So Many Gables

It would be fine with me if the House of the Seven Gables was the iconic symbol of Salem rather than the witch: it seems to me that these two images were competing for that role in the earlier part of the twentieth century, but the witch definitely won out in the second half. I can’t tell you how many House of the Seven Gables postcards I have–maybe 50 different images, some only slightly different–and I have seen Gables puzzles, plates, patches, pens, pillows and all sorts of other items that don’t begin with the letter P.  Such souvenirs are pretty common, so I’m a bit more interested in artistic representations of the house and the book. There are many of these as well: illustrations from the multiple editions of the latter (which never seems to go out of print) and drawings, prints, etchings, and paintings of the former. I’m always looking for works by some of Salem’s renown early twentieth-century artists–Frank Benson, Philip Little, Ross Turner–but they don’t seem to have been inspired by the house (although there is a nice etching by Little’s friend and studio-mate Philip Kappel), which is understandable, given the fact that our Gables is not their Gables. What we call the House of the Seven Gables was known as the old Turner Mansion (or more formally the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion) in their time, and before preservationist/philanthropist Caroline Emmerton transformed it and adjoining buildings (some of which she made adjoining buildings) into the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association after 1908, the old house really didn’t look that inspirational. This was a pretty run-down neighborhood, and part of Emmerton’s mission was to change all that, with a rather romantically “restored” mansion at its center. And so the old Turner mansion acquired several more gables and became the House of the Seven Gables.

The Making of the House of the Seven Gables, 1908-1915

House of the Seven Gables 1890s

Gables and Seamen's Bethel

House of the Seven Gables 1910s

The Turner-Ingersoll House in the 1890s and 1910s, after Mrs. Emmerton bought the house and established the Settlement Association. The middle picture, dating from around 1914, shows the house from the other side and the developing museum “neighborhood” and its vicinity, including the Seaman’s Bethel on the water, which Mrs. Emmerton later removed to Turner Street. Photographs from the Library of Congress and National Park Service.

With time–and long after Mrs. Emmerton’s death–the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association not only cleaned up, but cleared out, its previously “derelict” neighborhood, and now there is a large parking lot to the left of those hanging sheets below. But that’s another story. A succession of artists from the 1920s on did indeed find the revitalized mansion inspirational, beginning with two female artists who occasionally came down from their Cape Ann summer homes to capture old Salem on canvas:  Felicie Waldo Howell (1897-1968) and Theresa Bernstein (1890-2002). Two very different visions, as you can see, followed by the equally variant views of Dorothy Lake Gregory, Frederic Coulton Waugh, and the contemporary artists Jim Leggitt, Philip Eames, and Matthew Benedict. Just a few images that appealed to me, among many, many Gables out there.

Portraying the House of the Seven Gables, 1921-2010

Gables Howell 1923

House of Seven Gables 1940s Theresa Bernstein

Gables Gregory

Gables Frederic Coulton Waugh

House of Seven Gables Legget


Gables Benedict 1998

14 responses to “So Many Gables

  • thegreenockian

    What an interesting old house and love the way it has been represented over the years. Particularly like the photograph where you can see the washing hanging out.

  • Melinda

    I just LOVE this post! Such an interesting story about historical revisionism and I LOVE the artworks you have chosen to share with us! I’ll be back for a second look!–M.

  • James Schmidt

    As aways, a thoughtful and interesting post! I’d be interested in learning more about the ways in which other buildings (e.g., the Custom House, perhaps?) might have served as ways of representing “Salem” (I’m teaching a course down here in Boston that has been talking a log about Pierre Nora’s notion of “memory sites” and it seems that you have an interesting conflict between a variety of them up your way). As you know (and have discussed in some of your other posts), in recent years, the Peabody Essex has been making a major push to define “Salem” as an important hub in nineteenth-century global commerce (i.e., trade, not witches). The contrast is rather striking.

    • daseger

      This is a huge and incredibly interesting topic as it applies to Salem, James. I’m not really trained in this field (though several of my colleagues at Salem State are) but it does seem to me that there has been an ongoing drive to remember “Olde Salem” from the late 19th Century on….the PEM is hardly the only, or the first, party to focus on trade rather than witches. I could go on and on……..and on!

  • jane

    Just an addition to your list of House of Seven Gables souvenirs: I have a salt and pepper set of the house – dark green, each half about 1 inch x 1 inch.
    I am comparing it to your pictures.
    My ‘house’ matches the view of the House with the laundry, including the little shed dormer to the left, and the entry porch to the right with its tiny offset at its left. Very accurate.
    The opposite side does not match any of your pictures with that precision. I have an extra first floor wing and a slightly different roof configuration…. …

    Quite interesting! I never thought I’d want to research the date and influences on a salt and pepper set! :

    Great post, thanks.

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I won’t try to estimate the date of the photo with the washing, but it’s interesting how few trees are visible. I realize it’s likely due in part to the fact that the image in black and white, but the relative lack of flora gives the scene a very bleak, almost grimy, image.

  • markd60

    I suppose I have to go look up “gable” in the dictionary now.

  • Emily O'Brien

    Love this blog. Thought you might be interested in this development, if you have not already seen it:

    • daseger

      Thanks, Emily! I appreciate your stopping by. Yes, I’ve been aware of this project for some time—very exciting–not just the new rooms but there will also be a better flow for the entire house.

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