The Phillips House

I can’t believe that I’ve been blogging here for eleven+ years and have not featured 1) the only house museum; 2) the only house belonging to Historic New England; and 3) the only house which was (partially) moved to its site on the street where I live, Chestnut Street, before! There are two buildings which are open to the public on this famous street, Hamilton Hall and the Phillips House: the former is most definitely an assembly hall, while the latter is a home, and when you visit it, that will be one of your primary takeaways. Not only will you become familiar with multiple generations of the Phillips family, but also members of their staff (who were apparently never referred to as servants); not only will you see beautiful rooms “above,” but also working spaces “below.” The Phillips House has one of the best preserved historic working kitchens on the street (last used in 1962), which you will not see here, because I spent so much time and took so many pictures on my own personal tour with my former student Tom Miller that my camera was dead by the time I got there. So you must see it for yourself. The Phillips House opened for the season this past weekend: it is open every weekend through October but advance reservations are required.

The Phillips House on Chestnut Street is open! Great to see the flag flying. Tom Miller  opened the door for me on this past Friday, and we commenced a three-hour tour. Tom has been a associated with the house for 13 years, and knows everything about the Phillips house, its contents and inhabitants.

Because the house is a creation of many decades, families and styles, it has a lot to teach visitors, even though its interiors are presented as they were in 1919, several years after the Phillips family had taken possession and completed their renovations. Their fortune was based on Salem commerce, shrewd investments, and advantageous marriages, and they were well-traveled and engaged in society and civic affairs, so we can learn a lot from their stories as well. The story of the house begins with a maritime marriage and a messy divorce: between Elizabeth Derby, daughter of Salem’s wealthiest merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and one of his ship captains, Nathaniel West. Mr. Derby did not approve of the marriage in 1783, but nevertheless he left his daughter an enormous inheritance in his 1799 will, which she used to to build a magnificent country estate just a few miles inland, commissioning the justly-famous Samuel McIntire to undertake much of the design and craftsmanship. After an important reform to Massachusetts divorce law in 1806 allowed women greater property rights in divorce cases involving infidelity on the part of the husband, Elizabeth Derby West sued for divorce and won, in a very public case involving a parade of prostitutes perhaps paid to give evidence against Captain West by her vengeful brothers, with whom he had engaged in fist-to-cuffs down on the docks. Elizabeth moved to Oak Hill permanently and continued to lavish material attention on it until her death in 1814, leaving it to her three daughters with the stipulation that they never let their father have a piece of it. The youngest West daughter, Sarah, died intestate five years later and consequently  her father did indeed inherit a third of the estate, despite his former wife’s wishes. He detached four rooms of the estate and had them moved to Chestnut Street: four miles in two days via teams of oxen and logs. After installing a central hall-connector with Palladian window and doors, he now had a slim but elegant (McIntire!) house. Over the nineteenth century the house doubled in size with a succession of owners, and the Phillips family acquired it in 1911. The cumulative composition is a bit Georgian, a bit Federal, a bit Victorian, and a lot of Colonial Revival, with just a pinch of Gothic.

The house in 1916, with lines marking the original McIntire rooms moved to Chestnut Street. An oxen team moving a structure along State Street in Newburyport for comparison, and the house in the later nineteenth century, all collections of Historic New England.

As you move through the house you are aware that you are entering another architectural era, especially as you move from McIntire front to Colonial Revival rear—somewhat of a pale imitation with an expanded scale. But you’re also busy looking at all the things that tie everything together, the personal belongings of a very grounded though worldly family.

Colonial Revival-ized houses always seem to have or side stairs: the front hall must be wide and open; I seem to recall that this side doorway (the “carriage entrance”) was once in front and is McIntire.

Dinner is set for a small party on the evening of July 30, 1919 in the expansive dining room: part of the extensive additions to the back of the house. No McIntire mantel, but lots of movable decorative detail in the form of serving ware, and one of my very favorite paintings which I somehow forgot was here: Thomas Badger’s Portrait of Thomas Mason (with a squirrel). It was a delight to see it: you can have your Copley boy and squirrel painting, I prefer this Badger.

As I am writing this it is very hot, so I want some ORANGE FAIRY FLUFF. The amazing pantry at the Phillips House, and the Badger!

Upstairs, things are a bit more intimate: bedrooms and bathrooms and Mrs. Phillips’ day room for keeping the household accounts. On the third floor there are guestrooms and staff rooms: a rear staircase descends from the latter to the kitchen. There are really wonderful windows throughout the house, in all shapes and sizes, with great views of Chestnut Street, and more McIntire detail in the front two rooms on the second floor.

Another major painting which “surprised” me in residence at the Phillips House was Marblehead folk artist J.O.J. Frost’s Massey’s Cove ( The Hardships and Sacrifice, Massey’s Cove, Salem 1626) depicting the first European settlement of Salem. It was just wonderful to see it there, hanging in Stevie Phillip’s light-filled, McIntire embellished bedroom with the best views of Chestnut Street in either direction. A less happy surprise, in this most Salem of houses, was a crumpled-up sign for the James Duncan Phillips Library, a library which is, of course, no longer in Salem.

I think I had professorial privilege as Tom showed me EVERYTHING and the standard tour can’t be quite as expansive due to time constraints, but the interpretation of the Phillips House definitely emphasizes the close personal connections between the generations that lived in the house and their staff and this is highlighted by one of the special tours at the house, “The Irish Experience at the Phillips House,” which will be offered on August 5. An annual must-attend event which we all missed last year is the antique car meet, which is on August 8. Vintage cars line the length of Chestnut Street, and the juxtaposition of cars and houses is more than instagram-worthy, believe me!

15 responses to “The Phillips House

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    That’s a great story about the Phillips House over the years. I seem to recall reading before about the scandalous divorce of Elizabeth Derby and Captain West. Just wondering – where was her estate Oak Hill?

    I love the multi-generational fittings/furniture/décor of the House. Somewhat reminiscent of the “Old House” in Quincy that sheltered the Adams clan from the late 1700s until 1927.

    Thanks for the fabulous pics and Kudos to Tom Miller for his custodianship of this lovely home.

  • Stan Franzeen

    Thank you for this, Donna. Please do a part 2 with some updates on the Phillips film restoration project using the reels of original material that the family shot during their many travels around the globe. As I recall, the film cannisters were discovered hidden away in the house only in the last 10 years or so??

  • Tom Miller

    Thanks Donna for your excellent write up about the Phillips House. It was truly a pleasure to have you join me in a tour. Yes, Oak Hill stood approximately where Macy’s does at the North Shore Mall today. Several of the McIntire rooms were purchased by the MFA when Oak Hill underwent a renovation and are currently on display in the Art of the Americas wing. As to the Irish Experience tour we are offering it several times this year the second Thursdays of July, August, September and October by reservation on the Historic New England web site. It’s a very popular tour.

  • Ralph Trigger

    Visiting this home is an unforgetable experience.

    Thank you for reminding me it is time to tour it again.

  • Ralph Trigger

    On a somewhat related note:

    Danvers was nicknamed “Onion Town”. The Liberty Tree Mall was an Onion Farm.

    The Liberty Tree Mall had an enormous metal “Liberty Tree” at its center, a transplant from the 1965 NY World’s Fair.

    I wonder what happened to it ?

    • Jeffrey D

      Ralph, I feel I’m straying far from Donna’s subject but the short answer to your question is the mall had it in storage but scrapped it only a few years ago.

  • artandarchitecturemainly

    Excellent coverage, even after an 11 year wait 🙂

    Now let me ask about the sentence “The cumulative composition is a bit Georgian, a bit Federal, a bit Victorian, and a lot of Colonial Revival, with just a pinch of Gothic”. This doesn’t seem relevant for the home’s facade, so are we talking about the internal structures and decorative arts.?

    • daseger

      Thanks for asking as I don’t think I followed through with illustrating that sentence! I think it’s more than a bit Federal (the McIntire rooms), the Palladian window and quoins seem Georgian to me. Inside, it was very Colonial Revival because that’s the interpretation that was chosen, but also the additions are in that (rather bland) style but some of the cabinetry seemed late Victorian to me–and those Gothic bookcases in the front parlor!

  • John Treggiari

    The Phillips House will admit Residents of Salem for free, with ID. Please call ahead to make Reservations.

    Also, Mass EBT Card holders can visit for a reduced ticket of just $2. Usually they can bring along a Family Member of two along at the same, rate, but once ahead, please call ahead.

    It is quite possible EBT Cards from any State will be honored, but once again, call to make sure.

    These offers made by the Phillips House are very generous.

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