I get fixated on houses which once occupied a prominent place in Salem but no longer exist: there are so many, unfortunately. It seems like much of last year was devoted to commemorating the Great Salem Fire of 1914 which swept away so many houses in one night, but individual demolitions have been a continuous factor in this ever-changing, ever-developing little “historic” city. I took advantage of my snow days to look into the history of a first-period house that occupied a very prominent place, on one of Salem’s main streets, for over 150 years, only to be demolished during the Civil War. It lasted long enough to be photographed, however, and perhaps to provide additional inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne in the form of yet another mossy, many-gabled house. The Lewis Hunt house was built between 1698 and 1700 by a first-generation Salem sea-captain, and descended in his family almost up to the time it was taken down in 1863.
Frank Cousins’ photograph of the Lewis Hunt house shortly before its demolition; illustration from Sidney Perley’s History of Salem, Volume III (1928).
I first “saw” this house when I found a charming painting of an adjacent mansion, the Pickman-Derby-Brookhouse-Rogers house, by one of its inhabitants, Mary Jane Derby. The image was painted in 1825, so the Hunt House probably looked far more dilapidated than portrayed by Miss Derby in her rather romantic picture, but it still provided a sharp contrast to her strident Federal mansion. Both buildings were threatened by their situation on busy Washington Street (Mary Jane’s house was taken down in 1915), but this same location would ensure that they were “captured” again and again by a succession of Salem views. The view of Salem in the 1760s by Joseph Orne–when Washington Street was School Street–somewhat obscures the Hunt House, but once the new McIntire Court House was built everything around it comes more sharply into view. I’m assuming the bright red color of the house in the last image below, a fireboard painted by George Washington Felt about 1820, is an example of artistic license, but maybe not.
Mary Jane Derby, The Pickman Derby House, 1825, Detroit Institute of Arts; Two views of School Street/ Washington Street based on a painting by Dr. Joseph Orne, 1765: Holyoke Diaries and Historic New England Collections; George Washington Felt, Fireboard View of Court House Square, 1820, Peabody Essex Museum.
As its days were numbered, depictions of the Hunt House increase, and continue even after it is gone: my favorite is a sketch from the later nineteenth century in the vast collections of Historic New England: it seems wistful in its simplicity. The artist (or perhaps someone later–it looks like a different hand) has added additional location information–on Lynde Street–in the right-hand corner just so we know where the house once was. In this time, the commercial “Odell Block” filled out the corner of Lynde and Washington Streets in Salem, as it does today.
The Lewis Hunt House in an 1890s (?) sketch, collections of Historic New England; the Odell Block on the same site today (or a few days ago, before our big snowstorm).