Monthly Archives: August 2018

What might have been: a Salem Tragedy

Things become crystal clear when you find yourself in a parallel universe and are able to discern what your universe lacks. Almost exactly a year ago, the Peabody Essex Museum notified researchers that the temporary Phillips Library location in Peabody would close for several months in order to move to a “new” location: this was confusing to many, as the Phillips had been relocated for the renovation of its historical buildings in Salem with PEM promises to return. But now this venerable library, constituting Salem’s major archive, was to move somewhere entirely new! Where? When? We didn’t know, but they of course did, and in December the admission finally came: the Phillips Library would be consolidated within a massive “Collection Center” in a former toy factory in Rowley, about a half hour to the north. Almost-unbelievable tone deafness on the part of the PEM leadership accompanied this………….removal every step of the way: here you can read the tale of the big move by a member of the Museum’s Collection Management Department who admits that for well over a year before it began, it took over her daily life. She knew, I guess everyone in the Museum knew, but no one bothered to tell the people of Salem.

PEM Collection Center Great HallThe “Great Hall” of the PEM Collection Center in Rowley.

So that leaves Salem archive-less, with no professional, nonprofit museum dedicated to collecting and interpreting its history, and a main street that is increasingly subdivided between the imposing architecture of PEM (yes, more space is needed for all those visiting exhibitions—that’s why Salem stuff must be dispensed to the north) and monster/vampire/witch wares. It’s kind of an odd juxtaposition really, made more apparent to me when I was home (in York Harbor) on vacation a few weeks ago. I’m not really a beach person, so I spent most of my time prowling around nearby Portsmouth, and one morning, my father and I were treated to a basement-to-attic tour of the Portsmouth Athenaeum by the Keeper of its collections, Tom Hardiman.

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Athenaeums are essentially private membership libraries which circulate books old and new among their members and highlight their collections through exhibitions and programs: the Salem Athenaeum certainly plays a central role in the cultural life of the North Shore doing just that. But over its long history, the Portsmouth Athenaeum evolved into something much more: its active collection policy transformed it into an historical society which serves not only its membership but also its community. It’s an archive, a research center, a library and a museum, all at the same time. Keeper Hardiman assured me that the Athenaeum collects the history of the region (except for materials related to communities like York, which have active historical societies) and consequently space is in short supply and a satellite location might be necessary at some point, but of course the Athenaeum will remain right where it has always been: in Market Square, in the center of Portsmouth. He showed me the Athenaeum’s very first book, and its most valuable, along with charters, newspapers, photographs and objects (including the the axe wielded by Louis Wagner in the terrible 1873 Smuttynose murders, which is kept in a closed cabinet), as well as all sorts of places–public and private—that revealed its inner historical-society workings. Throughout, in both words and places, I discerned respect and even reverence for the resolve of its donors and benefactors.

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Portsmouth Ath 8 Bookplates and books, newspapers, cyclists, and a working bulletin board at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

It was a wonderful tour which I enjoyed immensely but I came away feeling sad, as I realized that so many of the corresponding items that the Athenaeum was holding for Portsmouth were lost to Salem. Certainly the book collection of the Salem Athenaeum is impressive but it is not, and has never been, a historical society: it didn’t have to be. That’s what the Essex Institute, one of the predecessors of the PEM, was: for well over a century. This is a role that is denied steadfastly by the leadership of the PEM but decades of library acquisitions reports and articles in the Bulletins and Historical Collections of the Essex Institute contradict this opinion. The case is moot, however, as these collections, in the form of the Phillips Library, have been removed from Salem and I’m sure that the PEM is in the midst of purchasing stacks of non-Salem, non-historical titles so to obliterate the foundational nature of the Library forever. I could go on and on for quite some time about the tragic nature of this obliteration, but I’ve already done that for a year: what we need at this time is a constructive takeaway. I began this post with a discussion of disclosure because my time in Portsmouth highlighted the importance of planning and coordination for me, and the trigger effect that one institution’s actions can have on others. In the mitigation following the PEM’s disclosure that the Phillips Library would not be returning to Salem, it was revealed that, contrary to city regulations, the Museum had not submitted a Master Plan. This is an institution that withdrew from its commitment to the Salem Armory Headhouse in the 1990s, ultimately determining its demolition, and swallowed a city street whole in the next decade: didn’t we need to know what it was going to do next? Don’t we need to know what it is going to do next? Salem trembles with the PEM’s every move, and Salem’s institutions could have compensated for its historical withdrawal if they knew it was coming: but they did not. Imagine a real historical museum in Salem just like that projected in the Salem Maritime National Historic Site’s Site Plan and Environment Assessment published in 1991, the year before the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum into the Peabody Essex Museum. Though just one of several alternative proposals for the site, I’m sure that this “Derby Wharf Museum” failed to get much support because everyone thought Salem already has a maritime museum, but now that museum is gone—and so much more.

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Salem Willows Portsmouth AthenaeumSalem Maritime’s proposed “Derby Wharf Museum” in its 1991 Site Plan, one of several proposed alternatives for the Site which you can see here; there are even a few Salem items among the digitized photographs in the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s collection.


A Turnkey Homestead

I’m using the expression “turnkey” in typical contrary fashion here: it’s a real estate term which generally means a house that requires no repairs or refurbishment, just turn the key and you are home in your new purchase. The Rundlet-May house in Portsmouth struck me as a turnkey house in another sense: Ralph May, the fourth of his generation to live in the house, donated it to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation for New England Antiquities) in 1971 and now when you enter the house (or turn the key, in a sense) it seems as if you are within a space that he just left. This is an imposing Federal, made less so by the lived-in ambiance of a home to four generations of the same family.

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Rundlett May 18The Rundlet-May House (1807) and views out back from its second and third floors.

Even though the house itself is an extravagant construction on large urban acreage, everything about its interior speaks to Yankee thrift: from the original peach damask wallpaper in one of the front parlors to the original Edison light bulb in a fixture on the second-floor landing–which is turned on once a year. It’s the perfect old-money house. John Rundlet, the self-made man who built (and apparently designed?) the house purchased and commissioned the best of everything (including a Rumford Roaster and a Rumford Range) and his descendants seem to have changed very little other than altering the use of its rooms to suit their activities and professions.

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Rundlett May 9First-floor parlors, hall and kitchen (with Rumford Roaster) and fire buckets, of course. I found several early 20th-century postcards of the house which referred to Samuel McIntire as the carver of the right parlor’s mantle (above), but I think this is just an illustration of the Salem architect and woodcarver’s fame in the midst of the Colonial Revival era.

There’s probably too much furniture–beautiful as it all is—in the house: tables and dressers and painted chairs. Should a beautiful card table be situated just inches away facing an even more beautiful Portsmouth bureau in a narrow window nook of an upstairs bedroom? No necessarily, but this placement allows us to see both of these pieces. There’s also a lot of stuff. But it’s their stuff and their home, and we are all privileged to be able to enter within!

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Ralph MaySecond and Third Floors, including Ralph May’s 3rd floor study, with all of his stuff. Below: this “musical” decorative motif ran through the house—it caught my eye because the same motif is on one of my Fancy chairs. (the last photograph).

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Fancy Chair


Georgian Grandeur in Portsmouth

Portsmouth always struck me as a Georgian town, even from a young age, when I first developed an appreciation for historic houses at Strawbery Banke and first spotted what is still one of my very favorite houses nearby. There are Federal houses too, but it doesn’t feel as Federal as its sister seaports to the south, Newburyport and Salem. There is a range of Georgian houses in Portsmouth, from relatively simple to absolutely grand: on this past weekend I revisited three of the latter varieties: the Warner House (1716) the Moffatt-Ladd House (1763),  and the Governor John Langdon House (1784). Each house has a different owner, and a different………style, but all are exquisite representations of their era. The combination of the entirety of their construction with all the crafted details within—including the wonderful Portsmouth furniture in each house—is hard to capture: you’ll just have to visit each one yourself.

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Georgian Langdon HouseThe Warner House, owned and operated by the Warner House Association from the early 1930s, The MoffattLadd House, owned and operated by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire, and the Governor Langdon House, a property of Historic New England.

I loved the colors of the Warner House: rich jewel tones throughout. It’s not too pristine: you do get the feeling that you are imposing on the past (although there is quite a lot of plastic fruit). Those wild murals! The textures are wonderful too—especially of the smalted rooms upstairs. This is the oldest urban brick house in North America and it feels that way: both old and urban. You look out its windows and see a bustling city—this would not have been the case in the 1930s when it was rescued or even later: the Warner guide, like all the Portsmouth guides I encountered last weekend, stressed the fact that the city’s current vibrance contrasts with its more depreciated state in the 1970s—and I remember that to be the case.

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Warner 3collageParlors and bedrooms at the Warner House, a scary squirrel, and always the threat of fire (the tool is to take apart your very valuable bed).

The Moffatt-Ladd House has been very much in the thick of things from its construction; once it faced the wharves of prosperous Portsmouth, but now the horse chestnut tree planted in 1776 by General William Whipple upon his return from signing the Declaration of Independence still stands guard at the entrance to its courtyard. It’s a very airy house inside due to its elevated situation as well as its large entrance parlor—and its beautiful rear parlor, now in the midst of restoration, runs parallel to the wonderful terraced garden outside.

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Moffatt-Ladd Stairs

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Georgian Portsmouth 13Moffatt-Ladd parlors and stairs, front parlor original wallpaper and the parlor-in-process with its amazing mantle and Chinese Chippendale chairs; I always brake for fire buckets! The amazing garden.

I think Georgian houses have to be pre-revolutionary, but I’m the only one who thinks that, so I am including the Governor Langdon House, which was built the year after the American Revolution concluded. The scale is even larger here than Moffatt-Ladd, and the house reflects the passage of time, with Greek and Colonial Revival rooms as well as a dining room designed by Stanford White. It seems both national in inspiration but also very much a crafted Portsmouth house, as illustrated by those distinctive staircase balusters, contrasted below with those of Moffatt-Ladd (on the left).

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Langdon Hallway

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Langdon Mantle

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Georgian Portsmouth 2Those Rococo mantles! And all that beautiful Portsmouth furniture. As you move back through the house, you move up in time, into Greek and Colonial Revival rooms.

While I was looking around for images of the houses in their earlier situations, I came across the works of two women artists among the digital collections of the Portsmouth Public Library: Sarah Haven Foster (1827-1900) and Helen Pearson (1870-1949). Both Portsmouth women clearly loved the architecture of their native city, and rendered it in series of charming vignettes, which were incorporated in their successive guidebooks. Wonderful discoveries: Foster’s naivete and Pearson’s detail both capture Portsmouth’s charm, past and (fortunately) present.

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Langdon DoorVignettes by Sarah Haven Foster (the Warner House) and Helen Pearson (Warner, Moffatt-Ladd garden, Langdon doorway), Portsmouth Public Library Digitized Collections.


Rocks Village

We have had the longest stretch of horrible humid weather in my memory: it’s been hot too, but it’s the humidity that gets you, of course. The only place I’ve really been comfortable is my car, and so when I drove up to Maine for vacation last week I took a diverted and long route to get there by giving myself a silly challenge: I had to cross the two rivers on my way–the Merrimack and the Piscataqua–on bridges that I had never traversed before. Going out of the way is one of my favorite things to do so this was a characteristic challenge. I can only do it when I’m on my own, as my husband has no patience for meandering, but he and I had conflicting obligations last week so we were in separate cars (the key to a happy marriage for us). My challenge turned a trip that normally takes one hour into a four-hour excursion (with stops along the way) and I was able to arrive in Maine just in time for cocktails on the porch. My route took me slightly west to Haverhill in Massachusetts and then northeast through New Hampshire to Dover: I had crossed the big bridges in both of those cities but not the smaller ones, over the Merrimack from West Newbury to Rocks Village in Haverhill and over the Piscataqua from Dover to South Berwick, Maine. I think I have probably been on both of these bridges but not for quite some time, so they still count! Going further west and north would have been a bit silly, even for me. I braked for darling houses, of course, and found my first cluster right over the bridge in Rocks Village, a colonial village in East Haverhill right on the river. Situated at a nexus of old roads leading to and along the Merrimack, Rocks Village emerged as a center of trade and industry in the eighteenth century but was bypassed as Haverhill became a bustling industrial center in the nineteenth. It has a slightly lost-in-time feeling about it, even though the owners of its charming houses are clearly keeping up appearances.

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Right over the bridge from West Newbury you encounter the old tollbooth and the village Hand Tub House (for which the Rocks Village Memorial Association is raising restoration funds) and then all these wonderful houses. This is not an exhaustive portfolio, but my favorite is the last one above: interesting proportions, though you can’t tell from my photograph that it’s a saltbox. There’s a lot more to see in Haverhill but this village seems like a place apart: indeed, you can’t even find it on any of the maps of the bustling nineteenth-century city, which emphasize factories above all. After some leisurely searching, I finally found it on a map of the Newburys, dating from just about the time of the construction of the Hand Tub House.

Rocks Village Newburys MapRocks Village and Bridge on the 1831 map of the newly-divided Newburys (Newbury, Newburyport & West Newbury), Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.


Watered Down

Salem is such a foodie/libations town now; I’m surprised there is so little culinary history served up. With countless restaurants, several bakeries and food shops, one brewery and another on the way, a cidery and distillery—all very busy—you would think there would be an ongoing audience for deep dives into the historical production and distribution of foodstuffs and beverages, but the only serious purveyors of such presentations (with ample samples!) are Salem Food Tours, and their affiliated attraction, the Salem Spirits Trolley, which runs in October. Good for them, but I think there’s room for more food-and-drink history, because Salem is not just a foodie town now; it always has been. The Peabody Essex Museum is hosting a brewing-themed event this week for which several area brewers have produced beverages based on the Museum’s collections: but only those collections that are right here in Salem so that’s not much to go on—the results must be somewhat watered-down if historical inspiration is the objective. A few trips up to the almighty Collection Center in Rowley and its encased Phillips Library would reveal more sources and more inspiration: here are some avenues of exploration that look particularly promising:

Women Brewers & Tavern-Keepers: there seem to have been quite a few in Salem!  One old Salem source that is quoted in all of the books about early American taverns and libations (quite a large genre) is a bill presented to the Parish Committee of the East Church for “Punch, Flip, Sangrey, etc.” by Abigail Brown, Tavern Keeper in 1767, and when Katherine Clarke inherited the Ship’s Tavern, one of Salem’s first, from her husband in 1645 she was licensed to keep it as long as she found a “fit man yt is godlie to manage the business”. Hannah Lemon Beadle also became the keeper of her family’s tavern on Essex Street following her husband’s death a bit later in the seventeenth-century, before it became the site of Witch Trial interrogations in 1692. 10 boxes of inn, tavern & retail licenses will yield lots of more information about just who was selling what.

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Beadle's Tavern New England Magazine, 1892.

Spruce Beer. Logic tells me that Salem would have been a big producer of Colonial North America’s major contribution to the global world of beer, spruce beer, which compensated for shortages of both barley and hops in the New World and at the same time was recognized as a cure for scurvy. It was increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Dr. Bentley refers to it in his diary, and Jane Austen in her letters. It’s generally referred to as a home or “family” brew, however, so I supposed it was not produced commercially. I think there were alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions, and it seems to have been particularly popular in the summer. Here is General Jeffrey Amherst’s (of smallpox infamy) recipe:

Salem Spirits Spruce Beer

And here is Amelia Simmons’ recipe, with hops, from American Cookery (1796): it is notable that this is the only beverage recipe in the acclaimed “first” truly American cookbook:

Take four ounces of hops, let them boil half an hour in one gallon of water, strain the hop water then add sixteen gallons of warm water, two gallons of molasses, eight ounces of essence of spruce, dissol|ved in one quart of water, put it in a clean cask, then shake it well together, add half a pint of emptins, then let it stand and work one week, if very warm weather less time will do, when it is drawn off to bot|tle, add one spoonful of molasses to every bottle.

What’s in the mix? I suspect that a lot of brewing was home-based so it might be in the “black box” which historians cannot open, but the Phillips Library has manuscript and printed recipe collections which might yield some interesting intructions for all sorts of beverages. The most comprehensive of the latter seem to be Joseph Coppinger’s American Practical Brewer and Tanner (1815) and MacKenzie’s five thousand receipts in all the useful and domestic arts: constituting a complete practical library … : a new American, from the latest London edition (1829), but there are “small beer” recipes in many contemporary cookbooks. Beer is seldom advertised before the later nineteenth-century: I looked through the Salem Gazette and found every single beverage BUT beer referenced in the first decade of the nineteenth century, although Mr. Ropes (below) was always in the market for barley!

Salem Spirits American Practical Brewer

Salem Spirits Mackenzie's 5000 Reciepts Phillips

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There are more references to beer when it is mixed with something else: as in flip (which Abigail Brown furnished to the East Church Parish Council), the famous and “terrible” Salem drink Whistle Belly Vengeance, Bogus or Calibogus (spruce beer with rum), and Rattle-Skull ( dark rum and/or brandy and beer). Rum improved everything, of course, including cider (Stone-Wall or Stone-Fence).

Where are all the Tavern signs? I’ve got to admit that I’m as much, or more,  interested in the material culture of taverns as the consumption–especially tavern signs. Salem tavern licenses were granted with the requirement that “there be sett up in some inoffensive sign obvious ways for direction to strangers”, and apparently signs for The Sun and the Bunch of Grapes once existed in the collections of the PEM’s predecessor, the Essex Institute, but all I can find are Washington Hotel signs at present: as you can imagine, Washington taverns and hostelries were as common in every American town as Washington streets in the nineteenth century.

Washington collagePeabody Essex Museum and Alice Morse Earle, Stage-Coach and Tavern Days (1900).


August Anglo-Americana at Auction

August is high season for antique shows and auctions in New England: generally featuring Americana items with global goods mixed in, as our Yankee forebears, particularly those who dwelled in regional seaports like Salem and Portsmouth, were very worldly, of course, and lived with things that came from other parts of the world. A decade or so ago I was in full-court hunting mode during this season; now I’m an armchair/laptop peruser, although next weekend’s sale at Northeast Auctions looks so good I’m certainly going to attend a preview, at the very least. Such interesting wares! All my picks are from the two (or one long) auctions which will be held on August 18-19: the “Lifelong Collection of Susan MacKay and Peter Field” on Saturday with a general auction following, into the next day. There is no rhyme or reason to these selections: they just caught my fancy.

Auction GlobeAmerican Terrestrial Pocket Globe made in Wethersfield, CT, c. 1850. A pocket globe is surely better than a pocket atlas.

 

Auction Stumpwork 2English Stumpwork Profile Portrait of King Charles I of England, 1646.  How amazing is this—and there are more seventeenth-century lots in the MacKay/Field collection as well, including two more representations of King Charles I during the Civil War, or perhaps even after his execution! Royalist relics–from either side of the Atlantic.

 

Auction Silk Needlwork Silk Needlework Picture of a Gentleman wearing a Tricorn Hat, c. 1770. I like this guy from the next century too.

 

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English William and Mary Japanned Pine and Hardwood Highboy. I do not have a highboy, or a William and Mary piece, and I would really like both: this doesn’t really suit my present house but who knows where we might end up? I like the subtle Japanning and it has a very low estimate!

 

Auction Chairs

Set of Eight American Sheraton Fancy Red Painted and Decorated Side Chairs. Do I need chairs? No, absolutely not. But these are RED fancy chairs. Hard to resist.

 

Andres JournalAndre’s Journal: an Authentic Record of the Movements and Engagements of the British Army in America from June 1777 to November 1778 as recorded from day to day by Major John Andre,” Edited by Henry Cabot Lodge, Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1903. This is a beautiful two-volume book which was limited to 487 copies for Bibliophile Society members: I continue to be fascinated by how fascinated Americans were (are?) with Major Andre!

 

Auction Lady LibertyLady Liberty Standing on the Head of Great Britain underneath the Great Seal of the United States, American School, War of 1812. LOTS of War of 1812 items in this auction: this is my favorite.

 

Arbella NortheastThe Frigate “Arbella” of Salem. American School, early 19th Century. I guess I have to have a Salem item–this is a lovely ink & watercolor painting of a ship with which I am not familiar: the original Arbella brough John Winthrop to Salem in 1630, but I don’t know anything about this Arbella. Only the Phillips Library can tell us, I’m sure!

 

Auction Young SailorThe Young Sailor. American School, 4th quarter, 19th century, Mrs. Mary Ide Spencer/Artist. I just love this painting: I know it would make me happy every day if it were mine.


A Displaced Doorway

It’s August, so we’re coming up on the day a year ago when the Peabody Essex Museum quite suddenly closed the doors of its temporary Phillips Library facility in Peabody and issued an ominous and mysterious statement that the Library would be opening up in a “new location” in the spring. In December, the Museum announced admitted that this new permanent location would be the town of Rowley, where it had purchased a utilitarian structure to house its amalgamated “Collection Center” (why is it not Collections Center—just not indiscriminate enough?) And just like that, Salem’s oldest and most comprehensive archive was gone, along with the very special library that had housed it for well over a century. The Collection Center Library, which I cannot bear to call the Phillips, is now open and able to accomodate 14 researchers in what is by all accounts (I haven’t been there yet, but I fear I will have to at some point) a massive structure, yet another indication that this facility was built to house material objects rather than texts: the announcement of its opening featured a curator examining a Chinese object. I’m quite aware that the PEM requires a vast amount of space to house its vast collections: I just don’t understand why this space could not have been found in Salem or why the Library had to be assimilated within it. Through this whole saga, I’ve talked to many people who have been just as upset over the removal of objects from Salem as texts: the assorted Americana and maritime memorials of the former Essex Institute and Peabody Museum. For me, it’s always been exclusively about paper. But just the other day, someone took a picture of the crated doorway of the Gideon Tucker House, being readied for its departure to Rowley I presume, and I started to think about the loss of material culture for the first time when I went over to see it for myself.

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Gideon Tucker Doorway

I guess I should be glad that this doorway still exists and is still—or has been–in Salem, as it is a long-admired example of Samuel McIntire’s work; indeed when students from MIT’s pioneering architectural school came to Salem in the summer of 1895 to measure and draw its storied buildings, their professor Eleazer B. Homer identified the elliptical doorway of the Gideon Tucker House (also called the Tucker-Rice House) as the “best-proportioned” in the city. We have photographs of the doorway in situ, but most images of it date from after 1896, when the Tucker house was acquired by the Father Mathew Total Abstinence Society and transformed into an institutional headquarters. By 1910 the famous doorway had been removed and donated to the Essex Institute, which eventually affixed it to the rear of Plummer Hall. I’m not sure when it was removed and placed in storage: Bryant Tolles refers to its relocated situation in his Architecture in Salem (1970) but the doorway of the “Grimshawe House” on Charter Street is affixed to the rear of Plummer at present–and has been for some time.  Across Essex Street, the Gideon Tucker house was further “denatured” by the addition of commercial storefronts in the mid-twentieth century, but fortunately rehabilitated for residences under the supervision of Newburyport architect Jonathan Woodman in the 1980s, at which time it acquired its reproduction entrance.

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Gideon TUcker Brickbuilder 1915

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Gideon Tucker todayThe Gideon Tucker Doorway and House (1804): Frank Cousins photographs from the 1890s; the Brickbuilder, January 1924; New York Public Library Digital Gallery, n.d.; Essex Institute postcard, MACRIS (1979) and present.

The Essex Institute garden must have been a very interesting place to visit in the midst of the twentieth century with its eclectic mix of houses and house parts assembled by George Francis Dow: in addition to the Tucker Doorway, there was a McIntire cupola from the Pickman/Derby/Rogers/Brookhouse Mansion which was demolished in 1915. It was infested with beetles and destroyed in the 1970s, and only its eagle survives. I am grateful that this beautiful doorway has not met a similar fate, along with all the architectural fragments in the PEM’s collections, but the removal from the cultural context which created them makes me anxious for their future significance—and meaning.

Napoleon “Eh bien, Messieurs! deux millions”: Napoleon displaying the treasures of Italy—in France, 1797, Library of Congress.


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