connection; I can’t imagine strangers living side by side but maybe its dwellers were looking for close comfort. On the day before the big snowstorm a couple of weeks ago, I was up in that part of Essex County, so I took some pictures of the Byfield house and some other double houses in nearby Newburyport, Newbury and Essex.
Double House on the Marsh, Byfield, Massachusetts, the former Newburyport Academy on High Street in Newburyport, converted into a double house in 1842; the Swett-Ilsley House (Historic New England), which began its life as a single house in 1670 and then was extended (HABS photograph from 1940, Library of Congress); a double house in Ipswich.
Double houses in Salem are for the most part more straightforward constructions, but as is the case with our house, changes to the exterior on one side or another over time distort the mirror image, but usually in a relatively graceful way. There are lots of added bay windows and rear and side additions. I’ve don’t have any interior images today, but the comparative interiors of a double house often provide an interesting lesson in architectural history; generally one side is a bit more pristine and the other a bit more “modern”. There are lots of double houses in Salem, in every area of the downtown, so I chose a chronological sampling of those in my immediate neighborhood, and I’m picturing them in chronological order, starting with the Pickering-Mack-Stone double house on Chestnut Street, which was built in 1814-15 for two Pickering brothers. The western (right-hand) half of this house is currently for sale: it has absolutely beautiful “bones”, a Federal carriage house out back, and, according to Bryant Tolles’ Architecture in Salem, Andrew Jackson was entertained there in 1833 on a presidential visit to Salem.
Frank Cousins photograph of Chestnut Street in the 1890s, New York Public Library.
Next are two great Greek Revival double houses, the Thompson-West double house, built in 1845-46 on Chestnut Street (note the entrance bay window added to the left-hand side later in the nineteenth century), and the Nancy Courtis double house, built in the following year on Federal Street. Miss Courtis was a “singlewoman” who built the house and lived on one side her entire life while leasing out the other, no doubt a convenient arrangement for her. It’s a striking house, made all the more so because of its paint scheme.
And last but certainly not least, two Victorian double houses in the same general area. I’m really not sure about the date of this first house, which is further along Federal Street from the Courtis house: it looks like it was built in the 1850s or 1860s to me, but I could be wrong. I wanted to include it because of its doorways, which are not located adjacent to each other but at opposite ends of the building. This seems a bit unusual to me, especially for a town house. Both sides of the house have their addition wings off the side,and matching dormer windows as well. The paint color (a very dark purple with salmon-orange doors) makes this house really stand out on the street. The last house, on Hamilton Street, was built in 1890 for the Reverend James Potter Franks, long-time rector at Grace Episcopal Church around the corner, and his daughters. The gabled entrance really stands out on this house; it is clearly the result of deliberate design rather than organic evolution.