My title is a bit provocative: I am sure art historians know where the various extant pieces of Samuel McIntire’s urns, swags, mantles, etc.. wound up after they were removed from structures that were burning or razed or mistakenly modernized. But I don’t. A case in point is the previous embellishment of the former stable of the John Robinson House on Summer Street. Just this past week I had a coincidental “happening” with this structure. I happened to run across an article in the March 1912 edition of Country Life in America about John Robinson’s garden (he was a famous horticulturist, author, and garden designer) entitled “A Little Garden in Old Salem” which features several photographs, including one of his stable, embellished with McIntire panels and urns taken from a Derby coach house and the South Church which had burned down nine years before. Then two days later, I happened to meet the charming artist who presently lives in the stable, which was converted to a residence many years ago (and separated from the Robinson House). As her house is no longer embellished with swags and urns, I asked her where they went. According to her sources (the stable’s previous owners, and the man who moved her into it), there was a fire, during which people in the neighborhood “saved” the McIntire pieces, but no one is quite sure where they all ended up. I confirmed the fire–which happened in 1950, just one year after the stable had been converted into a garage–but my photographic evidence dates from before this time, and after: obviously we have a present-day building which is quite transformed, as well as swag-less and urn-less.
Photographs of the Robinson Stable/House over the years: from “A Little Garden in Old Salem” by Wilhelm Miller (photograph by Arthur G. Eldredge), Country Life in America volume 21 (1911-12): all outfitted with McIntire panels and urns; from the HABS inventory at the Library of Congress, 1940, with panels and no urns but drawings of all ornamentation; today–rebuilt after the 1950 fire with no ornamentation.
Regardless of the whereabouts of the McIntire elements, the 1912 and 1940 examinations of the Robinson stable are interesting comparisons of relative appreciation for the famed architect and woodcarver of Salem: the earlier article scarcely mentions him while the HABS report is all about him! But ultimately one wonders how all that ornamentation got on the stable and off it: I am imagining frenzied pilfering/saving, both on the night of the burning of the South Church next door and the stable 47 years later. And where are all these elements now? I’m just not sure. The Peabody Essex Museum has urns from the William Orne House (demolished 1882) in their collection, and The Visitor’s Guide (s) to Salem published by its predecessor, the Essex Institute, in 1908 and 1916 indicate that urns from the South Church as well as other architectural elements are among its collection. South Church elements are also featured in Volume 13 of the pictorial Pageant of America series, published for the nation’s sesquicentennial. Are these the same urns taken off the stable for the photo shoot–or others rescued on that terrible night in 1903? And where are all those swag and rosette panels that we see affixed to the stable in 1912 and 1940? What is missing and what is accounted for? As I write this I’m looking down Chestnut Street and thinking about all those basements–but sadly, there are only Victorian doors and shutters in my own, as well as lots of late twentieth-century junk.
McIntire doorhead and urns from the South Church, destroyed by fire in 1903, from Volume 13 of the Pageant of America Series: The American Spirit of Architecture by Talbot Faulkner Hamlin (1926), New York Public Library Digital Collections. Details of the South Church spire from the Peabody Essex Museum’s archived microsite for its exhibition Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style.