Category Archives: Houses

Built by a Master Mason

On a sunny afternoon last week, I had to the opportunity to go inside Two Oliver Street on Salem Common, a grand brick Federal house built in 1811 and currently for sale (so you can go in too, if you want). I hadn’t been in the house for a while, maybe a decade or so, and while there have been some alterations made to the more utilitarian spaces, the historic “public” rooms remain perfectly preserved, including the Zuber & Cie wallpaper in the dining room. There is a beautiful double parlor, very large center halls on all three stories, a sweeping serpentine staircase, and countless bedrooms—I really lost count, though three third-floor rooms have been combined to make a large poolroom, rec room, man cave, whatever you want to call it (it’s not very cave-like). There is also a wine cellar, a lovely deck overlooking an enclosed garden, and a carriage house with a second-floor apartment! All of these features are wonderful, but for me, the key attraction of the house was its combination of modernized facilities and systems combined with historical “texture”: I don’t like it when age-old plaster looks too smooth. Well see for yourself: here are my photographs of the exterior and first, second, and third floors.

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20191106_161151Another Rumford Roaster! I really believe that Salem can lay claim to being the city with the most Rumford Roasters.

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20191106_155921Beautiful views over Oliver Street on one side of the house, and the Common on the other.

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I love old basements—-if they are clean, which this one definitely was (unlike mine). On our way back upstairs from the wine cellar (just below), we popped in to see the “unfinished” part of the basement, which is really quite impressive. Combined with all of the exterior aspects of the building, it really reinforces the sense of masonry craftsmanship. Yes, the woodwork is beautiful too (as you can see above) but I walked away thinking about brick.

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Generally I write about the occupants of historic houses, but as I walked away from Two Oliver with all that brick on my mind I wanted to research the builder: I knew it was Joshua Upham, who also built Old Town Hall and part of Derby Square, but that was about all I knew about this “talented” (I found this adjective in several places) mason. Fortunately his son published a biography: even though it’s a bit more focused on Upham’s faith and activism (he was a Deacon of his church and a very passionate abolitionist) we also get to read a bit about his long career, which began in Boston as a mason’s apprentice. After a fallout with his fellow apprentices, he went down to the docks to catch a ship for Newburyport (as there had just been a fire) but wound up in Salem instead. This was in 1803, just before Salem’s Federal building boom, and in the words of his son, “in the reckless runaway, with his one shirt, one pair of duck trousers and a spencer, it would have needed a prophetic eye to see the most successful master mason in town, under whom the larger part of its ancient brick dwellings and stores were erected.”  Two Oliver Street was built for merchant Joseph White Jr., who lived in the house for only five years, until his death in 1816. There followed a long occupancy by Benjamin H. Silsbee and family in the middle of the nineteenth century, after which the house became the parsonage of the Tabernacle Church on Washington Street and the long-time residence of several generations of the Clark family. Joshua Upham’s spectacular building career was followed by an equally spectacular second career as an inventor of fire “annihilators” designed to protect buildings under the auspices of the Salem Laboratory on Lynde Street, and when he died in 1858 he was still in the possession of several patents.

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Joshua Upham, the builder of 2 Oliver Street/33 Washington Square North, which is now for sale through J. Barrett & Company.


Mary’s House

I’ve posted previously (several times, actually) on one of my favorite Salem Colonial Revivalists, the author, photographer, and photographic purveyor Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926), but I am focusing on her again today for two reasons: 1) I’ve uncovered quite a bit of new information about her; and 2) I think those of you who live outside of Salem might not be aware of what has happened to one of her primary residences, which sustained a terrible fire in late November of 2018. I say “primary” because my new information has uncovered a variety of addresses for Mary, but I still think of 12 Lynde Street as Mary’s House, and it’s been sad to see it in a distressed state for the past year. But never fear, it is rising from the ashes: its very responsible owners have hired (SHAMELESS PLUG FOLLOWING) my husband to shepherd its restoration. Whatever fabric (brick foundation, though all the bricks had to be reset and cleaned, some wood, including the front doors which will be dipped) could be saved will be saved, and it will get new window frames, wooden siding and windows, and a rebuilt interior. It was even lifted to straighten it out! It will be stunning, but it’s still unsettling to walk by, especially as I have such a soft spot for Mary.

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It looks better and better with each passing day, I promise! And while I have you here, does anyone know the name of the entrance detail motif? I have not seen that before: thankfully it was unharmed. Mary’s professional life remains enthralling to me: it started late in life (when she was in her 50s) and was still going strong when she died from complications sustained in an automobile accident in 1926. Consequently it was compacted, and intense: besides her twelve published books there were literally hundreds, maybe even thousands, of magazine articles, on everything from andirons to bread crumbs. In 1914 alone, she sold over 150 articles, employed a stenographer, several file clerks, and a full-time photographer, enabling her to illustrate her own works as well as those of other authors. She had started out ten years earlier with her own camera, and a few sporadic submissions to random publications: now she was almost an industry unto herself, an industry based on highlighting the best of Salem rather than exploiting the worst, darkest days. I guess that’s why I admire her so much.

Mary's House Letter

Here is a letter documenting the very beginning of her career, ten years earlier, from the Century magazine collection at the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery. At this point in her life, Mary, her widowed mother and younger sister, were living in what sounds like genteel poverty, in the Rufus Choate House just next door to 10-12 Lynde Street. As you can read, Mary has yet to take up her camera or her pen to highlight Salem’s streets and houses, but she is still trading on her Salem connections and heritage: in this case seeking to publish some letters from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “most intimate friend”, Horace G. (Connolly) Ingersoll, written to her father. She is trying to get in on the big Hawthorne anniversary that year (and boy is she a bad writer! or typist. or both). The Century did not publish these letters, but they are the substance of a 1937 article published in The Colophon by Manning Hawthorne. Mary met with success with other submissions shortly thereafter, largely by abandoning her father’s connections in favor of her own perspectives on architecture and antiques, culled from living in the rapidly-disappearing world of “Olde Salem”. In a marvelous biographical article in the 1915 issue of Massachusetts Magazine, she credits her success to her “friends, the citizens of my hometown, Salem. Had they not thrown open their homes for my inspection and reproduction, I would have been nothing.” The article’s author, Charles Arthur Higgins, opines a bit after that admission, asserting that “now the owners of those beautiful Salem mansions are as proud of the fame and authority of their author as they are of her subject matter” and revealing that “Miss Northen has been repeatedly urged to maker her abode in New York; but she states that nothing can make her forsake the city that has so kindly aided her to fame.”

Mary's Houses Arts and Decoration

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Mary's DoorsFame AND Authority:  Occasionally Mary Harrod Northend would present wistful Wallace Nutting-esque views, but mostly she was all about bringing antique material culture into the modern world; notices in Who’s Who in New England and the Architectural Record, citations in trade catalogs were common from 1915 on.


An Array of Entrances

There were two very positive developments regarding Salem’s historical fabric this week: the city’s Cemetery Commission voted to close the Old Burying Point during October, thus shielding our oldest cemetery from its annual occupation by Halloween tourists, and the Peabody Essex Museum announced that it would be returning the anchor which was situated in the front of East India Hall for a century or so to Salem. I am heartened and happy and have nothing to complain about or advocate for in this post! So let’s celebrate with some color, as found on a veritable rainbow of Salem doors. My first house in Salem had a red door, and everyone would comment on it when I told them where I lived; now red is pretty commonplace, but my impression is that the most common door color in Salem is still black. Greens—especially dark green—would be next, followed by a variety of reds, blues, pinks, and orange/peach doors, and finally brown and gray doors. Of course there are lovely Salem doors which are varnished rather than painted, but I’m not including them here. There are yellow doors in every neighborhood, but cream and white doors are hard to find: generally the latter are new Home Depot-ish doors, and not very interesting. There are some pretty nice new custom doors opening out onto the streets of Salem, but if I was in need of a door I think I’d rather find an old one at Old House Parts or somewhere similar. I’ve got one white door here, with some pretty distinctive hardware, and lots in more vivid hues, beginning with the painted door installation at Salem’s Tabernacle Congregational Church, representing diversity and acceptance of all.

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20190912_105451Another reason to praise PEM: the beautiful restoration of the Daniel Bray House on Brown Street: it doesn’t have its new/old door yet as you can see–and I’m not sure if it will be painted this light orange color.

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20190827_112305Dark Brown/Red is a classic Salem combination.

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pixlr-1Turquoise is the current it-color, I think.

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An Almost-Golden Hour in Newburyport

Last week was a very busy time of transition. I have completed my six-year chair term and am going back to full-time teaching, which means four classes, four totally-overhauled syllabi and four first classes–for which I am always a tiny bit anxious, even after twenty+ years of teaching. But in the middle of the week I found myself up in Newburyport, an hour early for an appointment. This free hour was late in the afternoon, not quite the golden hour, on a bright and sunny early September day, so I took a short walk on several streets of Newburyport, where the inventory of seemingly perfectly-restored historic houses of every style seems endless, with more in transition. We’re always in transition in September, it seems, so you’ve got to grab a moment, or an hour, whenever it comes along.

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Early September in Newburyport.


Covered Bridges & Hearse Houses

I took a very long way home from and through New Hampshire on Sunday, in pursuit of covered bridges and hearse houses. I’ve seen a lot of the former, but I saw my first hearse house on Saturday morning and knew instantly that I needed to see more. I’ve been obsessed with old sheds recently, as I want one for my garden, but this was such a super-specialized shed, just sitting there on the side of the road in Marlow, New Hampshire, locked up with (I assume?) its special carriage still inside, serving no purpose other than to remind us of a public responsibility of the past.

20190727_100654The Hearse House in Marlow, New Hampshire.

Any form of historic preservation is impressive to me, but there’s something about the consideration given to these simple and obviously-anachronistic structures that I find particularly endearing. I stumbled across the hearse house in Marlowe: there was no sign and it is obviously not a historical “attraction”. The covered bridges are more so: New Hampshire’s 55 preserved bridges (out of around 400 built) all have signs, numbers, plaques, and are included in a guide with which you can plot your own scenic drive.

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20190728_115632The McDermott Covered Bridge in Langdon (1864); the Meriden Bridge in Plainfield (1880); the Cilleyville (or Bog) Bridge in Andover (1887); the Keniston Bridge, also in Andover (1882); just two of Cornish’s FOUR covered bridges: somehow I missed the “Blow Me Down” Bridge and the Cornish-Windsor Bridge over the Connecticut River is here.

My focus was much more on the more elusive prey of hearse houses that afternoon; these bridges came into view along the way. After Marlow, I assumed that many New Hampshire towns would have preserved hearse houses, but this was not the case: near the end of the day, dejected and heading home to Salem,  I found only two more in Salisbury and Fremont. In Salisbury (which also has some great Federal houses), the town historian told me that their hearse house also served as a storage shed for the town’s snow roller, and Fremont’s wonderful meeting-house compound featured an informative marker.

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20190728_185821Salisbury & Fremont, New Hampshire.

Of course now I want to search out hearse houses closer to home: it looks like the town of Essex has a great example, with a very interesting story attached. There’s no surviving hearse house in Salem (for which I am actually grateful, because I dread to think how it would be utilized in Witch City), but it looks like there were actually two at one time, according to this 1841 account in the Salem Register. There is a small stone house in Harmony Grove which I thought was a tomb, but maybe not………..

Hearse House Salem_Register_1841-08-19Salem Register, August 19, 1841.


A Statesman’s Summer House

I was up in New Hampshire this past weekend for a spectacular summer wedding on Dublin Lake, and of course I made time for side trips; the Granite State continues to be a place of perpetual discovery for me after a lifetime of merely driving around or through it, to and from a succession of homes in Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts. On the day before the wedding, some friends and I drove north to see The Fells, the Lake Sunapee home of John Milton Hay (1838-1905), who served in the administrations of Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. Hay is the perfect example of a dedicated public servant and statesman, attending to President Lincoln as his private secretary until the very end, at his deathbed, and dying in office (at The Fells) while serving as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. He was also a distinguished diplomat, poet, and a key biographer of Lincoln. Fulfilling the conservation mission that was a key part of his purchase and development of the lakeside property, Hay’s descendants donated the extended acreage surrounding the house to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1960s, and it eventually became the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge. Hay’s daughter-in-law Alice Hay maintained the house as her summer residence until her death in 1987, after which it was established as a non-profit organization, open for visitors from Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekends.

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When it comes to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century country or summer residences in New England which are now open to the public, it seems to me there are three essential types: those of very rich people (think Newport), those of statesmen (The Fells; Hildene in Manchester, Vermont; Naumkeag in Stockbridge), and those of creative people (The Mount in Lenox;  Beauport; Aspet, Augustus Saint-Gauden’s summer home and studio in Cornish, New Hampshire). The last category is my favorite by far, but there’s always lots to learn by visiting the houses of the rich and the connected, and John Milton Hay was as connected as they come. I was a bit underwhelmed by the house, which is a Colonial Revival amalgamation of two earlier structures, until I got to its second floor, which has lovely views of the lake and surrounding acreage plus a distinct family feel created by smaller interconnected bedrooms opening up into a long central hall. The airiness of the first floor felt a bit institutional, but this was an estate built for a very public man, after all. For the Hays, I think it was all about the relation of the house to its setting, rather than the house itself.

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The gardens surrounding the house also seemed a bit sparse although it was a hot day in late July and we might be between blooms; certainly the foundations and structures are there, especially in the rock garden that leads down to the lake. This was the passion of Hay’s youngest son, Clarence, who established the garden in 1920 and worked on it throughout his life. After his death in 1969, the garden was lost to forest, but it was reestablished by the efforts of the Friends of the Hay Wildlife Refuge and the Garden Conservancy. When you’re standing in the rock garden looking up at the house, or in the second floor of the house looking down at the rock garden and the lake beyond, you can understand why the well-connected and well-traveled John Milton Hay proclaimed that “nowhere have I found a more beautiful spot” in 1890.

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A Genteel Boarding House in Salem

My fascination with the newly-digitized glass plate negatives of Frank Cousins, documenting Salem at the turn of the last century, continues: right now I’m curious to know all there is to know about the legendary Doyle Mansion on Summer Street, home to many members of ancient Salem families, whether they were “in transition” or truly settled in. Cousins gives us a glancing view of its Summer Street facade in one photograph, but he’s clearly more interested in its rambling additions in the rear. There are also several drawings by a Miss Sarah E. C. Oliver included in an absolutely wonderful 1948 article in the Essex Institute Historical Collections based on the memoirs of Miss Bessie Fabens, whose aunt was a fabled resident of the Doyle Mansion. This same article also includes the first-floor plan of the “ell-ongated” composition by architect Phillip Horton Smith, likely rendered just before the mansion was taken down in 1936.

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Doyle Mansion EIHC 1948

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Cousins Doyle House 2Summer Street from Broad with the Doyle Mansion on the right, Frank Cousins collection of glass plate negatives from the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, via Digital Commonwealth; drawings by Miss Sarah E.C. Oliver and first-floor plan by Phillip Horton Smith in “The Doyle Mansion—Some Memories and Anecdotes” by Bessie D. Fabens, Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 84 (1948); Cousins’ views of the back of the house and its many addition (+ the lost Creek Street). 

This house was huge and home to 30-35 inhabitants during its peak years: from the 1880s until its closure in 1933.  The original rectangular Federal construction was built by the Reverend Joshua Spaulding of the Tabernacle Church around 1800, but a half-century later it became a boarding house under the ownership of an Irishman named Thomas Doyle: as the tenants of “Doyle’s” increased so did its additions. Miss Caddie (Caroline Augusta) Fabens, Bessie’s great-aunt and the inspiration for her mansion memoir, moved in in 1878 intending to stay only a few weeks; instead she became its “star boarder” over the next 58 years. Bessie visited her often, and got to know the house very well, and so her memoir is incredibly detailed. As verified by Cousins’ photographs, she notes that “ell after ell” was added on “until one side extended the whole length of the old-fashioned garden which sloped down from the back of the house”. These ells very clearly demarcated on the exterior, but inside “no one knew where the original house ended and the additions began”. Bessie describes a rabbit warren with eleven staircases, countless rooms, but only three toilets (all on the ground floor), and a single bathtub for the mansion’s 30+ residents, secured by “appointment only”. Within members of all the “distinguished” families of Salem lived together, “stray survivors” of the Silsbee, King, Cushing, Shepard, Trumbull, Brown and Chase families, in relative harmony, as “not only did [the Doyles’] denizens all know each other, but they knew all the ramifications of their family histories for at least four generations. It was sort of a big family party with the likes and dislikes which go with New England families, and the impersonal toleration which prevents them from being obnoxious”. Wouldn’t this be a great setting for a novel or play?

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Doyle Table Cousins_02351Views of the exterior and interior of the Doyle Mansion by Frank Cousins, collection of glass plate negatives at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, Digital Commonwealth.

All of these people brought their furniture and furnishings—including “shelves of blue Staffordshire and Canton China never used in all those years”, documented by both Bessie and Cousins. Bessie adds that “almost every room had its fireplace or Franklin stove” and all the comforts of home except perhaps for the “scanty” plumbing, and concludes that A legend grew up that every true Salemite must at sometime or other stay at the Mansion and there were very few of us who had not done our time there. The Mansion’s time came to an end in 1933 and much of the land on which it sat—as well as Samuel McIntire’s house next door at #31–was sold to the Holyoke Mutual Fire Insurance Company for the construction of their behemoth concrete building in 1934. Despite the recognition that both houses were “historic”, they were both swept away (along with Creek Street) by 1936 for the block-filling structure that still stands there.

Doyle Collage 2

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20190708_162115Boston Globe, June 1934; the Holyoke Mutual Fire Insurance building, built in 1936 and now owned by Common Ground Enterprises (and its rather weedy sidewalk!)


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