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