Category Archives: Houses

Salem Interiors, 1896

I came across a book I had never seen before the other day at the wonderful Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture (beware, serious rabbit-hole potential here) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison: Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, published in 1896. I was doing something rather tedious so of course I put that aside and dug in. The book is not great in terms of information, and there were some pretty serious flaws that even an mere buff such as myself could spot immediately (such as referring to Samuel McIntire as James) but it is a treasure trove of plates, including many photographs of Salem interiors I had never seen before. These photographs are fascinating to me because many of them feature rooms decorated in a mishmash style that preceded the pure period room. Look at the east parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house below, for example: looking quite cluttered and Victorian rather than serenely Federal, with the exception of that beautiful fireside chair. Elwell wants to focus on the period furniture, but his photographs can’t always hide all the contemporary details of its setting.

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The sheer (and quite casual) display of Salem furniture from the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is a little overwhelming: some of the pictures seem to be taking us into attics (or the storage area of the Essex Institute) where tables and sideboards are lined up in a random fashion. The chair that is featured in the second photograph above, of the mantel of the west parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house, is one from a set of eight crafted by McIntire, one of which sold at a Christie’s auction last week for $15,000 (which seems like a bargain to me, no?) But the 1890s was a key decade in the development of a Colonial Revival consciousness that was both very national and very local: a key decade for the identification of  “Olde Salem”. Consequently along with the eclectic vignettes which mix periods and styles, there are also some “typical colonial” Salem rooms in Elwell’s book, forerunners of the period rooms of the next decades.

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Plates from Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, 1896.


Snowy Salem Saturday

A welcome snow day today, imposing calm on everyone–or at least me! I’ve always enjoyed winter, but the SuperWinter of two years ago, in which something like 11 feet of snow was dumped on us in February, tempered my appreciation for this particular season considerably. The snow was all around the house, the snow was in the house, and I plodded to work every day in tunnels of yellow snow. I felt a little vulnerable, especially when I woke up in the morning to see the latest damage inflicted on my plaster ceilings by ice dams. But all of that is fixed now, and we spent last year, with its relatively light winter, rebuilding our chimneys, sealing our windows, and putting on a new roof. Now I feel impenetrable, at least for this first snow storm. I’m sure hardly anyone agrees with me, but I think winter is Salem’s best season actually–I like to see the city return to a car-less state: it’s as close as you can come to seeing it in its glorious past. There’s a timeless quality to a snowy day, and the contrast of nature and structure is never more apparent. Here’s a few photographs I took as I walked around a very calm city this afternoon.

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Chestnut Street, Essex Street, and the Common.

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Two notable Salem houses in varying stages of restoration.

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Gambrel roofs embellished by snow.

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Some contrast; Trinity does not really care for snow.


Christmas Covers

I really like the visual aesthetic of early twentieth-century Christmases, as represented by shelter magazines from that era: cozy, warm and stylish–not so commercial. Colorful, but not glittery. People (or their servants) are making Christmas rather than buying it. House & Garden is probably the most stylish, but it was an evolution, as you will see below. I looked through 10+ years of Christmas covers from 1912 through the 1920s and saw the transformation of the Christmas home from somewhat-realistic refuge to a more idealistic showplace, a transition that seems to coincide with the coming of the First World War and is exemplified in the illustrations of Ethel Franklin Betts. The post-war Christmas spirit is a little bit more romantic and curatorial: the house is presented to us through a series of vignettes. It’s all a bit less accessible, except through all those beautifully-draped windows that allow us to peep inside, drawn by the light.

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House & Garden Christmas covers from 1912-1922 (except the canopy bed, which is a November 1921 issue–I just loved it) accessed via the Online Books page at the University of Pennsylvania. Below is my very favorite cover, from 1925, and the inspiration for this post–a special “storybook” house in Salem, all lit up for Christmas.

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Christmas on the Common

I am very excited about the 37th annual Christmas in Salem tour, which returns to the Salem Common neighborhood this year. The major fundraiser for Salem’s venerable preservation organization, Historic Salem, Incorporated, the walking tour of decorated homes and buildings rotates from the McIntire Historic District to the Common quite regularly and has also been centered on both North and South Salem, Derby Street, and the Willows. Each and every tour is great, but I’ve always liked the Common tours particularly for a variety of reasons: the mix of very stately and smaller, cozier homes, the focal point of the Common (no s!), and the ability to pop easily into the Hawthorne Hotel’s Tavern for a drink (you can also get your tickets at the Hotel on Saturday and Sunday). In any case, the Common deserves to be showcased this particular year: much restoration work has been done on its cast iron fence, its reproduction McIntire Washington Arch is looking good, and there have been several notable restorations in the neighborhood. Having gone through this myself several times, I am so very grateful to all the homeowners who are opening their doors: it is a generous gesture worthy of all of our support and praise.With the spotlight on the Common, I thought I’d take this opportunity to showcase some of my recent stereoview discoveries as well, so we can have a past-and-present perspective on a great public space: scene of militia drills and musters, hot-air balloon demonstrations, circuses, athletic competitions, concerts, rallies, demonstrations, bike races, Sunday strolls and Christmas walking tours.

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Salem Common yesterday, in a 1920s (doctored) Maynard Workshop postcard, and in two later-nineteenth-century stereocards showcasing the cast iron fence, built in 1850, from two directions. The bottom card, showing the Andrew Safford House at right, is by G.M. Whipple & A.A. Smith, and courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society. Fence details today below, and the newly-restored Washington Arch.

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Overlooking the Common, one of my very favorite doorways in all of Salem, belonging to the White-Lord House at the corner of Washington Square and Oliver Streets. Frank Cousins loved to photograph it, and I do too (not to raise myself to his photographic level, but just so we can appreciate its constant ability to captivate!)

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Look at this new-to-me stereoview! (No, I do not think that is President Lincoln on the Common). It was published by Charles G. Fogg and I do not have a date.

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Returning to the present, just some of the decorations from yesterday; no doubt more will be on display this weekend, both outdoors and behind doors.

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Christmas in Salem: Carol on the Common, a Christmas walking tour to benefit Historic Salem, Inc., Dec. 2-4: more information here


House Cards

I’m in the midst of cleaning, painting, and rearranging in advance of the Holidays, and yesterday I took a dusty and hastily-constructed collage of cards off the wall: the thank-you notes and invitations that I have received from my friends and neighbors over the years, delivered in the form of ivory cards with their houses emblazoned on the front. I’ve kept them, ostensibly “collecting” them, but they definitely deserve a more curatorial presentation–I really regret all those thumbtack holes. Many people in Salem are house-proud, and justifiably so: the stewardship of old houses is an engaging and continual preoccupation. When I look at my collection of houses cards–now reduced to an undignified stack–I don’t just think about architecture, I think about people: the people that gave me the card, the various artists who rendered these houses so distinctly, including a lovely gentleman, now deceased, who was often seen with his easel on the sidewalks of Salem. These cards also remind me of the illustrations in several of the Salem guidebooks published in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries–most particularly my favorite, Streets & Homes in Old Salem, which I think was last issues in 1953: time for a new edition?

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houses-4 Some illustrations from Streets & Homes in Old Salem (1953) and a selection of my house cards, featuring homes on Chestnut, Summer, Flint, Essex, Federal, North and Broad Streets in the McIntire Historic District.


Boston Halloween

Besides living in the self-proclaimed Witch City, yet another aspect of my tortured relationship with Halloween is my birthday, which falls a few days before and inevitably gets colored (darkened) by the proximity. It’s not quite as bad as having a Christmas birthday, but close, especially for me. There’s generally a big storm on my big day too–but not this year, thank goodness. This year we have family in town to celebrate their first Salem Halloween, but there was no way I was going to be their guide, so I left them to my husband and fled to Boston for the day. I went to the Museum of Fine Arts for the William Merritt Chase and Della Robbia exhibitions (the women!), then to the Antiquarian Book Show  (the prices!) at the Hynes Convention Center, and then I just walked around the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, as the weather got progressively warmer over the day. Oddly enough, I found myself enjoying the Halloween decorations on the stately brownstones and townhouses: very creative and such a contrast to the architecture! Maybe I like Halloween after all (just not in Salem).

Back Bay:

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Just one book from the show at the Hynes in keeping with the theme: next post I’m going to write about a beautiful ($45,000) incunabulum I had never heard of before (if I can find out enough about it).

Beacon Hill: who knew that Louisburg Square was Halloween central? This first house was amazing.

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October Orchids

This past Saturday I took a brief respite from the rain to go to Historic New England’s Lyman Estate in Waltham for their annual orchid sale. After spending some time in the historic greenhouses built originally to house the camellias that nineteenth-century Yankees craved (which are still there, along with orchids, ferns, and a variety of venerable houseplant varieties), I walked around the grounds a bit before the rain starting falling again. The Vale, as the estate is sometimes called, is one of Samuel McIntire’s few non-Salem commissions, although it has gone through several architectural “transitions” (Victorian and Colonial Revival) since its construction in 1793. I actually prefer the architecture of the other HNE Waltham property, Gore Place, although I love the Vale’s greenhouses and carriage house.There are several special plant sales during the year: begonias and camellias in the winter, herbs in the late spring and early summer, and orchids in October, but you don’t have to wait for these occasions to visit the greenhouses in particular, or the estate in general.

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Orchids and other plants at the Lyman House greenhouses; the main house and carriage house.


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