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.

Gideon Tucker Doorway 2

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.

Tucker collage

Gideon TUcker Brickbuilder 1915

Gideon Tucker NYPLDG

Gideon Tucker PC


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.

8 responses to “A Displaced Doorway

  • Mary Jane Kelley

    Thank you Donna for the pictures and information you have included in this email about the Tucker-Mathew bldg.
    It is a fascinating history.
    I am a long-time and have passed your email along to all other owners.
    Our current doorway is an exact replica of the original.

  • dccarletonjr

    While I’m glad the (early 20th century?) storefronts were removed from the Tucker House, going by the nifty colonial revival balustrade still hanging onto the otherwise decrepit structure shown in the picture you’ve included, I’ll bet the storefront was rather nice when first installed…

  • Almquist Nanny

    Thanks once more for a fascinating blog entry and reminder that the PEM has moved not only book and manuscript archives, but material culture to Rowley. I continue to be baffled on the PEM’s Director and Board decision to be such poor stewards of Salem’s history. What would the reaction be if the Bostonian Society decided to move its research center/library and library contents to Burlington, MA, or Historic New England closed it’s library in the Otis House, Boston, and moved it’s library to it’s storage facilities in Haverhill? Or how about if Mass. Historical Society moved its library to Saugus, or the Boston Public Library moved its Rare Books and Manuscripts to Peabody? I think there would be a lot of protest, and rightly so.

    How long will it take the PEM to recognize its big mistake and take action to correct the situation with a return to Salem of the contents of the Phillips Library?

  • Almquist Nanny

    How long before a group of Salem residents form a new Salem Historical Society and then lobby for PEM to unburden themselves of the Essex Institutes’ holdings. Clearly PEM has no or close to no interest in Salem’s history or preserving it.

    • daseger

      There is a Salem Historical Society—-a group of young people formed one a few years ago while the Phillips was in its temporary location and expected to return to Salem. But they have extremely limited resources: the vast archives of the Phillips require proper care, of course. We need to convince the PEM to return the Phillips to Salem where it will draw more people, and thus create more engagement, with all of Salem’s history, and not just the Witch Trials.

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