Category Archives: Houses

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.

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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.

Cottage on a SIde Hill

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.


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