I’ve got castles on my mind: all my courses this semester have an architectural theme and I’m in the midst of long survey of encastellation in my medieval course, using castle-building to explain virtually everything and anything. I often strive to connect teaching and living, to look around my own environment for connections to the past. For my Americanist colleagues, Salem and its region can serve as a classroom, but I’ve got to be a bit more creative. Sometimes it is easy: just last week we were discussing the Roman Republic in my world history class and we arrived at the Cleopatra representation issue, and there was Salem sculptor William Wetmore Story’s very influential statue/case in point. When I’m teaching the Reformation and the early modern era, it’s easy to bring in Salem from time to time, but this semester I have only world and medieval/Renaissance courses so there are not many opportunities for place-based history. But castles can be American in their decorative reincarnations, and we have several examples in our own region: Hammond Castle in Gloucester, Herreshoff Castle in Marblehead, and Winnekenni Castle up in Haverhill. The busy city of Salem was never a summer residential destination for Gilded Age millionaires, so no large castle-esque “cottages” were ever built along its shores, but there was a strong Gothic Revival influence at work in the mid-nineteenth century, very evident primarily in civic and ecclesiastical architecture from that era. These buildings are as close as Salem gets to castles and while some survive, most do not. My list starts with the most castle-like structures, long gone, proceeds through the nearly Norman, and ends with the “castle” with the most potential.
The Salem Armory and the Eastern Railroad Depot WERE castles right in the midst of downtown Salem, and their loss is still being felt, I think: you can see how integral they were to Salem’s evolving streetscape in every photograph. The Armory was nearly restored by fire in 1982, its surviving drill shed was converted into the Salem Armory Visitor Center in1994, and its Head House facade demolished by the Peabody Essex Museum in 2000. The Depot was built in 1847 and demolished in 1954. Certain views of the pre-fire Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company mills, otherwise known as Pequot Mills, make the buildings look castle-eque, especially the view from Derby Wharf below, which shows the facility’s crenellated towers. No castle features were incorporated in the post-fire buildings.
Kernwood, the North Salem estate of Francis Peabody, was Salem’s only palatial summer residence and so I am including it here: it is less fortified Normanesque and more Gothic Revival confection, though it does have a stone “rustic arch” surviving as the entrance to Kernwood Country Club. Kernwood was built in 1840, after Peabody had advocated for a number of Gothic constructions throughout Salem, including the First Church on Essex Street and Harmony Grove Cemetery. The photos below are from a series of Essex County views published in 1884 and Frank Cousins in the 1890s: I’m not sure exactly when the mansion came down, but the Country Club was established in 1914 and Walker Evans captured the converted clubhouse still looking very Gothic in the early 1930s.
The other castle-esque constructions in Salem were churches, all of which survive: St. Peter’s Episcopal, the First Church on Essex, and the East Church on the Common. St. Peter’s was designed by Boston architect Isaiah Rogers and constructed in 1833; the First Church was built three years later with Francis Peabody overseeing the construction. I’m curious if Salem residents in that decade noted the similarity and wondered: wow, is our city going to be taken over with these medieval structures the same way we wonder about the plastic boxes which define our era? I want to believe that the integrity of craftsmanship and materials would have reassured them, but who knows? In the next decade, the most castle-like church was constructed: the East Church on Salem Common. Designed by New York City architect Minard Lefever, the East Church had soaring towers that were truncated later, just as its function was reduced to the present-day Witch “Museum”.
The First Church, St. Peter’s (2) and the First Church today; Frank Cousins photograph of the East Church, Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth.
Last, but certainly not least, the “castle” with potential: the old superior court building on Federal Street. Behind it (to the north) will rise a dreadful new building shoe-horned into a sliver-shaped lot, but that will be the price we pay for restoration of this amazing courthouse. Its turret and tower (best viewed from the rear) are so soaring and its interiors so baronial: I’m really glad that this building (which has been empty for decades now) is going to be preserved with a new purpose. I have no idea what that purpose will be, but I vote for a new Salem museum/visitor center with authentic exhibits and professional interpretation of all of Salem’s history: an installation which will defend our city from encroaching tourist trapdom.
Front of the former Superior Court at Salem, 1954, Brearley Collection, Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth; back–a bit foggy view taken yesterday at twilight: it’s difficult to capture the entirety of this building!
Something light and bright, fluffy and joyful and merely decorative for Valentine’s Day: I wanted to use the occasion to reaquaint myself with some decorative arts databases. Between my last book project and the two that I’m working on now, and teaching, and being frequently frustrated with Salem heritage and preservation issues (as you know all too well here) I don’t have much time for wandering about in digital image archives. But I gave myself permission to do so this weekend, and here are the results! If you have a universal symbol like ♥♥♥ as your keyword, you’re going to get thousands of results: I limited mine to textiles, and then just chose my favorites by purely aesthetic standards. Whether these fabrics were created for the table, or the wall, or a person, they are more about adornement than adoration.
Above: Furnishing Fabrics from Alsace, c. 1840, Metropolitan Museum of Art, A.C. Pugin, 1851, Victoria & Albert Museum, France, later 19th century, The Design Library, C.F.A. Voysey (who clearly loved hearts!), 1900-1929, Victoria & Albert Museum, and a heart handkerchief by Sylvia Chambers, 1940s, Glasgow School of Art Archives. Below: “Hearts & Flowers” from Folly Cove designer Peggy Hamilton, 1955, Cape Ann Museum.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Great sites for exploring decorative motifs (not just HEARTS) here.
There are more and more and more witch shops in Salem, or perhaps I better loosen up that description to goth shops or macabre markets? In any case, our local chronicler had to reassure his readers that there were, in fact, places downtown where socks could be purchased. But sneakers? I think not. It is concerning as many of these shops are only open “in season,” producing a deadening effect downtown in the “off-season.” [Somewhat off-topic tangent: I often think that Salem’s planners are going for a “15–minutecity” but I don’t understand how that goal is compatible with Witch City—I’ll follow up in a later post] In the downtown, there is oversight for these shops’ signs and exteriors, and Salem is a constantly-evolving city, so I’m not inclined to get too perturbed about this darkening trend, unless said shops alter an historic interior radically, perhaps permanently: and that’s the case with the former Merchants National Bank, a much-heralded 1908 Little & Browne Colonial Revival structure on Essex Street now transformed into a local outlet of Blackcraft Cult, a Goth fast-fashion retailer based in California. The creative vision of this store is simple: paint it black, all black, walls and trim, ceiling and much of the floor. All is black except for a red witch descending from the center dome, replacing the gilded eagle that overlooked everything previously. Witch kitsch displaces classicism: I don’t think you can find a better visual metaphor for what’s happened to Salem over the last decade or so.
Once an Eagle……now the former Merchants National Bank building on Essex Street is home to Salem’s largest witch! In the vicinity are more seasonal shops, closed on this beautiful & sunny February afternoon.
This building was the fourth headquarters of the Merchants National Bank in Salem, founded in 1811. It received quite a bit of attention after it opened for business in 1908: in national architectural publications and local periodicals, as well as the Bank’s own centennial anniversary publication which tied its history and success to Salem’s history and success. There’s so much craftsmanship and detail and sheer abundance in Salem’s traditional architecture that we take it for granted: I wish I had spent more time in this building considering its now-darkened detail, and I wonder if Salem’s preservationist organization, Historic Salem, Inc., is considering a more agressive policy of seeking interior preservation restrictions and covenants. Perhaps it is time, before everything goes black.
Images of the Bank from 1911: in the Brickbuilder, its centennial anniversary booklet “In the Year 1811,” and an unsigned watercolor, Bull Run Auctions.
I’ve learned a lot about Salem’s African-American history while writing this blog; I don’t think I would look at the city the same way otherwise. I associate Chestnut Street, where I live, much more with the Remond family and their myriad activities centered on Hamilton Hall than with any particular Salem merchant or sea captain. When I walk to work down Lafayette Street, I pass a neighborhood of parallel streets on my right, beginning with Pond and ending with Cedar, on which numerous African-American families lived in the mid- and late nineteenth century: John Remond had a house on Pond, and his eldest daughter Nancy Shearman lived in the neighborhood with her family, along with his successor as caterer to Hamilton Hall, Edward Cassell. I don’t have the same place-association as I do with the Hall on Chestnut Street, as all the structures on these streets burned to the ground during the Great Salem Fire of 1914, but I think about the neighborhood that was there before. The city directories make it clear that this wasn’t an African-American neighborhood; it was rather an integrated neighborhood, just like the Salem public schools from 1844. This neighborhood was so diverse that it was even home to a notorious Virginian slave trader, who resided at 29 Cedar Street intermittently for a decade or so, from 1851 to the beginning of the Civil War, along with his common-law African-American wife and their four children. As they say, you can’t make it up.
Part of Salem’s Ward Five: Henry McIntyre / H. E. B. Taylor / Friend & Aub’s Lith., MAP OF THE CITY OF SALEM MASS. From an actual Survey By H. McINTYRE. Cl. Engr. H. E. B. TAYLOR, ASSISTANT. Philadelphia: Henry McIntyre, 1851.
The slave trader in question was named Bacon Tait and his common-law wife was named Courtney Fountain. Both came from interesting Virginia families. I certainly did not discover their stories: as much as the limited sources allow, Hank Trent pieced together what can be known about their lives in a slim well-sourced volume entitled The Secret Life of Bacon Tait. A White Slave Trader Married to a Free Woman of Color (LSU Press, 2017) and you can also read an excellent summary at the Encyclopedia Virginia. But I think we need more Salem context, and I have questions; actually, just one: how did a notorious domestic slave trader maintain a residence in which was supposedly such an abolitionist stronghold as Salem? Obviously there are two assumptions in that particular question: that Tait was notorious (or at the very least conspicuous) and that Salem was abolitionist. To support the first assumption, we’ve got to start in Richmond, the second-largest slave-trading market of the antebellum domestic slave trade (after New Orleans). When he traveled to the United States as secretary to the popular novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in 1852-1853, the artist Eyre Crowe took advantage of downtime in Richmond to walk several blocks from his fashionable hotel to the slave market to sketch the scenes he saw there (before he was asked to leave), publishing them in the Illustrated London News upon his return to Britain. These sketches were studies for two paintings which illustrated and publicized the process of slave-trading on both sides of the Atlantic: Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia and After the Sale: Slaves Going South from Richmond.
Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Salem, Richmond, Virginia (1861), Heinz Collection, Washington D.C.; After the Sale: Slaves Going South from RIchmond (1853), Chicago History Museum.
Bacon Tait was a major player in this Richmond trade and in Richmond itself: the pages of the Richmond Enquirer, the Richmond Dispatch, the Richmond Daily Times and the Richmond Whig record his real estate transactions, his political successes, and his slave-trading activities from the 1820s to the Civil War, even after he had moved to Salem in 1851: he traveled back to conduct business and also employed surrogates. His trade is also documented in the Slave Ship Manifests at the National Archives (a chilling source that I had never consulted before: not my period, thank goodness!) Notices of his “holding” facilities are particularly lengthy, and the Visitor’s Guide to Richmond (1871) records that Tait was the original builder of the infamous “Lumpkin’s Jail” (otherwise known as the “Devil’s half-acre”) in 1825. An “under new management’ advertisement from several years later reveals the inhuman dimensions of this particular side of the business.
In Massachusetts, William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, printed excerpts from the Richmond papers frequently, with lengthy commentary and annotations. When Tait announced the opening of his new “private jail” in 1834, The Liberator reprinted the copy and commented upon it, and a certain “P.H.” took the liberty of rewriting it for its readers: the entire piece was featured prominently on the front page of the December 27, 1834 edition of the paper. Charles Lenox Remond was the agent of The Liberator in Salem at the time: it’s unlikely that this item escaped his notice.
Tait’s relationship with Courtney Fountain began in the early 1840s, while she might have been in his employ as a housekeeper. She was originally from Winchester, Virginia and part of a minority (10%) of free blacks in Richmond at the time, but members of her family resided in the North and were active in abolitionist circles in both New York State and Massachusetts. It’s not entirely clear from Trent’s book how they ended up here, but Courtney’s sister Ann and brother John resided in Salem, as well as several cousins. Tait and Courtney had four children in the 1840s: Celine, Constance, Bacon Jr. and Josephine, each two years apart. Salem’s schools were desegregated in 1844 (thanks to the efforts of the Remonds) and Massachusetts abolished its anti-miscegenation law the year before. You can certainly understand the lure of Salem for Courtney, but it’s hard to picture Tait as a doting family man, which seems to be the only incentive for his departure from Richmond in 1852. In any case, he purchased the Leach House at 29 Cedar Street in July of that year: it looks like it was a lovely property, located on a bluff at the end of the street overlooking Mill Pond.
Bacon Tait is listed in the Salem Directories of the 1850s as a “merchant” living at 29 Cedar Street and in the 1855 state and 1860 federal censuses as well: there are no indications that Salem residents were outraged by his residence in their town or even aware of his existence. Charles Lenox Remond was living on Pond Street during the 1850s, just three streets over, and just a few doors down Cedar Street lived Adeline Roberts, a Salem schoolteacher and long-time corresponding secretary of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society. Miss Roberts corresponded regularly with William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and other abolitionist leaders, and in the very year that Tait moved to Salem, she was organizing a series of seven lectures on the abolition movement to be held at the Salem Lyceum in the fall. Tait never appears in her letters, but she must have been aware of his residency. Were there whispers at the Lyceum before every lecture? Was Salem society gossiping behind closed doors? I just don’t know. Tait seems like a ghost in Salem, but he was still conducting his business in Richmond: I suspect a lot of family letter-burning later on. That’s the problem: we can’t see (or hear) whispers from the past or letters that have been destroyed, we can only speculate. I’m assuming that Courtney’s family was protecting her and her children (and by extension, him), and I’m also assuming he kept his head down and conducted his trade via post and travel. All census documents from Salem indicate that Courtney and Tait were married, but there is a difference between state and federal censuses in designation of race: the federal census indicates that the entire family was white while the Massachusetts censuses indicate that Courtney and her children were of mixed race. I’m not sure what this means in terms of their presentation or perception.
What happened when the war broke out? Tait seems to have returned to Richmond permanently, leaving his family in Salem. He instructed one of his daughters to sell the house on Cedar Street in 1864, yet they all appear on the Massachusetts census as living there in 1865. Both Courtney and Tait died in 1871: she in Salem, he in Richmond: their four children remained in Salem, residing at various addresses. Tait left several wills, and the most recent one, leaving his fortune “to his illegitimate children by a mulatto woman, who held to him the relation of housekeeper, he having no lawful wife” was contested by various partners and employees in Richmond. Many transactions dissolving his real estate ensued, but I have no idea where the money went. Courney’s death notice was printed in the SalemRegister (as “Mrs. Courtney Tait, Richmond papers please copy,”) as was Tait’s, with no further identification or detail. She is buried in Harmony Grove Cemetery with a lovely epitaph from her children; he is buried at another Gothic Revival cemetery, Hollywood in Richmond, with no epitaph at all. As for his reception, or lack thereof, in Salem, I haven’t found the answer to my question, but maybe my presumption is wrong. Maybe Salem wasn’t an “abolitionist stronghold;” maybe it was home to only a small minority of very vocal abolitionists in the 1850s who invited William Lloyd Garrison to speak every other month, protested the Dredd Scott decision vehemently, organized August 1st Emancipation Day celebrations, and pushed for Charlotte Forten’s appointment as the first African-American teacher in the Salem public schools. We always want righteous causes to be more popular than they generally were. Or maybe Tait just maintained his privacy: this seems more possible at that time than today. As I think about the past and the present I am struck by how wide the gap was between Bacon Tait and many of his Salem neighbors: we tend to think of our own time as divisive, but our divisions seem relatively insignificant compared to theirs.
No stigma in Salem: Celine Tait Burding, Courtney and Tate’s eldest child, commissioned a Tait family plot in Harmony Grove Cemetery for her mother as well as her own family: she married Willard Burding in 1873, had four children, and died in Salem in 1886. Courtney’s gravestone in the center reads simply “Our Mother” and bears an inscription derived from Shall we Gather at the River, published only six years before: “on the March of the Beautiful River that flows by the Throne of God she waits for us.” In Virginia, Tait’s family is described in less reverential terms: Petersburg Progress-Index, June 21, 1871.