Monthly Archives: February 2016

Leaping Ladies on the Loose

On this quadrennial February 29, a follow-up post to one from the last leap year. I don’t have any radical new insights into the public perception of this occasion in the past, but I do see some connections and characterizations of which I was previously unaware. As before, and as usual, it was the Victorians who cemented the idea of women “leaping” outside of their conventional role at this time by proposing to their prospective spouses, beginning with Victoria herself. It was widely known that the young Queen proposed to her beloved Alfred in 1839 (not a leap year but she was Queen), and their marriage did occur in the following bissextile year. Apparently it was fine for Victoria, but such assertiveness among mere mortal women was not quite so tolerated, as Leap Year depictions became more cutting and critical in several ways as the nineteenth century progressed. Postcards were used to depict mismatched marriages: the woman is too rich, too old, too large. The “tall bride” is a consistent trope, and I think the very popular Raphael Tuck & Sons Leap Year postcard of a bride towering over her royal groom is a reference to the sensational marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and the Duke of Marlborough in 1895. In addition to images of brides buying their grooms, Leap Year postcards from the peak period of 1896-1916 depict women who are pushing against the constraints of their gender: women who “scorch” the streets on a bicycle or ask for the vote, women who sought to “wear the pants” not only on February 29 every four years, but on every day in every year. Ladies are pictured hunting, trapping, and hooking men in Leap Year post and trade cards up until the teens, after which milder messages predominate, most likely because of the twin forces of the First World War and women’s suffrage.

Leap Year Life 1896 Cover

Leap Year Vanderbilt Marlborough Wedding

Leap Year Gauntlet Tuck 1911-12

Leap Year Raphael Tuck

Leap Year Tuck Collage

Leap Year Brill Collage

Leap Year Card Collage

Leap Year 1908 BPL

Leap Year Text 1904p

Life Magazine February Leap Year Cover, 1896, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Raphael Tuck & Sons Oilette Leap Year Cards, 1904-1912, from a selection here; “Cupid’s Coffin” illustration of the Vanderbilt-Marlborough Wedding by Charles Dana Gibson for Life, sourced here; George Reiter Brill Cards, Playles; Trade card and Postcards from the Boston Public Library and Smithsonian Institution.


Colonial and Colonial Revival

Over the years I have encountered people who were opposed to historic districts for a variety of reasons, prominently property rights and the sense that such building restrictions created homogeneous “museum neighborhoods”. I appreciate both arguments: I’m a bit of a libertarian myself and I have lived in historic districts since my 20s primarily because I like to look out the window when I get up every morning and look at historic buildings. But when I walk around Salem’s historic districts, I don’t see homogeneity, I see diversity: of building materials, of size, and even of style. Though Salem is renowned for its Federal architecture, there are many buildings in the downtown historic districts that pre-date and post-date this era, and I am always struck by how many houses were built in the later nineteenth century in styles that are far from “Victorian”: these are Colonial Revival structures melding into the streetscape, for the most part. You definitely notice the differences when you view “Colonial” and “Colonial Revival” side by side–and there are many opportunities to do this in Salem. Everything is a little bigger and bolder in the later houses: windows, window panes, dormers, especially entrances. Of course, the Colonial Revival era is long (most authorities seem to date if from 1880 to 1955) and encompasses several sub-styles (Classical Revival, Georgian Revival, Dutch Colonial), but one particular feature I notice in several of Salem’s more prominent houses built in the last decade of the nineteenth century are semi-circular projecting bays on the front facade–these houses are literally bursting out of line–but still complementary to the older structures surrounding them.

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ABOVE: On upper Essex Street in Salem, the Clarence Clark House (built 1894) stands side by side the Captain Nehemiah Buffington House (built 1785) and across the street, the David P. Ives House features a very detailed Colonial Revival facade adhered to a much older (c. 1764) building.

BELOW: just a little further down (or up) Essex Street, I think the Emery P. Johnson house was the inspiration for all these bow fronts! It was built slightly earlier (1853) and thus is more Italianate than Colonial Revival, and was raised up on its mound in the early 20th century. It contrasts quite a bit with its colonial neighbors, but in a good way, I think.

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Beckford Street below: the section of Beckford Street between Federal and Essex is a real mash-up of Colonial and Colonial Revival! I love the juxtaposition of the very old and charming Joseph Cook House (c. 1700-1733) with the very high-style Georgian Revival William Jelly House (c. 1905) right behind it–and then the George Beckford House (c. 1764) next to the Jelly House. And there was a cat in a window, too.

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And at the end of Chestnut Street, my favorite contrast of Colonial and Colonial Revival:  William Rantoul’s Colonial Revival adaptation of the Georgian Richard Derby House on Derby Street and the Kimball-Fogg House on Flint.

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What I difference a year makes! It was a warm day yesterday, nearly 60 degrees when I was taking these pictures. By sharp contrast, this is the same Chestnut-Flint Street corner a year ago:

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Through the Spyglass

While watching Admiral, the lavish Dutch film about the great Michiel de Ruyter (1607-1676), Lieutenant-Admiral of the Dutch Fleet during the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, all I could think about was spyglasses. He had one on deck, of course, as did everyone around him, and it also seemed as if we were watching these epic naval battles through them from the shore. So in addition to seeing spyglasses on the screen, I felt like I had one, and was therefore able to get very close to this meticulously made-up world (sometimes too close–see below). Admiral is not a great film by any means (although its original Dutch version, titled Michiel de Ruyter, is probably a lot better as the English dubbing is really distracting; I would have preferred subtitles), although it is very engaging one. It’s also not a great historical film: the history is off and compressed; no one ages or is the right age.The peripheral royal characters, the foppish Prince William III of Orange and the decadent King Charles II of England, are just caricatures, but very watchable caricatures nonetheless. And fair warning: the violence is explicit as the film recreates one of the most horrifying events in European history, the lynching of Johan and Cornelis de Witt by an organized Orangist mob in 1672. I really wish I had looked away sooner. Nevertheless, for all the violence and the video-game attributes of the film, it does present an interesting corrective to the dominant British or French perspective one usually sees in historical films and the acting and material details are really wonderful. Like our founding fathers, Michiel de Ruyter is on the money in the Netherlands, so not just anyone could play him: the Dutch actor Frank Lammers was perfect. And I also started to think about naval formations for the very first time.

Admiral Film Poster 2015

Admiral Michiel_de_Ruyter_1607-1676

Admiraal_Michiel_Adriaensz._de_Ruyter_en_zijn_familie_door_Jurriaen_Jacobson_1662

Admiral Spyglasses Still

The poster for the 2015 English-language film; Ferdinand Bol, Michiel de Ruyter as Lieutenant-Admiral, 1667, Rijksmuseum; Juriaenn Jacobsz., Michiel de Ruyter and his family, 1662, Rijksmuseum; a still from the film with spyglasses.

As you can see in the contemporary paintings above, de Ruyter’s spyglass was like an extra appendage: he wields it even in the family portrait. A century or so later it will be commonplace to see admirals and sea captains pictured with their spyglasses, but this is a new composition/characterization in the seventeenth century–the telescope was invented by Dutch spectacle-makers (NOT Galileo) for maritime purposes only a few decades before the beginning of de Ruyter’s career. It’s almost like a national symbol for the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century, when it was commonly referred to as the “Dutch Telescope”. From this time until well into the nineteenth century it’s fairly difficult to find a portrait of a sea captain without a spyglass by his side: it looks like this is yet another legacy of the Dutch Golden Age.

Some Anglo-American sea captains of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, spyglasses in hand:

Admiral Warren NMM

Captain Sir Edward Vernon NMM

Sea Captains nineteenth century

Thomas Hudson, Admiral Sir Peter Warren, 1748-42, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; Francis Hayman, Captain Sir Edward Vernon (who later became an Admiral, SWOON), c. 1753-56, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; and two mid-nineteenth century merchant captains from either side of the Atlantic: an anonymous English merchant captain, c. 1830 and portrait of Captain John Howland of New Bedford (1802-46) by an unknown artist, New Bedford Whaling Museum.


What I want now: George Washington

I have no intention of discussing current politics on my blog which is supposed to be a break from reality for me and my readers (I hope), but the rhetoric and reality of this election is really depressing me; I’ve got to get out from under its weight in the only way I know how: by going back. We need a hero! And since today is the birthday of one (the real birthday, as opposed to last week’s more generic “Presidents’ Day”), let us focus on George Washington. Now remember, I am not an American historian so I have a rather romantic view of our first president, which suits my purpose of historical escapism. My glasses are not quite as rose-colored as those of Parson Weems and his fellow hagiographers of the nineteenth-century, but I still want to see the General and the President in vivid twentieth-century color, as an example of someone who was truthful, moderate, restrained and resigned, heroic yet humble, selfless yet self-conscious, never-seeking but always-serving, and predisposed more towards action than words. Here are some twentieth-century images, in color, which capture those qualities.

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Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939, Amon Carter Museum of American Art; (I do believe Washington was truthful, but the cherry tree story is still a fable created by Parson Weems–this is an amazing HISTORICAL painting). Below, the cherry tree story is integral to Washington’s depiction by Rosalind Thornycroft in Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Heroes and Heroines (1933).

George Washington Thornycroft 1933

George Washington 1910 Penfield NYPLDC picture

Washington Lithograph 1930 poster

George Washinton Schuker 1920s

Washington War Bond WW

Washington Morality Poster 1974 Smithsonian

Washington from the 1910s through the 1970s: leaving Mount Vernon by Edwin Penfield, the popular General by Charles Schucker, the standard of civic duty and morality. New York Public Library Digital Gallery and Smithsonian Institution.


Miss Brooks Embellishes

I am featuring yet another new-to-me Salem artist today, Mary Mason Brooks (1860-1915), who worked primarily in watercolors over her career. Mary’s biography is spare: the obituary in the 1915 American Art Directory consists of only two brief lines: a painter in water colors, died September 20, 1915. She was born in Salem, Mass, studied in Rome and Paris; exhibited in New York and Boston, her home being in the latter city. I can fill in these lines a bit: she was born into an old and well-connected Salem family, grew up on Lafayette Street, and her father was the long-time Secretary of the Essex Institute who also published quite a few antiquarian pieces over his long career. After her training in Europe, Mary returned to Salem briefly and maintained a studio and school in the famous “Studio” at #2 Chestnut Street among her fellow Salem artists, but she was off to Boston and Jamestown, Rhode Island by her early 30s. She had both family and friends in Jamestown, located right over the bridge (then ferry!) from Newport, where an artists’ colony was emerging and where she eventually died, “suddenly”, at age 55. That’s about it for the written record on Mary Mason Brooks: her works are going to have to embellish her character for us. And there are many: it is apparent that Miss Brooks was no dilettante, but rather a professional, working artist. Most are watercolors: some European scenes, lots of flowers and trees, several structures, the occasional (appropriate for a Salem girl) ship. But the most charming–and in many ways most revealing–work of Miss Brooks that I could find is a book illustrated by her after its publication: a one-off edition of Eleanor Putnam’s Old Salem (1886 & 1899). This charming little book is a collection of previous-published Atlantic Monthly articles written by Harriet Leonora Vose Bates, who preferred to use the pseudonym of her ancestor Eleanor Putnam, published posthumously in two editions. It is basically a series of reminiscences about the stuff of old Salem—shops, schools, homes and things–which Miss Brooks illustrates in her special edition.

Miss Brooks Embellishes Old Salem

Miss Brooks Embellishes Old Salem Collage2

Miss Brooks Embellishes Old Salem Collage

I think it’s pretty gutsy to illustrate a book after its publication, and after its author’s death! And to sign your name right there on the title page! Miss Brooks probably thought her special edition would never see the light of day, but it made its way on to ebay, of all places, a century after her own death. I like the marginalia, which transforms a charming but mere book into something else entirely, but I also feel that I should present some of the artist’s more formal works which were represent her public oeuvre. They testify to a life well-lived, if short, in some beautiful places.

Mary Mason Brooks Salem Schooner

Brooks Garden Poppies

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Mary Mason Brooks watercolor Weston Historical Society

Watercolors by Mary Mason Brooks: Lumber Schooner; Garden of Poppies, Isles of Shoals; Three European Views, Skinner Auctions; and my favorite, a watercolor of the pool at Haleiwa, the Horace Sears Estate in Weston, Massachusetts, Weston Historical Society.


Ever in Transition

The tensions between public and private interests, commercial and residential concerns, and historic preservation and economic growth are nothing new to Salem, which has always been a dynamic city proud of its past and poised for the future. Some eras are more dynamic than others, however, and I think we’re in a particularly dynamic period now, but any city or town or settlement is always in transition, of course. When I hunt for historic photographs I’m always on the lookout for the mix of “ancient” and “modern”, residential and industrial, small-scale and larger, dirt roads and railroad tracks. My very favorite visual chronicler of Salem, Frank Cousins, who was himself living through a very dynamic age, was clearly attracted to that mix as well, as one of the photographs that he submitted as part of Salem’s exhibition at the 1893 Columbian Exposition was that of a divided Derby Street doorway labelled “modern” and “colonial” (A subtle distinction for our modern eyes).

In Transition Cousins 1892 Columbian Exposition

Frank Cousins photograph of a Derby Street doorway, c. 1892, courtesy of Duke University’s digital Urban Landscape collection.

More illustrative of the city in transition, as opposed to a co-joined household, are the many pictures of Town House Square that date from the 1880s to about 1910. There you see predominantly brick multi-story commercial buildings, but if you look closer, there are still some surviving wooden residential structures (although they are probably serving a multitude of uses). For several years, I have had in my possession a stereoview of a building labeled “Ward-Goldthwaite & Co. Salem” which I thought might be one of these structures, only to realize that I had made a rookie historian’s mistake (not questioning a label): the Ward-Goldthwaite Company was located in Chicago, not Salem (even though it was published by the Moulton firm of Salem). Nevertheless, it’s a great image of a city in transition: you know that house isn’t going to last long.

In Transition Cousins Town House Square 1892 LOC

In Transition 1906 LOC

Stereoview Ward Golthwaite Co Salem

Town House Square at the intersection of Essex and Washington Streets, Salem, (Library of Congress) and a stereoview of the Ward Goldthwaite & Company in Chicago published by J.W. and J.S. Moulton of Salem as part of their “American Views” series.

The idea of zoning starts to catch on in Salem after 1900, and it was definitely accelerated by the Great Salem Fire of 1914. But before this momentous event, factories and residences co-existed in close proximity in the Point, Blubber Hollow and even the more residential North Salem, where the large Locke Regulator Company bordered the North River and a line of colonial houses on North Street. Some of the houses are still there, serving mixed uses as they did a century ago, while the Locke factory has been replaced by a junkyard and a car wash. The streets along Salem Harbor have always been among the most densely settled in Salem, but the 1903 photograph seems to show structures which are primarily residential–I’m not sure of the precise vantage point, but I’m assuming these buildings were all swept away by the Fire. The last photograph, from the PEM’s Phillips Library, shows fire bystanders watching the conflagration on Lafayette Street from the roof of a building on Highland Avenue: a view of mixed-used zoning with the new High School, the factory, and residences all in close proximity to one another. Highland Avenue became a preferred location for commercial development over the twentieth century, but as this photograph indicates, residences were built along it as well–and a few older structures, drastically transformed–still stand among the big box stores.

In Transition North Bridge 1890s

Salem 1903 Locomotive's Journal

phillipslibrarycollections.pem.org

Looking north along North Street from the old bridge, 1890s, Boston Public Library; A Perspective on Salem Harbor, 1903, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Monthly Journal, September 1903; Watching the Great Salem Fire from Highland Avenue, 1914, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum


A Bigger Picture for Bridge Street

I have been watching and listening to the public hearings over the proposed redevelopment of the former Universal Steel and Trading Corporation site on Bridge Street with great interest and concern. The site is located adjacent to a distinctive late nineteenth-century factory building owned by the F.W. Webb Company, a large distributor of plumbing supplies, which seeks to abandon this same building and build a new (far less distinctive) showroom and sales facility next door. Objections to the proposed building could be based on its rendering alone–it’s the typical glass and faux-brick generic building that we’re seeing everywhere and anywhere–but there are several other key factors which make this project troubling and controversial. The site is also located adjacent to the northern boundaries of the McIntire Historic District, in close proximity to the well-preserved colonial and Federal houses of Federal and River Streets. The owners of these houses do not want a large commercial building (the actual elevation of the proposed structure is a matter of debate) casting a shadow over their streets, and the intensity of their opposition has been fueled by the fact that they believed that the long planning process resulting in the creation of the “North River Canal Corridor” a decade ago ensured that more creative uses for this area would be pursued. The second factor is the contamination of the site and the costs and consequences of cleaning it up. The property was transferred to the city of Salem after Universal Steel ceased operations, and the city requested aid from both the EPA and the Massachusetts DEP to conduct a partial clean-up, which involved the removal of over 4,000 tons of contaminated soil. After this process, the city paved over the site to create a temporary parking lot while the new MBTA garage was being built. Once that project was completed the city sought a more profitable use for this parcel–and F.W. Webb put forward the only proposal. The new construction will require a more comprehensive clean-up, and the costs and potential health threats of such an invasive process are a matter of concern to everybody, but especially those in the adjacent neighborhood. A third major factor is the transfer of an “ancient way” from public ownership and use to Webb: Beckford Way, in existence from the seventeenth century, which will be transformed from public pedestrian path to private truck access and loading dock. Opponents of the Webb proposal ask (quite logically I think): if the Company is going to abandon its present building altogether, why doesn’t it relocate to a section of Salem that is dedicated exclusively to commercial uses and leave our neighborhood–and our way–intact?

Big Picture Bridge Street

UniversalSteelTradingCorpSite EPA

Bridge Street Salem January

Beckford Way

Aerial view of the site of the proposed new F.W. Webb building, marked by the X; the initial clean-up in 2012, with River Street houses in the background, EPA; these same houses last month (before our recent snow) looking over the temporary parking lot and reflected in the North River; Beckford Way.

You can read a more detailed summary of the project here, and also peruse project documents. The narrative presents a decidedly pro perspective, but you can easily discern the debate in the FAQ section. We’re in the midst of the process: already the City Council has held two public hearings on the project and there are more to come. As I intimated above, I’m very sympathetic to the concerns of my McIntire District neighbors (and believe the present Webb building would make fabulous housing given its proximity to the train station) but am also striving to widen–or elevate–my perspective, inspired by both a phrase I heard repeatedly at the first public meeting—“spot zoning”—as well as one of the more thoughtful observations of the night, expressed by an earnest River Street resident: Salem’s fabulous history and outstanding architecture is constantly at risk from unsound planning. These words resonated with me immediately as I feel that way all the time: our city’s piecemeal planning has led to undistinguished architecture, unlimited accommodations, and unceasing divisiveness, and it will continue to do so until we can all look at a bigger picture. Salem is hardly the only historic city facing myriad redevelopment challenges and opportunities at the moment: why can’t have a more comprehensive and proactive plan rather just reacting, reacting, reacting? Look at the example of our neighboring seaport to the north, Portsmouth, NH, which is pursuing “character-based zoning” (which must surely be the antithesis of “spot zoning”) by plotting out its development goals and proposals in “textured” 3D models that are available to the public on a web portal, so that everyone can see what proposed buildings will look like, in context and as part of a whole. We don’t even seem to know the actual height of the proposed Webb building on Bridge Street, much less how it will look in relation to its neighboring buildings (but I’m thinking, not good).

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Webb building

Plan Portsmouth 3D Model/Developed by Tangram 3DS;  our only view of the proposed Webb building.

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