Tag Archives: Antiques and Collectibles

A Turnkey Homestead

I’m using the expression “turnkey” in typical contrary fashion here: it’s a real estate term which generally means a house that requires no repairs or refurbishment, just turn the key and you are home in your new purchase. The Rundlet-May house in Portsmouth struck me as a turnkey house in another sense: Ralph May, the fourth of his generation to live in the house, donated it to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation for New England Antiquities) in 1971 and now when you enter the house (or turn the key, in a sense) it seems as if you are within a space that he just left. This is an imposing Federal, made less so by the lived-in ambiance of a home to four generations of the same family.

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Rundlett May 18The Rundlet-May House (1807) and views out back from its second and third floors.

Even though the house itself is an extravagant construction on large urban acreage, everything about its interior speaks to Yankee thrift: from the original peach damask wallpaper in one of the front parlors to the original Edison light bulb in a fixture on the second-floor landing–which is turned on once a year. It’s the perfect old-money house. John Rundlet, the self-made man who built (and apparently designed?) the house purchased and commissioned the best of everything (including a Rumford Roaster and a Rumford Range) and his descendants seem to have changed very little other than altering the use of its rooms to suit their activities and professions.

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Rundlett May 9First-floor parlors, hall and kitchen (with Rumford Roaster) and fire buckets, of course. I found several early 20th-century postcards of the house which referred to Samuel McIntire as the carver of the right parlor’s mantle (above), but I think this is just an illustration of the Salem architect and woodcarver’s fame in the midst of the Colonial Revival era.

There’s probably too much furniture–beautiful as it all is—in the house: tables and dressers and painted chairs. Should a beautiful card table be situated just inches away facing an even more beautiful Portsmouth bureau in a narrow window nook of an upstairs bedroom? No necessarily, but this placement allows us to see both of these pieces. There’s also a lot of stuff. But it’s their stuff and their home, and we are all privileged to be able to enter within!

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Ralph MaySecond and Third Floors, including Ralph May’s 3rd floor study, with all of his stuff. Below: this “musical” decorative motif ran through the house—it caught my eye because the same motif is on one of my Fancy chairs. (the last photograph).

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Fancy Chair


Georgian Grandeur in Portsmouth

Portsmouth always struck me as a Georgian town, even from a young age, when I first developed an appreciation for historic houses at Strawbery Banke and first spotted what is still one of my very favorite houses nearby. There are Federal houses too, but it doesn’t feel as Federal as its sister seaports to the south, Newburyport and Salem. There is a range of Georgian houses in Portsmouth, from relatively simple to absolutely grand: on this past weekend I revisited three of the latter varieties: the Warner House (1716) the Moffatt-Ladd House (1763),  and the Governor John Langdon House (1784). Each house has a different owner, and a different………style, but all are exquisite representations of their era. The combination of the entirety of their construction with all the crafted details within—including the wonderful Portsmouth furniture in each house—is hard to capture: you’ll just have to visit each one yourself.

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Georgian Langdon HouseThe Warner House, owned and operated by the Warner House Association from the early 1930s, The MoffattLadd House, owned and operated by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire, and the Governor Langdon House, a property of Historic New England.

I loved the colors of the Warner House: rich jewel tones throughout. It’s not too pristine: you do get the feeling that you are imposing on the past (although there is quite a lot of plastic fruit). Those wild murals! The textures are wonderful too—especially of the smalted rooms upstairs. This is the oldest urban brick house in North America and it feels that way: both old and urban. You look out its windows and see a bustling city—this would not have been the case in the 1930s when it was rescued or even later: the Warner guide, like all the Portsmouth guides I encountered last weekend, stressed the fact that the city’s current vibrance contrasts with its more depreciated state in the 1970s—and I remember that to be the case.

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Warner 3collageParlors and bedrooms at the Warner House, a scary squirrel, and always the threat of fire (the tool is to take apart your very valuable bed).

The Moffatt-Ladd House has been very much in the thick of things from its construction; once it faced the wharves of prosperous Portsmouth, but now the horse chestnut tree planted in 1776 by General William Whipple upon his return from signing the Declaration of Independence still stands guard at the entrance to its courtyard. It’s a very airy house inside due to its elevated situation as well as its large entrance parlor—and its beautiful rear parlor, now in the midst of restoration, runs parallel to the wonderful terraced garden outside.

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Moffatt-Ladd Stairs

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Georgian Portsmouth 13Moffatt-Ladd parlors and stairs, front parlor original wallpaper and the parlor-in-process with its amazing mantle and Chinese Chippendale chairs; I always brake for fire buckets! The amazing garden.

I think Georgian houses have to be pre-revolutionary, but I’m the only one who thinks that, so I am including the Governor Langdon House, which was built the year after the American Revolution concluded. The scale is even larger here than Moffatt-Ladd, and the house reflects the passage of time, with Greek and Colonial Revival rooms as well as a dining room designed by Stanford White. It seems both national in inspiration but also very much a crafted Portsmouth house, as illustrated by those distinctive staircase balusters, contrasted below with those of Moffatt-Ladd (on the left).

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Langdon Hallway

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Langdon Mantle

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Georgian Portsmouth 2Those Rococo mantles! And all that beautiful Portsmouth furniture. As you move back through the house, you move up in time, into Greek and Colonial Revival rooms.

While I was looking around for images of the houses in their earlier situations, I came across the works of two women artists among the digital collections of the Portsmouth Public Library: Sarah Haven Foster (1827-1900) and Helen Pearson (1870-1949). Both Portsmouth women clearly loved the architecture of their native city, and rendered it in series of charming vignettes, which were incorporated in their successive guidebooks. Wonderful discoveries: Foster’s naivete and Pearson’s detail both capture Portsmouth’s charm, past and (fortunately) present.

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Langdon DoorVignettes by Sarah Haven Foster (the Warner House) and Helen Pearson (Warner, Moffatt-Ladd garden, Langdon doorway), Portsmouth Public Library Digitized Collections.


Celebrated Gardens of Salem

A while ago I scored the first volume of a classic text of early American gardens, Gardens of Colony and State, compiled and edited for the Garden Club of America by Alice G.B. Lockwood in 1931. I’ve seldom been without it since; I can’t say that “I can’t put it down” because it is a heavy tome, but I’ve been dipping into it whenever I have a free moment. It’s an absolutely amazing publication: scholarly, detailed, engaging, illustrated, comprehensive. I’ve planned all of my summer road trips around it, even though I suspect I might find myself on sites of former historic gardens more often than not.

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Gardens of Colony and State is nothing less than an illustrated history of American gardens and gardening to 1840: the first volume covers New England and the Midwest, while the second volume presents the South and West (and garden enclosures from across the nation). It is remarkably well-sourced, but also as accessible as you would imagine a garden club publication to be, and its illustrations are nothing short of invaluable. While Salem trades on its darkness now, in 1931 it was still quite well known for its horticultural heritage, and so it rates an entire chapter in the first volume: there is Boston, Salem and Newburyport, and everywhere else in Massachusetts. Lockwood starts off with the Reverend Francis Higginson’s observations on “the bounty of the soil of Salem” in 1629 and shows us the Endicott pear tree and sundial (purchased by the Reverend William Bentley–is this still in the Crowninshield-Bentley House or up in the storage bunker/Collection Center in Rowley?) and then it’s all about Elias Hasket Derby, who employed one of the nation’s first professional gardeners, an Alsatian emigré named George Heussler (whom contemporaries referred to as “Dutch”) for both his town and country gardens. We get to see charming drawings by Samuel McIntire of the former’s grounds—from the Essex Institute/Peabody Essex Museum, of course.

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We then proceed through the nineteenth century, and visit Salem’s most famous gardens, most of which were laid out or maintained by “Scotch gardeners” (How many gardens are due to the Scotch gardeners! proclaims Lockwood). The botanist John Robinson’s garden at 18 Summer Street was long ago paved over for a parking lot while elsewhere grass and more carefree perennials have replaced the very intensively-cultivated gardens of the Victorian era. An interesting connection: the “Scotch gardener” of Captain Charles Hoffman’s garden at 26 Chestnut, Hugh Wilson, came over from the old country with Peter Henderson, the so-called “father of horticulture and ornamental gardening” in the United States who operated several commercial market gardens and a successful seed company, and they maintained a close connection throughout their lives. Doubtless Henderson made some contributions to the three greenhouses Hoffman and Wilson maintained in the vicinity of 26 Chestnut–one at the rear of his property and two additional ones along Hamilton Street.

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Garden 26 Chestnut

Across Chestnut Street were the renown gardens of two maiden ladies: Miss Huntington’s garden at #35 and Miss Laight’s garden at #41 Both gardens were featured in several periodicals at the turn of the twentieth century and Lockwood includes older photographs of each—one wonders if they were simplified in the 1930s when the Great Depression reigned and there were probably no more Scotch gardeners on the street. We then read about the botanical experiments of John Fiske Allen at # 31 (more greenhouses!), and enterprises of Robert Manning, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle, in the pastoral paradise of North Salem. By far the most poignant photographs in the Salem chapter of Gardens of Colony and State are those of the Peirce-Nichols House on Federal Street, another PEM property and McIntire creation, if only because of the stark contrast of past and present.

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A Souvenir of Salem

Salem has been a tourist city for a very long time, and that identity has inspired the production of countless souvenirs made from every material imaginable: ceramic, metal, cloth, wood, plastic, and a veritable forest of paper. I’ve been a rather casual collector of Salem souvenirs since I moved here many years ago, although I do have my periods of intensity if I come across something I haven’t seen before. I’m a paper girl, and I thought I had seen every bit of ephemera in this genre, but last week a little souvenir book with an embossed red cover popped up on ebay and I pounced. It arrived yesterday, and I was not disappointed: this little souvenir pamphlet contains some of the most beautiful prints of Salem structures I have ever seen. Even with its obvious damage, it is still a gem. There is no title page or publisher–although an advertisement for the Salem stationers Merrill & Mackintire is at the end, so I assume it is their offering. It is also undated, though I can come up with an approximate date just looking at some of the captions, which reflect the work of the tireless historian and “antiquarian” Sidney Perley to get dates and identifications just right at the turn of the last century—and after.

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Some historical “facts” are mutable. The site at which the accused and convicted “witches” of Salem were presumed to have been executed was commonly known as “Witch Hill” in the later nineteenth century but evolved into “Gallows Hill” at its end. This is still a Salem neighborhood and park, but from the 1890s Perley identified Proctor’s Ledge below as the site of the executions, and just last year this site was marked with a memorial by the City of Salem. Likewise, Perley confronted the long-held assertion that the small structure on the grounds of the Essex Institute was in fact the seventeenth-century First Church of Salem, and asserted that it was a Quaker Meeting House from later in the century. As you can see, the owner of our little souvenir book, whom I presume is the Charles Heald who signed the back of one of its prints, simply scratched out “First Meeting House” and wrote in “Quaker M.H.” And then Perley took on the “Roger Williams House” and asserted that Roger Williams never actually lived there: it then became the Witch House assertively, though in this first decade of the twentieth century it’s still either/or.

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Witch House 1903Two Boston Post articles from 1901 and 1903 showing Perley in the midst of two big Salem historical “disputes”:  “Antiquarians are all up in arms again” is one of my favorite headlines ever.

The “Old Turner House” has yet to become the House of the Seven Gables, so I think I can date this souvenir booklet to sometime between 1903 and 1909 pretty comfortably. Yet there is not a car or trolley in sight: the cumulative vision is one of  “Olde Salem” with the exception of a few “modern” municipal buildings. Seaside Salem endures, and the Pickering House remains ever the Pickering House, unchanged from the seventeenth century except for the acquisition of its Gothic trim in the midst of the nineteenth.

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Rewards of Merit

This is graduation week, when we celebrate achievement and completion with pieces of paper, as we have for hundreds of years. No one wants a digital diploma! Even that avatar of online higher education, Southern New Hampshire University, has a television commercial showing university representatives traveling across the country presenting diplomas to graduates: their educational experience can be impersonal but not its culmination, apparently. Despite a lifetime spent in education, as a student and teacher, I am a late bloomer when it comes to commencements: I skipped both my undergraduate and graduate ceremonies, much to my regret, and once I became a professor I continued to avoid what I perceived as a long, boring, and formulaic ritual. But when I became chair of my department five years ago, I decided that it was my responsibility to attend, and so I dusted off the unused (and very expensive) gown I had purchased years ago and marched out there. I thought I was going for my colleagues—to be with those that went, to be an example to those that didn’t—but it was all about the students. As soon as the (yes, long and boring) ceremony was over, we ran out into the fresh air, and our students ran to us, sometimes even before their parents. Together, we had reached a destination–a place–after completing a long journey. And you really have to show up to realize that you’ve arrived.

I like nineteenth-century American “rewards of merit”, given by teachers to their students in recognition of certain qualities (diligence and deportment above all) as historical expressions of both the personal and the professional relationships that exist in any educational environment. They look formulaic, like a diploma, but they also represent an individual relationship—and achievement. As an ephemeral genre, they can testify to the evolution of printing and production techniques as well as educational objectives. Rewards of merit were produced in Great Britain too, but they really flourished in the United States, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. I prefer the earlier forms from the first part of the century: written or sparsely printed, just a few images, some “colored in” with watercolors by teachers who wanted to add a more personal touch. Once you get into the later era of polychromatic cards, you lose a lot of the personal connection, and it seems as if they did too.

Reward of Merit 18th century A very early American Reward of Merit, or “conferment of honor” from William Arms to his student Amos Hamilton in Deerfield, Massachusetts, 1795 © Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield MA. In the larger towns and cities of Massachusetts, printed reward of merit forms were used right from the beginning of the nineteenth-century, but hand-written citations continued in the country: below, Tirza Lampson’s “diligence and virtue” is rewarded in Charlton, Massachusetts, and Azubah Clark is “presented with this honorary emblem, for her being a good scholar and hereby is recommended for her studious attention laudable improvements, and admirable behavior in school, for which, she merits the sincere thanks of her instructress Rebecca Walton Temple”, both in 1811. 

Reward of Merit 1811 Charlton

Reward of Merit 1811 2And then there were the forms, which were personalized by notes and watercoloring by the instructors and “instructresses”.

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Reward of Merit Salem 1818

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Reward of Merit East Bridgewater 1851

Reward of Merit 1868 Methuen

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Reward of Merit 1878Rewards of merit for Philip Harman in Boston (1815); Martha Page in Danvers (1818); Martha Barker in Boston (1819); Marietta Bailey in Newburyport (1828); the Misses Fairbanks and Prebble in Taunton (1934); Nancy Fairbanks in Boston (1842); Grace Cobb in East Bridgewater (1851); Leuella Mills in Methuen (1868), and two certificates received by Master Abner Bow in 1876.  All from the American Broadsides and Ephemera database of collections of the American Antiquarian Society.

These last two rewards are charming but they’re getting a bit busy for me (what is that “sea horse”?): the imagery is overwhelming the student-instructor relationship. From this point on, these little slips of paper become more colorful, flowery, sentimental and generic, with one notable–and striking exception, the monotonal, monographic MERIT “badge” of the later nineteenth century. What other sentiment do you need? Well, maybe ONWARD and UPWARD.

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Reward of Merit HNERewards of Merit cards 1880-1993, Historic New England.


First-Period Fantasy

I’ve been obsessed with the Downing-Bradstreet house (which once occupied the site of another current obsession, the Phillips Library) for quite some time: consequently I took advantage of some extra time during this past spring break to dig a little deeper into its history. Actually, the history is easy: it’s the projection that is difficult. We know that this “mansion house” was built by 1640 and demolished more than a century later, but our only image of it was created by a man who was born after its demolition and whose source is unknown:  did it really look like this?

Oldest House Bradstreet-Downing

Wow: that’s a big house with a lot of windows, gables, glass, and finials. What in the world are those “flanking towers reminiscent of feudal days”, in the words of Frank Cousins? Are they made of glass? Indeed they were according to Robert Rantoul’s 1888 essay on the “New Domain” of the Essex Institute, which describes what preceded its buildings on “Downing Block”: it had two massive sets of chimneys and also two transparent, hollow columns of lead sash and diamond glass, great lanthorns (?????), one of either side of the front door, for lighting up the ample grounds in front, and these rose from the foundation to the roof and contained a cupboard-door at each floor of the house for inserting candles or other illuminating appliances on occasion of festivity or other need of light. Wow again. All of this illumination, combined with the scale and detail of the house, makes it appear more like a romantic fantasy of a seventeenth-century house than an actual seventeenth-century structure, especially as it was situated in frontier Salem. This “grate” house, either real or embellished, was built by London barrister Emmanuel Downing, the brother-in-law of Governor John Winthrop, who eventually returned to England leaving the mansion to his daughter Ann as part of the dowry for her marriage to Captain Joseph Gardner, who was killed in the Great Swamp Fight of King Philip’s War in December of 1675. In the following year, the Widow Gardner married Simon Bradstreet, the last Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose first wife Anne, America’s first published poet, had died in 1672. Bradstreet returned to Salem (his port of entry to the New World) and took up residence in the Mansion until his death in 1697. Both he and Ann are buried in the Old Burying Ground on Charter Street. The now-Bradstreet House was passed down in the Ropes family for a few generations, but ultimately it was transformed into a tavern (the Globe), divided, and demolished in 1753. The artist of its iconic image, Marblehead painter and muralist Samuel Bartoll (1765-1835) created both the painting above and a similar one of the Corwin (Roger William House in the 19th century; “Witch House” in the 20th) in 1819-1820: what was the basis of his conception?

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Bradstreet Witch House BartollFrank Cousins photograph of the Bartoll painting; 1930 Port of Salem map, Boston Public Library & illustration from Lossing’s History of the United States of America (1913); Samuel Bartoll’s Corwin House, Peabody Essex Museum.

I have no answers to the questions I am asking, but it’s still important to ask them, as these idealized (?) images guided so many restoration projects later on. Nathaniel Hawthorne likely saw the Bartoll paintings in Salem: they influenced his vision in the House of the Seven Gables, which later inspired the material transformation of the Turner-Ingersoll mansion into the more “picturesque” House of the Seven Gables by Caroline Emmerton and Joseph Everett Chandler in 1908-1910. Later in the twentieth century, the Corwin House underwent a similar transformation—back (or forward) to the Bartoll vision, with a few less finials.

Bradstreet Bartoll Chairs Julia Auctions

Bartoll Landing of the Pilgrims 1825More idealized American imagery from Samuel Bartoll: Painted Hitchcock Chairs, James D. Julia Auctions; and a Fireboard Depicting the Landing of the Pilgrims, 1825, Peabody Essex Museum.


Small Business Saturday in Salem

There were lots of shoppers out and about in Salem yesterday for Small Business Saturday, a warm and sunny day which encouraged the pedestrian procurement that the city offers. Front Street is clearly the hub of Salem shopping, even though (or because) Essex Street is a pedestrian mall, but there were quite a few people at Pickering Wharf and in several other spots around the city as well. I try to buy all of my Christmas presents in Salem, which is getting easier with every year, as new shops like Mark Your Spot on Lafayette and Oak + Moss on the corner of Washington and Front (the very latest venture of the power duo who brought Roost to Salem years ago) open up. There’s been an interesting movement of Etsy and Instagram shops like Witch City Wicks and Hauswitch into brick-and-mortar buildings in Salem, and I find the two “institutional” shops, Waite & Pierce at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Peabody Essex Museum’s shop to be extremely reliable sources of gift-giving. And as Salem is a foodie town, with more restaurants than I can count at present and more coming, it makes sense that it’s also a great place to buy food and drink gifts: at the Cheese Shop of Salem, the venerable Pamplemousse and even more venerable Harbor Sweets, among other purveyors.

Just a few Salem shops and wares: the newly-opened Oak + Moss which is full of gorgeous housewares, Salem “maps” at Hauswitch, pigs at Roost (+ a Thank You sign), ornaments at Curtsy, Mark Your Spot on lower Lafayette, packed with an eclectic variety of vintage merchandise, books at the Marble Faun, which has moved to Pickering Wharf from Essex Street, a PEM window and silhouettes, mead at Pamplemousse, absinthe set-ups at Emporium 32 on Central Street, candles and cards at Witch City Wicks, and a very local pillow at Grace & Diggs on Artists Row.

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