Category Archives: Salem

Cabin in the Sky

The evening before last I was incredibly privileged to be able to attend a gathering in a ship’s cabin at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel. Not an actual cabin of course, but a rather convincing model, built for the Salem Marine Society in the 1920s as a condition of the sale of their building to the developers of the hotel. The Society, which was founded in 1766, had met continually at this location since 1830, and while its members do not seem to have been particularly attached to their Italianate Franklin Building (which replaced the earlier McIntire Archer Block, destroyed by fire in 1860), they were very attached to the site. And so the new hotel opened in 1925 featuring not only six stories and the latest accouterments, but also a rooftop cabin room, inspired by the actual captain’s cabin of one of the last great Salem East Indiamen, the barque Taria Topan. This cabin in the sky also represents the fruitful collaboration between the barque’s one-time commander, Captain Edward Trumbull, and the architect of the Hawthorne, Philip Horton Smith. It remains the private meeting room of the Salem Marine Society and their occasional guests, of which I was fortunate to be one.

Salem Marine Society Cabin HH

Cabin Room HH

SMS Cabin Interior

Hawthorne Hotel Buildings Collage

Cabin HH Exterior

Nathaniel Bowditch presides over the Salem Marine Society’s cabin at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel, the evolution of construction on the spot, from Samuel McIntire’s Archer Block (completed by 1810) to the Franklin Building (built after 1860) to the Hawthorne Hotel (built in 1925); X marks the spot of the rooftop cabin.

I was so excited to be in this space that I was a bit frenzied and not very good company, I’m afraid. I just wanted to see and capture everything. My skittishness was compounded by the fact that it was an absolutely beautiful early evening, and the ship’s cabin opens up onto an equally enticing (on such a day) ship’s deck, affording amazing views of Salem in every direction. Up in the air, surrounded by water on three sides, Salem’s original maritime orientation is all too apparent: the next time someone complains to me about how inaccessible is, I’m going to tell them to take a boat.

View of the Harbor from HH

View of Salem Common

View of Essex Street from Rooftop

But all those dashing sea captains were back inside, hanging from the teak-paneled walls in the form of portraits (alongside navigational instruments and paintings of ships) and encased in the Society’s registry of masters, a vast compendium of faces from 1766 to the present. I could have spent hours with this volume, gazing at all these drawings, paintings, silhouettes, and photographs of men and (finally!) women. There are so many ways you could use this source: it’s not just a record of maritime history, but also genealogy, social history, military history, even fashion history. Hats, no hats, hats, no hats.

Captain Abbot

Captain Fisk of Salem

Captain Collage

Captains Collage

Captain Fillebrownp.

Captains Abbot, Fiske, Chipman, Millet, Ward (clockwise), Tucker (right) and Webb, masters and members of the Salem Marine Society; a 20th century portrait of Captain John Fillebrown, who served in the War of 1812 and died a prisoner of war at Dartmoor Prison in England, along with 270 other Americans.

There were stories to be found in the cabin as well. The most apparent and dramatic one concerned the status of the Society’s very first honorary member, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Commander in the U.S. Navy and the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Despite his maritime magnificence, Maury was a Virginian and so not eligible for membership in the Society, but its membership honored his achievements by bestowing an honorary membership on him in 1859 and hanging his portrait on the wall of their original rooms.Two years later, after Maury resigned his commission and joined the Confederacy upon the start of the Civil War, the Salem mariners rescinded his membership, condemned him as a traitor, and placed his portrait head down and against the wall. This “reverse orientation” remains to this day, though a visiting delegation of the Mary Washington Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities gifted the Society with another image of Commander Maury in 2008, which hangs alongside the reversed portrait. And so now, in the words of the southern Commander, “All is Well”.

Salem Marine Society Cabin Interior

Sticken from our rolls


Window Boxes & Wooden Boats

This past weekend was very busy in Salem, with the monthly Derby Square FSA market and the annual Jazz and Soul Festival, the Antique and Classic Boat Festival, and the New England Kayak Fishing Tournament all happening. My husband participates in the latter so I seldom saw him–kayak fishing is serious business! I wandered around on my own not really wanting to commit to a crowd, but as we missed the antique car meet last week I knew I had to see the boats. This summer’s very hot and humid weather seems to have finally lifted, so I took the long way there and back and snapped some photographs of window boxes, which are overflowing just about now. I love this first one, it’s a basement window box on Botts Court: a perfect adornment for an urban old house! Great shutters too.

Windowbox

windowbox 3

window box 6

window box 7

window box 8

On to the boats. Usually I go for the Chris Craft, but there wasn’t one this year. A Wagemaker runabout came closest to that standard, but my favorite boat of the festival was something a bit more exotic: a Norwegian sailboat, or “Bindel Faering Nordland” built in the 1960s and named Kanin, after the Norse god of cute and fluffy rabbits. With its carved bow and stern, it reminded me of a Viking ship, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The biggest boat was a 62′ foot “Commuter” built in 1923: it was rather difficult Miss Asia in one photograph. Boats such as these were utilized by their wealthy owners to commute from New York or Boston to their summer cottages in Newport or some other “gold coast”, and then down to Florida for the winter. An amazing display of craftsmanship, restoration effort, and wood on the water by Miss Asia and all of her fellow festival boats.

wooden boat 20

wooden boat 17

wooden boat 12

wooden boat 13

wooden boat 14

wooden boat 16

wooden boat 7

wooden boat 8

wooden boat2

wooden boat 11

wooden boat

wooden boat 19

Kanin, Miss Asia, and their dockside neighbors at the 34th annual Antique & Classic Boat Festival.


Preparing to Paint

Is there anything more engaging than an artist’s sketchbook? Or even a notebook with a few sketches in it? I suppose the end product doesn’t have to be visual, it’s the insight into that conception/creation/ working it out process that I’m interested in, but imagery tends to be far more accessible, of course. I use Leonardo’s notebooks extensively in my Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and early modern courses, and students are immediately engaged, entranced even, far more than they are when I show them the finished product. It’s interesting to see the wanderings of a very fertile mind in his case, what inspired him and what he also had to work out: perspective, motion, hands. Most of Leonardo’s sketches never made it onto canvas; once a particular challenge was overcome he moved on to the next one, but the sketchbooks of more (focused, disciplined, on-task???? it’s hard to compare Leonardo negatively to anyone) artists illustrate the progress from page to paint: those of Claude Monet immediately comes to mind. But again, it doesn’t have to be about images. The sketchbooks of  Massachusetts artist Alvan Fisher (1792-1863), a pioneer in American landscape, genre, and “view” paintings, gives us insights into his preparation for one of the first views of Salem from “Gallows Hill”, a scene that would be imitated time and time again over the course of the nineteenth century. Fisher jotted down notes about the Salem Witch Trials in his sketchbook, indicating that his inspiration for the Salem painting was not just the view he saw before him, but the events that brought him to this particular place.

Fisher View of Salem from Gallows Hill

Fisher Sketchbook no 5 1824

Alvan Fisher’s View of Salem from Gallows Hill (1818), Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, and Sketchbook no. 5, containing notes about the Salem Witch Trials, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. With the recent validation of Proctor’s Ledge below rather than Gallows Hill above as the 1692 execution site, it occurs to me that the inspiration for this famous “view” is based on a falsehood! Indeed, I think that the figures in the foreground are sitting on THE ledge. But clearly a perspective from that point would not be as revealing of the city below.

From what I can see, most of the sketches in Fisher’s notebooks in the Museum of Fine Arts contain more conventional preparatory sketches: houses, hills, streams, animals. Creatures, particularly creatures in motion and even more particularly birds, seem to captivate artists for centuries, from Leonardo to Salem’s most famous artist, Frank Benson. Browsing around sketchbooks which have been digitized (especially those included in this archived exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art), I can’t tell which is more captivating to me: individual sketches or the entire sketchbook, the works themselves or the works in progress. 

Fisher Notebook 1

Benson Sketchbook 1882

Bird Collage

Sketchbook Rockport

Sketchbook Porter

Page from Alvan Fisher’s Sketchbook no. 1, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Autographed sketch by Frank Benson, 1882, Skinner Auctions; Leonardo’s sketches from the Codex on the Flight of Birds and one of Benson’s bird sketches, Northeast Auctions; Covers of sketchbooks of Harrison Cady (1943) and Fairfield Porter  (1950) from the Archives of American Art.


Random Scenes of Summer

The only unified themes of today’s post are the season and the necessity of cleaning out the photograph folders on my phone, camera, and computer: everything seems very vivid this time of year so I snap, snap, snap away and now I must purge! There’s always something to see in Salem, and then we ran up to my hometown of York Harbor to escape the heat–but the heat was there too. I am not a beachgoer, so I spent the hot days in the “cottage” (which was supposedly built for precisely such weather) indoors and the cool day (we had three successive days of 95 degree-70 degree-95 degree weather) walking around looking at other cottages. Even though I grew up in York,  I still see something new every time I take a walk–as in Salem. I missed the annual vintage car show while up in Maine, but before I left I checked out two of the city’s newest enterprises: Waite and Pierce, the new shop on the grounds of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and Notch Brewery & Taproom, a beautiful space crafting for drinking in good company, with no obtrusive televisions and bad food (just big soft pretzels, for now).

Mid-August, Salem: the scuttelaria are out in my garden (along with the phlox), Java Head window exhibition at Salem Maritime’s West India Goods Store (curated by an SSU History student who did much more research than I did for my post), goods at Waite and Pierce, and the Notch experience.

Summer 4

Summer 5

Summer 1

Summer 2

Summer 3

In York and York Harbor: gardens at the Stonewall Kitchen company store; antiquing (the watercolor below, which was quite expensive, is supposedly a Salem street scene–not sure where–maybe Sewall Street before it became a parking lot for the YMCA?), York Harbor map (1910) and cottages present and past (on this particular stroll I was taken by the older, smaller, mostly-white cottages on the Harbor side), our family house (brown) and the Elizabeth Perkins House (red) and garden on the York River.

Summer 6

Summer 7

Summer 8 Sewall Street

Summer 13

Summer 14

Summer 17 the Samuel Donnell Garrison today and on the left in the older photograph–across from the entrance to the Harbor beach

Summer 10

Summer 12

Summer 11

Summer 9 an ongoing–and ambitious– restoration by a family: it was fun to see them working together……..

Summer 15

Summer 19

Summer 18.jpg goldenrod time at the Elizabeth Perkins House garden

An appendix:  While hiding from the heat indoors, I browsed through several old photographic books of York, and became intrigued (for the fourth or fifth time) with “The Comet”, an odd contraption featured at Short Sands Beach in York Beach a century ago, in which tourists were carried out onto the sea on a track: has anyone seen such a thing anywhere else? Was this a contemporary seaside fad or a unique York Beach attraction?

Comet Collage The Comet in action


August Americana Picks

August is the season of Americana offerings at auctions and antique shows, and I have my eyes on a few lots in upcoming auctions at my favorite regional auctioneers.I really don’t “need” anything, but that has never stopped me from looking, pretty much everywhere I go, but especially through online auction catalogs and at previews and shows. What am I looking for? I’m always entranced by transferware, even though (or perhaps because) I sold off my own collection of pink a few years ago. Creamware, pearlware and mochaware. MAPS, especially schoolgirl maps. SIGNS, Salem especially, but not necessarily. Fancy chairs, always. Interesting paper. Anything with an unusual texture or history. In the past, Federal card tables: they are going for a song now but I simply have too many. So here is what is tempting me from sales coming up over the next week or so at Northeast and Skinner Auctions.

at Northeast:

August American TT

August Americana Colonial Cupboard Northeast

August Americana Ships Passage 1817

August Americana Salem Harbor Soup Plate

Copeland Spode’s Transferware Tissue Patterns; Colonial Cupboard made in Hudson Valley, New York;  Ship’s Passage for the Brig “Ceres” of Salem, signed by President James Monroe, 1817; English creamware soup bowl (one of a pair–the other features Nantucket Harbor) decorated with green enamel and black transfer print of Salem Harbor.

At Skinner:

August Americana 1 Skinner

Americana Auctions Metamorphosis Skinner

August Americana Eagle Print Skinner

August Americana Chairs

August Americana Desk Skinner

A polychrome transfer-decorated Liverpool Pottery creamware pitcher, bearing the name of Captain James Barr, a Salem Privateer whose house is still standing on Lynde Streeet; A Metamorphosis, America or England, 18th century, watercolor and ink on paper depicting Adam and Eve, and a lion changing into a griffin; Framed print of an eagle with an olive branch; Set of NINE fancy chairs with old green paint (it looks black to me, but the description says green); a nineteenth-century schoolmaster’s desk. This last item is a bit rustic for me, but for some reason I just love it. Maybe because it’s almost back-to-school time. Maybe I want to bring it back to school WITH me and carry it around from room to room to bolster my mastery!


Signs, Signs, everywhere a Sign

This summer I have given several thematic walking tours around Salem to various groups and have found myself looking at the city as a tourist might. One gets the impression of a very busy place, not just in terms of activities and traffic on the streets (which are nearly all torn up!) but also because of superfluous signage: I think Salem has a mild case of sign pollution. Recent efforts to streamline and standardize signs have resulted in some very nice “official” signs throughout the city, but many of the older signs from a more haphazard era still remain, and then we have the customary cases of Witch City exemptions. Here is a great illustration of what I mean: I took this photograph, but it was 100% inspired by a Salem Instagrammer who often captures interesting perspectives.

sign 2

A mixture of private and public signs on one Salem corner, and on one Salem street sign!

Attempts at sign conformity, emphasizing both information and aesthetics,are represented by the “Great Stories Begin Here” banner signs scattered throughout the city–which enable advertising through sponsorship–and the official signs which direct visitors to established heritage locations and neighborhoods.I think these stand out for the most part, except at certain locations where there are simply too many signs in close proximity.

Sign 8

sign

Sign 7

The worst cases of sign pollution by far are when public street signs have signs for private institutions affixed to them, as in the first photograph above. What are the signs for the Salem Witch Dungeon (which again, for the 99th time, I feel compelled to point out is not situated on the actual location of the former Witch “Dungeon” or jail) and the Gallows Hill Museum/Theatre (which is neither located on Gallows Hill or a “museum” or fully-functioning theatre) doing on public street sign? This is the Witch City exemption of which I spoke above: apparently witch “attractions” are allowed to affix their signs anywhere.

Sign 10

Sign 6

A lot of information here, but we always know that all of the streets of Salem lead to the Salem Witch Museum!

Apart from these unfortunate mishmashes, there are quite a few notable business signs in Salem, which is perhaps a topic for another post. But I’ll leave you with my favorite old and (relatively) new signs, for Bunghole Liquors on Derby Street and Turner’s Seafood on Church Street. The Bunghole sign reminds me of days gone by, when a sign was the only way for businesses to draw businesses in, and subtlety was not an option.

Signs 9

Sign 3

Witch City Vulcanizing Company 1917 SSU

Bunghole and Turner’s Seafood signs in Salem today, and the Witch City Vulcanizing Company on lower Lafayette in 1917, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.


A Hidden House with quite a History

Hidden behind a four-story brick apartment block built in the early twentieth century on lower Essex Street is a much older, much-altered house which has the appearance of a Georgian cottage. It’s not quite that, but close. The Christopher Babbidge House has been through quite a……..metamorphosis; I’m not sure if I have it completely straight or correct but here goes. According to Frank Cousins’ Colonial Architecture in Salem, the house is first period, built by tailor Babbidge as early as the 1660s on Derby Street. It descended in the Babbidge family until the mid-eighteenth century, at which time is was acquired by Richard Derby, patriarch of the famous Salem merchant family. Cousins is the only source of the original Derby Street location and seventeenth-century origins, but all the other sources (Sidney Perley, Historic Salem Inc., plaque research, and MACRIS seem to agree that it acquired its Georgian appearance and was considerably enlarged (and presumably moved to Essex Street if you follow Cousins) at this time or shortly thereafter, as Mr. Derby transferred it to his daughter Mary and her new husband George Crowninshield as a wedding gift. So by the 1760s we have a large (five-bay) Georgian house with a gambrel roof located directly on Essex Street. This was the house in which several of the famous Crowninshield sons (George Jr., Jacob, and Benjamin) were born.The wealthy Crowninshields had many Salem houses, so this one was eventually sold to a succession of owners, and in 1859 it was cut in half by current owner Phineas Weston, who wanted to build a new (Italianate) structure on the eastern end of the lot. The eastern half of the house was removed to Kosciusko Street while the western half remained on Essex, presumably shored up. The house seems to have flourished under the ownership of the Bowker family in the later nineteenth century, when Cousins took some lovely pictures, but in 1914 it was moved (again, according to Cousins) to the rear of its lot to make way for the brick buildings in front. So there we have it: a house that was moved, remodeled, expanded, cut in half, remodeled, and moved again. A true survivor on (or just slightly off) the streets of Salem!

Babbidge House Essex Street Cousins

Hidden House 2

Hidden House Babbidge

Babbidge House Stairways

Derby House Stairway HABS

The Babbidge-Crowninshield-Bowker House on Essex Street by Frank Cousins, 1890s, and today; drawing by Sidney Perley from the Essex Antiquarianits celebrated stairway by Cousins and Perley, and detail of the newel post at the Richard Derby House on Derby Street (HABS, Library of Congress, 1958)–so you can see the Derby connection.


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