Category Archives: Salem

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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Six Hours in Salem

At the end of the nineteenth century, Salem was a mecca for architects-in-training, who came individually and collectively—most notably through the “summer school” of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s pioneering architecture program—to measure and draw details and outlines of its storied houses. Their work was published occasionally in the the American Architect and Building News as well as in a series of beautiful portfolios titled The Georgian Period. In volume III of the latter, published in 1899, the Rochester-based architect Claude Fayette Bragdon, a fascinating man of many interests including mathematics, set and lighting design, the occult, as well as architectural theory and practice, visited Salem for an afternoon, and rendered his impressions in both text and images. He acknowledges Salem’s two other major draws, the witch trials and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and then gets right into his categorization of Salem architecture: To the mind of an architect the buildings of Salem arrange themselves naturally into three classes: first, those very old houses, built by early settlers in the most primitive times, possessing all the dignity and simplicity and withal, the barrenness of the Puritan character, and around which cluster many strange, true histories and curious traditions; second, those built in later Colonial and Revolutionary days, usually by rich merchants and shipowners, when Salem had become a principal port of entry, and an important commercial centre, and in which the Colonial style is exhibited in its very flower, and third, those purely modern structures—confused, chaotic—which have sprung up in profusion in some part of the town, like weeds in an old fashioned garden. CONFUSED, CHAOTIC WEEDS! If this is Bragdon’s characterization of “modern” architecture in 1899, imagine what he would say now!

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It’s not entirely clear why Bragdon’s illustrated essay is included in The Georgian Period: he was not affiliated with MIT nor was he was particularly reverent of colonial architecture. But I am very happy to be introduced to him via Salem, as he was a very interesting, multi-faceted man, who wrote several books on theoretical architecture and seems to have worked in every single genre of the decorative arts. He strikes me as a modern Renaissance Man, and I’m looking forward to learning more about him.

Bragdon CollageJust three of Bragdon’s works on architecture, in its widest possible sense.

Bragdon’s essay is included in a volume of select reprinted Georgian Period essays published in 1988 entitled The Spirit of New England, and MIT Summer School drawings and Frank Cousins photographs are added to round out his presentation—but of course that means the presentation is no longer his. But his words are there, as well as his drawings of “old colonial work”, including an interesting rendering of an Eagle-less Hamilton Hall. Missing McIntire? That’s pretty curious. Well, no matter, I’m still struck by Bragdon’s exuberant writing style. At the end of his six hours in Salem, he is reluctant to leave this veritable mine of architectural wealth but his impressions are “permanently” formed of an exceedingly quaint and picturesque old town, striving here and there to be “smart” and modern, like some faded spinster who has seen better days, who mistakenly prefers our shoddy fabrics to the faded silks and yellow lace and other heirlooms of an opulent past. I can see that, still, especially the bit about the mistaken preference for shoddy fabric.

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Requiem for a Carriage House

There is nothing, nothing, that is worse than neglect, of anything that is in your care. I am always material-minded so I’m going straight to architecture: demolition by neglect infuriates me. It’s expensive to own an old house: I have a long list of tasks that my house needs and I wish I could spend the money that I’m going to spend on the house on travel, or a Sheraton sofa, or lustreware from the 1820s, but I can’t: I bought this house and I therefore I must be a responsible steward of it. I work hard to maintain it in the condition that it demands, as does my husband. The down payment for this house came from money I inherited from my grandfather, who also worked long hours to provide for his extended family; his father came over on a boat from southern Italy all alone at age 10 and worked as a tailor to send all four of his American-born children to college (even the girls) and leave them legacies which they passed down to their children. My legacy is my house, and I would never neglect it: it would be an insult to my family as well as my community. So when I see families of much more ancient American lineage, with the possessions to prove it, exhibiting carelessness at best, and neglect at worst, towards their properties, I get mad. Such is the case with a beautiful brick Federal house overlooking the Ropes Garden, left to rot for years by a family that first arrived in Salem in the seventeenth century, and only recently undergoing renovation. This house will be saved, at long last, but its owner has applied for permission to demolish the mansard-roofed carriage house in the rear of the property. The Historical Commission rules through the granting of certificates: non-applicability, appropriateness, hardship. The owner of this carriage houses seeks the latter, but this is clearly a case of willful neglect over many, many years, initiated by a man who is called, incomprehensibly, “an outspoken champion of historic preservation” in his obituary and carried on by his heirs.

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Felt House and Carriage House 2

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As you can see from the photographs (the black-and- white is a Frank Cousins view from the 1890s and the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum), the Victorian carriage-house doesn’t exactly go with the Federal house adjoining it: it was built as an outbuilding of the Italianate George. C. Shreve house fronting Federal Street and only purchased by our “outspoken champion of historic preservation” in the late 1960s, I believe. The Shreve House was converted to condominiums a while ago, and its residents are probably very tired of having this derelict building looming over their parking lot. But what a loss: of a once-elegant structure, of historical texture and fabric, of opportunity. It’s not difficult to find examples of Victorian carriage houses transformed into residences of all kinds, and just when the City of Salem is seeking to expand its inventory of “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) in response to an intensifying housing shortage in our region, the impending demolition of this likely candidate seems even more tragic.

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CARRIAGE-HOUSE-2Larry Kupferman, Victorian Carriage House, Carnegie Museum of Art; the converted carriage house at A Cambridge House Inn, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Losing our History? Two Years Later……Where are We with the PEM?

Two years ago tomorrow,  the temporary location of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum shut down rather abruptly with a succinct notice of when it would be reopening but no reference to where. As the Library is the primary repository of documents relating to Salem’s history, there were concerns among scholars (including a friend of mine who was writing her dissertation based on materials in the Phillips and was quite suddenly shut out), but I don’t think the general public was too concerned: increasing inaccessibility in terms of hours–and then location—had been the trend for about a decade. I had never really depended on the Phillips for research or teaching (only this blog) so this was a big wake-up call for me:  I started thinking, what if it is not coming back? And then a few months later, in early December: the big non-announcement at a meeting of the Salem Historical Commission. The Phillips Library of Salem was no more: all of its holdings would be deposited in a giant Collection Center in Rowley, a half hour to the north. The special library—consolidated from collections of both the Peabody Museum and Essex Institute and housed in the spectacular purpose-built Plummer Hall on Essex Street—would now be part of a much larger modern warehouse of texts and objects located on a commercial strip of Route One. An Indiana Jones image formed in my mind, and the contrast between the genteel, accessible Plummer Hall and the post-modern former toy factory seemed too cruel, even discounting the distance factor.

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Early 2018 was all about resistance and defense: there was a very dramatic public forum at the Museum during which then-PEM CEO Dan Monroe justified his decision according to the priority of preservation: it was impossible to house these materials in Salem due to the deficiencies of the Plummer and adjoining Daland buildings and there was no other sufficient space in the city.  The “preservation vs. location” argument is still authoritative: with no discussion of why the PEM did not use the substantial monies donated to it for the library to improve and expand these facilities in Salem. Also still with us is the conflation of objects and texts, justifying the move to the Rowley storage center; the Phillips Library literally gets lost in this configuration. There was lots of press coverage in January, 2018: in both the Salem News and the Boston Globe, where a front-page story included the quote below from Mr. Monroe of which I just can’t let go. A “Friends of the Phillips Library” group, established right after the December 2017 Historical Commission meeting, expanded its presence on Facebook and eventually launched its own website, which remains the essential archive of this story.

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The official way forward seemed to be through a “working group” established by the Mayor of Salem, Kimberley Driscoll, and Mr. Monroe and including members of the city’s heritage organizations, most of which (with the exception of Historic Salem, Inc. and the Salem Athenaeum) were silent during the uproar and remain so. Almost immediately the PEM announced a compromise: a reading room would be reinstated in Plummer Hall (although what would actually be in this reading room is still unknown), a Salem history exhibit installed next door, and rotating exhibits of Phillips Library materials would be installed in the main museum buildings down and across Essex Street. I don’t think we’ve really moved much beyond this agreement, but there were also discussions about digitization, as the focus on the historical collections revealed just how far behind the PEM was in such initiatives, despite misleading news stories to the contrary. Once the library collections were moved to Rowley, digitization of some of the Phillips’ most popular items began, and consequently we can now see Frank Cousins’ photographs of Salem in the 1890s at the Digital Commonwealth and a variety of interesting texts at the Internet Archive. I give all credit for this ongoing development to Collections chief and Library Director John D. Childs, as I remember him stating that digitization was a priority at the January 2018 forum, while Dan Monroe would only offer that it was “expensive”.

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Witch of New EnglandEntrance to the George Peabody Estate, “Kernwood”, in North Salem, Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth; just one Phillips text at the Internet Archive.

And that brings us to the biggest development in these two years: the retirement of Dan Monroe, effective this past July. The new director of the PEM, Brian Kennedy, is not only an experienced museum administrator, but also a scholar, who began his first day at the Museum with a staff meeting in East India Hall referencing the vision of the founders of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum. This was encouraging to those of us on the outside, as the founders were overwhelmingly Salem men who believed that they were contributing to a repository of Salem history and culture, but we must remember that Mr. Kennedy is learning the lay of the land and that only one trustee on the PEM’s Board is a resident of Salem. The will of the founders—and successive donors—has always been the most pressing factor in my mind: I asked Mr. Monroe about “donor intent” at the January 2018 forum but he expressed no concerns. However, I’ve heard many, many, many concerns here (and in emails) from many of you. Both founder and donor intent can rise to the level of legal action, of course, and are administered within the purview of the office of the Attorney General. Very soon after the “non-announcement” of the move, we found the Essex Institute’s incorporation charter from 1821, which asserted specifically that its “cabinet” be situated in Salem. We assumed that this article was made null and void years ago, or at the very least through the merger of the Institute and Peabody Museum in 1992, but apparently that is not the case.

Essex Institute Incorporation

And so at the invitation of Mr. Michael Harrington, former Congressman and present owner of the Hawthorne Hotel who has taken a very active interest in this “case”, a group of concerned citizens, heritage professionals, and local political leaders met with Attorney General Maura Healey and her staff this past eventful July. It was a great meeting to which I was privileged to be invited. Ms. Healey listened intently to us over several hours, and explained the process by which the PEM has to petition the court to be released from the above article, a process that is overseen by her office. Apparently the PEM has not initiated this process (at least formally) yet, but can at any time, and presumably will (although they haven’t indicated that they were bound by any restrictions to date, so I’m wondering if things will just continue as they are). I voiced all of the concerns I’ve written about and heard here at this meeting, as well as my belief that the removal of the Phillips Library will cause economic harm to Salem over the long run, as the city has no professional historical society or museum to take its place. When history is only for sale, money determines everything: the topic, the take, the truth.

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I’m not sure what will happen now; obviously the Attorney General’s office is invested in this issue but it has been for some time. The Peabody Essex Museum is focused, with good reason, on opening its brand new wing at the end of September and branding itself as the #newpem. No doubt Mr. Kennedy is preoccupied with that, and with learning all about his new institution. Not only has the new wing been completed recently but substantive renovations to both the interiors and exteriors of the Plummer and Daland buildings are ongoing: the 1960s “stacks” addition has been shorn off, and many wonder where the Phillips materials could be housed if they were returned to Salem. The PEM had a viable plan for the expansion of the Phillips Library in these buildings and in Salem, but that plan was abandoned in favor of the new wing and Collection Center in Rowley.

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So I think that’s where we are, but any good summary should also include what remains to be seen, or what I still don’t understand. After two years of immersion in this very singular issue: these are the concerns, problems, and questions that still linger in my mind:

  1. I don’t understand why the City didn’t try harder to retain our history. It’s been dawning on me for some time that this entire proceeding reveals more about the City of Salem than the Peabody Essex Museum. Recently I’ve heard that the City’s tourism office, Destination Salem, plans to focus on genealogy or “roots” tourism over the next few years. This makes sense on one level, as this is the most dynamic trend in the tourism industry currently and Salem is Ellis Island for many Anglo-Americans, but it makes no sense on another, as Salem has no genealogical records because they are all in Rowley.
  2. I don’t understand how the Phillips Library is going to survive as a library in Rowley: a real library, with regular patrons, events, talks, exhibits and a sense of community. I can understand how it will exist as a repository, but not a library. Every research library I’ve ever worked in–the Folger, Houghton, the Massachusetts Historical Society—is an active gathering place, but I can’t see people gathering at that sterile place in Rowley. It’s a professional operation to be sure, and researchers will go there to do their research, but that’s about it. I guess that’s what the PEM wants, as the promise to offer exhibitions of Phillips collections is being kept, with a Hawthorne exhibition opening next month in the new wing, in Salem.
  3. Speaking of comparable research libraries, I don’t understand why a “Harvard Depository” system cannot be utilized with the Phillips Library, retaining the offsite Collection Center as a storage facility from which materials can be retrieved and brought to the MAIN Library, which could be reinstated in the Plummer and Daland buildings on Essex Street in Salem. This would solve the storage issue and retain the traditional space, place, and role of the Phillips Library, and it could be operated as an accessible facility that would serve researchers and the general (curious) public. I’m sure there’s a reason why this can’t happen, but I wish I knew what it was, as it seems like the reasonable solution to a layperson like me, and one which would benefit all parties: the PEM, the City of Salem, and the Phillips Library itself.

Boats and Bells

This past weekend was beautiful, with just a touch of autumn chill in the air and no discernible humidity. I spent Saturday painting my front fence, which is just about the most social thing you can do in a small city, and Sunday we went to one of my favorite annual Salem events, the Antique & Classic Boat Festival, and then to the Salem Maritime National Historic Site for its commemoration of 1619, the year that enslaved African-Americans officially first set foot in North America. The very clangy bell of the site’s reproduction East Indiaman Friendship (back at Derby Wharf after many years in dry dock for repairs, but still missing its masts) rang out for several minutes, along with bells across America, at precisely 3 pm. We had planned to go out on our own boat, but it was just too breezy, so we were seaside (or harborside) wanderers all day long, which was not very difficult duty.

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Just some boat shots which I’m not really equipped to annotate—my favorite was the Half Circle, second to last above, a 1954 pocket cruiser. Between the boat show and the bell-ringing, we stopped at the Derby Street gallery of local artist Paul Nathan–more boats were there and these really cool eyes. The onto the Friendship.

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The Dark Side of Old Salem

Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.

Henry David Thoreau, Slavery in Massachusetts (1854), an essay based on a speech given on July 4, 1854 in Framingham, Massachusetts, following the return and re-enslavement of Boston refugee Anthony Burns to Virginia in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

My romantic appreciation for “Old Salem” the olden/golden time of daring sea captains who brought home and commissioned the material culture I so admire, must be tempered by the historical myopia of its most expressive creators. While Henry David Thoreau’s generation included many Salem residents who were ardent and influential abolitionists, several generations later the Salem’s participation in the trans-Atlantic slavery system was forgotten quite conveniently. This must have been a national trend which at long last is provoking the equally-national revisionist trend we are in now, but still, we can’t let the authors of these histories and reminiscences of limited memory off the hook, for it is a fact that the first ship which brought enslaved Africans to Massachusetts was the Salem-made Desire, captained by a Mr. William Pierce of Boston. As noted in Governor John Winthrop’s manuscript history of Massachusetts, in 1638 the Desire, returned from the W. Indies after seven months. He [stopped] at Providence[Isle] and brought some cotton and tobacco and negroes &c, and salt from Tertugo [Tortuga]. Dry fish and strong liquors are the only commodities for those parts. He met there two men sent forth by the Lords &c. of Providence, with letters of marque who had taken divers prizes from the Spaniards, and many negroes.

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This was not a one-off cargo but the beginning of a trade, rationalized by the labor demands of a colony that had already incorporated indigenous slavery into its framework and was overwhelmed by all that land on the horizon: only very cheap, preferably free, labor turn it into something of value. Winthrop’s brother-in-law Emmanuel Downing, writing from his Peabody estate in 1645 rather than the elaborate Salem house he later lived in, explained it very succinctly in a letter to the Governor:  If upon a just war [with the Narragansetts] the Lord shall deliver them into our hands, we might easily have men, women and children enough to exchange for Moors, which will be more gainful pillage for us then we conceive, for I do not see how we can thrive until we get into a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business, for our children’s children will hardly see this great Continent filled with people, so that our servants shall desire freedom to plant themselves, and not stay but for very great wages. And I suppose you know very well how we shall maintain 20 Moors cheaper than one English servant. Winthrop and Downing are very clear, even casual, in their acceptance of slavery, but their early twentieth-century historians don’t acknowledge their clarity, or seek to engage with it. Here’s what Ralph Delahaye Paine has to say about the Desire, in his popular The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem: The Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement (1912).

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Well, I’m sure you can characterize his interpretation by the subtitle of his book, but still, it’s a bit alarming to see “negroes” in one sentence followed by this ship Desire was a credit to her builders with nothing in between! No judgement, no context, just obvious approval of the “genius” of Salem’s merchants and shipmasters, “for discovering new markets for their trading ventures and staking their lives and fortunes on the chance of finding rich cargoes where no other American ships had dreamed of venturing.” In one of my favorite domestic remembrances of Old Salem, there is a similar dismissiveness, or non-engagement: in Old Salem, “Eleanor Putnam” (1886; really Harriet Leonora Vose Bates) recalls Salem shops, Salem Schools, and Salem sea captains, but even though she discloses that the manuscript memories of her cousin the sea captain references the slave trade, she doesn’t engage—she is much more interested in telling her readers precisely how he took his rum!

Dark Old Salem

That’s pretty much how the Colonial Revival “Old Salem” generation dealt with slavery: the occasional reference, but minimal engagement or recognition that it was a foundation of the golden era which they hold in such high esteem. It is convenient that slavery became illegal in Massachusetts in 1783, so that the Salem of Samuel McIntire and the early republic can be depicted without its taint. But this limited view would not last forever: the ultimate antiquarian George Francis Dow, the force behind Pioneer Village, the restoration of the John Ward House, and the Essex Institute’s pioneering period rooms, published Slave Ships and Slaving in 1927. Dow’s book is largely based on first-hand accounts of those who experienced the slave trade over the early modern era—except for those enslaved, of course— and while he references the Desire (though he makes her a Marblehead-built ship) he does not note either the year or the specific date of August 25, 1619, when enslaved African-Americans first stepped foot in North America, in the Jamestown port of Point Comfort, traded for rations by the crew of the White Lion, an English privateering ship sailing under Dutch authority which had captured its human cargo from a Spanish slave ship in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the date now, and the 400th anniversary of this consequential date is upon us. It’s being marked by an ambitious series in the New York Times, initiatives and events by commissions across the country, and a nationwide bell-ringing moment (at 3 pm) initiated by the National Park Service. In its recurring role as the guardian of serious historic interpretation in Salem, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site has invited the community to engage in its bell-ringing event (on the deck of the Friendship) at 2:45 on Sunday, followed by an interactive tour of slavery at the site. I can’t imagine a better place to reflect—looking out over the water, on a ship—and I love the bell-ringing ritual, as it brings us back to the days of the fiery abolitionists, and very far away from those of the Old Salemites. In the same Independence Day speech which I quoted at the beginning of this post, Henry David Thoreau remarked that Every humane and intelligent inhabitant of Concord, when he or she heard those bells and those cannons, thought not with pride of the events of the 19th of April, 1775, but with shame of the events of the 12th of April, 1851 (when the first refugee from slavery after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act,  Thomas Sims, was returned to Georgia): the distortion of revolutionary ideals by slavery was so very clear to him, and them, and I think (hope) it is for us as well.


The Architecture of Memory

I suppose it’s a bit melancholy to be dwelling on cemeteries in the midst of a golden August but the community conversation around the proposed closure of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point on Charter Street, during October when it is besieged by crowds, has my head spinning in several directions. I’m thinking about preservation, education, memory, and reverence, public history and family history. Cemeteries are more complicated than I thought, but generations past valued these spaces in ways worthy of revisiting, and to do so I started searching through some old photographs of Charter Street, most by Frank Cousins, whose large collection of glass plate negatives has recently been digitized by the Peabody Essex Museum and Digital Commonwealth. There are no people in Cousins’ photographs of Salem cemeteries in the 1890s and 1910s, so they don’t shed any light on social practices, but the fact that he made so many photographs of both graveyards and gravestones is a testament to their perceived value in the urban landscape. I always thought of Cousins as primarily an architectural photographer, but of course cemeteries are a form of architecture, and he was also a contemporary of Harriette Merrifield Forbes (1856-1951), whose Early New England Gravestones and the Men who Made Them, 1653-1800 (1927) was a groundbreaking work on colonial funerary art. Forbes included Charter Street gravestones in her work, and I think every single regional guidebook from this fledgling age of heritage tourism drew Salem visitors to the Old Burying Point in general and the graves of Bradstreet, Mather, Lindall, Hathorne, McIntire, More (and more) in particular.

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Charter Street LindallIt seems as if Timothy Lindall’s gravestone has always been in the spotlight.

Cousins photographed all of Salem’s cemeteries–the “newer” ones, Greenlawn and Harmony Grove as well as the Colonial grounds, Broad, Howard, and Boston Streets—but he really focused on Charter Street, in more ways than one. We see all the details of the individual stones as well as the big picture, including a built context which is very different now. The photographs are just beautiful, and important, as he captured fragile objects for all time.

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Charter James Jeffrey

The fragility of these memorials is very apparent when we compare Cousins’ photographs to their condition today (though I am not the photographer that Cousins was obviously and I think black-and-white really serves cemetery photography better). Of course time wears everything down, and the competing demands of Salem’s rich material heritage necessitate prioritization: as I said in my last post, I think the City should be commended for its preservation initiatives of recent years. But we really need to remember that these memorials are going to deteriorate under the best of conditions, and the intense crowds of every October are the worst of conditions.

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Charter Cousins Mores Collage

pixlr-4I feel particularly bad for Mr. and Mrs. Nutting, put to rest in a lovely calm neighborhood and now in the midst of the Salem Witch Village! And I really wish that Cousins had photographed my very favorite Charter Street gravestone: that of Mr. Ebenezer Bowditch. What are those carvings? Does anyone know?

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When our descendants look at photographs of the Old Burying Point in our time a century from now, what will they see? I really hope it’s these weathered but still-stately stones, and not the props I saw when I searched through several social media sites with the hashtag #salemcemetery. This is just a sampling, I’m sorry to say.

pixlr-5Old Burying Point Cemetery, Charter Street, Salem, October 2017 & 2018.


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