Monthly Archives: July 2019

A Statesman’s Summer House

I was up in New Hampshire this past weekend for a spectacular summer wedding on Dublin Lake, and of course I made time for side trips; the Granite State continues to be a place of perpetual discovery for me after a lifetime of merely driving around or through it, to and from a succession of homes in Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts. On the day before the wedding, some friends and I drove north to see The Fells, the Lake Sunapee home of John Milton Hay (1838-1905), who served in the administrations of Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. Hay is the perfect example of a dedicated public servant and statesman, attending to President Lincoln as his private secretary until the very end, at his deathbed, and dying in office (at The Fells) while serving as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. He was also a distinguished diplomat, poet, and a key biographer of Lincoln. Fulfilling the conservation mission that was a key part of his purchase and development of the lakeside property, Hay’s descendants donated the extended acreage surrounding the house to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1960s, and it eventually became the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge. Hay’s daughter-in-law Alice Hay maintained the house as her summer residence until her death in 1987, after which it was established as a non-profit organization, open for visitors from Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekends.

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When it comes to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century country or summer residences in New England which are now open to the public, it seems to me there are three essential types: those of very rich people (think Newport), those of statesmen (The Fells; Hildene in Manchester, Vermont; Naumkeag in Stockbridge), and those of creative people (The Mount in Lenox;  Beauport; Aspet, Augustus Saint-Gauden’s summer home and studio in Cornish, New Hampshire). The last category is my favorite by far, but there’s always lots to learn by visiting the houses of the rich and the connected, and John Milton Hay was as connected as they come. I was a bit underwhelmed by the house, which is a Colonial Revival amalgamation of two earlier structures, until I got to its second floor, which has lovely views of the lake and surrounding acreage plus a distinct family feel created by smaller interconnected bedrooms opening up into a long central hall. The airiness of the first floor felt a bit institutional, but this was an estate built for a very public man, after all. For the Hays, I think it was all about the relation of the house to its setting, rather than the house itself.

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The gardens surrounding the house also seemed a bit sparse although it was a hot day in late July and we might be between blooms; certainly the foundations and structures are there, especially in the rock garden that leads down to the lake. This was the passion of Hay’s youngest son, Clarence, who established the garden in 1920 and worked on it throughout his life. After his death in 1969, the garden was lost to forest, but it was reestablished by the efforts of the Friends of the Hay Wildlife Refuge and the Garden Conservancy. When you’re standing in the rock garden looking up at the house, or in the second floor of the house looking down at the rock garden and the lake beyond, you can understand why the well-connected and well-traveled John Milton Hay proclaimed that “nowhere have I found a more beautiful spot” in 1890.

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Historical Habitation

A couple of months ago, I decided that this would be the Summer of The Secretary: I’ve been wanting to purchase an antique secretary for my front parlor for quite some time, and as “brown furniture” seems positioned for a revival after the mid-century modern mania we’ve been in for a while I think that prices will start to climb back to the level where they were when I first started to furnish my home. I have the perfect, slightly-recessed spot and I think a secretary will really complete that room, which I can never seem to get right. So I’ve been looking at all of the auction listings, and the other day I saw a piece that looked vaguely familiar in a Skinner Country Americana Auction. The description confirmed my suspicion: this secretary, along with several other pieces in the same auction, came from the colonial house in South Berwick, Maine which serves as the subject of Paula Bennett’s book Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America through History, Food, and a Georgian House.

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Imagining Ichabod Secretary

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Bennett and her husband owned the Goodwin house in South Berwick for over a decade, during which time she pursued every possible avenue to create an ambiance as historical as possible in their home: research into the textures, furnishings, food and events of the era in which the two Ichabod Goodwins lived (1740-1829), through primary and secondary sources, archaeology, and what I like to call “shopping research” ( in which I indulge often) via period houses, auctions, and antique shops. Imagining Ichabod details this very personal and material journey in words, pictures, and recipes, as Bennett is an enthusiastic cook—indeed, one gets the impression that she is enthusiastic about everything! After this complete immersion, it was off to a Boston condo for the Bennetts, which is why their Georgian furnishings ended up at Skinner.

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Imagining Ichabod Table Skinner

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Imagining Ichabod Entrance Table

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Imagining Ichabod Marble Table

The cumulative and intensive effort to create a perfect eighteenth-century (-esque) house, only to dismantle and leave it after a relatively short period, is interesting to me, as I wonder about the constraints of “period living”, and by that I mean aesthetic constraints rather than practical ones, as even the most passionate antiquarians have indoor plumbing! Everyone I know in Salem lives in an old house, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but no one furnishes their homes in an exclusively period style: it’s generally a melange of old and new, with some nods to the era in which the house was built and a lot more comfortable furniture. When I first purchased my current house, which was built in 1827, I went about it much like Paula Bennett: I wanted period furniture, period drapes, period plates, period lighting, period wallpaper, and period hardware; I was particularly obsessed with finding the correct switch plates, but of course no switch plate is “correct” in an 1827 house. After about a decade of that design philosophy, I grew tired of the constraints and loosened up considerably, and now my house is a mix of past and present, as it no doubt appeared in 1927, 1877, and even the year it was built. But I still want a secretary—and the Bennett’s Georgian one is too early.

Sandy Agrafiotis photographs in Paula Bennett’s Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America Through its History, Food, and a Georgian House (Bauer and Dean, 2016). I never attempted period cooking like Paula Bennett, but I’m always on the lookout for a good rum punch, and the idea of roasted oysters intrigues, as both my father and husband are oyster aficionados.


Lit Up

The streetlight right near my house has been out since January, so lower Chestnut Street is bathed in darkness every night. There are some benefits to this, as this light shines right into my bedroom window when operational, but I still hope it gets fixed soon: the residents of our street purchased period-esque streetlights over a decade ago and I like my light. Because it’s been so dark–and I can see walking-tour leaders walking by with lanterns—I’ve been thinking about both historical darkness and the coming of light onto the streets of Salem, and then the other day I found a cache of cool photographs illuminating the latter era from the General Electric Company archive at the Museum of Innovation and Science (MiSci) via Google Arts & Culture. Salem definitely has electrical credentials: Moses Farmer illuminated a room in his Pearl Street house every July night of 1859, an early “All-Electric” home on Loring Avenue drew headlines and crowds when it was first opened in 1924, and just down the street, the GTE-Sylvania plant employed hundreds of workers during its heyday (1936-1989). The source of these photographs, however, is the even larger General Electric River works plant in nearby Lynn, which featured a large street lighting department. A 1916 GE catalog titled The Splendor of Well Lighted Streets showcases the company’s latest streetlights and observes that in the vicinity of Lynn are sections of streets and roads lighted in every different fashion to demonstrate in actual practice the differences in units and types of lighting: Salem clearly provided an effective demonstration setting, offering all sorts of opportunities to showcase GE’s newest lighting and traffic-signal products. The photographs below date from 1916 to 1931.

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Salem 1916 electrified General Electric Co archives

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Electric City HH 1926

Electric City BridgeEssex Street, 1918-1927(including a new Novalux light decorating for Christmas), the Hawthorne Hotel, 1926 (showcasing streetlight AND stoplight) and Bridge Street, General Electric Company Archives, MiSci: the Museum of Innovation and Science.

Electrical Lafayette

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Electric City Not Sure.Lafayette Street, the intersection at West, Loring, and Lafayette, and (I think???) the road to Marblehead.

Electric City Almys 1916

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Electric City William WebberInterior Lighting at the Almy, Bigelow & Washburn and William G. Webber stores on Essex Street.

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Electrical ShootWashington Street during World War I: the new Masonic Temple building and the illuminated war chest; floodlights at a trapshooting competition somewhere in Salem.


Hildegarde’s Gardening Book

The granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hildegarde Hawthorne (Oskinson) followed in the family business and published a wide variety of works over her lifetime (1871-1952), including children’s books, travel books, poetry, and biographies. I posted previously on one of her “rambles” books, Old Seaports of New England, because it features Salem prominently, but it is not my favorite of her titles: that preference is her garden book, The Lure of the Garden (1911). Gardening books by society ladies such as Hildegarde are a dime a dozen in this era, but The Lure of the Garden is different: it’s not a practical tome or simply an appreciation of the botanical beauty, but rather a series of essays on different cultural aspects of the garden, in her time and over time: from “Our Grandmother’s Garden” to “Childhood in the Garden” to “The Social Side of Gardens” to “Gardens in Literature”. It’s beautifully written (I think shorter-form essays are her strong suit) and beautifully illustrated, by Maxfield Parrish, Jules Guérin, Sigismond de Ivanowski, Anna Whelan Betts, and others, with plates in both color and black and white, paintings, drawings, and photographs. Throughout the book, the theme of the garden as a private refuge and true reflection of one’s inner self emerges, both very literally in considerations of enclosure and garden gates as well as through textual and visual illustration, as she shows off her connections and takes us into the “Gardens of Well-Known People” such as Parrish, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Cecilia Beaux, Edith Wharton, and Stephen Parrish. For all this (and because I am dealing with the menace of powdery mildew right now), I think my favorite chapter is “Some Garden Vices”, in which the garden is portrayed as an autonomous entity, showering “pity and love to its ugliest weed” to a touching though infuriating extent: it will spare no pains to convey to this voracious plant all the delicately prepared food destined for your lilies or your phlox, will discover the utmost art in draining its water toward the thick roots of its favorite, give it sun and shadow, sweat and labor for it. If you snatch the hateful progeny from its arms, leave only the slightest portion of root behind, that patient, devoted garden will nurse the battered and wounded thing back again to life and health, to flaunt triumphantly in bed and border. As this is Hildegarde’s extravagant prose in reference to weeds, you can imagine her descriptions of more covetous cultivations.

Lure of the Garden Cover

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Hildegarde Hawthorne’s The Lure of the Garden is available here.


Now I feel even worse for the Romanovs

I’ve had this dreadful summer chest cold over the last week or so; it’s taking forever to go away. I have tried to go about business as usual, but it persists, so on Monday I just laid in bed all day determined to vanquish it with as much liquids, honey, throat lozenges, and rest as possible. I was too miserable to read, so television was the only option. I turned on my reliable Turner Classic Movies only to find that forgettable 1930s caper movies were the order of the day, and so surfed around on Netflix for a bit and chose one of their new offerings called The Last Czars, and once it was on, streaming and streaming, I found that I could not look away, simply because it was so awful. I was aghast; I remain aghast. If this is where history dramatizations are going, it’s over for us a civilization. Let me just start with one illustration of the series’ sloppiness: a screenshot supposedly representing “Moscow in 1905” with Lenin’s Mausoleum (which assumed its present form around 1930) clearly visible! Everything is fluid, right; Russian Empire, Soviet Union, what’s the difference?

Last Czars screenshot

I’m certainly not the first to point this error out: the series has received scathing reviews both in the West and in Russia (this particularly essay is great). And I’m also no Russian history expert, but even I noticed all sorts of little “discrepancies” and much chronological confusion: without sufficient context, the Russo-Japanese War seems to morph right into the First World War. But these are not the primary sins of The Last Czars (why “czars” and not “tsars”; and why plural?): its most glaring fault is its format, a weird, even bizarre, hybrid of talking-head commentary and very intimate drama. One minute we’re hearing that the Nicholas and Alexandra had a rare royal loving relationship and the next minute we’re seeing them rolling around on the bed and the floor with very little left to our imaginations. These transitions are far from seamless: when it first happened I thought (in my cold-medicine-induced haze) that I had somehow changed the channel. There’s nothing particularly new about the docudrama, but the contrast between the drama and the commentary is heightened to an unwatchable degree by the intense focus on the personal in the scripted scenes of The Last Czars, so that both parts of the production do not add up to something whole or greater, but something far less. It is neither feast nor fowl.

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It’s all so personal and so sexual: perish the thought that an idea, a consideration, or even a well-articulated sentiment existed in the realm of the Romanovs. Even before the inevitable arrival of Rasputin there is gratuitous sex and once he is in the picture there is of course more, much more. No doubt the producers of The Last Czars have rationalized the inclusion of so much sex as a way to uncover their subjects’ humanity but instead they have robbed them of their dignity, particularly the Tsar and Tsarina, and their daughter Maria, often described as innocently flirtatious but ready to go all the way with a Bolshevik guard in the series’ last episode. Obviously there’s nothing fresh or new about the focus on Rasputin or the continuous thread of the Anastasia impostor, which serves no purpose that I could see. The sole redeeming features I could find in this soulless series are the contemporary film clips and anti-Rasputin ephemera (though I have since learned that the latter date from after the mad monk’s death in 1916) but even they add to the confusion of the presentation. After watching as much of The Last Czars as I could take, I felt worse, both for myself and for the Romanovs, who died very early on this very day one hundred and one years ago.

Last Czar Last PictureThe last photograph of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where they were executed in the early hours of July 17, 1918.


(Reen-)Action in Marblehead

There is filming or preparation for filming all around us this July: on Salem Common, in Forest River Park, in nearby Danvers and Marblehead. On Saturday I drove over to see Marblehead’s Old Town dressed as Salem during Halloween for a Netflix film starring Adam Sandler titled Hubie Halloween. I knew that the Revolutionary reenactment company Glover’s Regiment would also be camped out at Fort Sewall in Marblehead, and I thought the two “sets” might make for an interesting cultural clash. I was right: it was a theatrical afternoon. I have to admit to being a little annoyed that Salem could not play itself: we have to deal with the real Halloween but aren’t good enough to play the fake one? But watching the set designers put together their perfect Halloween town, it was obvious that they were going for a cute, hometown Halloween, not the darker version that has emerged in Witch City. At least Salem Common will see some action. The camp at Fort Sewall was well-established by the time I got there, with cream canvas tents all in a row, and visiting “French” and “British” soldiers—the latter were appropriately camped outside the fort’s walls!  For an hour or so, it really did seem like I was wandering around some Hollywood backlot to go from Halloween in July to an eighteenth-century encampment.

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Salem’s Newest Park

Salem’s newest public space was recently unveiled, situated in the former gas station/carnival lot at 289 Derby Street along the South River. The reaction has been a bit mixed, I would say. I think some people were expecting more of a green space, but it is not really that kind of park; it’s more of a concrete (plaza? court? square?) built for activity rather than rest and contemplation. Some people are critical of its cost, particularly of the land. It’s also been identified as a homeless magnet, which strikes me as an unjustified criticism as it is a public space after all. I first went down to see it on a bright sunny day and it did seem a bit inhospitable as it is primarily a bright swath of concrete, but I returned at night and found it much more inviting. I’ve decided that I like it: the swings, the topographical “maps”, and particularly the lighting around the perimeter.

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As you can see, it’s built for movement (and sound), to be a happening place rather than a tranquil one, so when things start happening we will see how the space works. We have been invited to name the new park but restricted in our choices: South River Park, Charlotte Forten Park, Nathaniel Bowditch Park, 289 Derby, Naumkeag Park. While I’d love to see something in Salem named after Charlotte Forten, the first African-American teacher in the Salem Public Schools and a graduate of Salem State, this is not the place: I can’t see how it has anything to do with her, spatially, thematically, or aesthetically. Same with Bowditch; the other names are bland and generic. Because this is a playful place, I propose moving the dreadful Samantha statue from Town House Square (where she does not belong) to this new park and naming it Bewitched Park. People seems to think that a few days of shooting that show on location here in 1970 somehow saved Salem by enabling it to realize its full potential as Witch City, so naming rights seem in order.


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