Category Archives: Architecture

The Snow Castle

We haven’t had many snowstorms this winter, but two nights ago about a foot of snow dropped onto the streets of Salem. My first thoughts when I woke up were: how much snow did we get (and) should I run down the street and take a picture of the snow house? Classes had been cancelled the night before, so that was no concern of mine. I saw that we had quite a bit of snow, so of course I thought of the Wheatland/Pickering/Phillips house, a Classical Revival confection that I always think of as the “snow house” or the “snow castle” as it looks so beautiful when its exuberant trim is frosted with snow. I adore this house in every season, but especially in the winter. It really is my first thought when I wake up on a snowy morning.

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Snow Castle 2

Snow Castle

It was quite warm yesterday morning, and so the snow had already started to melt by the time I made it down the street (as a snow day meant an extra cup of coffee) so here are some “freshly frosted” views from a few years back, when the blue sky afforded more contrast and shadow.

Snow Castle 2011

WHite Castle 2014

My Snow Castle, which I guess we should call the Wheatland-Phillips House after its original and present owners, was designed by Salem native John Prentiss Benson (1865-1947), a brother of the well-known American Impressionist Frank Benson who became an esteemed artist himself after his retirement from architecture. I don’t possess the architectural vocabulary to describe this house so I’ll use the words of Bryant Tolles from Architecture in Salem: “a spectacular, flamboyant example of the Colonial Revival style……[in which] the architect employed a variety of Colonial Revival idioms, including the ornate cornice (with dentils and pendants in relief), the wide fluted Corinthian pilasters (reminiscent of the work of McIntire, the flat window caps, the second-story Palladian window with miniature pilasters, the broad doorway with semi-elliptical fanlight, and the overly large flat-roofed porch with Corinthian columns” in a “innovative, almost whimsical manner”. Tolles concludes that “the house gives the impression of being an original late 18th century building” even though it is in fact one of the newest houses on Chestnut Street, constructed in 1896 for Ann Maria Wheatland, the widow of Stephen Wheatland, who served as the Mayor of Salem during the Civil War. I’m not sure why Mrs. Wheatland desired such a large house, but she lived in it until her death in 1927. Despite its mass, the house has always seemed whimsical to me, and also timeless, and its allure is no doubt enhanced by its stillness as I don’t think anyone has lived there during the whole time I’ve lived on Chestnut Street. I have to resist trespassing every time I walk by this house, in every season: in summer I see myself having a gin & tonic on its left-side (deck? seems to mundane a word) and I would love to see if there is a veranda out back. I do resist, so I don’t know.

Snow Castle 1940 HABSThe House in 1940; HABS, Library of Congress.

By many accounts, John Prentiss Benson wanted to be an artist from early on, but as that trail was blazed by his brother Frank, he settled for architecture. Nevertheless, he seems to have had a successful career, with a New York City practice and several partnerships. He lived for several years in Plainfield, New Jersey where there are several John P. Benson houses: there was a tour devoted to them in 1997 titled the “Mansions of May”. None of these houses—or that designed for his other brother Henry on Hamilton Street in Salem—seems to bear any resemblance to the Wheatland-Phillips House: it’s as if he just let loose with wild abandon. Perhaps Mrs. Wheatland gave him carte blanche, or very strict instructions. Or maybe he was influenced by memories of the Benson family home on Salem Common: an exuberant Second Empire structure that was situated on what is now the parking lot of the Hawthorne Hotel.

Snow Castle Jersey Houses

Snow Castle Portsmouth Benson Family Home

Snow House WillowbankOther Benson houses, including his own, top right; the Benson family home on Salem Common and Willowbank in Kittery Point, Portsmouth Athenaeum.

After his retirement from architecture in the 1920s, Benson moved to a waterside estate in Kittery Point, Maine named Willowbank and began painting full-time until his death in 1947: he was prolific, and consequently his identity is more that of a maritime artist than an architect at present. The Portsmouth Athenaeum has his papers, and has digitized many photographs of his life and work at Willowbank, which also happens to be the birthplace of the 6th Countess of Carnarvon, Ann Catherine Tredick Wendell, who became mistress of Highclere Castle in 1922. And thus we have a very distant and indirect connection, through John Prentiss Benson, between the Snow Castle and Downton Abbey!

Snow Castle Collage

Benson Galleon Vose Galleries

Galleon, 1923 by John Prentiss Benson @Vose Galleries: I love galleons, and I’m using this one to sign off for a while as I’m off to Portugal on spring break! I’ll be back with many pictures of azulejos, no doubt.


Blank Buildings

Periods and events of the past are generally identified after they are over: history is about remembrance, and imposing order and meaning on what has happened. There’s no better way to convey this essential point than to reference wars: obviously people in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Seven Years’ War had no sense that these were the historic events in which they were participating or enduring! Often historical and cultural eras overlap, and that means that styles are identified well after their expression: medieval, colonial, Victorian. But there are also cultural descriptions detached from precise historical periods: Gothic and Palladian come to mind but I suppose any “revival” style could fall into this category. This long preamble is just my mind wondering how people of the future will categorize Salem’s current architectural style: in a city long identified by its architecture, how will the buildings of the early 21st century be branded? I think we are turning a corner with the latest downtown building slated for construction—a condominium development on the site of the District Courthouse on Washington Street–but I’m not sure where this turn will take us.

Blank Architecture 1 Coming Soon on Washington Street via Building Salem.

The style–or perhaps I should say form–of this rendering is familiar: similar buildings have been built in the last decade on Federal and Lafayette Streets. But what is it? I am architecturally naive, but it looks like a Prairie-esque type design on steroids, shorn of craftsmanship and charm. I’ve often heard Frank Lloyd Wright characterized as the most influential architect of the last century, both for better and for worse. All I see when I look at these buildings are the shallow or flat roofs with their overhanging eaves, sometimes slanted and sometimes straight, and their bulk. They look vaguely Italianate, vaguely “Mediterranean”, vaguely Prairie, and like they could belong anywhere and everywhere, and as more of them are built in Salem, Salem becomes less and less Salem-esque.

Blank Architecture 2

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Blank Architecture 5Ten Federal and 135 Lafayette; I think this “style” started with the Ruane Judicial Center nearly a decade ago, on the far right: it is very bulky with a conspicuous overhang. The panorama of courthouses on Federal Street makes quite a statement!

My title is a double entendre: I really don’t know what this architectural style is called or what architectural era we are in so I am inviting readers to fill in the blank______, but I also think that this architecture is blank: empty, soulless, devoid of any connection to its surroundings. We could do so much better; inspiration is all around us. A building in Lynn caught my eye just as I was driving back from the airport this morning: it features some of the very details that characterize these stark buildings in Salem but is clearly a composition rather than just a composite. It has texture, ornamentation, depth, craftsmanship: its builders were obviously proud to cast their mark on it, and mark its time, as it was built to last.

Blank Architecture 7

Blank Architecture 8The Loraine Apartment Building in Lynn’s Diamond District, designed by architect Samuel Rogers.


Wooden Houses on Beacon Hill

I had two appointments in Boston yesterday, but I parked my car in a spot that was rather inconvenient to both just so I could go over the hill: Beacon Hill, one of the few neighborhoods in which all the variant architectural styles of the nineteenth century coalesce into a completely harmonious quarter. Victorian exuberance was definitely restrained–to rooflines for the most part–for the greater good, and the Federal and Greek Revival aesthetic appears to have lingered and evolved rather seamlessly into the Colonial Revival. Brick is it on Beacon Hill, so it’s the wooden houses that really stand out: I snapped a few on my way over the hill to one appointment and back to another, but I was a bit pressed for time so I certainly didn’t capture them all. I always stop at one of my favorite Beacon Hill houses, which is also the oldest house in the neighborhood: the George Middleton House at 5 Pinckney Street, built in 1786-87. Distinguished by his service in the American Revolution as well as his roles as founder of the African Benevolent Society and Grand Master of the Prince Hall African Lodge of Freemasons, George Middleton is an important figure in Boston’s African-American history, just as Beacon Hill is an important locale: the Black Heritage Trail links his house to other important historical sites such as the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School. The Middleton house and One Pinckney Street, just two doors down, form a perfect little corner of Beacon Hill’s earliest built history on its North Slope.

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beacon hill middleton house hneHistoric New England

Even though wooden houses are few and far in between on Beacon Hill, there are quite a few houses in which one or more part is clapboarded: a front facade or a side wall, or some “dependent” part. My favorite example of this is the amazing John Callender House on the corner of Walnut and Mount Vernon Streets, built in 1802 as a “small house for little money” according to Allen Chamberlain’s Beacon Hill: its Ancient Pastures and Early Mansions (1925—a really great book) and the long-term home of Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick a century later: every source refers to its conspicuous “boarding” along Mount Vernon Street as unusual for Beacon Hill. And then there are those bay windows made of wood, some very conspicuous and not quite so-understated: Beacon Hill was home to a vibrant artistic community in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and some homeowners obviously wanted to bust out a bit.

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beacon hill walnut collage

beacon hill leon abdalian 1920s bpl

beacon hill collage 14 Walnut Street historic photographs from Historic New England, Allen Chamberlain’s Beacon Hill, MACRIS, the City of Boston’s Archives, and the Boston Public Library.


Reaching for McIntire

There might be a bit of fiction, or historical reach, in the narrative part of this post, but really it’s just an opportunity to show you some pictures of a newly-restored McIntire house which is available for RENT. The Butman-Waters House at 14 Cambridge Street, built in 1806-1807 by Samuel McIntire for Salem merchant (tailor, merchant, captain, colonel?) Thomas Butman, has been beautifully restored under the direction of one of Salem’s foremost residential architects, Helen Sides, and is available for rent immediately: it’s refreshed and ready and stunning, as you can see from these photographs. It features the most beautiful serpentine stairway I have ever seen.

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mcintire mantle detail

I told you, but you need to see more. The first, next-to-last, and last photographs are mine; while those in the middle are from the listing: which is here. The photographs speak for themselves but probably don’t convey what I can only call the humanistic proportions of the house: some architectural histories refer to the Butman-Waters house as “simple” and maybe that word is appropriate when comparing it with other McIntire houses, but it is “simply” elegant. The details make it so, but also the scale—and that staircase.

mcintire mantle re

mcintire mantle 2

mcintire detail collage

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mcintire second floor

mcintire third floor collage 1

mcintire 3rd view

mcintire stairThat staircase!

Every house has a story so here comes the semi-creative part, because Thomas Butman is a hard man to pin down. He was born in New Orleans, and he died in New Orleans, in the yellow fever epidemic of 1819-20, only 45 years old, along with the son and daughter from his first marriage. From at least 1803 until his death, he was in Salem. His second marriage, to Nancy Gedney Clarke, who was descended from two old Salem families, had occurred only three years before his death, and she and their infant son survived the yellow fever—actually I can’t determine whether they were even in New Orleans. Nancy and Thomas were married just two years when the beautiful house he had commissioned from Samuel McIntire a decade before had to be sold at public auction: when I patched together the succession of commercial notices Butman placed in the Salem newspapers from 1814-1818 it is clear that he was struggling, changing partners and storefront locations frequently. At first he is a tailor, and then a merchant: it’s hard to see how he could have afforded 14 Cambridge Street in the first place unless his first wife was very rich, and she’s even more mysterious than he is. Occasionally he is referred to as “Captain”, but “Colonel” or “Major” are his designations after 1811, when he and John G. Waters were named majors of the Salem Regiment which was preparing for what would eventually be called the War of 1812. Waters would eventually purchase 14 Cambridge Street: I like to imagine a kind of “band of brothers” bond which inspired to him to rescue Butman from financial distress but in reality the house was sold at public auction in 1818 and had a series of short-term owners before Waters acquired it in 1834. But it appears that while Butman was reaching for the life of a rich Salem merchant, Waters achieved it, primarily through the Zanzibar trade which reinvigorated the Salem economy in the middle of the nineteenth century. When Waters made news, it is about exotic cargos, including the two Arabian horses he brought to Salem, along with their “Arab handler”. The Waters family retained possession of 14 Cambridge Street all the way until 1962, when it was purchased by the Salem architect James Ballou and his wife Phyllis, and it remained in the Ballou family until just last year.

butman collage

14 cambridge collage1818 & 1912

And a few more views of the staircase, about which I learned an interesting fact from my friend Michael Selbst, the realtor: apparently it was reinforced by Mr. Ballou with the addition of iron rails every 10th spindle–you can see the brace if you look closely. What a great idea!

staircase

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14 Cambridge Street, the Butman-Rogers House: rental listing here.


Joy and Remembrance

My husband was down south in the snow this past weekend while I was home alone for the bright and chilly December weekend. It was quite festive: with a dinner, drinks, an open house and an estate sale, although I missed one event due to an extended nap! When I wasn’t out I watched my favorite holiday movies on TCM, so Barbara Stanwyck was much in view as she is in most of them. I finished decorating all of my mantels, although we still don’t have our Christmas tree up yet: several years ago we had a dried-out tree well before the holiday, a traumatic experience which has led me to push it later and later ever since. I’m worried that I’ve pushed it too late this year as my favorite Christmas tree lot just sold out! For those of you who might be surprised that I have included an estate sale among these festivities, let me elaborate: I have found that local estate sales are often community events which not only provide people (Yankees, of course) to obtain a bargain but also an opportunity to remember–and celebrate–the deceased through admiration and remembrance of his or her items. They really are quite poignant occasions. As I walked through the adorable house of a recently-deceased lady among her cherished collections, I kept hearing the phrases I remember when and she loved that. This particular lady was obviously an enthusiastic keeper of Christmas, so the sale was even more festive—and she had great taste (I hope people will say that same about me as they sift through my things—I better purge a bit). The weekend ended on a high note when I was invited to attend an open house in the home of my “daguerreotype crush” from last week’s tour: his name is Benjamin Kendall, by the way.

The second week of December in Salem: at home

Seasonal Sights 15

Seasonal Sights 13

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Around the McIntire District:

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Seasonal

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At the estate sale & a drink with Mr. Benjamin Kendall

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Stereo Scenes of Salem, 1897-1947

Browsing through the vast collections of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) last week,  I came across a haunting image of the Corwin or “Witch House” in Salem. It was a stereo image taken by photographer Harry L. Sampson in 1947, so I assumed it was an artistic composition as that is very late for a stereoview, but it is deceptive: it’s not a stereoview or card but rather a dual image on a contact sheet, and part of of the Keystone-Mast collection of 350,000 images at the California Museum of Photography located at the University of California, Riverside. About twenty percent of this collection  (with more to come) can be accessed digitally via the portal Calisphere, which is linked to the DPLA. The Keystone-Mast Collection is the archive of the Keystone View Company of Meadville, PA, which was active from 1892 to 1963,  and constitutes a major source of visual documentation of the twentieth-century world. I’ve seen some of these images before, but not all, and I’m grateful for the context and source information as so many Salem images are floating out there without either.

Witch House 1947

Witch House 1926 Keystone-Mast Henry Peabody

Witch House 1920 Keystone Mast Henry PeabodyViews of the Jonathan Corwin “Witch House” in 1947, 1926, and 1920 by Harry L. Sampson and Henry Peabody, Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

Hawthornes House 1926 Keystone Mast

Keystone-Mast Underwood and Underwood

Pioneer Village 2 Keystone-Mast

Pioneer Village KeystoneNathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location in 1926 and 1897 (Underwood & Underwood); the newly-built Pioneer Village in 1930, Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography.

Old Custom House 1926 Henry Peabody Keystone-Mast

Gables Keystone-Mast 1926

Conant Statue Keystone-MastThree 1926 images: the entrance to the Old Custom House, the House of the Seven Gables, and the Roger Conant Statue, Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography.

While I’m discussing visual sources, repositories, digitization and access, I’m going to make a (-nother) little plea to the Peabody Essex Museum and Phillips Library: according to the 1925 Catalogue of Negatives in the Essex Institute Collections, the museum has among its collections thousands of negatives representing every single street in Salem (and many of towns and cities) in the early twentieth century: could some (many, all) these be digitized and shared via the DPLA, please? Such an initiative would be an amazing compensatory gesture on behalf of the PEM.

Negatives collageJust a few negatives listed in the 1925 Catalogue of Negatives in the Essex Institute Collections, which is available here


An American Athens

Driving home to Massachusetts from the Hudson River Valley last weekend, I actually drove west, as my brother told me there was a village across the river which I might enjoy: Athens. All the day before when we were touring the riverfront estates of my last post we would look across and see some great house and every time I asked him where it was he would say Athens. I don’t think he was correct as it is a bit more to the north, but still I had Athens on my mind when I woke up the next day and was determined to go there. It’s just across the Rip Van Winkle bridge from Hudson, north of Catskill, which I visited last year, bordered by Cairo (of course) on the west. Apparently there is both a town and a village of Athens and I believe I was in the latter; no one has ever been able to explain the differing jurisdictions that you find in New York and New Jersey—hamlets, villages, boroughs, towns and townships—to me so I am perpetually confused. This seemed like a village, a river village, and it was absolutely charming. Probably the most famous building in Athens is its lighthouse, which really is a lighthouse, but my sentry was the 1706 Jan van Loon house: how different Dutch and English First-Period houses are!

Athens 1

Athens 2

There are several streets of historic houses clustered along the river and I immediately focused on the brick structures. The Northrup house (1803, first up below) is in need of some work but it features the characteristic elevated first floor that I saw on several Athens houses, an architectural feature which I always associated exclusively with southern houses for some reason. There were some lovely wooden houses, but the region’s clay banks supported as many as eight brickyards in nineteenth-century Athens, and fostered masonry construction: I just couldn’t capture enough of these old brick houses, glowing in the autumn sun.

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