On a very humid Friday I spent a precious hour in the most beautiful house in America: the Gardner-Pingree House, built here in Salem in 1804 and widely acknowledged to be Samuel McIntire’s masterpiece. The house has experienced several refurbishments following its donation by the Pingree family to the Essex Institute in 1933, and its most recent refresh (1989) remains definitive, exposing the colorful and crafted world of a merchant in the midst of Salem’s golden age. With the merger of the Institute and the Peabody Museum in 1992 and the consolidation of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), the house remains a seldom-scene showpiece, and also a symbol of the commitment of the Institute to Salem’s material heritage. Actually, to be fair, the house has served as a the setting for an interactive performance I attended a few years ago, and is apparently open for daily tours, but I can never figure out when from the PEM’s inscrutable website (you try!) so when I saw that it was going to be open all afternoon on a designated “Free Fun Friday,” I beat it over there.
It is an absolutely beautiful house, inside and out: I remain overwhelmed by the 1989 restoration and its ongoing ability to both accentuate the interior and somehow also make it more accessible and intimate. It is a storied house. It is a much-documented house: I did a cursory review of twentieth-century historical architectural texts and found it in nearly every one. It is an influential house: especially its entrance, which has been replicated on several stately suburban homes (oddly juxtaposed with houses which do not also replicate the Gardner-Pingree’s perfect proportions).
Detroit Publishing Co. photograph of Gardner-Pingree, 1906, Library of Congress; Albert MacDonald, Old Brick Houses of New England, 1917; Mansions of Massachusetts, 1977; the front parlor in the 1940s,houses in Atlanta and Brookline, MA supposedly inspired by the Gardner-Pingree.
But it’s also a powerful house, in its original situation (unlike the Crowninshield-Bentley and Ward houses to its side and rear, also part of the PEM’s”Essex Block Neighborhood” of historic houses, which the Essex Institute referred to as an “outdoor museum”) overlooking Salem’s original main street and the former Essex Institute buildings which housed the Phillips Library collections up until their removal from Salem in 2011. As all of you no doubt know, this was supposed to be a temporary move but has now been made permanent: Salem’s Phillips Library is now ensconced in an industrial building off the highway in Rowley. The PEM has presented several sound arguments for this move–most grounded in the priority of stewardship rather than access–but also one which I never quite understood: the scholarly synchronicity of having material collections and texts in close proximity. But when you stand in this house right next door to where Salem’s historical archives were housed for so long, you can see the connection–but in this case it counters PEM’s rationale for archival relocation. The house—like all of PEM’s houses—are material objects as well, and the textual context of its construction, embellishment, and occupation has now been removed. I felt this so strongly when I was in the second-story southwest bedroom: a very beautiful room which was also the site of sensational murder, of Captain Joseph White—the third owner of the house–in 1830. Looking at the site of the now-former Phillips Library from the western window of this room, I realized that all the questions that I had about this house could not be answered by going next door, but only by going to Rowley: there is no synchronicity in that reality!
My questions–and where the answers can be found: in the Phillips Library, in Rowley: How did the Gardner Family transform this parcel of land into “Gardner’s Corner” over the 18th century? What are the details of the spectacular rise and fall of the fortunes of John Gardner (1771-1847) who built this beautiful house and was only able to live in it for six years before selling it to his brother-in-law, Nathaniel West? Of course the War of 1812 had much to do with the fall, but I’d like to know more, and there are boxes of Gardner family history in the Phillips (MS 147). What was the extent of the slave trading of the murder victim, Captain Joseph White? (Log 9, for White’s brigantines Hind and Eliza, and MSS 0.188, William Fairfield’s account of a slave mutiny aboard the Felicity, also owned by White). I don’t think I have any questions about the murder and equally-sensational trial, which apparently inspired Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Parker Brothers, but I’d like to know how the Adroit Fire Club (Delay Not) worked, as well as the sources of the Rumford Roaster, and all about the (again!) rising, falling, rising and diverse fortunes of the two David Pingrees (MS 901). Family histories, house histories, Salem’s history: they’re all connected, of course.