This weekend marked the 75th anniversary of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the first federal heritage site (as opposed to national park) in the nation. On Sunday, a spectacularly clear and cold day, the staff of Salem Maritime presented a program of commemoration and appreciation which included lovely succinct speeches, cake, and the opportunity to wander around all of the site’s buildings at leisure. As usual, I was short on time (with a stack of midterms waiting at home), so I went straight for the Custom House (after my cake, of course), which I had not been inside for quite a while. In retrospect I wish I had had time for the Derby House as well, as it has recently been restored. But that’s alright, I can easily go back at another time–I live here.
Salem has been a port of entry since 1649, so there have been a succession of custom houses: this one, built in 1819, is the last, and while beautiful, it’s a bit of a white elephant really. It was built by a new American government that expected Salem’s dynamic trade to keep expanding, but it declined precipitously almost as soon as the cornerstone of the new building was laid. In his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel captures this decline better than anyone possibly could, as he was a first-hand observer working (or watching) from this very custom house. Writing in 1850, he observed: The pavement round about the above–described edifice—which we may as well name at once as the Custom–House of the port—has grass enough growing in its chinks to show that it has not, of late days, been worn by any multitudinous resort of business. In some months of the year, however, there often chances a forenoon when affairs move onward with a livelier tread. Such occasions might remind the elderly citizen of that period, before the last war with England, when Salem was a port by itself; not scorned, as she is now, by her own merchants and ship–owners, who permit her wharves to crumble to ruin while their ventures go to swell, needlessly and imperceptibly, the mighty flood of commerce at New York or Boston.
Economic stagnation and historic preservation can often, ironically, go hand in hand, and as stately as it is, I’ve always thought that the Custom House has that air of a building that time forgot, where the front door was shut long ago and seldom opened afterwards. There is “minimal” interpretation, which I prefer, just old rooms without people–and the tools of the trade.
The one room that doesn’t look like everyone just picked up their things and left has a HUGE gold eagle in it: this is the original eagle crafted by Salem woodworker Joseph True and installed at the front of the Custom House in 1826. When it was found to be seriously deteriorated, it was removed, restored, and replaced with a fiberglass copy in 2004. The rooms across the second-floor hall, with their period furniture on which are randomly-placed papers, really reinforce that abandoned ambiance.
I particularly love the entrance of the Custom House, with its fanlight and sidelights, and then of course there’s the view, of Derby Wharf and the Friendship. Below, the Custom House in 1906 and this past weekend. It was a beautiful bright day, but as I write everything you see is covered with snow, again.