I love WaterhouseWallhangings, a company which has been manufacturing wallpapers based on historical patterns for decades, and will do anything or go anywhere to see their papers in situ, so when I saw an instagram post about a recently-completed restoration project up in Amesbury featuring their work I drove right up there despite the fact that I had just returned from another road trip and was fairly exhausted. The Amesbury house was where Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science faith and church, had lived for a time, and it was restored under the auspices of the LongyearMuseum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, an institution which is charged with presenting and teaching all aspects of Eddy’s life. Towards this aim, the Museum owns and operates 8 historic houses (all in New England) in which Eddy has lived, and the Amesbury house is the latest restoration. I confess to knowing very little about Eddy and the Christian Science church, even though I’ve lived in fairly close proximity to three of her houses: the Chestnut Hill Mansion in which she died, which is quite close to Newton Center where I lived while I was in graduate school (now undergoing an extensive restoration), and the Lynn and Swampscott houses which are not far from Salem. My motivations for running up to Amesbury this weekend were exclusively materialistic: I went for the wallpaper, and not for Mary Baker Eddy. But when I got to this lovely little c. 1780 house and talked to the Longyear staff on hand for its open house, I came away very impressed with the overall restoration effort: it was almost as if they had pursued preservation as an act of faith. It is not a grand house, and Eddy did not live there for very long, but it was part of her story and thus no detail was spared to make it shine again. We could only see the shine, but an extensive and costly restoration, inside and out, preceded the decoration. I came for the wallpaper, but left with a great deal of restoration respect, and now I need to see more Longyear houses!
A wallpaper tour of the Bagley House in Amesbury, where Mary Baker Eddy lived for brief periods in 1868 and 1870:
Waterhouse has extensive archives of wallpaper prints, and can also reproduce from fragments, as you see here. The aqua floral paper that you can see in the larger bedroom above is “New England Floral”, the same paper we have in our dining room (below) and library.
I like to recognize the anniversary of the Great Salem Fire (June 25, 1914) every year, or most years, as it was such a momentous event in so many ways, starting, of course, with sheer destruction and dislocation: 1376 buildings burned to the ground (out of around 5000 structures in Salem proper), 18,000 people lost their homes and 10,000 people lost their jobs. Only three people died, which seems incredible given the magnitude of this conflagration, but 60 people were injured. Like every disaster of this scale, there are so many topics to address about its aftermath: the immense shelter and aid effort, the rapid rebuilding program, the plans for a “new” Salem. New might not be the correct word, as the architects and planners and owners who sought to rebuild on the broad swath of fire-ravaged land along Lafayette streets and the harbor were very interested in fire-resistant building materials but their aesthetic preferences were more traditional. This is a moment when Colonial Revival Salem comes into full flower, after germinating for several decades. You could label the traditional brick, stucco, and wooden buildings which line lower Lafayette and its side streets “conservative” but I prefer the terms referential or contextual: I’m always impressed with the deep appreciation displayed by early twentieth-century architects for Salem’s colonial and federal architecture and their desire to study and emulate heritage buildings. Perhaps post-fire architects, builders and planners were a bit too deferential to the past (architectual author and photographer Frank Cousins seems to view the opportunity before Salem as one of colonial compensation after all those sub-par Greek Revivals and Victorians were swept away) but I’m alway happy to see the past privileged over the present. I thought I’d illustrate this Colonial Revival moment with just one “new” house: a saltbox built on Cedar Street for Mr. and Mrs. George A. Morrill as designed by architect A.G. Richardson.
Two Cedar Street, built 1815: today, in the 1980s, and as newly-built.
A.G. Richardson was a Boston architect who lived in Salem, and thus the recipient of quite a few post-fire commissions. His pre-fire work does not seem to be overwhelmingly reflective of colonial inspiration, but more like a mix of old and new. He did design a “new Colonial house” for a harborview lot on Lafayette which was featured in House and Garden magazine in June of 1907. But the Morrill house at 2 Cedar Street looks much more traditional, and Frank Cousins and his co-author Phil Riley even praised it as “practical” in their Colonial Architecture of Salem (1919): “the resulting house as it stands to-day represents virtually and exact copy of the Maria Goodhue house in Danvers, erected in 1690 and destroyed by fire in 1899. Its long roof-line, formed by the lean-to continuation of the same pitch, contributes a uniquely appropriate character to the modern architecture to the modern architecture of Salem and was found to provide a very practical way of bringing a piazza in the rear and all service appurtenances under one roof, thereby saving expense and avoiding all leadage complications common to roors considerably broken by gables or dormers.” Riley had praised the Morrill house earlier as “in the spirit of old Salem” in his 1916 article in The House Beautiful, but I think I should note that there were not many surviving saltboxes in early twentieth-century urban Salem, so Richardson had to look to nearby Danvers for inspiration! Fortunately Cousins had photographed the Maria Goodhue house (see below, from the Cousins Collection at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth) before it was destroyed by fire. The new door of Two Cedar Street was definitely old Salem, however: Richardson copied the entrance of the Captain John Hodges House on Essex Street.
There was something about the Fire that fueled preservation in Salem and elsewhere, as story after story in national newspapers and periodicals emphasized the fact that the older sections of Salem escaped its path: an early report indicated that the House of the Seven Gables had been swept away, and it seems like there was a collective sigh of relief when it was revealed to be false. Wallace Nutting, that exemplar of the Colonial Revival, featured ethereal ladies draped in timeless white dresses on the steps of Chestnut Street houses spared from the fire in his 1915 “expansable” catalog, and the equally timeless saltbox merged colonial charm, clean lines, and (space for) modern conveniences.
I like to craft my own walking tours for every major holiday just for myself, so that I can get in the proper celebratory or thoughtful frame of mind. This weekend, I put together my first Juneteenth tour and it really took some time: I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to focus strictly on Salem sites related to abolition or spaces which are connected to more general African-American history. But it was time well spent as I reconsidered some special people from the past who have always inspired me, and also learned some new stories. There might be two tours leading off into different directions (literally), but I managed to do both pretty easily in an afternoon. As always, I started at Hamilton Hall, the home of the justly-celebrated Remond family of Salem because 1) it is right next to my house; 2) they have served as my “guides” to the nineteenth-century struggles, opportunities, and achievements of free blacks in New England; and 3) As an institution, I think the Hall has made the most serious commitment to African-American History in Salem and there is lots to learn there. This is a subjective tour but objectively I think that Hamilton Hall is the logical starting place for any African-American history walking tour of Salem. The Remonds of Hamilton Hall are being honored this coming week with a marker from the Pomeroy Foundation and the Womens Suffrage Celebration Coalition of Massachusetts for their commitment to the Suffrage movement: more information is here. While I think the overwhelming focus of their advocacy efforts was on abolition rather than suffrage the entire family was focused on improving human rights above all, and the youngest Remond, Caroline R. Putnam, was a dedicated suffragist.
Stop #1: Hamilton Hall, 9 Chestnut Street & the “northern” branch of my tour.
From the Hall I walked down Cambridge Street to the Ropes Mansion on Essex, because I really think it might be a good idea to consider that before this lovely Georgian mansion was known as the “haunted” home of Alison from Hocus Pocus there were enslaved persons held here by Samuel Barnard during his occupancy. If we are going to appreciate and understand Juneteenth, we must consider what came before. Then I walked over to another house which belongs to the Peabody Essex Museum, the Peirce-Nichols House on Federal Street, to consider the setting of the wonderful 1907 portrait of the Remonds’ successor at Hamilton Hall. Edward Cassell. It’s one of my very favorite photographs of anyone: such dignity of place and person! Cassell is connected to the Remonds through their eldest daughter, Nancy Remond Shearman, so there was really a catering dynasty at the Hall. From the Peirce-Nichols House, I walked all the way down Federal Street to Flint, and then towards North Salem and Oak Street, where Caroline Remond Putnam lived with her husband James and his family, who were also active and prominent abolitionists from Boston. Charlotte Forten, the first African-American graduate of theSalem Normal School and Salem’s first African-American teacher, lived with the Putnams for a while. It’s a short walk from Oak Street along Mason to Harmony Grove Cemetery, where most members of the Remond Family are buried, and according to her diary, a place where Charlotte walked often.
Stop #2: the Ropes Mansion, Essex Street; Stop #3: the Peirce-Nichols House, Federal Street (photograph of Mr. Cassell courtesy of Historic New England); Stop #4: Oak Street (the Putnams’ house at # 9 no longer exists, this woodworking business occupies its site); Stop #5 Harmony Grove Cemetery.
So back at my house on lower Chestnut, I ventured south into a neighborhood associated with Salem African-Americans in the early nineteenth century around High Street, which descended almost down to the water at that time. That’s the thing: the landscape of Salem is so different now that we can’t really envision neighborhoods from this time. There was the large Mill Pond right in the center of Salem, with several African-American families on either side: around High Street on the western shore and on Pond, Ropes, Porter, and Cedar Streets on the easten side. These streets off Lafayette all got wiped out by the 1914 Salem Fire so it’s impossible to see the structures in which they inhabited, but the Salem Directories from the mid-nineteenth century document their residency. The Remonds had a house on Pond Street; Edward Cassell lived on Cedar Street and I came across the most amazing story of another Cedar Street resident in the 1850s: BaconTait, a notorious Richmond slave trader who moved north with his common-law, African-American wife, Courtney Fountain and their four children in 1851! What is going on here? I found Courtney Fountain (Tait’s) brother living on Cedar so I suppose that was the draw, but how did Mr. Tait escape the watchful eyes of Salem’s prominent abolitionists? I need to know more! Then it was on to the Derby House,, Derby (and Higginson) Square, the site of much commercial and community activity in the past and the present, and home via Norman and Crombie Streets. This was by no means an exhaustive tour of African-American heritage sites in Salem, but it was a meaningful one for me.
Mill Pond on Henry McIntire’s beautiful 1851 map of Salem; Stop #6: High Street, where ClarissaLawrence, schoolteacher and aboliltionist, lived in the 4th house down the street; #7 Cedar Street, rebuilt after the Fire but home to several African-American families before, including Edward Cassell, and the family of the notorious Bacon Tait. #8 is the Richard Derby House of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site: constructed by Derby for his son Elias Hasket Derby while he lived just up Derby Street in what is commonly called the Miles Ward House–another example of slavery’s co-existence with Georgian elegance. The Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum has recently digitized a collection of broadsides, and one sheds a bright light on Derby’s slaveowning. Stop #9: Higginson and Derby Squares were very much the center of the Remond Family’s culinary enterprises outside of Hamilton Hall—and 5 Higginson Square was the residence for many Remonds at different stages of their lives. My last (#10) stop on the way back to Chestnut was at Crombie Street, where John Remond’s friend, fellow abolitionist, and culinary competitor Prince Farmer lived: such warriors were they!
I’ve been obsessed with the work “landmark” ever since the Samantha statue incident of last week: a succession of news stories in the days following reported the vandalism inflicted on this famous Salem “landmark” and each time I heard or read that term applied to this horror installation I screamed “she is not a landmark!” in my head. Isn’t a landmark something notable, of value, an attribute of place or a place itself, but nevertheless something we admire and want to preserve? Several people pointed out that the word doesn’t have to connote subjective judgements: it is merely something recognizable. I’ve just written a book which has chapters on both surveying and navigation, so you’d think I’d be a bit more confident in my understanding of this term. Its original use in navigation refers to a physical feature of the land with which you can find, or mark, your way, but I thought its meaning evolved in the past centuries with respect to architecture, historic preservation, and the recognition and designation of built landmarks. My understanding of the term is coming more from those fields, so using the same term to apply to Samantha and say, the Ropes Mansion just seems wrong! Clearly it is time to look this word up, so I went straight to the OxfordEnglish Dictionary (I am fortunate to have an institutional subscription but I go there only when I really need to, as it is a rabbit hole for me. But needs must.)
LANDMARK: object marking a boundary line; district;
2. An object in the landscape, which, by its conspicuousness, serves as a guide in the direction of one’s course (originally and esp. as a guide to sailors in navigation); hence, any conspicuous object which characterizes a neighbourhood or district.
3. (In modern use.) An object which marks or is associated with some event or stage in a process; esp. a characteristic, a modification, etc., or an event, which marks a period or turning-point in the history of a thing.
Ok, I’m going with the second part of #2 “any conspicuous object which characterizes a neighborhood or a district.” The key word for me here is characterizes. I’m just not comfortable with Samantha characterizing Salem: I want Samuel McIntire to characterize Salem. But obviously there has to be some sort of standard for designating a landmark, or is it all subjective? To try to answer this last questions, I decided to do a search for “Salem Landmark” in all of my newspaper databases. This query produced hundreds of hits, but I quickly determined that many of these references were to the Salem Landmark newspaper of 1835-36 which first published the wildly popular “Enquire at Amos Giles’ Distillery” temperance parable, which was reprinted all over the country. So I eliminated those entries, and came up with a clear succession of Salem landmarks.
For the most part, the word landmark was used in referenced to historic buildings in Salem, but there were some exceptions. Beginning in the 1870s, there seems to be an emerging concern that Salem is losing its historic structures because there is a succession of titles to the tune of “another Salem landmark gone.” Clearly the word could be used to ascertain an increasing interest in historic preservation, but it’s not just about loss: landmark appears when particularly old or otherwise notable buildings are sold or “substantially altered,” when there’s a fire, or some event happens in a well-know location. Here’s a few examples, starting with the “old Putnam Estate on Essex Street,” a house with which I’m not immediately familiar—I’m not quite sure about this Bridge/Osgood Street house either, but it has an interesting story! Sounds like part of it might still be around?
It’s easy to get caught up in the stories attached to these old buildings: I did so several times and forgot all about Samantha (which is good)! The two above are a bit more obscure landmarks, but anything to do with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel McIntire, the Witch Trials, the Revolutionary War, and political leaders or wealthy Salem merchants were designated as such. Sometimes I think the word was used a little loosely: a sailcloth factory? Well, it was a sailcloth factory that belonged to the legendary Billy Gray and was the studio of Ross Turner: I hope he didn’t lose any paintings! I had heard about the threat to the Pickering House before, which is why I am not expressing shock and awe now. Everything else below is pretty self-explanatory, but I should report the the Silsbee/Knights of Columbus mansion has just been completely restored and expanded and it looks great.
Besides Derby Wharf (above), the only designated landmarks I could find which were not buildings were a landmark storewhich closed after 114 years in business, and the famed “Brown’s Flying Horses” of Salem Willows. This carousel had been a major attraction of Salem Willows since the 1870s, and its sale to Macy’s Department Store in 1945 was big news and a big loss. By all accounts, it was a beautiful example of craftsmanship by a Bavarian woodworker, so comparing it to Samantha is a stretch, but both were/are popular “attractions,” so I guess that’s the landmark connection. I think I’ve worked myself out of my landmark labyrinth, but I’m still troubled by placement: certainly nothing could be more evocative and appropriate in a seaside amusement park than a carousel, but I still don’t think Samantha belongs in Town House Square.
Apparently this business had started in 1794 by the Driver Family and was run by relatives or in-laws until 1908, Boston Sunday Globe, September 20, 1908. Brown’s Flying Horses at Salem Willows, photographs from the “Essex Institute”/Phillips Library via Painted Ponies: American Carousel Art by William Manns et. al.
This is going to be an odd post which will start out sweet and end up a bit sour, but I can promise you that it will be colorful throughout. There’s one aspect of Salem’s history that I never seem to be able to cover completely, despite the longevity of this blog: its horticultural history. Salem was really famous for its horticulture a century or so ago: you can’t browse through a stack (or a database) of house and garden magazines from the first half of the twentieth century without encountering articles on the “old–fashioned” gardens of Old Salem. Several really notable cultivators and landscapers lived here, and one still does! There is continuity: the city still has some wonderful private and public gardens: among the latter are the Ropes Mansion and Derby House gardens, which are open to the public. There are so many flowering trees and to see in Salem just while walking down the street, especially at this time of year or a bit earlier. So I’ve got some nice photos from the past two weeks or so, and that was going to be the exclusive focus of this post: a parade of colors in Salem for Pride month! But, stuff happens, and in the middle of this very a trouble man painted the Bewitched statue in Town House Square red, setting off a wave of national headlines and local commentary. So I think I’ll add Samantha to this colorful mix. But first: Ropes and Derby:
Salem in June: the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ropes Mansion garden is really more of a high/late summer garden, but the Derby House garden at the Salem Maritime National Historic site is perfect in June.
My garden can’t really compete but I do want to show you my lady’s slippers and I really like the meadow rue that blooms at this time of year. I’ve thinned out my rose bushes, because they just don’t earn their keep in my small garden, so I only have the best bloomers and they are putting on a show right now. This the lady’s mantle time too: I’ve been training my younger cat Tuck on a leash, and the minute he gets it on he goes right for it, so you can see pre-bloom last week and bloom this week. Then there is the vertical garden at the new downtown condo building named Brix (not a fan of this building but I do like its exterior embellishments), peonies from around town, an impressive plant for which I need an identification outside the Peirce-Nichols house (baptisia?) and more roses, on Cambridge Street.
So that brings us to more unnatural color: blue trees and a red Samantha. In the side yard adjacent to the Peabody Essex Museum, the trees have been painted bright blue, a very bright royal blue. This is the 27th international installation of the artist Konstantin Dimopoulos’s The Blue Trees, an “environmental call to action” with watercolor which will fade with time. Very striking, especially at this time of year. With no manifesto and paint that was certainly not biologically-safe, a homeless man spray-painted the upper part of the Bewitched statue a few blocks away in downtown Salem in the middle of this past week. Red Samantha didn’t last long; indeed I’ve seldom seen a quicker response by the City. By the end of the day she was cleansed and a gofundme account set up to restore her to her former “glory”. For those of us in the never-Samantha camp, it was hard to bear the comments on social media protesting this act of vandalism as “disgusting” and “disrespectful” because that’s just how we view the statue: as disgusting and disrespectful to the victims of the 1692. Or maybe I should just speak for myself. As the story created regional and national headlines that night and the next day, I just couldn’t bear the use of the word “landmark” applied to this horror: a landmark should be something that one points to with pride, not embarrassment, which is generally how I feel every time I pass by Samantha. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll praised the quick cleanup by her public services team and opined that “Samantha brings a degree of joy and whimsy to our downtown and has become a landmark location for thousands of visitors to Salem each year” but such craven capitalization on suffering remains incomprehensible to me. To return to my color theme (and lighten up things a bit), there was also a difficult juggling act for those who did not want to praise vandalism by any means, but at the same time thought that Samantha looked better draped in red. Anything could improve that eyesore, and I always see red when I gaze in her direction.
The Blue Trees of Konstantin Dimopoulus; and a fleeting Red Samantha.
It’s beautiful here in Salem and I had a very colorful post all lined up for you: gardens, the arts festival, blue trees, doors of many colors, cats, my lady’s slippers, simple pleasures. But no, I had to read a letter from a son in a distant port to his mother back in Salem informing her of his father’s and her husband’s death during a slave revolt. I’ve even read this letter before, I’ve seen it quoted in undergraduate papers, I’ve been aware of its existence for years: but for some reason when I read it last night I knew I had to write about it, to exorcise it. I have been thinking about Jeremiah Lee of Marblehead and his wealth for several days, ever since I visited his beautiful house last week. I was curious about whether or not his wealth had been expanded through enslavement, and so I consulted the Massachusetts Slave Census of 1754, which has been digitized and made searchable by a very useful website entitled PrimaryResearch: unfortunately, there was no return for Marblehead, but there was for Salem (83 enslaved persons) and since I was there I looked for some other Salem sources and then I found the letter. I thought, “I should read this again” and so I did and since then I’ve been unable to think of much else. It’s a terrible letter, but a very, very important one.
Transcript of the Fairfield/Felicity letter from Primary Research: it is also available in several collections and studies, and was first printed in the Essex Institute Historical Collections in 1888 (Volume XXV) where it is called a “strange epistle”. The original is in the Phillips Library. Crop of John Cary’s New Map of Africa, from the Latest Authorities (1805); A very complete description of Cape Mount several decades later is in ThéodoreCanot’s Captain Canot or Twenty Years of an American Slaver (1854): Canot was apprenticed in Salem, which he calls a “seafaring emporium” in the 1820s.
Here we have an early typed transcript of the letter of April 23, 1789 in which William Fairfield Jr. recounts a “very bad accident” which happened aboard the ship captained by his father William Fairfield, Sr., the schooner Felicity of Salem, while engaged in an illegal triangular trade: the legal institution of slavery had been outlawed in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1783 and the slave trade in 1787. Bound for Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana and a major slave market, with a cargo of 35 enslaved persons on board, the “slaves rised above us” on March 26, killed Captain Fairfield and held the ship for a while, before young William and his confederates regained control. It sounds like William was incapacitated for a while as a result of being “scalt with hot chocolate” so I suppose it was the Felicity‘s crew who repossessed the ship without his help. After recounting the death and burial of his father, William adds that “we have sold part of the slaves [in Cayenne] and I hope to be home soon.” He’s so callous, so matter-of-fact, talk about the banalityofevil: I scalded myself with hot chocolate but am otherwise in good health and we sold part of the slaves—I hope to see you soon! He is writing to his mother, of course, but this is a man who sounds as if he fears no consequences, and I couldn’t find any consequences for him or the crew of the Felicity. Young William continued his maritime career, often sailing on ships belonging to one of the Felicity’s owner Joseph White, who would be murdered in his bed in one of Salem’s most scandalous crimes in 1830. There is no mention of how he died in Captain Fairfield’s brief death notice in the Salem Mercury.
The only person who seems to cast judgement on the Fairfields, or Mr. White, is (of course) the Reverend William Bentley, our constant commentator, who criticized all the vague trips to an unspecified “Africa” during the 1780s and 1790s in general and Captain Fairfield’s voyage in particular. In the Fall of 1788, he wrote: Captain William Fairfield, Felicity, Sch. sailed, according to clearance for Cape Verde Islands. It is supposed from the cargo, this latter carried and the character of the owner, that the vessel is intended for the slave trade. The owner confesses that he has no reluctance in selling any part of the human race. The even in its probably consequences gives great pain to thinking men, and in consideration of the owner’s easy circumstances, is supposed to betray signs of the greatest moral depravity. It is a daring presumption to dictate to divine wisdom, but when God’s judgements are abroad in the earth, sinners will tremble. The positive law of this Commonwealth is against the Slave Trade which it is to be hoped will be seriously noticed [Diary, Volume I, 104]. Well obviously Bentley spared no words regarding Mr. White, but does not opine on the death of Captain Fairfield, noting only that he was “killed by negroes” in the following June. And I don’t seem to be able to find any “serious notice” taken of this particular voyage or the sixteen other slave voyages from Salem before 1860 listed in the TransatlanticSlaveTradeDatabase [another extremely valuable source]. Perhaps that’s why there was a slave ship sitting in Salem Harbor on the eve of the Civil War.
There are two structures which made an impression on me early in my childhood and sort of set the standard for historic grandeur in my mind: Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth College, where my father began his career, and The Lady Pepperrell House in Kittery, Maine, close to my hometown of York where we moved when he moved on to the University of New Hampshire. Of course, Dartmouth Hall is a Colonial Revival reproduction of an earlier building, though apparently a very faithful one. I didn’t know that when I stared up at it when I was five or so, and a decade later when I first became concious of the Lady Pepperrell House it evoked that memory. To me, both were New England Georgian exemplars. And yesterday I visited another Georgian exemplar, the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in nearby Marblehead. It was the opening day of its season, and I knew that the charming Rick, one of the most knowledgeable people around about all aspects of local architectural history (just follow his instagram account and you will learn something every day, sometimes every hour) was on docent duty, so I made my reservation and ran over there. It was a cold and gloomy June 1 (especially after a warm Memorial Day weekend), but the house seemed warm and cheerful to me despite its size: this is a grand mansion in every sense of both words.
The Mansion is made entirely of wood, but designed to give the appearance of an ashlar stone facade.
A bit of history and then I’ll show you some of my interior shots—the gloom outside really highlighted the color inside and I got some great views, if I do say so myself! The mansion was built by 1768 by Colonel Jeremiah Lee (1721-1775), a wealthy “merchant prince” of Marblehead, who was just as engaged in the civic and political life of this bustling maritime community as he was in his brilliant shipping career. Lee was the wealthiest merchant in Massachusetts acccording to tax records from 1771, and he might have been America’s largest pre-revolutionary shipowner with full shares in over twenty vessels. For someone who clearly had so much at stake within the commercial context of the Atlantic world and the British Empire, it’s quite remarkable to see how Lee risked all by becoming a committed Patriot, and even though he did not die in battle, he contracted pneumonia by sleeping in a chilly and wet cornfield on the outskirts of Lexington and Concord on the eve of those battles in April of 1775, certainly a martyr to the cause. So Lee only lived in his trophy house for seven years, and his widow Martha Swett Lee for another decade. We have to dwell in the past a bit longer to understand the sheer scale of this mansion: it seems almost oversized for Old Town Marblehead now, but Marblehead in 1770 was the second largest settlement in Massachusetts, while Salem was the fourth! After the Revolution, Salem commenced its economic and demographic boom, but while the first US census of 1790 reported Salem as the 7th largest city in the new nation (with a population of nearly 8000), Marblehead was still in the pack in 10th place (with a population of 5661). So this mansion represents not only the wealth and cosmopolitan taste of Jeremiah Lee, but also of pre-revolutionary Marblehead. That said, this structure is so very conspicuous and grand, that I understand the words of Miss Hannah Tutt, historian of the Marblead Historical Society, which acquired and restored it after 1909: Fashioned as it was, after the homes of his ancestors, it needed but the hawthorne and the hedgerows to transport one to old England, and indeed the very timbers, of which it was framed, were grown in the mother country. Built at a cost of over ten thousand pounds, it could hardly be rivaled throughout the whole province of Massachusetts Bay—and overshadowing, with its grandeur, the humble home of the fisher folk, no wonder it became to them the “Mansion,” and the “Lee Mansion” it has always been, the pride of the whole town (TheLeeMansion. WhatitWasandWhatitis, 1911). Ok, context completed, let’s go inside: first floor first.
Through the front door, you step into this amazing 16-foot-wide entrance hall which extends to the back of house, and it’s all about the central staircase and the handpainted English wallpaper panels, which extend up to the second floor. The house served as the Marblehead Bank for about a century after it left the possession of the Lee family and before it came under the stewardship of the Marblehead Historical Society, so the back and upper stories were closed off. According to Rick, visitors could strip of pieces of this wallpaper as souvenirs in the front part of the first-floor hall, so reproduction paper replaced those parts, but the most of the wallpaper is original and glorious. There is a grain-painted “banquet hall” to the left, and a parlor/drawing room to the right.
There are actually very few items related to Jeremiah Lee in the house; most of the decorative accessories derive from the period but not the family. One feels the presence of Jeremiah and Martha (especially as you pass the copies of their full-length portraits painted by John Singleton Copley on the way to the second floor; the originals are in the WadsworthAthenaeum), but you feel like you are visiting an eighteenth-century house rather than their house. A very grand eighteenth-century American house. I really appreciated the curation: the Marblehead Historical Society/Museum has been the recipient of a steady succession of decorative donations over the century since it has acquired the Lee Mansion, but the decorative accessories on display were chosen clearly to highlight and complement rather than overwhelm. Nothing competes with the architecture (well, I don’t think anything really could.) On to the second floor.
Second-floor Chambers: the two front rooms are still of considerable size, but things get a bit cozier in the back. The blue-trimmed chamber is a suite of connected small rooms including one with odd proportions and amazing wallpaper! The room with all the yellow damask—a guest room according to Rick—is simply stunning. And you can see that the furniture is top-notch and very complementary.
Beautiful rooms on the second floor, as you can see, but what I am not really showing you is the view. Remember, Marblehead was a busy seaport when this mansion was built: it was not, and is not, a rural estate. Now its grounds are a bit deceptive: there’s a nice side garden but the original lot was quite shallow and a large parcel of land in the back was a later acquisition by the Museum (there is a very interesting article by Narcissa Chamberlain, the wife of photographer Samuel Chamberlain who lived just one street over, about its original boundaries in the April 1969 issue of the Essex Institute Historical Collections). The large windows of the mansion frame the street views out front and the very green views out back, but all I could see was yellow inside, because there is a lot of yellow, but also because I’m working on my new book, a study of saffron, and so I see it everywhere. On to the third floor.
More saffron and more chambers on the third floor: I need these “bed chairs” or whatever you call them! Writing in bed is one of my favorite activities but it takes a toll on one’s back. These third-floor bedchambers were precious. I love this portrait of Miss Selman, the hatboxes, these curvy fancy chairs and settee. Two other rooms on the third floor were a catch-all room with a random collection of museum items (including sea chests with their charts still inside!) and a parlor/playroom/servant’s room in the rear, also filled with wonderful items. I’m not really focusing on the portraits in this post, but there are many interesting ones to see.
And down another side staircase (I seem to remember that there are four staircases in the house) to the first-floor kitchen and a small dining/breakfast room where one of Colonel Lee’s logbooks rests on a table and his contemporary Elbridge Gerry looks on. I starting writing as soon as I got home so I wouldn’t forget all the detailed information which Rick imparted to me, but of course everything was just too much to take in so I’m going to have to go back again. I can think of so many sub-stories: the people in the portraits, a Dartmoor Massacre drawing, the wallpapers and printed tiles, those bedchairs, the contributions of my favorite preservationist, Louise du Pont Crowninshield, a summer Marblehead resident. The Marblehead Museum purchased the adjacent property, the site of the Mansion’s brick kitchen and slave quarters, just last year and archeological investigations into the histories of slavery and service in this corner of Marblehead are commencing this very summer. So while there is a lot to see in this majestic mansion, it is not a static site but rather a dynamic one, engaged in an evolving process of discovery and reinterpretation.
The Jeremiah Lee Mansion & Garden: more information and reservations here.