Category Archives: Architecture

A Thin Veneer of Heritage

Six weeks into the struggle to convince the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum to return its Phillips Library to Salem, I find myself with lost faith and many learned lessons. The phrase “broken trust” has been applied to the PEM’s actions many times over these past weeks, but that is too legal a concept for me: I prefer to think in terms of faith, encouraged by Victor Hugo’s lovely observation that A library implies an act of faith which generations, still in darkness hid, sign in their night in witness of the dawn. Under the guise of preservation and with a consistent disdain for accessibility and accountability, the PEM leadership broke faith with the community of Salem, and now I have lost faith in them. I’m trying to separate the leadership from everyone else who works at this large Museum, in effect the Museum itself from the policy regarding the Library and its collections, but that’s tough to do when such an all-encompassing feeling as faith is in play. Working on it.

PEM East India Room collageThe interior of the East India Marine Hall past and present, and before the installation of the PEM’s newest exhibition, Play Time.

I’ve learned many lessons over these past weeks but I think the most important one is about prejudging in general and my own prejudices in particular. I’ve been concerned about the commodification of history in Salem for quite some time (as regular readers are all too aware!) and assumed that this trend was driven exclusively by the many tour guides in town, who were presumably more concerned with #tourismmatters than heritage. Now I know that that predisposition is largely incorrect, as I have seen and heard tour guides take earnest and public stances in support of the return of the Phillips while established heritage institutions have stood silently on the sidelines, taking no position and choosing not to exercise their more considerable influence. I remain impressed, and heartened, by the power of history to unite a broad spectrum of people, although at the same time I realize that history, or the perception of one’s history, is also intensely personal.

Essex Institute 1980

Phillips RizviThe Collections of the Essex Institute in the Phillips Library Reading Room, 1980, and the library collections reinstalled, 2008, Rizvi Architects.

I’ve been having difficulty separating the personal from the professional in my reaction to the PEM’s policy towards the Phillips ever since the “announcement” was made—actually I don’t even think I can get past the “announcement”, or lack thereof! But I better try, because obviously no apologies will be forthcoming; instead PEM CEO Dan Monroe offered only the assertion that there was an expectation by a number of people that we had a responsibility to consult with them about what would be done with the Phillips collection…an expectation we didn’t particularly share or understand in last week’s Boston Globe article. I certainly wasn’t expecting a consultation, but an announcement might have been nice, especially as the PEM’s last official word on the Phillips was that it would be returning to Salem in……..2013.

Thank goodness, when confronted with such adversity, healthy instincts of self-preservation begin to take over, and so I’ve started to privilege the professional over the personal in my considerations. When I look at the situation from the former perspective it is clear to me that I don’t need the Phillips Library in Salem or even in Rowley. I have a car, a Ph.D., and a flexible schedule so I can probably gain access to the new warehouse library during one of the 12 hours a week or so that it will be open (well maybe not, after my running commentary over these past weeks) if I want to. In any case, I’m an English historian, fortunate to be equipped with academic databases and dependant on repositories that have made the accessibility of their collections a priority. Local history is just a lark for me, right?  Unfortunately, private priorities only work for a while: when I start thinking about all those records relating to Salem people, places and institutions, and all those Salem donors, I find myself right back in the realm of public history.

Actually, I do have three presentations coming up this year on the intersection of the Colonial Revival and historic preservation movements here in Salem—all of which were scheduled just before the temporary Phillips facility closed down on September 1, ostensibly so that materials could be readied for the big move to Rowley (which was not, of course, announced at that time). I was looking forward to using the library’s collections intensively for the first time in my career, an opportunity that will sadly not come to pass. I’ll have to make do, and I will make do, with the help of other institutions that have made their materials more accessible and lots of secondary sources, but I fear I will only be scratching the surface of this Salem story without the Phillips sources.

Colonial Stairway Wallis 1887

Colonial Frank Wallis Stairs 1887

Colonial Frank Wallis 1887

Colonial Seating collage

Colonial Tables Wallis 1887

Colonial Doorway Salem Wallis 1887

Colonial Gates Wallis 1887And I really fear I’ll be too reliant on the detailed-yet-romantic work of Maine-born architect Frank E. Wallis, whose reverence for Salem is all too apparent! Plates from Frank E. Wallis, Old Colonial Architecture and Furniture. Boston: George H. Polley & Co. Publishers, 1887. 


Severed from Salem

Reading through the Phillips Library catalog is an activity that is simultaneously enticing and frustrating: one can glean the scope of the collections but not access them, provenances are presented but not deeds of gift or deposit (which is standard). Given the missions of its two founding institutions, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, the Phillips’ collections are both regional and global in nature, but one cannot fail to notice the prominence of Salem materials, consequences of content and/or bequest. To supplement that perception, just browse through the century-old Essex Institute Bulletins digitized by the Internet Archive, where you can easily access long lists of donations and deposits from descendants of scores of old Salem families and every type of organization: public, civic, commercial, religious, fraternal and sororal (a word I had to look up!). As is always the case in the Witch City, there’s too much focus on witch trial records: the tragedy of the removal of the Phillips Library by the Peabody Essex Museum is the vast amount of personal and institutional history–a cumulative cultural memory– that will be severed from Salem. Let me offer up just one collection of papers as an illustration: the Almy, Butler, and Robson Family Papers, which encompass the activities and associations of three intertwined Salem families from 1804 to 1982. Through these records, we can (or could) examine the rise and fall of one of Salem’s most prominent department stores, Almy’s, Bigelow and Washburn (1858-1985), a particular phase in the history of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Wesley United Methodist Church on North Street, which donated its archives to the Phillips as well), an edited manuscript of Katherine Butler Hathaway’s famous memoir The Little Locksmith (!!!!!), and considerable correspondence and materials relative to her niece Elizabeth “Libby” Reardon Frothingham’s energetic advocacy for historic preservation both during and after Salem’s battle with urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. Personal perspectives on Salem’s history.

Almys PC

Salem-Wesley-ME-Churchx

Phillips PC Just two Salem institutions whose records are preserved in the Phillips Library, and the Essex Institute in its heyday.

The personal nature of historical materials works both ways: the people of Salem should be enabled to engage with their history in a personal way. When I read the detailed catalog entry and finding aid for the Almy, Butler, and Robson family papers, I think of the Almy’s clock that still stands on Essex Street, the first time I read The Little Locksmith, just a few years ago, and Elizabeth Reardon’s house histories for Historic Salem, Inc., which I used as a model for my own reports way back when I first moved to Salem and wanted to learn about my new city house by house. I’ve read about her exciting “discovery” of two Salem first-period houses hiding in (somewhat) plain sight, and just last year, I visited the ongoing restoration of her former house, and saw the cupboards where her records–memorials of decades of service to Salem– were stored. And now they’re off to Rowley?

Reardon 4

Gedney House

Severed 3

Severed 4The Gedney House on High Street, soon after its discovery by Elizabeth Reardon and restoration by Historic New England, and an excerpt from Julie Arrison-Bishop’s article “A Witness to Four Centuries in Salem”, Historic New England Summer 2015; 1965 Boston Globe article on Elizabeth’s discovery of the Samuel Pickman House (hiding under a mansard roof), and the Pickman House today, with the Peabody Essex Museum in the background.


In Praise of Townhouses (and Small City Living)

This weekend will bring the (38th) annual Christmas in Salem house tour, centered on the “City Sidewalks” of downtown Salem, with decorated homes on Central, Crombie and Chestnut Streets open, along with a house on Hamilton Street. I love this tour: for me it highlights Salem at its best, showcasing the creative continuity of the city rather than exploiting one dark time, in stark contrast to that other big Salem event (yes, I’m referencing Haunted Happening, which I still can’t get out of my system). I’m not exactly sure what the “City Sidewalks” theme means, but for me it conjures up a streetscape of diverse buildings—large and small, residential, commercial and institutional–closely aligned together so to form a community characterized by the integration of all the activities of daily life: a city, and to be more precise, a small historic city like Salem. Maintaining the balance between all of these diverse structures is challenging: the materials, scale, and infrastructure of modern construction can be a constant threat. Consequently preservation and planning advocacy is absolutely paramount, and the proceeds from the annual Christmas in Salem tour go towards these efforts on the part of Historic Salem, Incorporated.

Townhouses Central

Townhouses Crombie

Townhouses Chestnut2Central, Crombie & Chestnut Streets, Salem

I am certain that the tour committee also wanted to emphasize the diversity of residential structures in downtown Salem, as everything from an above-the-shop flat (in a Bulfinch building no less) to a sea captain’s mansion (designed by McIntire of course) will be on view. They are all townhouses in the general sense of the word, but the more specific designation—a multi-level, semi-detached structure–will be represented on the tour as well. The two 1906 covers of The House Beautiful below illustrate my vision of winter/Christmas in an urban village of townhouses–and the one on the right features the Chestnut Street mansion of Pickering Dodge, who commenced the construction of one of the tour’s featured townhouses–just next door– for his daughter and son-in-law in 1828. Since I acquired my own townhouse, which was built just the year before on the same street, I’ve bookmarked images of townhouses—semi-detached and freestanding, exteriors and interiors—that have enhanced my appreciation of their functionality and design: first and foremost the two “party” paintings of Boston artist Henry Sargent in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. The Dinner Party (1821) and The Tea Party (1824). It might not be Christmastime, but it feels like it in these festive parlors. Another great townhouse interior painting is Robert Scott Tait’s A Chelsea Interior (1857-58) featuring the author Thomas Carlyle, along with his wife and dog in the parlor of their London townhouse:  again, likely not Christmastime, but the “shotgun” perspective is classic townhouse. The taller townhouses of the 1850s are featured in the wintry Street in Winter: Evening by an anonymous artist, who casts light on the city sidewalks from a shop window: in the next century all of those windows will be lit up, especially at Christmas time.

Townhouse collage2

Townhouse Dinner Party Sargent

Townhouse Tea Party Sargent

Townhouse Chelsea

Townhouses New England Street

Townhouse paperHenry Sargent, The Dinner Party & The Tea Party, 1820s, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Robert Scott Tait, A Chelsea Interior, collections of the National Trust; A Street in Winter: Evening, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; I am very enamored of this townhouse wallpaper from the new Hearth & Hand/Magnolia collection at Target.

Christmas in Salem “City Sidewalks” Tour, December 1,2 & 3, 2017—more information and additional events here: http://salem.org/event/37th-annual-christmas-salem-house-tour-2/2017-12-02/.


New Developments on Essex Street

I was going to title this post “the good, the bad, and the ugly” but decided to stay a bit more neutral, and yet here I am leading off with this hackneyed phrase! That’s my preview, so beware. Essex Street, Salem’s venerable main street, ever in transition, is experiencing big changes yet again. First the very good: Salem’s newest hotel, the Hotel Salem, just opened in the old Newmark building at 209 Essex Street. It is a sparkling mix of mid-century modern decor superimposed on what feels like an earlier 20th-century building (it was actually built for the Naumkeag Clothing Company in 1895), complete with a marble staircase and a soda fountain-esque restaurant (called The Counter, not quite open) in the first-floor lobby (as well as a seasonal rooftop bar!). The entire hotel is oriented towards the street and all about embracing its bustling commercial past: it’s a great addition to Salem.

Hotel Salem Best

Hotel Salem Counter

Hotel Salem Lobby

Hotel Salem Lobby 2

Hotel Salem Details

Hotel Salem Staircase

Hotel Salem Bedrooms

Hotel Salem First

Now for the not-so-good. Say you’re sitting at that counter in the Hotel Salem lobby, drink nearby, peering outside onto Essex Street and planning where you’re going to go Christmas shopping next–the Counter will be open before Christmas I am informed. You probably can’t quite see it, but right next door is a great little independent bookstore, Wicked Good Books (above), which is a good start, but then where? You’re new to Salem: you don’t know that there is in fact good shopping a bit further down Essex Street in both directions, and on Central and Front Streets. All you see on one side is the Witch History “Museum” (quotations mine), more witch kitsch across the street, and on the other corner of Essex and Derby Square a vacant building that will house Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery come March. Not a lot of shopping possibilities there I would imagine, even when it is open. And then it gets uglier: as you look out of through the wide windows of the Hotel Salem in the other direction, beyond the old Almy’s clock, your eyes cannot avoid the hulking Museum Place Mall, recently rechristened the Witch City Mall. What happened to this building? The photographs from the 1970s show a rather imposing structure but at least one with some semblance of architectural integrity, later lost through artless adaptations and poor maintenance.

Essex Street 217

Essex Street Mall 2

Essex Street collage

East India PC

East India Square Tolles

Witch City Mall collageThe old Naumkeag Trust Bank Building (1900), soon to be Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery; Museum Place (Witch City Mall) shops and signs, today and in the 1970s (MACRIS and Bryant Tolles’ Architecture in Salem).

All I can say is ugh, but I’m not through with this block yet: across the way from the Mall the new Peabody Essex Museum building is rising and I am finding that my reactions to it are not what I thought they would be. It’s going to be very boxy, but I like the restoration of the streetscape: though lovely, the Japanese garden which was previously located on this site didn’t quite fill the space. It’s just a frame, so maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now the structure seems to emphasize the street qualities of old Essex (like the hotel), as opposed to the pedestrian plaza of the 1970s. Time will tell.

Essex Street PEM addition

Essex Street PEM addition2


Weekend at the Mt. Washington

My grandmother introduced me to two things of which I can never have enough: a parade of new dresses for back-to-school every fall and grand old hotels. One indulgence started early in life but endured because of my profession; the other started a bit later but is also still ongoing. It was a family tradition to stay at the Equinox in Vermont for long Thanksgiving weekends, and later the White Elephant on Nantucket, and the two of us traveled to a succession of historic hotels on an epic trip down the east coast and back twenty-plus years ago. Nana passed away just about a year ago after her 104th birthday, so I was thinking about her when I planned my last October getaway weekend at the Mt. Washington Hotel. Built in 1902 in a (Spanish) Renaissance Revival style that is meant to dominate, rather than blend into, its setting, the Mt. Washington was one of the last of the great Gilded Era New England resorts to be built before the onset of the automobile, and it remains a conspicuous survivor. I really only wanted to do two things from the moment we arrived on a sunny Friday afternoon: capture the hotel from every angle, and sit on the back veranda (drink in hand) and stare at Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range, like generations of guests before me.

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MW Veranda

The interior of the hotel has a formal-but-not-fussy aesthetic designed to frame the views outside and mix faded grandeur with modern comforts. In the central lobby, a large fieldstone fireplace “crowned” with a Moose bust contrasts with crystal chandeliers from the 1920s, which seems to be the decade that supplied most of the Hotel’s lighting–and glass inserts everywhere. A ballroom, dining room, several bars, and a domed conservatory are also on the first floor, along with the famous “Gold Room” where the International Monetary Fund agreement was reached in the closing year of World War II.

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MWLobby 2

MW Interior

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Mount Washington collage

We had great weather on Friday and Saturday so I spent as much time as possible out on the 900+ foot veranda, watching the light and cloud patterns change over Mt. Washington every few minutes, especially at twilight, when I got my best picture (s) ever: behold below! No filters necessary: the sunset was gold and purple on Friday night.

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MW View 3

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MWView

My husband was not content to hang out at the hotel all the time so we took a hike—where we happened upon a man playing his flute in the woods–and went to the top of Mt. Washington on the cog railway. When I was quite young, for some reason I read a book about all the people who died on Mt. Washington and these sad stories have always stayed with me so I’ve never been particularly drawn to the mountain, but our traverse did afford me several new vantage points of the Hotel—you can just see it in the valley down below from the summit in the next-to-last picture, a little bit of white encircled by green far far away. As usual, it’s man-made over natural for me!

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mw clouds

MW Train


Cole, Catskill and Creative Storytelling

On Saturday morning I drove straight across Massachusetts into New York State to Catskill, home to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. The artist lived and worked at Cedar Grove, a bright, airy and porch-encircled Federal house overlooking the Hudson River and Catskill mountains, from 1833 until his premature death in 1848. Given the glorious weather we’ve been having this October, it was my intent to explore Cole country via the Hudson River School Art Trail, but I was waylaid by Cedar Grove and the village of Catskill: by the time I was done with both it was twilight. Oh well, next time, but at the very least I should have taken the Skywalk across the Hudson on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to the majestic Olana, the home of Cole’s protege Frederic Edwin Church. These two men were linked in life and now their houses are linked thereafter. Cedar Grove was purchased by the Greene County Historical Society in 1988 and declared a National Historic Site in the next year: after an extensive renovation it was opened to the public on the 200th birthday of Thomas Cole in 2001.

Cole Cedar Grove

Cole1

Cole 13

Cole 14

As you can see, Cedar Grove is not a large house so how or why did I spend so much time there? It’s all about the interpretation: and the fact that it is such an inviting place to be: the public is invited to come in, wander around, take pictures (with no flash, of course), and even sit down, on blue-cushioned chairs that looks exactly like the period chairs on which Cole himself sat. His cape is draped casually on a bench; reproductions of his letters are scattered on every surface. By the time that this house museum was created, Cole’s works and papers had been long dispersed and ensconced in museum and archive collections: consequently the curators had to be creative in their interpretation. They have used the familiar–or rather the intimate, the aesthetic (striking paint colors throughout and modern art works in rotating exhibitions, plus reproductions of Cole’s works), and technology, in the form of Second Story’s immersive interpretations which plunge the visitor into Cole’s worldview and creative process. It’s very effective.

Cole 11

Cole Parlor

Cole 2

Cole 12

Cole Second Story Best

Cole Second Story 2

Cole Stairwell

Cole 10

Cole 9

Cole 4

COle 7

Cole 6

Cole 5

And then there was the Old Studio, where Cole worked, and the New Studio, and one of the loveliest outhouses (a three-seater) I have ever seen: a lot to appreciate. Some grounds: not as many as once were as a large parcel was taken for construction of the Rip Van Winkle bridge in 1935.

Cole Outhouse

I misjudged the time because our weather has been so warm: it feels like summer but the days are much shorter. Actually, I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked at Cedar Grove because I dawdled in Catskill, which was a happy surprise. It is one of those perfect New York State river towns, with a lovely main street lined with nineteenth-century buildings with more flourish and color than you’ll ever find in New England. Within were antiques, art, and food, and every narrow lot fronting the street that does not have a building on it has been turned into a perfectly-maintained little park. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a cleaner town. There was an old movie theater, of course, and a courthouse, and beyond the main street was the river on one side and neighborhoods of old houses on the other in many different architectural styles: stately Greek Revivals, eclectic Victorians, lots of those New York Italianates with compressed windows on the third floor. Certainly not Cole’s Catskill, likely much better, and I never say that when comparing the present to the past.

Cole Catskill

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Cole Catskill 7

Catskill Clean

Cole Catskill 8

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Cole Catskill 3

Catskill house

COle Catskill 5

Cole Catskill first


Doors of Deerfield

Last weekend I drove out to the Pioneer Valley and spent some time at Historic Deerfield, an outdoor museum of eighteenth-century houses located (and assembled) all along one street in the midst of fertile farmland. The museum was founded in 1952, and I’ve been there several times but never by myself, so it was nice to have the time and freedom to focus on whatever I wanted to–and what I wanted to focus on was doors. All I could see was doorways, and it seemed like I couldn’t look at each and every one for long enough. This is certainly not an original preoccupation: I saw the requisite “Doors of Deerfield” posters and postcards in the Museum Shop, where I also picked up a copy of Amelia F. Miller’s Connecticut River Valley Doorways. An Eighteenth-Century Flowering (1983), one of the “Occasional Publications” of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, to take home with me. I expect that I may need to drive out west again very soon—and head south along the river—so that I can see all of these special Connecticut River Valley doorways. Living here in Salem, I’m used to historic doorways, but they are for the most part quite restrained in that Federal way, so these “western” doors provide quite the contrast in terms of detail. Miller agrees (or rather I agree with Miller): Connecticut River Valley doorways bear little resemblance….to doorways of the same period found one hundred miles to the east in coastal Massachusetts and Rhode Island towns.

So here are my favorite Deerfield doors, following Miller’s categorization of scroll pedimented doorways, triangular pedimented doorways, segmental pedimented doorways (apparently there are none in Deerfield?) and flat-top doorways. Plus a few more that defy categorization (at least for me): one of the nice things about Historic Deerfield is the interspersing of private homes among the museum buildings, and the former have great doors too.

Scroll Pedimented Doorways: 

Deerfield Ashley Scroll

Deerfield Ashley Scroll 2

Deerfield Dwight best

Deerfield Door Scrolled

Dwight House in Springfield

The Ashley House (1734) and Dwight House, built in the 1750s and moved to Deerfield from Springfield, Massachusetts. Miller includes a c. 1920 photograph of the Dwight house in situ in Springfield (above) and informs us that Mr. Henry Francis Du Pont purchased the door in 1924, and subsequently installed it first in his Long Island home and later at Winterthur. The Dwight House was moved to Deerfield in 1951, and a reproduction door was produced. I’m always aware of Salem houses being picked apart but really no Massachusetts house was safe!

Triangular Pedimented Doorways:

Deerfield Brown

Sheldon House text

Deerfield Red

The Sheldon House (1755), today and in a 1910 photograph in Miller’s text, and a private home across the street.

Flat-top Doorways: not sure these all fit the exact designation, but they have flat tops!

Flat-top Allen

Flat-top Allen doors

Flat-top Barnard

Flat-Top blue

Deerfield Yellow Garden

Deerfield Yellow Door

The Allen House (1734), home of Henry and Helen Flynt, the founders of Historic Deerfield; the Barnard Tavern (1795), with reproduction flat-top door on right and reproduction triangular-pedimented door on left; the beautiful BLUE Wells-Thorne House (1734) and two private homes in between. Not sure how to categorize this last doorway……….

The Federal houses of Deerfield, with their fanlights and transoms and rounded doorways, don’t look so unfamiliar to me: obviously the region was increasingly open to trans-Atlantic and national aesthetic influences in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As is the case with every outdoor or living-history museum that I’ve visited, you do get that still, out-of-time feeling, although the Deerfield experience is enhanced by the proximity of private homes and Deerfield Academy. Still, it was nice to return home to historic Salem, even though it’s a bit too lively for me at this time of year.

Deerfield Stebbins

Deerfield glass 5

deerfield glass 4

Deerfield Glass 3

Deerfield glass

Deerfield Printing

The Stebbins (1799), Williams (remodelled 1817) and Wright (1824) houses of Historic Deerfield; two adjacent private homes; the Wilson Printing Office (1816).

And of course we must have flagrant pumpkin displays for this time of year:

Deerfield Pumpkins


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