The Privateer’s House

On this very day in 1776, the Continental Congress authorized private vessels commissioned with “Letters of Marque and Reprisal” to “make captures of British Vessels and Cargoes” and Salem’s shipowners and shipmasters responded enthusiastically: 158 privateering vessels originated from Salem during the Revolution, capturing 458 prizes and the largest prize tonnage of any single American port. It seems appropriate to feature what once was the home of a particular (and particularly active) privateer today: a structure that long stood on Lynde Street downtown and is now in the process of being “transformed” into a much enlarged building in a Georgian-esque style, complete with a built-in garage. I don’t know how much is left of the James Barr House, actually, but a brief history of its most celebrated occupant and record of its evolution are below.

James Barr was born several years before his father, also named James, built the family homestead at 25 Lynde Street, but he spent most of his childhood and adulthood in the house and died in it in 1848, at age 93. His was a full and long life, on sea and on land. Fortunately we have a wonderful and accessible source: his grandson James Barr Curwen published Barr’s “Reminiscences,” including his Revolutionary War commissions, in the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute in 1890 (Volume 27). Barr spent the war in service: on the Black Snake as First Lieutenant in 1777 and as Captain of the Oliver Cromwell, the Rover, and the Montgomery thereafter. He took prizes and was taken prisoner: he spent several months onboard the infamous British prison ship Jersey in New York Harbor and was also transported by the British to Barbados: nevertheless he always seemed to be able to extricate himself and find another ship. Unfortunately his grandson includes more details about the terms of his commissions than his escapes. After the war, Barr became a merchant mariner in partnership with his brother John: their copper-bottomed ship Hope was apparently one of the speediest Salem ships to the East Indies. Mr. Curwen assesses his grandfather’s retirement as “quiet”: “in early days he was a staunch Federalist and later a Whig, but he never took a conspicuous part in politics. He lived a strictly honest and conscientious life and died respected by all who know him at the age of ninety-three years, four months, twenty-one days.” James Barr’s “Reminiscences” also include a portrait commissioned in Leghorn for East India Hall and a very rare photograph of the old captain in the year before his death.  Photographs of Revolutionary-war veterans have been the subject of several studies over the past few years and I’m not sure this particular one is well-known: what a record!

In another town, a famous privateer’s house might be preserved and celebrated: but that’s not the Salem way. The Barr house, built on the storied site of Salem’s first fort in 1759, left the family’s possession in the early twentieth century and its downtown location rendered it vulnerable to commercial and multi-residential use. Much of Salem’s downtown is under the jurisdiction of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) rather than the Salem Historical Commission: those identifying adjectives are apt. Here is the visual evolution of the house over more than a century: from Curwen ownership in the 1890s (captured in Frank Cousins photographs from the Phillips Library and Digital Commonwealth) to a MACRIS photograph from 2016, to the day it lost its gambrel roof last week, to this morning, and a rendering of its completed form encompassing however many condominiums were approved by the SRA.

And here’s the description from the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s 2016 MACRIS inventory by Neil Larson and Walter R. Wheeler: The Barr house is one of a diminishing number of mid-18th century vernacular wood frame dwellings in Salem. Although it has experienced minor alterations and significant additions over time, the original outline of the dwelling remains clearly readable; it retains its original form, feeling and materials, and continues to embody the distinctive characteristics of a mid-18th century side passage gambrel-roofed dwelling. 

 


2 responses to “The Privateer’s House

  • Jeffrey D

    Interesting story, thanks for the photos, There were so, so many privateers in this area, I’m floored by the shear number of them. I wonder if that’s consistent with the experience in other countries of the time. OH and I love the fact that this stalwart old Captain was wearing breeches even in the 1840’s. No doubt the young folks called him a ‘quaint’ relic of old Salem! What I find less charming is this new trend of taking an old building and literally removing every wall but the front one; totally redesigning/building it, slapping in some (modern standard sized) 6/6 windows and calling it a ‘renovation’. I would be happier (not happy but happier) if they just admitted they are tearing down the old building and constructing a new design ‘appropriate’ to the neighborhood.

    • daseger

      Those are my feelings exactly, Jeffrey: Exactly, breeches and all! Your latter scenario would save us the “heroic” developer rhetoric as well.

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