Is Purity Possible?

Architectural purity, I mean: there’s no philosophical, spiritual or political rumination going on here. My house is such an assemblage of Federal, Greek Revival and eclectic Victorian styles that I often find myself craving architectural purity: it was “transitional” when it was built in 1827 and it became even more so as it was expanded and remodeled over the next century. A whole rear elbow ell of outbuildings was attached and then shorn off. Inside straightforward Federal mouldings were replaced with rounded Italianate ones; a simple staircase was replaced with one much more detailed and made of mahogany, and 1920s etched glass was inserted into the original doors. Even its “classic” exterior with flushboard facade was altered: with the customary bay window that pops out nearly everywhere in the later nineteenth century and an elaborate doorway below, and some curvy trim attached to the first-floor windows, now long disappeared. I like my house, but occasionally I think I might want to live in the perfect First Period house, the perfect Georgian house, or the perfect Greek Revival house. However, I’m just not sure any of these houses exist, and if they do, whether they are the products of recreation or preservation. More likely than either is the organic and utilitarian evolution that most houses experience which robs them of their untouched purity but enhances both their livability and their accessibility (and occasionally their charm).Arch Purity 1

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My house features a “progression” of nineteenth-century interior mouldings, but even the all-First Period William Murray House on Essex Street in Salem experienced some evolution. 

Two cases in point are some houses I am currently “realestalking”: another 1827 house which just came on the market in Salem, and a First Period house in Ipswich which I’ve had my eye on for a while. I’ve always admired the Samuel Roberts House on Winter Street, but it’s hardly “pure” with its modified entry, addition (s), and twentieth-century garage. Yet somehow it all works (I would probably sacrifice the garage for more garden, but I think those mid-century garages are protected). The Ipswich house was built in 1696 and expanded considerably in 1803; I imagine the window came a bit later.

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I am always thinking about the evolution of houses, but this particular thread started when I was researching yet another lost seventeenth-century Salem structure: the Benjamin Marston House, which was built in the later seventeenth century and demolished around 1870. Unfortunately it was not photographed before its demolition (to my knowledge, and I looked everywhere) but the ever-dependable Sidney Perley made a drawing for one of his Essex Antiquarian articles. Through his deed research, he was also able to trace the ownership of the house as well as its increasing size, and what emerges is an image of a true hybrid house, with a First-period back and a Federal front! I wish I could see this house, even in photographic form, and I imagine the streets of Salem were full of these composite structures in the nineteenth century. The Marston house was replaced with a more imposing structure that remains pretty “pure” today: the imposing Second Empire Balch-Putnam House, sometimes known as “Greymoor”.

Benjamin Marston House, Salem, Massachusetts

Salem Map 1851

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Sidney Perley’s c. 1900 illustration of the Benjamin Marston House; the location of the house (*) on Henry McIntire’s 1851 map of Salem, and the house on that site today.

18 responses to “Is Purity Possible?

  • emilyvaillpfaff

    David found the original plans of our rectory built in 1903 to replace the Victorian not thought to be grand enough for the Procter rectorina at the time, and was moved down the street a few hundred yards. The current rectory has been remodeled a couple of times, so it was a thrill to see the plans of the original structure, and see what and where rooms were originally, and their named purpose–laundry, refrigerator, drawing…It is such a gift and honor to live in history, even relatively recent compared to 3 High Street in Ipswich, or the lovely house that is your home.

    • daseger

      I’m so sorry we never connected while you were in Ipswich, Emily! While we are very settled and happy in Salem, Ipswich is the only other town on the North Shore that really, really draws me–mostly because of the architecture and the fact that it seems to have a real mix of people rather than proclaiming diversity falsely (Marblehead!) And of course, I’d like more land for gardening. This particular Ipswich house is beautifully located, right on the river.

  • Helen Sides

    I did a whole house renovation of the Winter St Greek Revival. A fabulous house with old “jungle” wall paper in the dining room. Owner has impeccable taste so really beautiful kitchen and all builtins. It’s on my website. Villeroy and Bosch floor tiles that are beautiful!

  • az1407t

    Great article and photos, Donna. Your architecture blogs are my personal favorites. It’s so nice to drive through Essex county. We have a wealth of great architecture from various periods and many are blends of styles, as many homes were “modernized” to reflect the tastes of later generations. Perhaps that is what has saved many houses. In many cases, the blending of styles works!

  • Donna L Marciano-Capone

    My name is donna ive been searching for a # 23 house

  • Donna Thorland

    I love palimpsest houses (and yours is one of my favorite). There’s another one at the corner of Beckford and Federal with a clear central chimney that is probably late 17th to early 18th century at the center, with Georgian, Federal, and Italianate remodels all visible from the street. And I’m fascinated by one on Essex near Ziggy’s that looks like it might have been a cruciform 17th century house with gables, jetty, and saltbox lean-to beneath a Georgian/Federal refit. It’s got a neglected, tenement-like air and no historical marker, but the bones are there. It’s as though you can see successive generations of owners writing themselves into the story of a house through the changes they make.

    • daseger

      PALIMPSEST houses!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! love that. I know just the house you mean on lower Essex–I’ve been meaning do dig into its history for a while–it’s a wild-looking house! That’s kind of where I was going at the end here–trying to imagine what it was like walking around in the 19th century when there was no historical district guidelines and people were rehabbing their houses in whatever which way. That house looks like that.

  • artandarchitecturemainly

    Is architectural purity possible? Is it desirable anyhow? I had those very questions when examining Hotel Casa Fuster in Barcelona. The original structure of the building was Art Nouveau and has been very well preserved in all the interim renovations. But now the hotel rooms, the private bedrooms in particular, have been renovated in a 100% Art Deco style. It makes me a bit uncomfortable.

    But I agree with you that the organic and utilitarian evolution endured by most houses means every family enhances livability _according to their own needs (eg more babies than planned)_ and _according to the taste of the time_.

  • az1407t

    Hi Donna,

    I recall you recently making a comment in your blog that you were interested in First Period houses. FYI, the oldest house in Rowley (1670), a First Period house, went for sale a few days ago. It’s on Route 133 and the lot is nearly 3 acres in size. Although it looks primitive in the interior, it looks like it has been well cared for. There are open houses this weekend. Anyhow, look at the pictures in the following link:



  • markmhamann

    That house looks like that. Hi Donna,
    I recall you recently making a comment in your blog that you were interested in First Period houses.

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