If you walk down the streets of Salem looking at house plaques bearing the date of construction and first owner, you will quickly notice that a fair number of them will read “housewright”. There seem to have been so many housewrights in Golden-Age Salem around the turn of the nineteenth century, but only one architect of note: Samuel McIntire, of course. “Architect” is a rather fluid term until the later nineteenth century when the occupation was professionalized, but I’m wondering if there were any other designers, rather than merely builders, of structures in Salem before that time. One candidate is a colleague of McIntire’s, often described as his “chief assistant” or builder, a man named Daniel Bancroft (1746-1818). We have an absolutely glowing epitaph for Bancroft from the Reverend William Bentley, following his death from typhus in 1818 at the age of 72: “the most able Architect we had. We gave more to the genius of Macintire, as a Carver, but as a practical man in every part of Carpentry in house building, I have never known Mr. B’s superior.” [Diary, IV, 6] High praise indeed, although Bentley seems to be citing Bancroft’s craftsmanship rather than his design skills, and praising McIntire for the very same reason. In any case, Bancroft is a bit elusive: not only do you have to go through McIntire to get to him, but there is also considerable confusion between Daniel Bancroft the Elder (McIntire’s Daniel) and his son, Daniel Bancroft Jr., who was also a housewright. The “Daniel Bancroft House” on River Street, for example, was the home (and presumably the work) of the younger Bancroft. Around the corner on Lynn Street—perhaps #3—was his father’s house and workshop.
Salem Gazette, July 1796.
The earliest “commission” I could find for Bancroft is for the construction of a new church or meeting house in 1776-77 for the Third Congregational Church, later (and now) called the Tabernacle Church, as the church which replaced the colonial construction was inspired by London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle. The Tabernacle’s records have been digitized by the Congregational Library, and among them are payments to Bancroft, specifically in terms of days of labor. Bancroft exceeds mere workman status thirteen years later in an article in the March 1790 issue of Massachusetts Magazine about the Salem meeting/courthouse at the head of Washington Street, which states that its plan “was designed by the ingenious Mr. Samuel McIntire and executed by that able architect, Mr. Daniel Bancroft.” Clearly the word is used to refer to the builder, or executor, of McIntire’s vision, and I guess we can conclude that Bancroft was just that. But he built the most elaborate buildings in the Salem of his day: not just the Tabernacle and the courthouse, but also the Assembly House and the short-lived mansion of Elias Hasket Derby, which stood on the present site of Old Town Hall for only fifteen years. And likely much more.
The Tabernacle Church of 1777-1854, from Samuel Worcester’s Memorial of the Old and New Tabernacle (1855); payments to Daniel Bancroft in the Tabernacle Church administrative records at the Congregational Library; Images of the McIntire courthouse from Massachusetts Magazine, George Washington Felt @ Peabody Essex Museum, and J.W. Barber. Drawing of the Derby Mansion from Charles E. Trow, Old Shipmasters of Salem (1905).
I’m sure that there is more evidence, material and textual, of Bancroft’s work and life; I can feel that there is a lot more to his story. If I had the time, I would: consult the McIntire papers at the Phillips Library in Rowley, explore Bancroft in records of the Symonds family of Salem, into which he married, and ascertain his possible connection (through McIntire, or alone) to the very Salemesque Thomas Symonds House in his native Reading. There is also his service in the 6th Massachusetts Regiment during the Revolutionary War to consider. For now, though, he remains an elusive figure: I couldn’t even find his gravestone in the Broad Street Cemetery where it is purported to be! There is a stone with a similar shape, but its inscription is illegible, as if symbolizing Bancroft’s ghostly presence in Salem.