I Miss the Assembly House

I miss the Assembly House, a Georgian structure on Federal Street built as an assembly house in 1782 and transformed by Samuel McIntire into a more elaborate residence in the next decade: its proper name is the Cotting-Smith Assembly House (although it was charmingly called the “old Assembly House” after Hamilton Hall was built in 1805) and it was donated to the Essex Institute in 1965, the last building to be added to the Institute’s collection of historic houses, I believe. Of course the house still exists–I can see it at any time–but it has changed from when I first knew it: it has lost all of its trees–and its life. It is still, dark, and stark. It’s a shadow of its former self, or a ghost.

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assembly house 1926

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assembly house drawing hne bestThe Cotting-Smith Assembly House yesterday afternoon and in 1926, 1920 (in a painting by Felicie Ward Howell, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), c. 1910 (Cornell) and an undated drawing (Historic New England).

I know, houses are not sentient beings as friends and family often tell me. But the Assembly House looks sad and it makes me sad to look at it, as I remember many happy times there in the 1990s, both before and after the Essex Institute and its houses were absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum. I remember: teas, two baby showers, several anniversary dinners, a graduation party, a cooking class (???), coffees for candidates for local office—it seemed as if we were in there quite a lot! I remember feeling that the house was rather homey, despite its elegant interior details. I remember sitting on the back stairs talking to two friends who are no longer alive. I remember being wowed by the front staircase—with its second-floor landing and pedimented door—every time I saw it. But all these memories are from a long time ago, at least 20 years. I miss all of the Essex Institute/PEM houses, with the exception of the Ropes Mansion which was restored and reopened a few years ago. (Actually what I really miss is the Essex Institute, but that statement will always produce eye-rolls among those who believe that the Peabody Essex Museum rescued both the Institute and the Peabody Museum. This may be true–but it’s hard not to notice those dark stretches of Essex—and Federal—Streets).

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assembly house la sunday times aug 8 1926assembly house bg 1963

assembly house bg 1985Photographs of the Cotting-Smith Assembly House interior, Historic New England; Los Angeles Time, 1926; Boston Globe, 1963 and 1985.

The house where Lafayette danced in 1784 and Washington dined in 1789 and Susan Coolidge (above) came out and many other people celebrated weddings, anniversaries, and simply lived their lives was “restored, refurbished, and remembered” according to the 1985 story in the Boston Globe above but seems largely forgotten these days. It was celebrated across the country in 1926 as Salem marked its 300th anniversary, but seems likely to be overlooked as the city marks its 400th.

8 responses to “I Miss the Assembly House

  • dpmonahan

    Those trees are elms, probably killed off in the 70s. But Salem just planted elms on Federal street, which I assume are disease resistant.

    • daseger

      I don’t think all the trees in front of the Assembly House were elms, as they were alive just a few years ago. I’m sure that if they had to come down, they had to come down, however.

  • az1407t

    I didn’t know the PEM owned this building also. How many buildings does it own? Looking back, I think the merger of the Essex Institute with the Peabody Museum in the early 90s was a mistake. The Peabody Museum should have left adding “Essex” to its name because it has showed little focus on the local history. What good are these buildings if they are not used and promoted? What a sad state of affairs.

    • daseger

      In addition to the Peirce Nichols and Assembly House on Federal Street and the Ropes Mansion on Essex (which is very open during the summer), there are all the buildings on the Essex Street Campus—occasionally open. I don’t understand many of the PEM’s policies obviously, but I’m hoping for more of a demonstrated commitment to local heritage with the new leadership.

  • Glenn McDonald

    I’ve known the Assembly House from the mid-1950s, and back then, there was a large black cast iron (I always thought ir was cast iron, at any rate) lawn ornament of a setter in somewhat vigilant repose. The dog disappeared in the 1960s. I always wondered where it went.

    Another tidbit:: When the Essex Institute owned the Assembly Hall, it would rent the house out at very nominal rates to a couple of my acquaintance, Don Hunt and his wife, and in return that would serve as live-in caretakers, and Mrs.Hunt would give guided tours to the public areas of the house.

    The same arrangement was in place for the Pingree House, although I suspect it was rent-free for Ray and Polly Moore. Ray was the full time handyman and all-around go to guy when anything at the Essex Institute, or the houses on the grounds needed fixing, and Polly gave tours of the public areas of the house.

    In 1966 and 67, I was a volunteer at the EI, and learned many interesting, but out-of-date skills while working for Ray. For instance, my first parge project was restoring and preserving the donated tools from a cooper’s shop. Ray patiently explained how each was used to make a barrel from slabs of wood. My proudest achievement is still there; Ray taught me the art of laying brick sidewalks. In 1966, I laid the sidewalk at the front of the 1818 vintage Safford House. Every time I get back to Salem, I like to wander up Hawthorne Blvd. and take a peek at my work.

    Cheers to all.

  • Glenn McDonald

    In re: the earlier elm trees thread, as far as I am aware the gorgeous elms all came down in the late 1060s and eatly 1970s. Salem didn’t let ’em go without a fight, however. I remember walking down the West side of Chestnut street (somehow, it was always the West side) and seeing what looked like IV lines running into the chestnut trees from dual containers strapped onto the trees. I’m not sure whether it was the City or the Chestnut Street Associates, but somebody fought like Hell to save the trees and preserve that glorious chestnut canopy over Chestnut Street.

    In 1955, the Salem Five published a a 24 page, or so, pamphlet of photos of Salem over its 100 year history. O don’t thing I’ve ever seen better pictures of Chestnut Street looking South from Cambridge Street after a particularly heavy snow. That’s what I miss most about Salem.

    Cheers, again.

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