We Need Louise!

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve become a bit obsessed with the prospect of an exiled and extracted Phillips Library; even though I’m living through it, it’s still difficult for me to grasp how this could happen to a city with as rich a heritage as Salem—-to any community really. I just don’t understand how or why the Trustees of the Peabody Essex Museum could acquiesce to such a radical policy, but then again, I don’t have many insights into the role(s) of contemporary trustees: I am governed more by characterizations from the past than present examples. I can suppress thoughts of Salem losing nearly all of its material history for a day or two, but then they come raging back: in dreams (or nightmares), first thoughts upon waking, and last thoughts at the end of the day. Lately I’ve found myself conjuring up people from the past and asking (myself–not them!) what they would think or do in this situation: Dr. Henry Wheatland, who devoted his life to the Essex Institute by all accounts, or James Duncan Phillips, the great Salem historian after which the Library is named. These men would not be happy, and they would make their unhappiness known, no doubt. But I think this particular crisis calls for another Essex Institute trustee from the more recent past: the pioneering preservationist Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958). I just know she would never let this happen.

Louise 1900 wedding

Francis & Louise du Pont Crowninshield and bridesmaids (+dog) on their wedding day, 1900 (Hagley Museum & Library)

Louise was a Gilded-Age princess: the heiress to the du Pont industrial fortune, raised at Winterthur, and married to Boston Brahmin (with Salem roots) Francis Boardman Crowninshield in 1900. She mixed in all the right circles but was obviously not content to just play and party: like her brother Henry, she was an energetic student and collector of early American material culture, and this passion brought her into the early preservationist movement. After restoring her family’s original homestead, Eleutherian Mills, she became involved with the rebuilding and restoration of two historic Virginia properties related to George Washington: Wakefield, his birthplace, and Kenmore, the Fredericksburg plantation that was home to his sister and her family. Crowninshield then worked her way up the east coast, participating in a succession of preservation initiatives, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia and several Massachusetts properties: Gore Place in Waltham, the Lee Mansion in Marblehead (where she and her husband summered at a beautiful estate on Peaches Point), the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, the Mission House in Stockbridge, and two Essex Institute houses: Peirce-Nichols and Gardner-Pingree. Her interest and investment in another Salem house, the Derby House, was integral to the establishment of the Salem National Historic Site as the first national historic site in the NPS. She was one of the founding trustees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949 and is the namesake of its most prestigious award.


Louise du Pont Crowninshield in the center of the “Kenmore Ladies”, 1930s.

Louise du Pont Crowninshield was a powerful woman: so powerful that the substantial contributions she made towards the restoration of the Gardner-Pingree house in the 1930s entitled her to dictate (apparently–I’m relying on written hearsay here) that no mention be made of her relative-by-marriage’s key role in the savage murder of Captain Thomas White in the house in 1830 when it was opened for tours a century later, and to place furniture in the Derby House that was perhaps a bit “old” for its period. But her capital and connections were utilized overwhelmingly for the public good rather than vanity or recognition. She was committed: to her belief that Americans will be better for having around them some visible remains of their past, as well as to the importance of place in general and Salem in particular. She served on the boards of both the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum, and as President of the Salem Maritime Trust as well. If Mrs. Crowninshield was alive today I have no doubt that she would spare no expense of her cultural capital (telling her Marblehead neighbors and fellow trustees: we are not going to do this to Salem), and perhaps also her capital, to ensure that the Phillips Library was returned to Salem, adjacent to the buildings in which she invested so much of herself, and which bear her name. We need her now.

Louise Collage



Helen Comstock’s influential 1958 coffee-table book 100 Most Beautiful Rooms in America was a veritable memorial to Louise du Pont Crowninshield in the year of her death, with pictures of Winterthur, Kenmore, and (above), a Peirce-Nichols bedroom, the Crowninshield Memorial bedroom in the Gardner-Pingree House, and the Lee Mansion parlor. A true memorial is the Crowninshield-Bentley house, which was removed to the Essex Institute campus from its original location further along Essex Street and restored by subscription in 1959-60 in tribute to Mrs. Crowninshield. (Love these historic house pamphlets published by the Essex Institute in 1976-78—scoop them up if you can find them).

P.S. And of course there are Crowninshield papers in the Phillips Library deposited by Mrs. Crowninshield, as well as other purchased and donated in her memory.

15 responses to “We Need Louise!

  • Donnalee

    I don’t know all the politics of this particular situation, but have been appalled at some insane ignorance all over the world that seems to think, “hey, wipe this inconvenient thing out here and I’ll build me an office bulding and rent it out for good money, or mccrappymansions with plastic front doors and sell them for good money”, or ‘my crappy and limited skills are just as much art as this thing by Botticelli or the ancient Chinese or Egyptians, so wipe that out and let me put my crap here and then make money and ego-inflation from it”. or “it is efficient to wipe this out and put parking here because cars matter much more than people or history or anything else’. Quality of life seems to be something folks ignore, or think is only for ‘the rich’ or the-somethings, and they seem to not understand that good quality of life comes from the presence of and access to history, community, nature, and not from just wiping out beloved and useful resources and replacing them with something much less. Sorry for the rant. I hope it all works out well.

    • daseger

      Thanks Donalee–and I’m sorry I keep focusing on this very local, very particular issue (although it does have more global aspects): it’s just so absorbing!

      • Donnalee

        Oh, no–it is a real concern for you, and it’s your blog. My blog just talks about my business, and doesn’t even give entertainment value really. I think it is great that you try to bring awareness of these big issues and local history to your readers.

    • greenheron628

      So very very very TRUE!! Terrific comment and I’d have lol’d if wasn’t so sad.


    Bravo Donna!
    Your research is fabulous.

  • anonymous revolted

    Ok, OK! You are revolted, I am revolted, we are revolted…time to unglue from this sucky issue. This big loss should NOT bring you down. Please see if there are no Salem surrounding ground where any celebrity (president, vice-president, director… or fat bank manager of bygone eras meet his true love…I do not want you (blog and all) to melt in the details of who said what when and what would have been if maybe…come back we like and love you.

    An immigrant from Los Angeles.

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    One of the problems is, from what I’ve heard, this isn’t a problem singular to Salem. Museum trustees in many places are focused on fundraising, erecting fancy edifices and putting on shiny but often shallow exhibitions, rather than using existing resources to educate those in the areas they’re located. By you regularly focusing on what’s happening in Salem, you’re highlighting this problem in significant detail. Keep up the good work, no matter how hard it is to see it happening.

  • tomP

    We not only need Louise, we need you, Donna, to keep doing what you’re doing, and fighting the good fight.

  • greenheron628

    Donna, the documentary ‘Art of the Steal’ might be of interest. A vivid and dramatic tale of museum derring-do committed by powerful people.

    In the way back, if you wanted to view the world famous Alfred Barnes Collection, you had to write in advance for permission, and if accepted, go during very limited hours. I got to go with my former hub. It’s an unforgettable collection, considered one of the most important private collections of 20c art. Barnes was an eccentric character, who insisted that his collection be exhibited in his mansion, to art scholars, on a limited basis. He made what he thought was an airtight will, appointing his family executors of his estate, to enforce his wishes into perpetuity.

    But Walter Annenberg and the city of Philly wanted the collection for the City of Philadelphia. It took them years of intense and persistent legal battling, and in the end, they got it, removed it from Barnes’s mansion, and installed it in a swanky new au courant design chunk of architecture that looks a lot like, well you know. The art community was enraged at this scandal; it elicited more editorials/protests/venom/press than you could imagine. Everyone swore they’d never set foot in the usurper building.

    You can guess the rest. Eventually the broohaha subsided. Today, most people are unaware, and us olds accept. I’ve been and have to admit, it looks pretty good in the new situ, climate controlled and well lit, neither of those aspects a factor at the Barnes mansion.

    The story of it all is pretty riveting though, so despite my spoilers, you might enjoy and even pick up a few resistance tactics 🙂 There are many parallels to the PL situation.


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