The Snow Castle

We haven’t had many snowstorms this winter, but two nights ago about a foot of snow dropped onto the streets of Salem. My first thoughts when I woke up were: how much snow did we get (and) should I run down the street and take a picture of the snow house? Classes had been cancelled the night before, so that was no concern of mine. I saw that we had quite a bit of snow, so of course I thought of the Wheatland/Pickering/Phillips house, a Classical Revival confection that I always think of as the “snow house” or the “snow castle” as it looks so beautiful when its exuberant trim is frosted with snow. I adore this house in every season, but especially in the winter. It really is my first thought when I wake up on a snowy morning.

Snow Castle 3

Snow Castle 2

Snow Castle

It was quite warm yesterday morning, and so the snow had already started to melt by the time I made it down the street (as a snow day meant an extra cup of coffee) so here are some “freshly frosted” views from a few years back, when the blue sky afforded more contrast and shadow.

Snow Castle 2011

WHite Castle 2014

My Snow Castle, which I guess we should call the Wheatland-Phillips House after its original and present owners, was designed by Salem native John Prentiss Benson (1865-1947), a brother of the well-known American Impressionist Frank Benson who became an esteemed artist himself after his retirement from architecture. I don’t possess the architectural vocabulary to describe this house so I’ll use the words of Bryant Tolles from Architecture in Salem: “a spectacular, flamboyant example of the Colonial Revival style……[in which] the architect employed a variety of Colonial Revival idioms, including the ornate cornice (with dentils and pendants in relief), the wide fluted Corinthian pilasters (reminiscent of the work of McIntire, the flat window caps, the second-story Palladian window with miniature pilasters, the broad doorway with semi-elliptical fanlight, and the overly large flat-roofed porch with Corinthian columns” in a “innovative, almost whimsical manner”. Tolles concludes that “the house gives the impression of being an original late 18th century building” even though it is in fact one of the newest houses on Chestnut Street, constructed in 1896 for Ann Maria Wheatland, the widow of Stephen Wheatland, who served as the Mayor of Salem during the Civil War. I’m not sure why Mrs. Wheatland desired such a large house, but she lived in it until her death in 1927. Despite its mass, the house has always seemed whimsical to me, and also timeless, and its allure is no doubt enhanced by its stillness as I don’t think anyone has lived there during the whole time I’ve lived on Chestnut Street. I have to resist trespassing every time I walk by this house, in every season: in summer I see myself having a gin & tonic on its left-side (deck? seems to mundane a word) and I would love to see if there is a veranda out back. I do resist, so I don’t know.

Snow Castle 1940 HABSThe House in 1940; HABS, Library of Congress.

By many accounts, John Prentiss Benson wanted to be an artist from early on, but as that trail was blazed by his brother Frank, he settled for architecture. Nevertheless, he seems to have had a successful career, with a New York City practice and several partnerships. He lived for several years in Plainfield, New Jersey where there are several John P. Benson houses: there was a tour devoted to them in 1997 titled the “Mansions of May”. None of these houses—or that designed for his other brother Henry on Hamilton Street in Salem—seems to bear any resemblance to the Wheatland-Phillips House: it’s as if he just let loose with wild abandon. Perhaps Mrs. Wheatland gave him carte blanche, or very strict instructions. Or maybe he was influenced by memories of the Benson family home on Salem Common: an exuberant Second Empire structure that was situated on what is now the parking lot of the Hawthorne Hotel.

Snow Castle Jersey Houses

Snow Castle Portsmouth Benson Family Home

Snow House WillowbankOther Benson houses, including his own, top right; the Benson family home on Salem Common and Willowbank in Kittery Point, Portsmouth Athenaeum.

After his retirement from architecture in the 1920s, Benson moved to a waterside estate in Kittery Point, Maine named Willowbank and began painting full-time until his death in 1947: he was prolific, and consequently his identity is more that of a maritime artist than an architect at present. The Portsmouth Athenaeum has his papers, and has digitized many photographs of his life and work at Willowbank, which also happens to be the birthplace of the 6th Countess of Carnarvon, Ann Catherine Tredick Wendell, who became mistress of Highclere Castle in 1922. And thus we have a very distant and indirect connection, through John Prentiss Benson, between the Snow Castle and Downton Abbey!

Snow Castle Collage

Benson Galleon Vose Galleries

Galleon, 1923 by John Prentiss Benson @Vose Galleries: I love galleons, and I’m using this one to sign off for a while as I’m off to Portugal on spring break! I’ll be back with many pictures of azulejos, no doubt.

8 responses to “The Snow Castle

  • Jackie

    I believe it’s a fringe tree in front of your Snow House that smells DIVINE when it blooms. I stopped in my tracks one time because it smelled so wonderful.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks for sharing those lovely shots of the Wheatland/Pickering/Phillips house on Chestnut Street after our recent snow storm. Of course, you went further providing the background of the architect John Prentiss Benson and the home’s original owner Ann Marie Wheatland. Another example of your archival retrieval skills.

    I look forward to your posts about your upcoming trip to Portugal. The architecture there is so unique, given the country’s geographical distance from the heart of Europe – the cathedrasl, cloisters, monasteries, castles – you will love it. The Manueline ornamentation is particularly beautiful in the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon. What I recall most is the nautical motif of the carved roping of the pillars in the church. Enjoy!

    • daseger

      Thanks Helen–looking forward to it. I’ve been to Portugal before, but years ago, so very keen to see what has changed and what has remained the same.

  • Sartenada

    Snow castle. I have many snow castle photos:

    Best Snow Castle photos

    Have a good day!

  • gallowshillsite

    Startled to learn that no one “has lived there during the whole time I’ve lived on Chestnut Street.” That makes three long-vacant mansions in the McIntire District that I know of: 30 Chestnut St here (6 bdrms 9,300 sq ft), 329 Essex St (5 bdrms 5,500 sq ft), and of course the ever notorious and decrepit 6 Federal Ct (8 bdrms 4,000 sq ft). Perhaps you, with your ears on the pulse of the District, know of others? That is lots of living space that could instead be occupied by many deserving families.

    This illustrates a problem that until your post I thought Salem was immune to – vacant luxury properties kept empty in hope of gaining appreciation, not for the rents. It’s a problem in many major cities around the world, Boston included, so much so that many big city mayors have considered, even proposed, vacancy surtaxes of 50% or more on such properties. The rumor is that up to half the units in billionaire towers (like Millennium Place in Boston) are vacant.

    Not sure that vacancy taxes would push occupancy (if you are a Chinese tech magnate or an Arab oil sheik who can afford $100K in taxes a jump to $150K won’t phase you), but at least the increased revenue can be dedicated to increasing affordable housing, infrastructure, and such. But a vacancy tax in lesser Salem might just push occupancy.

    FYI while I have your attention: according to property records 30 Chestnut last sold in May ’98 for a mere $82,612! Current valuation $1.4 million! Any idea of the reason for the fire sale price 20 years ago?

    • daseger

      I really don’t think abandoned luxury real estate holdings are a big Salem problem—and I think someone lives in Essex Street. Likely some sort of family transfer of 30 Chestnut in 1998.

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