Monthly Archives: October 2017

Weekend at the Mt. Washington

My grandmother introduced me to two things of which I can never have enough: a parade of new dresses for back-to-school every fall and grand old hotels. One indulgence started early in life but endured because of my profession; the other started a bit later but is also still ongoing. It was a family tradition to stay at the Equinox in Vermont for long Thanksgiving weekends, and later the White Elephant on Nantucket, and the two of us traveled to a succession of historic hotels on an epic trip down the east coast and back twenty-plus years ago. Nana passed away just about a year ago after her 104th birthday, so I was thinking about her when I planned my last October getaway weekend at the Mt. Washington Hotel. Built in 1902 in a (Spanish) Renaissance Revival style that is meant to dominate, rather than blend into, its setting, the Mt. Washington was one of the last of the great Gilded Era New England resorts to be built before the onset of the automobile, and it remains a conspicuous survivor. I really only wanted to do two things from the moment we arrived on a sunny Friday afternoon: capture the hotel from every angle, and sit on the back veranda (drink in hand) and stare at Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range, like generations of guests before me.

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The interior of the hotel has a formal-but-not-fussy aesthetic designed to frame the views outside and mix faded grandeur with modern comforts. In the central lobby, a large fieldstone fireplace “crowned” with a Moose bust contrasts with crystal chandeliers from the 1920s, which seems to be the decade that supplied most of the Hotel’s lighting–and glass inserts everywhere. A ballroom, dining room, several bars, and a domed conservatory are also on the first floor, along with the famous “Gold Room” where the International Monetary Fund agreement was reached in the closing year of World War II.

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Mount Washington collage

We had great weather on Friday and Saturday so I spent as much time as possible out on the 900+ foot veranda, watching the light and cloud patterns change over Mt. Washington every few minutes, especially at twilight, when I got my best picture (s) ever: behold below! No filters necessary: the sunset was gold and purple on Friday night.

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My husband was not content to hang out at the hotel all the time so we took a hike—where we happened upon a man playing his flute in the woods–and went to the top of Mt. Washington on the cog railway. When I was quite young, for some reason I read a book about all the people who died on Mt. Washington and these sad stories have always stayed with me so I’ve never been particularly drawn to the mountain, but our traverse did afford me several new vantage points of the Hotel—you can just see it in the valley down below from the summit in the next-to-last picture, a little bit of white encircled by green far far away. As usual, it’s man-made over natural for me!

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Female Fancy-Dress, 1609-1980

I am so looking forward to Halloween night next Tuesday, not only because our long municipal nightmare will be over here in Salem for another year, but also because I actually do enjoy creative Halloween costumes, and they do appear on this night, glittering like stars in a sky of more generic garb. If an entire family is going to make the trek to Salem to trick-or-treat on Chestnut Street, they will often go all out, and in years past I’ve seen the Swiss Family Robinson, The Jacksons, the Addams Family (actually I think these three were all just last year), the Coneheads, the Jetsons, and a variety of historical characters, en masse and individually. I wish there were more conceptual costumes and less inspired by popular culture but that’s probably asking for too much for a holiday that is supposed to be for and about children. The most creative (and conceptual) costumes I have ever seen were made (or proposed) for masquerades or fancy-dress parties prior to 1920 or so, after which Halloween began to emerge as a major American holiday and the witches and the pumpkin-heads pushed out the nymphs and the sprites and the various ethereal forest creatures. Costumes begin with Queens, who were entitled to prance about in court masques long before actresses were, so I’m going to begin my portfolio with the Queen of the Amazons, one of many costumes designed by Inigo Jones for Ben Jonson’s Jacobean masques, which were commissioned by King James I’s (and VI’s) Queen Anne, my vote for bestdressed Queen of all time. Jonson’s The Masque of the Queens was presented at Whitehall Palace in February of 1609, the third masque written for Anne and the first to include an “anti-masque” featuring witches, of course, the opposite of the virtuous ladies played by the Queen and her ladies. Penthesilea, the Amazonian Queen, enters first (after the witches).

Costume Masques

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Costume collage 3Inigo Jones’ Penthesilea costume for the Masque of Queens, 1609, British Library; Thomas Rowland’s Dressing for a Masquerade, British Museum;  Léon Sault’s designs for the House of Worth, 1860s: Eve with a snake and a Sorceress, Victoria & Albert Museum. 


A bit less custom, and a bit more commercialized, costuming commences in the later nineteenth century: more for fancy-dress parties than for Halloween. All sort of costumes can be found in pattern books from this era, such as Jennie Taylor Wandle’s Masquerade and Carnival. Their Customs and Costumes, published by the Butterick Publishing Company in 1892. As you can see, the Halloween archetypes (devil, witch, sorceress, little and big bat) are already popular. Women’s magazine also offer up lots of fancy-dress inspiration: below are some very……naturalistic costumes from the Ladies Home Journal in 1914 and a few more conventional examples from 1920.

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Fancy Party Costumes LHJ Nov 1914

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The transition from fancy-dress to Halloween costumes comes just around this time, 1920: I am marking it with an aptly-titled commercial publication,  Dennison’s Bogie Book, issued by the Dennison Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts in 1920. This “book of suggestions for decorating and entertaining at Hallowe’en, Harvest Time, and Thanksgiving” contains lots of instructions, indicating that we’re at a moment where traditions are being invented. Of course all you need to have the perfect Halloween are Dennison products, which all seem to be made of orange and black crepe paper. It seems like full-blown commercial Halloween is right around the corner, but yet when I look at the photograph of Batgirl, St. Ann (wow, she’s the outlier here!), and Wonder Woman from New York city photographer Larry Racciopo’s Halloween (1980), it doesn’t seem like we’ve come that far at all.

Costumes 1920

Halloween Costumes 1980 Bat Girl, St. Ann, and Wonder Woman photographed by Larry Racioppo, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


Cole, Catskill and Creative Storytelling

On Saturday morning I drove straight across Massachusetts into New York State to Catskill, home to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. The artist lived and worked at Cedar Grove, a bright, airy and porch-encircled Federal house overlooking the Hudson River and Catskill mountains, from 1833 until his premature death in 1848. Given the glorious weather we’ve been having this October, it was my intent to explore Cole country via the Hudson River School Art Trail, but I was waylaid by Cedar Grove and the village of Catskill: by the time I was done with both it was twilight. Oh well, next time, but at the very least I should have taken the Skywalk across the Hudson on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to the majestic Olana, the home of Cole’s protege Frederic Edwin Church. These two men were linked in life and now their houses are linked thereafter. Cedar Grove was purchased by the Greene County Historical Society in 1988 and declared a National Historic Site in the next year: after an extensive renovation it was opened to the public on the 200th birthday of Thomas Cole in 2001.

Cole Cedar Grove

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As you can see, Cedar Grove is not a large house so how or why did I spend so much time there? It’s all about the interpretation: and the fact that it is such an inviting place to be: the public is invited to come in, wander around, take pictures (with no flash, of course), and even sit down, on blue-cushioned chairs that looks exactly like the period chairs on which Cole himself sat. His cape is draped casually on a bench; reproductions of his letters are scattered on every surface. By the time that this house museum was created, Cole’s works and papers had been long dispersed and ensconced in museum and archive collections: consequently the curators had to be creative in their interpretation. They have used the familiar–or rather the intimate, the aesthetic (striking paint colors throughout and modern art works in rotating exhibitions, plus reproductions of Cole’s works), and technology, in the form of Second Story’s immersive interpretations which plunge the visitor into Cole’s worldview and creative process. It’s very effective.

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And then there was the Old Studio, where Cole worked, and the New Studio, and one of the loveliest outhouses (a three-seater) I have ever seen: a lot to appreciate. Some grounds: not as many as once were as a large parcel was taken for construction of the Rip Van Winkle bridge in 1935.

Cole Outhouse

I misjudged the time because our weather has been so warm: it feels like summer but the days are much shorter. Actually, I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked at Cedar Grove because I dawdled in Catskill, which was a happy surprise. It is one of those perfect New York State river towns, with a lovely main street lined with nineteenth-century buildings with more flourish and color than you’ll ever find in New England. Within were antiques, art, and food, and every narrow lot fronting the street that does not have a building on it has been turned into a perfectly-maintained little park. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a cleaner town. There was an old movie theater, of course, and a courthouse, and beyond the main street was the river on one side and neighborhoods of old houses on the other in many different architectural styles: stately Greek Revivals, eclectic Victorians, lots of those New York Italianates with compressed windows on the third floor. Certainly not Cole’s Catskill, likely much better, and I never say that when comparing the present to the past.

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Scary Busts

I have several odd phobias including busts: I can’t stand to look at a sculpted portrait busts. They look like severed heads to me—even if they are beautiful. And many are: particularly classical ones, also Renaissance and Baroque ones, but after that I think we should have just left that genre to past masters. My distaste for these disembodied sculptures is a perennial problem because I’m a historian, so I often find myself in rare book libraries, which always feature busts. I just sit myself down as far as I can get away from them, and then get down to business. I think my dislike of busts is very consistent, so much so that when the art historian daughter of a colleague brought two busts by Salem’s iconic master woodcarver/architect Samuel McIntire, the namesake of my neighborhood, to my attention, my reaction was not: wow! but instead oh no. Here they are: busts of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, and Voltaire, both commissioned by the Reverend William Bentley in 1798-99 and later donated to the American Antiquarian Society.

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Maybe I could be in the presence of Voltaire (right) for a few moments, but that John Winthrop bust is simply frightening! You only have the profile above: here he is, face forward: really scary, even in a lovely watercolor of the actual bust made by Joseph Goldberg for the Index of American Art in the 1930s. We are separated by several degrees, but I’m still afraid.

Bust Winthrop Index of American Design NGA

I did not feel very good about disliking, even fearing, something made by McIntire, who is revered here in Salem of course, until I read the entry in William Bentley’s diary on the day that he received the commissioned work: MacIntire returned to me my Winthrop. I cannot say that he has expressed in the bust anything that agrees with the Governor. So he didn’t like it either! Nevertheless, he accepted it and paid McIntire his $8.00 fee. But it’s not McIntire, it’s me: even the works of the greatest sculptor of that era, Jean Antoine Houdon, are off-putting to me. Houdon’s Voltaire? Horrifying–much more so than McIntire’s. I will say that the famous Houdon bust of Washington seems less alarming to me, although this multi-perspective video creeps me out.

Voltaire collage

Even the most handsome Salemite, Nathaniel Hawthorne, as carved by the most gifted sculptor of his generation, Daniel Chester French, is scary. Granted French chose to depict Hawthorne later in life rather than in his splendid youth, but still: sad and scary. Quite conversely, a bust that was crafted to repel, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Anima Damnata (1619), I find far less threatening: one expects a Damned Soul to be scary, but not Nathaniel Hawthorne or John Winthrop.

Bust of Hawthorne NYPL

Bernini collage


Great Wars and Ghosts

Despite my dislike for Haunted Happenings, I have to admit that the range of offerings is much more diverse and engaging than a decade or so ago, as nonprofits in Salem have entered the fray in a big way. A good example: on this Friday, Peter Manseau, the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, will be speaking about his new book, The Apparitionists: A Tale Of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, And The Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost at the Gothic Revival Chapel at Harmony Grove Cemetery. This setting seems perfect for this talk, which is co-sponsored by the Cemetery, the Salem Athenaeum, and the Salem Historical Society.

Apparitionists

The Apparitionists is about spirit photography in general and America’s first “photographer of disembodied spirits” in particular: William H. Mumler, who set up shop in Boston in 1862 after producing a dual image by accidental double exposure. He offered up an embellished story to The Liberator in November of that year: alone in the photographic saloon of Mrs. Stuart, 258 Washington Street, trying some new chemicals, and amusing himself by a taking a picture of himself which, when produced, to his great astonishment and wonder, there was on the plate not alone a picture of himself, as he supposed, but also a picture of a young woman sitting in a chair that stood by his side. He said that, while standing for this picture, he felt a peculiar sensation and tremulous motion in his right arm, and afterwards felt very much exhausted. This was all he experienced that was unusual. While looking upon the strange phenomenon (the picture of two persons upon the plate instead of one) the thought and conviction flashed upon his mind, this is the picture of a spirit. And in it he recognized the likeness of his deceased cousins, which is also said to be correct by all those who knew her. At first, Mumler disavowed any connection to the Spiritualist community which seemed to give him more credibility, as his doctored cartesdevisites of reunited husbands and wives and parents and children separated by death were much in demand. His claim was that his camera could capture these spirits, in medium-like fashion, yet he was not a medium himself.  Mumler’s time in Boston came to a close when several of his “spirits” were recognized as real live Bostonians, but he moved on to New York, where his continued success drew the attention of investigators and detractors like showman P.T. Barnum, and where he was ultimately prosecuted for “obtaining money from the public by fraud, trick, and device” in a sensational trial held in the spring of 1869, the very same year that Mary Todd Lincoln visited his studio to secure a photograph of herself and her dearly-departed husband. Mumler was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but spirit photography lived on, in America and especially in England. That’s the story for me: the survival, the hope, even after the notorious trial and all sorts of revelations about the technical process that could produce multiple images on one print.

Spirit Photography 1869

Spirit Photographs MET

Spirit Photograph Holmes MFAHarper’s Weekly, May 8, 1896; page from an album of spirit photographs by Frederick Hudson, 1872, Metropolitan Museum of Art; spirit stereoview from the collection of Oliver Wendell Holmes, 19th century, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The context for that story has to be the wars–the great wars: the Civil War for America and the First World War for Britain. The collective mourning for the victims of these conflicts seemed unprecedented, unfathomable, and never ending–but of course it wasn’t. Just last week I was talking about all the crises of the fourteenth century with students in my Introduction to European History class: famine, war and plague, leaving millions dead, suddenly, languishing up there in Purgatory, without hope of salvation, unless some action was taken by the living. And suddenly the dead are everywhere: dancing, in the mirror, appearing in threes without warning at any time. Ghost stories emerged for the first time. Late medieval ghosts are often admonishing the living, to get their (spiritual) affairs in order or seize the day, whereas the spirits of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seem to be conjured up for comfort only. In either case, medieval or modern, it’s more about the living than the dead. Given the long trend towards rationalism, it is difficult to understand how an essentially superstitious spiritualism would resurface in the nineteenth century, if viewed apart from the tremendous grief unleashed by the wars. All indications seem to point to the Spiritualism “conversion” of Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician as well as the creator of the ever-rational Sherlock Holmes, as occurring coincidentally with the Great War and the death of his son Kingsley: his earnest Case for Spirit Photography was first published in 1922, and was followed up by aspeaking tour across the United States which the New York Times labeled “The Second Coming of Sir Arthur”.

Spririts Medieval Getty

Spirit Photograph 3 LC 1901

Hutchinson-1922-12-14-the-case-for-spirit-photographyThe Three Living and the Three Dead from the Crohin-LaFontaine Hours, c.1480—85, Master of the Dresden Prayer Book or workshop, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 23, fols. 146v–147; A girl with three spirits, c. 1901, Library of Congress; the first edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case for Spirit Photography, 1922.


Engage and Retreat

This is the only October weekend for which I didn’t have travel plans which would get me out of Salem for the entire time: consequently I found myself at home on what is usually one of the worst days of Haunted Happenings, when hundreds of motorcycles invade the city for the annual MDA Annual Witch Ride. It’s for charity so we are not supposed to complain, but of course I always do because it seems like insult to injury–but this year it didn’t seem as loud or annoying as usual while I was hunkered down at home. On Friday and Saturday we were in Provincetown where my husband and stepson fished (and swam!) at the very tip of Cape Cod; I hung out with them for a while but then went into the very busy downtown. When it got too busy for me I retreated onto the side streets and up into the Pilgrim Monument which overlooks everything. It always amuses me to see this Renaissance campanile overlooking the outer Cape: it seems so out of place and such an odd monument to the Pilgrims who must be the most anti-Renaissance people I can think of—but somehow everything works in Provincetown.

And speaking of the anti-Renaissance, on the way home we were compelled by the cosplay enthusiasm of my teenaged stepson to stop at King Richard’s Faire, an annual Renaissance fair held in the wilds of southeastern Massachusetts. I don’t really think I can explain this experience in sentences and the only words I can come up with are cleavage and capes. Clearly historians of the Renaissance—myself included—have done a terrible job at articulating even its basic chronology as everyone from the Vikings to Marie Antoinette seemed to be present at this affair! And it was raining….so we were all mucking about in the mud. The only retreat from this nightmare was the car, where I happily read a book about the Mitford sisters until the men appeared. Then it was back to Salem on Saturday night for buses and motorcycles and a stack of papers on the Crusades to correct on Sunday. I retreated to the garden, where there was both (relative) peace and (still) quite a few flowers, thanks to our very warm fall.

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Provincetown downtownProvincetown above, including a colorful-yet-solemn “Silent Witnesses” installation beneath the Pilgrim Monument, bearing witness to victims of domestic violence; some 17th-century plague doctors at the Renaissance Faire in Carver below; that’s it for the Renaissance Faire pictures!

Renaissance Faire

Home in Salem: a peaceful day in the garden with Trinity and a distant roar. The blog has helped me keep track of changes in the garden better than any journal I’ve ever (intermittently) kept–and there’s a lot more green out there than in previous Octobers.Fall Garden 8

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Doors of Deerfield

Last weekend I drove out to the Pioneer Valley and spent some time at Historic Deerfield, an outdoor museum of eighteenth-century houses located (and assembled) all along one street in the midst of fertile farmland. The museum was founded in 1952, and I’ve been there several times but never by myself, so it was nice to have the time and freedom to focus on whatever I wanted to–and what I wanted to focus on was doors. All I could see was doorways, and it seemed like I couldn’t look at each and every one for long enough. This is certainly not an original preoccupation: I saw the requisite “Doors of Deerfield” posters and postcards in the Museum Shop, where I also picked up a copy of Amelia F. Miller’s Connecticut River Valley Doorways. An Eighteenth-Century Flowering (1983), one of the “Occasional Publications” of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, to take home with me. I expect that I may need to drive out west again very soon—and head south along the river—so that I can see all of these special Connecticut River Valley doorways. Living here in Salem, I’m used to historic doorways, but they are for the most part quite restrained in that Federal way, so these “western” doors provide quite the contrast in terms of detail. Miller agrees (or rather I agree with Miller): Connecticut River Valley doorways bear little resemblance….to doorways of the same period found one hundred miles to the east in coastal Massachusetts and Rhode Island towns.

So here are my favorite Deerfield doors, following Miller’s categorization of scroll pedimented doorways, triangular pedimented doorways, segmental pedimented doorways (apparently there are none in Deerfield?) and flat-top doorways. Plus a few more that defy categorization (at least for me): one of the nice things about Historic Deerfield is the interspersing of private homes among the museum buildings, and the former have great doors too.

Scroll Pedimented Doorways: 

Deerfield Ashley Scroll

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Deerfield Door Scrolled

Dwight House in Springfield

The Ashley House (1734) and Dwight House, built in the 1750s and moved to Deerfield from Springfield, Massachusetts. Miller includes a c. 1920 photograph of the Dwight house in situ in Springfield (above) and informs us that Mr. Henry Francis Du Pont purchased the door in 1924, and subsequently installed it first in his Long Island home and later at Winterthur. The Dwight House was moved to Deerfield in 1951, and a reproduction door was produced. I’m always aware of Salem houses being picked apart but really no Massachusetts house was safe!

Triangular Pedimented Doorways:

Deerfield Brown

Sheldon House text

Deerfield Red

The Sheldon House (1755), today and in a 1910 photograph in Miller’s text, and a private home across the street.

Flat-top Doorways: not sure these all fit the exact designation, but they have flat tops!

Flat-top Allen

Flat-top Allen doors

Flat-top Barnard

Flat-Top blue

Deerfield Yellow Garden

Deerfield Yellow Door

The Allen House (1734), home of Henry and Helen Flynt, the founders of Historic Deerfield; the Barnard Tavern (1795), with reproduction flat-top door on right and reproduction triangular-pedimented door on left; the beautiful BLUE Wells-Thorne House (1734) and two private homes in between. Not sure how to categorize this last doorway……….

The Federal houses of Deerfield, with their fanlights and transoms and rounded doorways, don’t look so unfamiliar to me: obviously the region was increasingly open to trans-Atlantic and national aesthetic influences in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As is the case with every outdoor or living-history museum that I’ve visited, you do get that still, out-of-time feeling, although the Deerfield experience is enhanced by the proximity of private homes and Deerfield Academy. Still, it was nice to return home to historic Salem, even though it’s a bit too lively for me at this time of year.

Deerfield Stebbins

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Deerfield Glass 3

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Deerfield Printing

The Stebbins (1799), Williams (remodelled 1817) and Wright (1824) houses of Historic Deerfield; two adjacent private homes; the Wilson Printing Office (1816).

And of course we must have flagrant pumpkin displays for this time of year:

Deerfield Pumpkins


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