Category Archives: Houses

Trimmed Out

I grew up a few towns over from the famous “Wedding Cake House” in Kennebunk, Maine, more formerly known as the George W. Bourne house, and so it’s always been a part of my life. But it’s been a few years, so I drove by last weekend and was saddened to see some of its famous “icing”, or Gothic trim, in poor condition due to a succession of harsh Maine winters. Really it’s a miracle that all that confection has lasted as long as it has in the New England climate: certainly its survival must be a testament to the fact that it remained in the Bourne family for three generations and only left the family’s ownership in 1983. I can’t imagine a Bourne failing to honor the personal craftsmanship and labor of Mr. Bourne, who utilized his ship-building skills after a trip to Europe brought him to gaze upon Milan Cathedral and inspired his construction of an elaborate Carpenter Gothic frame around his spare Federal house, by not taking very special care of all that trim.

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The Wedding Cake House, Kennebunk, Maine My pedestrian pictures, and a stunning photograph by Carol Highsmith in the 1980s, Library of Congress.

As you can see, everything was “Gothicized” in the 1850s: the main house, built in 1825 as a classic two-story late Federal, new barn with connector, and fence. There’s a few little Gothic outbuildings too. I remember always being absolutely awed by this house, every time I saw it, and after I went to Italy and saw the Milan Cathedral for myself I drove up to see if I could “see” Bourne’s inspiration upon my return. And I could! I still can, but this last time I saw the house I had a heretical thought: I wonder if it would look better without all that trim? 

Trimmed out 1965 LOC

Trimmed out 1965 barn

Duomo Milan

The George W. Bourne House and Barn in 1965, HABS, Library of Congress; the Duomo in Milan in 1846 by British photographer Calvert Richard Jones, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of the Gothic Revival, but after looking at lots of houses and house plans over the years I think I prefer those structures that were designed in this style from the outset rather than adapted to conform to ideals (and instructions!) offered up by Andrew Jackson Downing and others. Indeed, The Horticulturalist, a periodical edited by Downing from 1846 until his death in 1852, published an illustration of a “common country house” transformed and “improved” by the addition of gable, porch and trim in July of 1846. I have to admit: I prefer the “before”.

Trimmed Out Horticulturalist July 1846

But then again: Americans are (were?) ever in search of “improvement” and I can’t think of anything more American than George W. Bourne rushing home from Europe to transform–by hand–his “common country house” into a mini Milan Cathedral! I don’t think it happened quite like that, but I love that story, and I also love the ultimate Gothic conversion on the next street over: the Pickering House (although I must admit that I would really like to see an image of it in its original seventeenth-century form).

Trimmed Out Pickering


The Last Summer of White Court

The century-old Classical Revival mansion in nearby Swampscott which served as the “Summer White House” for Calvin and Mrs. Coolidge in 1925 is not long for this world, as just last week the Swampscott Historical Commission agreed to reduce the requisite demolition delay ordinance period to just 90 days in return for its purchasers’ agreement to salvage and reproduce significant architectural elements as they transform the estate into 18 condominiums. Looking at all of the old photographs of White Court, which was designed by architect Arthur Little and built near his family’s summer home on Little’s Point, “reproduction” seems unlikely; I can’t speak to salvage. In any case, the mansion will be demolished, and along with it will go a material reminder and symbol of a notable era in Swampscott’s history, a golden era when the residence of the President drew many eyes to this seaside town.

White Court 1900

White Court Arrival

Coolidge firstWhite Court in 1900, Bain News Service, Library of Congress; The arrival of President and Mrs. Coolidge at White Court in Swampscott in June of 1925, and the pair with one of their white collies (either Rob Roy or Prudence Prim ) at the estate during the summer, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries Special Collections and University Archives Alton H. Blackington Photograph Collection, ca. 1920-1963.

The Coolidges were welcomed warmly and seen about Swampscott and surrounding towns occasionally: according to the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation blog, the President worked from an office in Lynn, sailed on the presidential yacht Mayflower docked in Marblehead, and attended services with Mrs. Coolidge every Sunday at the Salem Tabernacle Congregational Church. There was not a lot of entertaining, as the Coolidges had lost their sixteen-year-old younger son, Calvin Jr., just a year previously. There were many strolls around the six-acre seaside property, white collie alongside, apparently: we only get to see one such stroll, right after the Coolidges arrive when the press were clearly on hand to see them settled into their summer home. Their smiles come and go; this is a dutiful walk—I’d like to see them on a more casual stroll but I’m glad the photographers were not enabled to intrude for too long. We have many photographs of their activities off the estate however: this was a well-documented presidential vacation!

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Coolidges White Court Leslie Jones Close Up

White Court SalemLeslie Jones photographs of President and Mrs. Coolidge at White Court, Swampscott, 1925, Boston Public Library; the Coolidges attend the Tabernacle Church in Salem, July 1925, Blackington Collection, University of Massachusetts.

I felt like I was intruding yesterday morning when I drove over to Little’s Point to see the condemned mansion, which was very much in the midst of a construction zone. It didn’t seem possible to walk down its long entry lane (which was also marked private) to snap a photograph, so I have no “now” to contrast with all of my “then”. The last time I was on the premises was a couple of years ago, when the mansion was the main building of Marian Court College, a Catholic commuter college operated by the Sisters of Mercy from 1964 to 2015. There were institutional additions to its exterior, and I did not see the interior, but the core of the building looked pretty much the same as it did in that spotlight summer of 1925. But apparently its foundation has deteriorated beyond repair, and so White Court must cease to exist, come September.

White Court Interior HNE

White Court Leslie Jones BPL The drawing room of White Court in its residential era, Historic New England; an exterior view by Leslie Jones, Boston Public Library.

Appendix: Thanks to Jonathan for informing me that White Court was the site of Northshore Magazine’s “Best of the North Shore” awards just last year: great photographs of the mansion below and more here. Also, in return for their reduced demolition delay period, the developers have agree to document the house thoroughly, so we will (at least) be able to see detailed architectural photographs at some point.

White Court 2017

White Court 2017 2


Green(houses) in Salem

So I can show you the beautiful day after our third big snowstorm of March, and also anticipate St. Patrick’s Day coming up this weekend, I am showcasing a portfolio of some of Salem’s green houses today, many cast in snow. It’s a very popular house color in Salem, so this is just a representative sampling. Green is a color that seems to transcend architectural style: you can easily find colonial, Federal, and all variations of Victorian examples. There are no green houses on Chestnut Street (where yellow is an exotic color) so I trudged over to Essex Street, where I found many—and even more on Federal Street.

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And then I walked towards downtown and the Common past everyone’s favorite Salem green house: a little gambrel-roofed charmer on North Street, which serves as a constant human-scaled welcome structure along this key entrance corridor, in sharp contradistinction to the over-scaled courthouse nearby. If this house was not here, and maintained in such perfect condition, visitors to Salem would have quite a different first impression: the house softens the street and hints at a more historic Salem.

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And then I was off, seeing green everywhere I went, all day yesterday and into this morning: you will note that the snow has melted off the trees in some of the pictures below, a sure sign of a late-season snowstorm. I tried to represent all shades of green: a very deep forest variety, emerald, and apple and minty greens that seem a bit more spring-like. Almost unbelievably, it will be Spring in Salem next week.

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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

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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


Hallowed House

There have been several Salem houses—houses that are no longer standing—that have haunted me; I get almost desperate to find out as much as I possibly can about them and if and when I do I’m done. If they remain inscrutable, they remain with me. There is one house that I’ve been thinking about for years: I’ve learned quite a bit about it but not enough: I’m not sure I’ll ever learn everything I want to know (at least not now, while I can’t get into the Phillips Library!). I’m posting on this house today just so I can stop thinking about it for a while.

The house in question is (was) the Colonel Benjamin Pickman house, built in either 1740 or 1750 or sometime in the decade between depending on the source, right on Essex Street, adjacent to where the Peabody Essex Museum’s East India Marine Hall now stands. Its former site was the Museum’s Japanese garden, recently transformed into a construction site–which is why I’ve been thinking about the Pickman House: have the workers found any material remains? Or does it just survive on paper–and in pieces? This is a house that was famous in its day, and well after. It was designed by an English architect–previously unknown but possibly identified as Peter Harrison, who also possibly designed the Cabot-Low-Endicott House further along Essex Street and the “King” Hooper Mansion in Marblehead. Whoever the architect or builder was, all agree that it was the client, the Colonel himself, who had carved and gilded codfish affixed to every riser of the house’s central stairway in acknowledgement of the source of his wealth and position, thus inspiring that perfect phrase, “Codfish Aristocracy”. Its elegant furnishing were much commented upon by contemporary observers and diarists, as was its rusticated wooden siding, meant to mimic stone. There’s a long list of prominent diners at the house, including Alexander Hamilton: on June 20, 1800. The house was successively celebrated, lithographed, photographed, obscured, picked-apart, measured and drawn, and ultimately demolished in 1940 or 1941.

Pickman Lithograph Boston Athenaeum

Pickman collage

Pickman Cod

Benjamin Pickman Doorway Cousins

All representations of the Pickman House are based on the c. 1830 lithograph published by Pendleton’s Lithography which shows the house in its pristine eighteenth-century state (courtesy Boston Athenaeum); an amped-up Pickman codfish from Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: a Biography of the Fish that Changed the World; A Frank Cousins photograph of the enclosed doorway which Samuel McIntire added to the house c. 1800. 

We can’t see this famous house for most of its life, which only adds to its air of mystery (and vulnerability). Charles Webber and Winfield Nevins, the authors of Old Naumkeag: An Historical Sketch of the City of Salem and the Towns of  Marblehead, Peabody, Beverly, Danvers, Wenham, Manchester, Topsfield and Middleton (1877) inform us that a certain “Mrs. LeMasters” constructed several low shop buildings in front of the house in the 1870s, and so we only see dormer windows peaking out from above in all the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century views of Essex Street and the East India Marine Hall.  The Pickman family had moved west–into the residential McIntire District–away from the increasingly-busy downtown. A correspondent from the Philadelphia Inquirer who visited Salem in September of 1918 to see all the old storied mansions noted that the charming old house next to to the Peabody Museum has been all but obliterated by the shop front built out over its first and second stories…the gambrel roof, with its picturesque dormer windows, may still be seen overlooking the horrid shops, but all the inside fixtures have been destroyed. Progress is painful!

Pickman 1912

Pickman PEM PC

Pickman 1920s

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You can see the Pickman House dormer windows peaking out from above the storefront on the right of the two postcards and just above the P&Q shop, c. 1920s. These images were sourced for me from the Salem State Archives and Special Collections by Jen Ratliff–thanks! The house is completely invisible in the street- view photograph above from the late 1800s and the Phillips Library–it’s just behind the shops on the left, beginning with the “Importers of Crockery” storefront.

We do get to see the the unobstructed house (or what’s left of it), as a team of architects and photographers from the Historic American Building Survey went in to document it on the eve of its demolition–no doubt inspired by a succession of architects who had made the pilgrimage to Salem to measure and sketch this house, beginning with Arthur Little in 1877. As you can see, the storefronts didn’t just obstruct the house, they cut into it on the first and second stories. From that point on it must have been open season for house parts: an archway and a golden cod went to the Essex Institute, and all the other codfish went to a Pickman descendant’s Newport mansion: I think this one (where there is also a reproduction McIntire summer house) but I’m not certain.

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Pickman House

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Arthur Little sketch of the Pickman House parlor, Early New England Interiors (1878); William Martin Aiken sketch of Pickman architectural elements, 1883, Lowcountry Digital Archive; HABS MA-332 photographs and drawing, Library of Congress.

I’m not just interested in wood or architecture; I’m also interested in Colonel Pickman–but he remains pretty inscrutable too. Ultimately the only way to get to know him is through material remnants (like the silver he left to the First Church) or his family: his son Benjamin Pickman Jr. (whom I’ve written about here and here), was a Loyalist who left Salem during the Revolution but managed to easily assimilate into its social and political society upon his return–hence the dinner with Hamilton at the house! The more patriotic Colonel had died in 1773, so he doesn’t figure very prominently in the edited volume of his son’s diary and letters published in 1928. There is a beautiful portrait of the elder Benjamin by John Greenwood in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, but I’ve never seen it on display–nor the fluted archway and golden cod that is all that is left in Salem of the beautiful house that was once next door.

Benjamin PIckman collage

Colonel Benjamin Pickman of Salem, 1708-73.


Hamilton House

While I was up in York Harbor for the weekend I took the opportunity to visit Historic New England’s Hamilton House on Saturday afternoon while everyone else was at the beach. I’ve been on a historic-house museum kick this summer, and while I’ve been to Hamilton House (in neighboring South Berwick) before, it merits repeated visits if only for its setting and gardens. It’s the perfect Colonial/Colonial Revival House, built in the earlier period (c. 1785) by new money and “restored” with not-quite-old Boston money at the turn of the last century. In between, it was a working farm, with hay in the attic and tenants on the first floor. After it was acquired by Historic New England in 1946, it was returned to its original appearance on the exterior, but the Colonial Revival summer house interiors were retained.

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Hamilton House

Hamilton House Woodbury

Hamilton House today and in John Mead Howells’ classic Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua (1937)+ a Charles Woodbury illustration of the house, the setting for Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Tory Lover (1901). South Berwick native Jewett apparently convinced her friends Emily and Elise Tyson (Vaughan) to buy the derelict house for their summer retreat. The Tysons had sold their former summer house in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts to Henry Clay Frick, who promptly knocked it down. 

Because it was a summer house, there’s more than a bit of incongruity between the furnishings and the architecture: the former is genteel “shabby chic”, early twentieth-century style, and the latter is quite grand, especially the large central hall. The straw matting running through the house contributes quite a bit to this rambling mix. While obviously I am a Philistine when it comes to the interior of Hamilton House, it is much appreciated by others, and was also quite influential in its own time, as explained in this great post over at the Down East Dilettante. I did appreciate how its interiors related to its setting, poised as it is over the Salmon Falls River with gardens, fields and forest also in view, and the rather charming Zuber-esque murals of Portsmouth artist George Fernald Porter.

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Hamilton House 10

Hamilton Mural

Hamilton Dining

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First floor parlor, murals and dining room, and the requisite open hearth in the kitchen.

The summer furnishings also make the house feel very airy, particularly on the second floor. If the Tyson ladies found anything remotely Victorian in the house when they took possession, I am certain that it was banished immediately! As we ascended upstairs, we could see an exposed beam which was repurposed by the house’s builder, Captain Jonathan Hamilton: when he didn’t need it for one of his ships, it was used for his new house.

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Hamilton Pano

Hamilton House Windows

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Hamilton Dolls

Just three of Elise Tyson Vaughan’s vast collection of dolls: apparently the remainder are in the Peabody Essex Museum. It’s impossible to search its vast collections so who knows?

The Tysons moved an adjacent barn and laid out an enclosed garden of “colonial” flowers surrounding a sundial and fountain and extending to a garden cottage composed of salvaged doors and planks from a first-period house across the river: a shady respite from the summer sun but at the same time open to its environs. As you can see, it’s the season for phlox, which surely must be the perfect Colonial Revival perennial.

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Hamilton Garden Cottage

Hamilton Garden


Red, White & Blue in the Newburys

I visited a friend up in Groveland yesterday and drove home in a very indirect way, east along Route 113 and south along Route 1A: I could have been home in a half hour or so but instead my return trip took several hours, because I had to stop and look at houses, of course. Much of my drive was through the Newburys: West Newbury, Newburyport, and just Newbury. These are all beautiful towns: Newburyport is the most bustling, and justly celebrated for its colonial and Federal architecture, but I’ve always been equally impressed by West Newbury, which is characterized by a line of beautiful classic colonials–interspersed with the occasional First Period house—all perfectly preserved. They’re all on Route 113, the main route between Newburyport and Haverhill and beyond–once obviously a country road running parallel to the Merrimack River but now pretty busy. There’s no sidewalk, so you have to look for spots to pull over and then walk alongside traffic until you reach the object of your adoration. Normally I don’t have time to do this, but yesterday I took the time.

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Houses on the West Newbury Training Field (+ World War I Memorial): two down, an amazing First Period house (which is actually light green).

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Newburyport, all ready for the Fourth.


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