Monthly Archives: November 2013

Mansion of the Moment

The Derby Family were Salem’s golden-age “royalty”, bequeathing their name to a major street, a long wharf, and many, many houses–some which have survived, and others long lost. Of all the Derby houses, the most legendary is the most fleeting: the Derby Mansion designed successively (and somewhat collaboratively, I think) by the new nation’s most prominent architects Charles Bulfinch and Samuel McIntire for “King” Elias Hasket Derby and his wife Elizabeth Crowninshield Derby. Elias and Elizabeth both died within a year of its completion in 1799, and given its prime location between Salem’s main street and the waterfront, it was torn down less than two decades later, to be replaced by the new (now old) Town Hall in the midst of what came to be known (and still is) as Derby Square. The Derby Mansion lives on in legend (and in the form of the furnishings that were made for it) but survives only on paper: narrative descriptions, book illustrations, and most importantly, architectural drawings.

The most influential image of the idealized house in the nineteenth century seems to have been based on a 1795 Bulfinch perspective drawing produced for the Derbys before they handed the commission over to McIntire. This is preserved in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, and it was reproduced in two popular histories of Salem’s commercial heyday as well as Fiske Kimball’s Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic (1922).

Lost Derby Mansion Bulfinch

Lost Derby Mansion Old Naumkeag

Lost Mansion Old Shipmasters of Salem

Charles Bulfinch’s perspective drawing of the Derby Mansion, 1795, via Hugh Howard’s Dr. Kimball and Mr. Jefferson: Rediscovering the Founding Fathers of American Architecture  (2006) and the Peabody Essex Museum; illustrations from C.H. Webber and W.S. Nevins, Old Naumkeag. A Historical Sketch of the City of Salem, etc.. (1877) and Charles E. Trow, Old Shipmasters of Salem (1905).

But the Bulfinch drawing does not represent the completed McIntire structure: for that we have to turn to archival evidence. Fortunately, the Essex Institute (now incorporated into the international art and culture museum that is the Peabody Essex Museum, but previously the zealous historical society for Essex County in general and Salem in particular) acquired a portfolio of Samuel McIntire’s plans and papers in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, including drawings of the Derby Mansion. Even more fortunately, the PEM is digitizing some of the McIntire materials:  what a pleasure and a privilege to see these annotated elevations of the mansion and its outbuildings–I especially love the drawings for a wrought iron fence, even though I have no idea if it ended up encircling this momentary mansion.

Lost Derby Mansion

Lost Mansion Derby Outbuildings

Lost Mansion Derby Greenhouse

Lost Mansion Derby Ironwork

PEM Phillips Library MSS 264: Samuel McIntire Papers 1749-1822; below, Derby Square today.

Lost Derby Square sketch

Lynde Street Variety

Walking to and from my polling place on a bright November election day, I was struck, not for the first time, by the architectural diversity that is Lynde (rhymes with blind) Street, a downtown cross street between Salem’s major commercial thoroughfare, Washington Street, and one of it major entrance corridors, North Street. Lynde Street is one of those old-city streets that had no preservation protections until relatively late in its development, so it features structures that date from the 1750s to the 1950s, and everything in between. The 1750s house is the Georgian Colonial James Barr House, with expansive additions in back, and across the street is the 1950s house, which is one of the more unprepossessing structures in Salem, in my opinion, though now that I’m looking at pictures of it and the Barr house side by side, I’m wondering if its builders were going for a 1950s version of a gambrel roof?

Lynde Street 099

Lynde Street 109

Lynde Street 110

Lynde Street 108

In the middle of Lynde Street are three structures that further testify to its architectural diversity: adjacent to each other on one side of the street are the former East Church Chapel and Christian Scientist Church (1897), now the Witch Dungeon Museum, and the Rufus Choate House (1787), while on the other side is Temple Court, a brick apartment complex built in 1910. The red line that runs along Lynde Street’s brick sidewalk was no doubt bought and paid for by the owners of the Witch Dungeon Museum, who also purchased the sign that was affixed to a structure situated on the site of the original jail building over on Federal Street in the early 1980s—not until a decade or so later were they called to task for this and compelled to put up a second plaque informing tourists that their Victorian structure was not in fact Salem’s seventeenth-century “gaol”.

Lynde Street 111

Lynde Street 075

Lynde Steet Church

Lynde Street 076

The red line, bringing tourists to “heritage” sites, the Witch Dungeon Museum and Rufus Choate House, the former in the early 1980s, Massachusetts Historical Commission, the two plaques.

The Rufus Choate house is named after the famous congressman, senator, and lawyer who resided on Lynde Street from 1828-1834. Choate (1799-1859) spend considerable time in Washington after his elections, but he is more famous for his Salem and Boston displays of courtroom tactics, including the origination of a successful “sleepwalking defense” for one of his clients. The Lynde Street house in which he lived experienced considerable deterioration in the twentieth century, and at one point was apparently condemned by the city of Salem before it was purchased and restored in the 1980s.

Choate House 1891

Lynde Street Choate House MACRIS

Lynde Street 080

Lynde Street 081

The Choate House in photographs from 1891 (Frank Cousins), 1981 (Massachusetts Historical Commission), and yesterday.

And finally we come to the comparatively massive Temple Court, an apartment complex built in 1910 almost opposite the Choate House. I wonder what was here before! This seems like an unusual structure for Salem:  you see these turn-of-the century courtyard complexes on Commonwealth Avenue as it extends westward out of Boston into Brookline, but they are more rare in the outer suburbs. Perhaps its existence indicates that Salem did not think of itself as a “suburb” in 1910.

Lynde Street 079


As part of their midterm exams last week, I gave my Renaissance students several images to analyze, including one with a very earnest brown-eyed man holding–no, bearing a ring:  was he mourning a deceased wife or fiance, was he himself a lost husband, or more mundanely, was he a goldsmith advertising his wares? These are the usual interpretations, and my students came up with more interesting ones. There are a surprising number of these ringbearing portraits, maybe not enough to classify as a sub-genre, but certainly more than I realized. Most art historians seem to think the portrait below depicts Bolognese goldsmith and painter Francesco Francia.

Francesco del Cossa. Portrait of a Man with a Ring 1472

Francesco del Cossa, Portrait of a Man with a Ring, c. 1472-77, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

There is also a theory that this ringbearing young man was a member of the prominent Este family of Ferrara, which means he might be related to this other Francesco below, appearing in this striking portrait by Rogier van der Weyden. Franceso d’Este bears a ring and a hammer, which the curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art believe might be jousting prizes or symbols of power. I had not thought of jousting prizes before, and while the hammer looks powerful, not sure about the ring.

Ringbearers van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden, Francesco dEste, c. 1460, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This has got to be a northern Renaissance device/motif that found is way to Italy, like oil painting in general and portraits in particular. The earliest ringbearing portraits I could find were painting by Jan Van Eyck and one of his “followers”: the first painting is Van Eyck’s incredibly intimate portrait of Bruges goldsmith Jan de Leeuw, and the second is simply titled Young Man Holding a Ring. I have always found the de Leeuw portrait strikingly modern. The curators at the National Gallery of Art in London, whose collection the latter painting belongs to, explain the ring rather conventionally in terms of trade and/or impending marriage, but there is an inscription here (Lord, Let it Pass) so maybe things were a bit more complicated?


(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Jan Van Eyck, Jan de Leeuw,c. 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Follower of Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Ring, c. 1450, National Gallery of Art, London.

Don’t get me wrong–I think it’s enough that these goldsmiths are being “captured”: such a great example of the relatively egalitarian and aspirational aspects of Renaissance society and culture. I just wish I knew the whole story behind these interesting portraits. I’m the most curious about the sole woman in this group: the mysterious and beautiful subject of Lorenzo di Credi’s Portrait of a Woman (c. 1490-1500). Most likely the widowed daughter of a goldsmith, or perhaps the widow of the artist’s brother, she is clearly not showcasing her own creation but rather commemorating a relationship.

Ringbearer Lorenzo di Credi

Lorenzo di Credi, Portrait of a Woman, c. 1490-1500, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Two other images speak to the Renaissance fascination with jewelry and jewellers, which I think might be both literal and symbolic:  one is my absolute favorite painting, Petrus Christus’ St. Eligius as a Goldsmith, variantly titled A Goldsmith in his Shop (1449) in which a couple are pictured in a goldsmith’s shop, presumably about to purchase a ring (with onlookers outside, as well as US). There’s a lot going on here: one of the acts associated with the early medieval St. Eligius was the gift of a gold ring to his contemporary Saint Godeberta before she took her religious vows. Petrus Christus might be portraying Godeberta torn between worldly and holy marriages-and she appears to be reaching towards the latter.

Saint Eligius as a goldsmith by Petrus Christus 1449

Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

And finally there is the symbolic signature (after 1508) of another Northern Renaissance artist. Lucas Cranach the Elder: a crowned black serpent bearing a gold ruby ring. This heraldic device, which also served as Cranach’s coat of arms, appears in many variations (which you can see here) but no one seems to know precisely what it means–perhaps the artist simply thought it looked cool. I’ve always thought that Cranach was the most interesting and enigmatic of northern Renaissance artists, working closely with Luther to advance the cause of the Reformation visually while simultaneously maintaining commissions from the Catholic Church. Throughout his life, he always seemed to be reaching for the brass ring.


Has Salem sold its Soul?

One last Halloween-related post (I promise!) on this All Souls Day:  since it is a recurring theme of mine, I feel compelled to feature the Huffington Post columnist Greig Lamont’s stinging critique of the Witch City:  “Selling your Soul in Salem”. I’ve read it before, heard it before, said it before, but I welcome Lamont’s compelling indictment. You would think he had more at stake, because he contrasts the bygone grandeur of Salem with its wholesale descent into tacky revelry in a particularly passionate way, beginning with soul-searching and ending with soul-selling: Once the house of New World glory, Arthur Miller discovered inspiration in Salem’s story. Today, there’s nothing to be found but a soul-selling despair in this home of American kitsch.

My favorite line, because it describes scenes I see again and again, even in my sleep it seems, comes in the middle of the piece, when Lamont contrasts the city’s glorious past with its vacuous present: today Salem has been reduced to prostituting itself to oddballs in costumes who gawk at gravestones and hanker formuseums” filled with broomsticks and bricabrac. For all its magnificent past, today it degrades itself by pandering to those whose zenith is having their photograph taken with a transvestite Dracula next to a guitarplaying zombie — and whose nadir would be to actually learn something new.

Calm Descends 450

What does this have to do with what happened in 1692?

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