It’s an intriguing challenge to characterize people by what they left behind, and potentially a foolhardy one.Yet sometimes (actually often) I can’t help myself. While cleaning out my study just yesterday I came across one of my favorite little books, Old Salem Gardens, an illustrated historical and horticultural tour of Salem published by the Salem Garden Club in 1946. At its end is a poem: “Invitation to a Certain Garden at 43 Chestnut Street, Salem, For B.H.”: Enter here slowly. Haste has no part or lot/In this so lovely spot, Peace and tranquility/Possess it wholly. Here sunlight falls/ Gently, where branches lean/Over cool walls. Light touches lucent green/ Pure red and mystic blue, Pearl-pink and azure, old/Lavender,—fold on fold, Curve on curve, line on line/Making a pattern of Perfect design……. The poem goes on, and the “B.H.” to whom it is dedicated is the owner and gardener of this “lovely spot”: Bessie Cushman Ingalls Hussey, the “tall and willowy” lady who contributed the Chestnut Street garden history to Old Salem Gardens. More than a decade ago, I wrote an article about the garden at 43 Chestnut Street for the Journal of the New England Garden History Society, but its focus was more on the garden’s designer, the prominent, Olmstead-trained landscape architect Herbert J. Kellaway, than Mrs. Hussey. Yesterday I was looking at my files from this research and found myself a bit more curious about the client. Mrs. Hussey’s biographical facts were relatively easy to find: though born in Canada, she grew up in New Bedford, with many ties to Martha’s Vineyard through her mother’s family. She married into a prominent North Shore family in 1897, and spent the first half of her married life at the ancestral home of her husband, John Frederick Hussey, in Danversport. In 1925 the Husseys sold this large brick mansion, called Riverbank, to the New England School for the Deaf, apparently well below its appraised value, and also established an endowment for the school. They left Riverbank (now condos, of course) behind and moved just down the road to Salem, immediately commissioning Kellaway to design a walled garden behind their new/old house at 43 Chestnut Street.
Riverbank in the 1890s and the House and Garden at 43 Chestnut Street in the 1920s and 1930s from the collection of the present owner and the Trustees of Reservations.
Her contributions to the Salem Garden Club and other local organizations (the D.A.R. and Temperance society among them) testify to Mrs. Hussey’s assimilation into Salem society, and we can get a glimpse inside the house as well as out through some of the items that she purchased from her Edgartown relatives, the Morse family, and others that derived from the North Shore. Several of her possessions appeared as lots in a Northeast auction a couple of years ago, including a Morse highboy and weathervane, and some wonderful etchings by her Chestnut Street neighbor Frank Benson. I love the bookplate! These material mementos of Bessie Ingalls Hussey show that at the very, very least, she had great taste.
Northeast Auction lots from the estate of Bessie Ingalls Hussey, 2013, including a Massachusetts highboy c. 1750 from her Morse relatives, a Gabriel weathervane from the Stephen Morse boatyard in Edgartown, a painting of Gloucester Harbor by William Lester Stevens, c. 1921, and two etchings by Frank Benson inscribed to Bessie Ingalls Hussey, 1933.