Category Archives: Architecture

Riding with Edwin Whitefield

This was supposed to be the summer of LONG road trips but various things keep tethering me to Salem, so I’m taking lots of short ones. My companion over the last few trips has been Edwin Whitefield, a nineteenth-century English expat artist who loved old New England houses, and presented them in a series of portfolios entitled Homes of Our Forefathers published between 1879-1889. I’ve been an admirer of Whitefield for years, primarily because I admire his pioneering preservation perspective: he sketched obscure houses in small towns shorn of their modern additions and “improvements” to reveal their beauty and craftsmanship so that an ever-“improving” society might actually stop and see them and/or to document them, fearing that they were not long for this world. Whitefield had a successful career as a landscape and botanical artist, engraver, and lithographer from about 1840, with a specialty in color lithographs of North American city views. His Homes portfolios represent the last stage of his career as he died in 1892, and the portrayals of these old houses seem not only charming, but also poignant to me, with his little notes about their history and the precariousness of their present conditions. I imagine him walking around with his sketchbook, and now I’m driving around with my camera—and his books in the backseat. I fear that many of the houses which Whitefield preserved on paper will no longer exist in materiality.

The “Whitefield Project” started last week when I decided to drive over to Medford, an old city just outside of Boston which is home to Tufts University and the oldest brick house in New England, once called the Craddock House and now called the Peter Tufts House. There are so many photographs of this structure, but I wanted to see it as it might have been built, and so I pulled out one of my Whitefield volumes, and decided to take it (him) along. The Tufts House was so spectacularly preserved, and it was such a nice day, that I decided to keep going west along Route 16 (through Cambridge, which deserves its own Whitefield post), in search of a house which shares its page in my 1880 edition, the Abraham Browne House in Watertown, now one of Historic New England’s properties. As the Tufts House is a private residences and the Browne house is closed indefinitely, that was about the extent of my trail for that day.

This past Saturday, I had to go down to Plymouth, so I decided to bring Whitefield along. The South Shore was “Pilgrim country” to him: he clearly wanted to trace the tracks and document the efforts and experiences of his fellow countrymen. He sketched lots of houses in this region but I decided to follow Route 53 and focus on Hingham, Pembroke, and Kingston on this trip. I do not need an excuse to visit the Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, one of the most important structures in New England. It is in amazing condition (but there seems to some kind of issue with its Federal-esque Rectory across the street), and Hingham is one of the prettiest towns in Massachusetts. Then it was off in search of the famous Barker House in Pembroke, which Whitefield believed was the oldest house in New England, built in 1628. Alas, Pembroke has a lovely old Quaker Meeting House, and a seventeenth-century house which serves as the headquarters of its historical society, but the Barker House is long gone: a genealogy of the Barker family informed me that it was likely built in 1650 and “fell to pieces” after the last of its members died without issue in 1883. Whitefield must have been heartbroken.

Heading south to Kingston, Whitefield led me to the Bradford House, another seventeenth-century structure maintained in immaculate condition (although with an altered roofline if we are to believe Whitefield) by the Jones River Historical Society, complete with a period garden. It was still closed for the pandemic, but the gentleman gardener watering on a hot afternoon told me all about the activities that generally went on there, including weekly breakfasts in the summer and the annual Lobster Boil. He admitted that he had added a few modern varieties among the period plants “for a spot of color” and left me to wander the grounds. And so I had a perfect seventeenth-century stroll, at the end of a long hot day.


A Bush Garden

Last week I spent a day in Kennebunkport, a town long associated with the Bush family because of Walker’s Point, which was purchased by President H.W. Bush’s maternal great- and grandfather after the turn of the last century. The usual congregation of onlookers was there, looking down on the Point compound: summer white house towns seem to have lasting appeal and Kennebunkport is a summer white house town x two. I was thrilled because the gate to St. Ann’s-by-the-Sea, a bit further down the coast, was open and so too was the church itself: I had never been inside and this was my chance! It did not disappoint: what a lovely seaside chapel that actually accentuates its setting, a great achievement as its setting is magnificent.

On the road that connects Kennebunkport harbor and downtown to the coast is a small park owned and maintained by the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust named River Green which is the site of a lovely little garden dedicated to former First Lady Barbara Pierce Bush. “Ganny’s Garden,” referring to the name she was called by her 17 grandchildren, was laid out in 2011 and became a memorial garden after Mrs. Bush’s death in 2018. It is completely charming, and also provides a good lesson about what one can do in a relatively small space. It is packed with plants, including some unusual ones (I was struck by the liberal use of mustardbut also personality and presence: bronze “statues” of Mrs. Bush’s gardening shoes and hat lie adjacent to that of an open book (her favorite Pride and Prejudice) as if she had just been there—or was still there.

The garden is overlooked by another statue dedicated to the seafaring forebears of Kennebunkport: Frank Handlen’s Our Forebears of the Coast, which was commissioned in 1994. Its presence made me wonder, in my compare-everything-to-Salem habit which I am trying to kick this summer: why no monument to Salem seafarers? If ever a settlement was made by the sea, it’s this one!


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!


MIT and Salem: little details and big plans

I knew that students in the pioneering professional architectural program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came to Salem to measure and draw interior and exterior details of notable Salem houses in the 1890s and after, but I did not know that the “Salem as laboratory” role extended well into the twentieth century for both architecture and urban planning students at MIT: recently I browsed through an archive of MIT Masters’ theses and saw several Salem studies among them as graduate students considered the waterfront, how to integrate historic and modern architecture (a perennial problem), public art, and the logistics of tourism, among other spatial topics. These were interesting to read as we seldom have debates about public spaces in Salem that are intellectual or contextual or even public: projects are simply announced and implemented. The most interesting thesis for me was one of the oldest, entitled “A new Peabody Museum for Salem, Massachusetts,” written by M.Arch candidate Donald H. Panushka in 1951. The thesis of Mr. Panushka’s thesis was that the Peabody Museum of Salem, especially its beautiful East India Marine Hall, was both detached from the waterfront and crowded in by commercial development on Essex Street, so that it should be removed to the Derby Wharf campus of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site (SMNHS). As you can on his map below, several other waterfront sites were considered, but ultimately he chose the large lot adjacent to the wharf in what was solely an academic exercise: I don’t think Mr. Panushka even consulted the SMNHS, but he did include some striking photographs and renderings to make his case. So it’s an interesting “what if” scenario, visually presented. I’m not sure the mid-century buildings placed alongside the relocated Hall would have weathered well, but knowing what we know about the development of Witch City in the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it’s tempting to think about how a more robust interpretation of Salem’s maritime heritage might have countered that trend—-and we could have had a ship decades before the Friendship. But again, it was all academic.

The first generations of architectural students at MIT were a bit more focused on architectural practice than planning: several “summer schools” in the 1890s produced measured drawings of Salem houses that were published in the the American Architect and Building News and later the successive volume of the Georgian Period published by William Rotch Ware. Details, details: including those of several Salem houses which, unfortunately, no longer exist in a material sense as well as those which fortunately do.


A Salem Shipwright

Salem’s Federal-era shipwrights Retire Becket and Enos Briggs are justly famous, but the men who crafted ships both before and after the so-called Golden Age are a bit more obscure. A case in point is Edward F. Miller, who maintained a productive and prosperous shipyard (at the site of Briggs’ yard) in South Salem in the middle of the nineteenth century producing ships for Salem, Boston and New York merchants before he shifted his attention and skills to erecting structures for land: I first learned about Miller when I visited Stonehurst in Waltham, which he built for the architect Henry Hobhouse Richardson and his client Robert Treat Paine, but there is little mention of him in Salem. His shipyard built La Plata (bark, 1850); Dictator (schooner, 1853); Delight (bark, 1855); Mary Wilkins (brig, 1855); Arabia (bark, 1857); Guide (bark, 1857); Jacinta (schooner, 1860), Glide (bark, 1861); Jersey (bark 1869); and Taria Topan (bark, 1870, and the latter served as the model for the cabin headquarters of the Salem Marine Society on the top of the Hawthorne Hotel.

William Pierce Stubbs, Bark Taria Topan of Salem, 1881, Bourgeault-Horan Antiquarians; The Salem Marine Society Room at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel, The Bark Glide of Salem.

Miller had a dynamic nineteenth-century life: learning his trade at shipyards in his native Nova Scotia, East Boston, and Charlestown (where he worked on the Constitution), going to sea and to California at the time of the Gold Rush, returning to Massachusetts and investing his new fortune into shipyards in Marblehead and then Salem, and building ships for two decades until he moved to Newton, Massachusetts in 1878 and starting building houses (apparently he also had a third career in maritime publishing). In Salem Vessels and their Voyages, George Granville Putnam presents Miller’s ships as worthy successors of those of Becket and Briggs: “No vessel so large as the Grand Turk of 1791—which was allways spoken of in its day as ‘the Great Ship’—was built in Salem for nearly 80 years until the bark Jersey of 599 tons was built in South Salem by E.F. Miller for Captain John Bertram in 1868; the barks Guide and Glide each of 495 tons had preceded it and there followed in 1870 the bark Taria Topan, 631 tons, also built by E.F. Miller, the last large square-rigged vessel built in Salem.” At the beginning of every project and the occasion of every launch, the Salem papers heralded Miller’s activity, reminding us all that Salem’s “ebbing” maritime culture, so vividly depicted by Nathaniel Hawthorne, was still quite lively in the decades before and after the Civil War. And of course the Stonehurst connection is Mcintire-esque: when I first stepped inside its massive entry hall, I remember thinking, “this is like a ship’s cabin” and indeed it was.

Miller notices: Salem Gazette, 1.17.1856; Salem Observer, 7.16 1864, Salem Observer, 9.22.1860; Salem Register, 1.12. 1857; The cabin-like Great Hall at Stonehurst, built by Miller.


Way Down South

We’re just back from a quick trip to the Florida Keys and Miami, not really my ideal vacation location but my husband craved sun and sand and fishing and I had never been to Key West so it was good compromise destination. There was just enough architecture to keep me occupied and he indulged me with a visit to Vizcaya. I was a bit worried about Florida’s reputation for negligent masking, but everywhere we went people wore their masks inside. The highlights of the trip for me were: Key West cottages, with their myriad shutters, porches, and brightly painted doors, our Key West hotel, which was both very stylish and very comfortable, the shrimp and grits featured at the hotel’s restaurant, with the non-traditional, amazingly delicious additions of manchego cheese and bacon, Ernest Hemingway’s house and its resident cats, many lime-flavored drinks, learning all about the female keepers of Key West’s lighthouse and the construction of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad, and Vizcaya, of course. It was also very interesting to watch the coexistence of so many different vehicles on the streets of Key West, including cars, scooters, bicycles (which really rule the road) and skateboards. And because I cannot go to another tourist city without comparing its “interpretive infrastructure” to that of Salem, I must say that Key West’s signage (both wayfinding and historical) is more uniform, more aesthetic, and simply BETTER than that of Salem, although that’s not saying much as our signage is so bad.

Key West, including the interior and exterior of our hotel, the story of our marriage, and a Marathon sunset.

Lowlights? Only the heat, I would say. It was exhausting to do my characteristically energetic architectural walkabout in Key West, but as I write this bundled up in bed on a cold and wet New England spring morning, that warmth is a fond memory.

Miami & Miami Beach: Vizcaya exterior and interior, and just a few houses from a few decades later—all is turquoise and coral.


Envisioning Salem, 1962

Salem is currently in the midst of implementing another urban renewal plan under the supervision of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA), the board that was created by the city’s first urban renewal plan in the 1960s. The story of the implementation of that plan is a pretty established narrative: over-ambitious SRA orders destruction of much of downtown and advocates for the construction of a highway into central Salem to increase access for shoppers lured away by the North Shore Shopping Center in Peabody until concerned citizens’ protests and the New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s extremely influential article brought national attention to the imminent destruction of Old Salem, shifting “renewal” towards redevelopment and preservation. Well, obviously I’m simplifying a much more complex process with many players: I’m starting to go through some of the sources which documented this process so I can understand it a bit better. I thought I would start with the early 1960s vision, as expressed by a series of reports issued by Blair and Stein Associates of Providence, RI, a planning firm hired by the City. Blair and Stein supposedly produced seven reports for the Salem Planning Board: I have found only three so far and the “Central Business District” report the most interesting: Salem, Massachusetts : central business district / prepared by Blair and Stein Associates in cooperation with the Salem Planning Board and the Massachusetts Department of Commerce (1962).

This study and its recommendations was not as focused on “tear it all down” as I expected: there are definitely recommendations for clearances, but also for preservation. Blair & Stein believed that the North Shore shopper, who is always referred to as “she,” could be lured back to downtown Salem if “blight” was cleared away and access improved. There are many references to urban blight, which was perceived as both decay and the reign of “inappropriate” facades and signs: after those were removed the state and fate of the stripped building should be considered. Because the emphasis is on renewing Salem’s shopping district above all, parking is very important, as is the overall design of pedestrian avenues around the downtown. Thus they gave us a pedestrian mall on Essex Street, Salem’s main street, but also on secondary routes leading into it. Salem would become an outdoor mall, with a mix of old restored buildings and new complementary structures: complementary not “imitative,” which is what I think most people would like to see now. It’s just annoying when advocates of sub-standard new construction accuse anyone who argues for higher standards of trying to turn Salem into a faux Federal city: I like the language below emphasizing scale, texture, character and “spirit” of new construction and did not expect to find it in a document of this nature and vintage.

Interesting spelling of “aesthetic” but these are goals I wish we were shooting for now!

Apart from the concerns about blight, parking and aesthetics, the major difference between this plan and the current one relates to housing: Blair and Stein envisioned a distinct shopping and cultural district and did not advocate for the expansion of residential buildings downtown, while that is a major planning goal at present. While they referenced tourism, they clearly saw it through a regional focus rather than a national one, and they don’t even mention Halloween. Salem would be a city of day trippers and day shoppers, returned to regional hub status.

Deed restrictions prevented all that planned Front Street parking, and inspired Artists’ Row, here pictured in 1978, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

The schematic sketches are just that, clean and orderly, and now I am seeking the specifics of how this rather vague plan turned into the scary plan of action recorded in the Boston Regional Office of HUD several years later: The Heritage Plaza East project advanced from the planning stage to the execution stage in February 1968. About 40 structures in the area will be rehabilitated, 140 will be razed, and 75 families will be relocated in the process of clearing the area. CLEARED OUT. The records of the SRA, which for some reason are deposited in the Phillips Library, will certainly shed light on the “progress” from planning to execution.

Appendix:  Historic Salem, Inc. has prepared a “Citizens Guide to the Downtown Renewal Plan” for those who wish to engage with its implementation, available here.


Circa 1775

For Patriots Day, I endeavored to find Salem houses built in 1775, but it turned out to be a bit more involved task than I envisioned. I was just going to walk around and look at the Historic Salem, Inc. plaques, then I decided to consult the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s MACRIS database, which gave me a very workable list. The former overruled the latter for many of the houses I encountered however, so “circa 1775” is the best I can do. Salem houses are sometimes tricky to date just by apparent style: there is a conservatism that dominates the quarter century after the Revolution when it comes to you average dwelling (as contrasted to the Federal mansions which rose at the same time). Several “Georgian” cottages were built in 1806 or even 1826. So these houses are very “circa” for the most part, in the most flexible sense of the word, and I’m not really going to be able to answer the question behind this post: how many people in Salem were confident enough to build a house after five+ years of escalating conflict and tension over representation and sovereignty in British America?”

First up is the Wendt House on Crombie Street: this house has been the object of consternation for decades. First it was threatened my Holyoke Mutual Insurance Company, which threatened to demolish it for parking spaces, then it was saved by Historic Salem, Inc. (HSI), now it is threatened again (not so much its form but its LIGHT) by a large apartment building proposal. Below, Summer, Cambridge and Hight Street Houses: 51 Summer Street is dated 1771 by Historic Salem, followed 6 Cambridge Street and 8, 14 and 21r High Street.

And over on the other side of town: a Briggs Street house which MACRIS dates to c. 1775 but for which HSI has a more precise history, a Daniels Street House which is a great example of the “conservative” trend I spoke of above, and 19-21 Essex Street, which has been through many transformations. Such a cool house, and pretty substantial even without its later additions, indicating that even though the political times were turbulent, the economic future perhaps looked a bit more promising from the perspective of 1775.

19-21 Essex Street in 1985, MACRIS.


Mansard Mania!

So the developers of a large lot on Norman Street, a major artery in Salem which connects the downtown to one of the city’s major residential/historic districts and also serves as a primary gateway, have come up with their third schematic rendering for the site. We first saw a rather brutalist box, then an industrial-esque box, and now we have a mansard box. I wrote about their challenge here, and despite my lack of enthusiasm for their projections, I do believe that they have a very challenging site: Norman Street was once an absolutely charming street of residences and shops of diverse style and size, but it was ravaged by a perfect storm of an unleashing of all the infrastructural forces of the twentieth century. This is the design that will be presented to the Salem Redevelopment Authority this week:

Proposed design for 38 Norman Street, Salem.

This is a site that is not only very conspicuous, but also situated directly between two historic streets: Crombie and Chestnut (where I live), so both scale and historical context are issues for consideration. Frankly, based on its judgements over the past year or so, I don’t think the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) is particularly concerned about either of those criteria, but the developers met virtually with several neighborhood groups and I’m sure they were notified of such concerns. So I think this mansard addition must be in response to these meetings, although I’m at a loss to explain how that particular roofing style fits into the streetscape. While it is known for its Federal architecture, Salem actually has some great mansard-roofed buildings, but they are overwhelmingly residential rather than commercial or institutional, and none are in the immediate vicinity of this lot. The original Salem Normal School building on Broad Street is the only mansard-roofed institutional building that comes to mind. I really, really hope that these developers were not inspired by the ghastly River Rock residences on Boston Street, but why wouldn’t they be? This project was approved, and thus serves as a practical precedent for aspiring Salem developers.

River Rock Residences.

Whatever the inspiration, this new rendering gave me an excuse to read all about mansard roofs, past and present. There was a lot to read: people really have a lot to say about mansard roofs, not so much the original early modern examples or even those revival mansard roofs from the third quarter of the nineteenth-century, but the “neo-mansard” trend of the 1960s and 1970s. There are blogs and opinion pieces galore explaining that phenomenon from a range of perspectives—but generally more horrified, sarcastic, and whimsical than complimentary. The original mansard was a tax-dodge tactic: in the seventeenth century French houses were appraised according to the number of floors below the roofline, and the mansard style thus enabled the addition of a non-taxable floor (I suspect space is the primary motive of the “historical” addition to the Norman Street proposed development as well.) The Second Empire of Napoleon III and the Hausmannization of Paris inspired the second wave of mansard mania, which swept across the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, despite the fact that wooden “French” roofs were blamed for turning the Great Boston Fire of 1872 into a conflagration: Henry Ward Beecher even called mansard roofs “conflagration caps.” I’m wondering if this is the reason I can’t find many larger mansard-roofed building in Salem.

I couldn’t find any mansard-roofed commercial buildings among the Frank Cousins’ photographs from the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth, but Salem has lots of cute mansard cottages from the post-Civil War era.

As you can tell from the detailed photos of the mansard roofs above, it’s all about the details: most modern mansard-roofed buildings lose something in the translation because they don’t attend to those details. A great example is the Hotel Commonwealth in Boston, built in the early 2000s to liven up Kenmore Square and link it to the Back Bay through its Second Empire style. The Boston Redevelopment Authority approved the renderings, but “when workers took the shroud off [in 2002] ….. officials and neighbors were aghast. To save money, the elegant building depicted in renderings had been replaced with one featuring a plastic-looking facade and garish two-dimensional window bays seemingly lifted off a B-movie set.” [Boston Globe, 27 October, 2014: “Framing the Proposal”] The developers were ordered to overhaul the building’s exterior before it even opened, and replaced the building’s value-engineered (and apparently bright yellow?) fiberglass panels with precast stone, as well as all “cosmetic” features, to the tune of $5 million. Even though I was right here in Salem, I don’t remember this episode at all, so I read about it in the Globe: both letters and articles typically used the words hideous and disastrous in reference to the Hotel, and one piece was entitled “Yellow Alert.”

Hotel Commonwealth rendering, Boston University, and in 2015, Boston Herald photo by Angela Rowlings.

That’s quite a spectacular rendering above and obviously the more humble proposed design of 38 Norman Street doesn’t set itself up for failure quite so conspicuously, but Salem appears to have developed a propensity for plastic so I’m wary, even still. The Hotel Commonwealth seems to be in the midst—or at the end?—of a third wave of mansard mania that was noted by the eminent architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, otherwise known as the “woman who saved Salem” due to her exposure of Salem’s cataclysmic urban renewal plan to a national audience in the 1960s. A decade later, she wrote about “Mansard Mania” in the New York Times, and was not complimentary: all is fake tops and false nostalgia, regardless of use, size or scale. I think she was referring to structures like those featured in all the “neo-mansard” blogs, an example of which is below, but still I wonder: why do we need mansard-style roofs or prairie-style roofs? Why can’t we have Salem roofs?

1970s mansard-roofed structure from The Neomansard: “trying to embrace the style without irony.” Just a great site.


A Derby House in Medfield

I busted out of Salem yesterday and took a road trip to Norfolk county in Massachusetts, southwest of Boston, and drove through a string of towns beginning with M: Medfield, Millis, Medway, Milford, Mendon. My “destination” was a first-period house with Derby connections in the first M town, the Dwight-Derby House, but really I just wanted to drive around. And I did—but I also found Medfield absolutely charming so I stayed awhile. Sometimes I think I could write the whole blog about and around Salem’s Derby family: their money, connections, and influence end up everywhere. In this case, however, neither their money, connections or influenced really impacted the history of a lovely first-period house overlooking Medfield’s Meetinghouse Pond. John Barton Derby, a grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, who profited immensely from Salem’s emerging East India trade and thereby became America’s first millionaire, did not stay in Medfield for long but his descendants lived in what became known as the DwightDerby House until the middle of the twentieth century.

John Barton Derby, grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, married Mary Townsend, whose family owned the Medfield house, in 1820. Rumors swirl around about John Barton and his brother Hasket, in contrast to the other children of John and Sarah Derby of Salem. The major clues to their outcast status are the facts that they were seldom in Salem and always in need of money. When John Barton married Mary Townsend, his deceased first wife (from Northampton, which is like Derby Siberia) had not been in her grave for very long, and he was apparently disowned by his father. He was practicing law in Dedham, and had been given a letter of introduction to Mary’s father by his uncle Benjamin Pickman, Jr., but that was about it for respectability. John and Mary remained together for about of 27 months and produced two children, Sarah and George Horatio, and then he was gone. I’m going to let Nehemiah Cleaveland and Alpheus Spring Packard, authors of the History of Bowdoin College with Biographical Sketches of its Graduates, from 1806 to 1879, Inclusive (1882) tell the rest of John’s story, but they are leaving out time spent as a recluse in the wilds of New Hampshire and as a patient at what later became known as McLean Hospital, which opened in the year of John Barton’s graduation from Bowdoin.

“JOHN BARTON DERBY, born in 1793, was the eldest son of John Derby, a Salem merchant. In college he was musical, poetical, and wild. He studied law in Northampton, Mass., and settled as a lawyer in Dedham. His first wife was a Miss Barrell of Northampton. After her death he married a daughter of Horatio Townsend. They soon separated. A son by this marriage, Lieut. George Derby of the United States army, became well known as a humorous writer under the signature of ‘John Phoenix.’ For many years before his death Mr. Derby lived in Boston. At one time he held a subordinate office in the custom-house Then he became a familiar object in State Street, gaining a precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares. He was now strictly temperate, and having but little else to do, often found amusement and solace in those rhyming habits which he had formed in earlier and brighter years, His Sundays were religiously spent — so at least he told me — in the composition of hymns The sad life which began so gayly came to a close in 1867.” What a poignant scenario: the grandson of a millionaire, with his “precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares” on the streets of Boston. No wonder the charming sign outside of the Dwight-Derby House features John Barton’s and Mary’s dashing son, George Horatio Derby, who served in the Mexican-American War, went on to a journalistic career in California and died at the young age of 38. You can read much more about the Townsends and the Derbys and the history of the house in a great little book that integrates both very well: Medfield’s Dwight-Derby House. A Story of Love and Persistence by Electa Kane Tritsch.

George Horatio Derby, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.

The Dwight-Derby House was purchased by the town of Medfield in 1996, and went through an intensive restoration before it was opened to the public, joining the town’s more famous colonial structure, the Peak House, as a period museum. And there’s lots more in Medfield: some beautiful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century private houses, a small historical society, and a “mobile history tour” using QR code plaques on utility boxes, signs, and murals. I fell in love with the eighteenth-century Clark Tavern, even (or perhaps because of) its state of extravagant decay, and was very relieved to discover that it has just sold and can only be restored to include TWO dwellings (despite being much bigger than the poor Barr house into which many more are being stuffed), or perhaps even to its original use.

I can’t wait to go back to Medfield to see the interior of the Dwight-Derby House, and the renovation of the old Clark Tavern. But there’s lots of history to see and read now at the Peak House (with its revised chronology) and along the town’s streets and sidewalks.