Hidden behind a four-story brick apartment block built in the early twentieth century on lower Essex Street is a much older, much-altered house which has the appearance of a Georgian cottage. It’s not quite that, but close. The Christopher Babbidge House has been through quite a……..metamorphosis; I’m not sure if I have it completely straight or correct but here goes. According to Frank Cousins’ Colonial Architecture in Salem, the house is first period, built by tailor Babbidge as early as the 1660s on Derby Street. It descended in the Babbidge family until the mid-eighteenth century, at which time is was acquired by Richard Derby, patriarch of the famous Salem merchant family. Cousins is the only source of the original Derby Street location and seventeenth-century origins, but all the other sources (Sidney Perley, Historic Salem Inc., plaque research, and MACRIS seem to agree that it acquired its Georgian appearance and was considerably enlarged (and presumably moved to Essex Street if you follow Cousins) at this time or shortly thereafter, as Mr. Derby transferred it to his daughter Mary and her new husband George Crowninshield as a wedding gift. So by the 1760s we have a large (five-bay) Georgian house with a gambrel roof located directly on Essex Street. This was the house in which several of the famous Crowninshield sons (George Jr., Jacob, and Benjamin) were born.The wealthy Crowninshields had many Salem houses, so this one was eventually sold to a succession of owners, and in 1859 it was cut in half by current owner Phineas Weston, who wanted to build a new (Italianate) structure on the eastern end of the lot. The eastern half of the house was removed to Kosciusko Street while the western half remained on Essex, presumably shored up. The house seems to have flourished under the ownership of the Bowker family in the later nineteenth century, when Cousins took some lovely pictures, but in 1914 it was moved (again, according to Cousins) to the rear of its lot to make way for the brick buildings in front. So there we have it: a house that was moved, remodeled, expanded, cut in half, remodeled, and moved again. A true survivor on (or just slightly off) the streets of Salem!
The Babbidge-Crowninshield-Bowker House on Essex Street by Frank Cousins, 1890s, and today; drawing by Sidney Perley from the Essex Antiquarian; its celebrated stairway by Cousins and Perley, and detail of the newel post at the Richard Derby House on Derby Street (HABS, Library of Congress, 1958)–so you can see the Derby connection.