Category Archives: Houses

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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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.

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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!)


Traces of Half-Timbering

I was running along the ocean on Lynn Shore Drive when I became progressively 1) tired; and 2) bored so I stopped running and started walking, into the adjacent “Diamond District” of Lynn. Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit that, after a lifetime of living alongside it, I do take the ocean for granted, but I never, never grow tired of walking up and down streets lined with historic structures. I can never run on those streets, though, because there is too much to see, and the eclectic Victorian architecture of this neighborhood is particularly eye-catching. The Diamond District is large, encompassing nearly 700 buildings, so you need to break it up into sections or styles to be able to take in all in, and on this particular morning all I could see was ornamental half-timbering on the third stories of sprawling houses built in some composite “Victorian” style: are they Queen Anne, Stick, or some form of “English Revival”? I can never get all those late nineteenth-century categorizations straight! In my own mind I classify them as Tudor-Victorians, but that’s just because I like to assign the characteristics of “Tudor” to anything and everything.

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20190614_150050This last house tricked me: I turned the corner and thought I was seeing TWO houses ahead of me, but there was only one!

Well whatever style this is, it definitely dates from the 1880s and 1890s. I looked through some architectural catalogs in the vast Building Technology Heritage Library at the Internet Archive and the earliest example of half-timbered embellishment I could find was from the early 1880s, though I didn’t really conduct an exhaustive search. These homes are described simply as “modern” in contemporary texts, though the addition of the half-timbering detail also seems to have called for the addition of the adjectives “cozy” and “comfortable”. They are all cottages, of course, whether consisting of four rooms—or forty.

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Lynn CollageHalf-timbered cottages from William T. Comstock’s Cottages (1884) and Lambert’s Suburban Architecture (1894).


Brandywine Weekend

I am just back from a long weekend spent in the Brandywine Valley spanning the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware. A few friends and I drove down principally to visit Winterthur, but I think we were blindsided by all the attractions of this beautiful region: the lush landscape was a welcome escape from still-Spartan New England too! As usual, time was limited, so I felt like I was rushing around trying to see and capture as many houses, gardens, and treasures as possible, but there was simply too much. I’m going to have to go back and spend a week or more. So what you will see in these next two posts are rather impressionistic views of the region in general and Winterthur in particular. When I return, the first thing I’m going to do is drive down every single road slowly (or maybe bicycle) so I can see as many old houses as possible: stone, brick, wood, and combinations thereof, small and large.

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Just a sample of the many beautiful houses in the Brandywine Valley: you can see that I was drawn to the stone as it’s more unusual in New England. We were fortunate to be taken to see Primitive Hall, a 1738 manor house in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with its double (“pent”) roof, a common architectural feature of early houses in the region, including the Gideon Gilpin House at the Brandywine Battlefield site. The Battle of Brandywine was the Marquis de Lafayette’s first American battle, and he was quartered at the Gilpin House.

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Primitive Hall exterior and interior and the Gideon Gilpin House at the Brandywine Battlefield site; outbuildings of both houses—I could write an entire post on historic Brandywine sheds!

The region is beautifully preserved, in large part due to the work of the Brandywine Conservancy, as well as the institutional presence of the Brandywine River Museum, Winterthur, and Longwood Gardens, and the efforts of farm (horses! mushrooms!) owners as well, I am sure. What really stood out for me, besides the abundance of open land, were a number of really stately trees—and I am no tree girl. Looming over the public part of the Brandywine Battlefield site is an American sycamore tree dating to 1787–almost a witness to the Revolution. We saw a seventeenth-century “Penn Oak” on the grounds of the London Grove Friends Meeting House in West Marlborough, Pennsylvania, and many old trees in Longwood Gardens.

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Longwood Gardens, the lifetime passion and achievement of industrialist and philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954) was almost overwhelming in its beauty, scale, organization and administration. What a resource for this community! I would live there if I lived nearby. I think we visited at the perfect time with abundant spring blooms everywhere, but I’m sure it’s beautiful in every season and I intend to visit in every season. There was rather dreary day on the Friday we visited, but the sun miraculously appeared for the afternoon, so no filters were needed for these photos!

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20190426_153431Longwood Gardens + Conservatory and “Green Wall” surrounding restroom doors!

I don’t think that we were completely prepared (yet again) for just how charming the Brandywine River Museum of Art is, with its comprehensive yet intimate focus on multiple generations of the multi-talented Wyeth family. I was pretty familiar with patriarch N.C. Wyeth’s illustration work,, somewhat familiar with that of his son Andrew, and a bit familiar with that of his grandson Jamie, but I had no idea that all of his children were so talented, that he was mentored by my favorite illustrator of all time, Howard Pyle, and that he suffered such a tragic death (crushed by a train, along with his little grandson, in 1945). There was also a poignant tribute to Phyllis Mills Wyeth, the wife and muse of Jamie Wyeth, who died just this past January, in the form of an exhibition of Jamie’s works which depict and were inspired by her—including a series of charming Christmas cards which he made for her every year. A visit to the Wyeth family home and N.C.’s studio nearby enhanced the whole experience, and also highlighted how and why the Brandywine Valley was and is so inspirational.

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20190426_115536Treasures of the Brandywine River Museum of Art, including: Howard Pyle’s influential “historic” illustrations and a N.C. Wyeth cover, Andrew Wyeth’s Snow Hill  and Jamie Wyeth’s Lime Bag, N.C.’s studio exterior and interior and in Andrew’s North Light, N.C. Wyeth, framed by his parents and looking down on his talented family, a Jamie Wyeth Christmas card for his beloved wife Phyllis.


The Snow Castle

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

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

Snow Castle 2011

WHite Castle 2014

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

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

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

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Snow Castle Portsmouth Benson Family Home

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

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

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Benson Galleon Vose Galleries

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


I Miss the Assembly House

I miss the Assembly House, a Georgian structure on Federal Street built as an assembly house in 1782 and transformed by Samuel McIntire into a more elaborate residence in the next decade: its proper name is the Cotting-Smith Assembly House (although it was charmingly called the “old Assembly House” after Hamilton Hall was built in 1805) and it was donated to the Essex Institute in 1965, the last building to be added to the Institute’s collection of historic houses, I believe. Of course the house still exists–I can see it at any time–but it has changed from when I first knew it: it has lost all of its trees–and its life. It is still, dark, and stark. It’s a shadow of its former self, or a ghost.

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assembly house drawing hne bestThe Cotting-Smith Assembly House yesterday afternoon and in 1926, 1920 (in a painting by Felicie Ward Howell, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), c. 1910 (Cornell) and an undated drawing (Historic New England).

I know, houses are not sentient beings as friends and family often tell me. But the Assembly House looks sad and it makes me sad to look at it, as I remember many happy times there in the 1990s, both before and after the Essex Institute and its houses were absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum. I remember: teas, two baby showers, several anniversary dinners, a graduation party, a cooking class (???), coffees for candidates for local office—it seemed as if we were in there quite a lot! I remember feeling that the house was rather homey, despite its elegant interior details. I remember sitting on the back stairs talking to two friends who are no longer alive. I remember being wowed by the front staircase—with its second-floor landing and pedimented door—every time I saw it. But all these memories are from a long time ago, at least 20 years. I miss all of the Essex Institute/PEM houses, with the exception of the Ropes Mansion which was restored and reopened a few years ago. (Actually what I really miss is the Essex Institute, but that statement will always produce eye-rolls among those who believe that the Peabody Essex Museum rescued both the Institute and the Peabody Museum. This may be true–but it’s hard not to notice those dark stretches of Essex—and Federal—Streets).

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assembly house bg 1985Photographs of the Cotting-Smith Assembly House interior, Historic New England; Los Angeles Time, 1926; Boston Globe, 1963 and 1985.

The house where Lafayette danced in 1784 and Washington dined in 1789 and Susan Coolidge (above) came out and many other people celebrated weddings, anniversaries, and simply lived their lives was “restored, refurbished, and remembered” according to the 1985 story in the Boston Globe above but seems largely forgotten these days. It was celebrated across the country in 1926 as Salem marked its 300th anniversary, but seems likely to be overlooked as the city marks its 400th.


Let There be Light

Maybe it was just me, but it seemed as if Halloween was spilling over into Christmas this year in Salem, with “Haunt the Halls” and “Grave Tidings” markets offering up dark wares and bats popping up in nearly every shop I entered: adorning jewelry, candles, and walls. Now I really do like bats, but they are not my creature of choice for this particular season; I would rather see deer, rabbits and sheep, squirrels and foxes—and fluffy fake stuffed versions of the latter rather than the taxidermy example I encountered at one downtown shop, right alongside a box of bones and more bats (real stuffed). Thankfully I was able to find light in several other shops with more cheery merchandise, the city’s bustling restaurants, and all along the streets, with so many houses lit up for the season: because we have quite enough darkness at this time of year, thank you very much. I have wanted to do more posts featuring Salem at night for quite some time, but my photographs never turn out very well. I took all the advice that was offered on the web, and began my photo safari at dusk as recommended, and I think I came up with some pretty good shots, but for every image you see below there are about six or seven blurrier examples. I felt a bit voyeurish sneaking up on all these Christmas trees but that’s why they are in the window, right? And all those lights are why Christmas is so great in the city–much more so than silver bells these days.

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And a blur of red: Lunch for Santas and Paxton’s penguins at dusk and later.Santa Lunch

Light RedMerry Christmas!


Joy and Remembrance

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

The second week of December in Salem: at home

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Around the McIntire District:

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

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