Tag Archives: Architecture

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!

Rundlett May

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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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Rundlett May 17

Fancy Chair


Rocks Village

We have had the longest stretch of horrible humid weather in my memory: it’s been hot too, but it’s the humidity that gets you, of course. The only place I’ve really been comfortable is my car, and so when I drove up to Maine for vacation last week I took a diverted and long route to get there by giving myself a silly challenge: I had to cross the two rivers on my way–the Merrimack and the Piscataqua–on bridges that I had never traversed before. Going out of the way is one of my favorite things to do so this was a characteristic challenge. I can only do it when I’m on my own, as my husband has no patience for meandering, but he and I had conflicting obligations last week so we were in separate cars (the key to a happy marriage for us). My challenge turned a trip that normally takes one hour into a four-hour excursion (with stops along the way) and I was able to arrive in Maine just in time for cocktails on the porch. My route took me slightly west to Haverhill in Massachusetts and then northeast through New Hampshire to Dover: I had crossed the big bridges in both of those cities but not the smaller ones, over the Merrimack from West Newbury to Rocks Village in Haverhill and over the Piscataqua from Dover to South Berwick, Maine. I think I have probably been on both of these bridges but not for quite some time, so they still count! Going further west and north would have been a bit silly, even for me. I braked for darling houses, of course, and found my first cluster right over the bridge in Rocks Village, a colonial village in East Haverhill right on the river. Situated at a nexus of old roads leading to and along the Merrimack, Rocks Village emerged as a center of trade and industry in the eighteenth century but was bypassed as Haverhill became a bustling industrial center in the nineteenth. It has a slightly lost-in-time feeling about it, even though the owners of its charming houses are clearly keeping up appearances.

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Rocks Village

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Right over the bridge from West Newbury you encounter the old tollbooth and the village Hand Tub House (for which the Rocks Village Memorial Association is raising restoration funds) and then all these wonderful houses. This is not an exhaustive portfolio, but my favorite is the last one above: interesting proportions, though you can’t tell from my photograph that it’s a saltbox. There’s a lot more to see in Haverhill but this village seems like a place apart: indeed, you can’t even find it on any of the maps of the bustling nineteenth-century city, which emphasize factories above all. After some leisurely searching, I finally found it on a map of the Newburys, dating from just about the time of the construction of the Hand Tub House.

Rocks Village Newburys MapRocks Village and Bridge on the 1831 map of the newly-divided Newburys (Newbury, Newburyport & West Newbury), Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.


A Displaced Doorway

It’s August, so we’re coming up on the day a year ago when the Peabody Essex Museum quite suddenly closed the doors of its temporary Phillips Library facility in Peabody and issued an ominous and mysterious statement that the Library would be opening up in a “new location” in the spring. In December, the Museum announced admitted that this new permanent location would be the town of Rowley, where it had purchased a utilitarian structure to house its amalgamated “Collection Center” (why is it not Collections Center—just not indiscriminate enough?) And just like that, Salem’s oldest and most comprehensive archive was gone, along with the very special library that had housed it for well over a century. The Collection Center Library, which I cannot bear to call the Phillips, is now open and able to accomodate 14 researchers in what is by all accounts (I haven’t been there yet, but I fear I will have to at some point) a massive structure, yet another indication that this facility was built to house material objects rather than texts: the announcement of its opening featured a curator examining a Chinese object. I’m quite aware that the PEM requires a vast amount of space to house its vast collections: I just don’t understand why this space could not have been found in Salem or why the Library had to be assimilated within it. Through this whole saga, I’ve talked to many people who have been just as upset over the removal of objects from Salem as texts: the assorted Americana and maritime memorials of the former Essex Institute and Peabody Museum. For me, it’s always been exclusively about paper. But just the other day, someone took a picture of the crated doorway of the Gideon Tucker House, being readied for its departure to Rowley I presume, and I started to think about the loss of material culture for the first time when I went over to see it for myself.

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Gideon Tucker Doorway

I guess I should be glad that this doorway still exists and is still—or has been–in Salem, as it is a long-admired example of Samuel McIntire’s work; indeed when students from MIT’s pioneering architectural school came to Salem in the summer of 1895 to measure and draw its storied buildings, their professor Eleazer B. Homer identified the elliptical doorway of the Gideon Tucker House (also called the Tucker-Rice House) as the “best-proportioned” in the city. We have photographs of the doorway in situ, but most images of it date from after 1896, when the Tucker house was acquired by the Father Mathew Total Abstinence Society and transformed into an institutional headquarters. By 1910 the famous doorway had been removed and donated to the Essex Institute, which eventually affixed it to the rear of Plummer Hall. I’m not sure when it was removed and placed in storage: Bryant Tolles refers to its relocated situation in his Architecture in Salem (1970) but the doorway of the “Grimshawe House” on Charter Street is affixed to the rear of Plummer at present–and has been for some time.  Across Essex Street, the Gideon Tucker house was further “denatured” by the addition of commercial storefronts in the mid-twentieth century, but fortunately rehabilitated for residences under the supervision of Newburyport architect Jonathan Woodman in the 1980s, at which time it acquired its reproduction entrance.

Tucker collage

Gideon TUcker Brickbuilder 1915

Gideon Tucker NYPLDG

Gideon Tucker PC

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Gideon Tucker todayThe Gideon Tucker Doorway and House (1804): Frank Cousins photographs from the 1890s; the Brickbuilder, January 1924; New York Public Library Digital Gallery, n.d.; Essex Institute postcard, MACRIS (1979) and present.

The Essex Institute garden must have been a very interesting place to visit in the midst of the twentieth century with its eclectic mix of houses and house parts assembled by George Francis Dow: in addition to the Tucker Doorway, there was a McIntire cupola from the Pickman/Derby/Rogers/Brookhouse Mansion which was demolished in 1915. It was infested with beetles and destroyed in the 1970s, and only its eagle survives. I am grateful that this beautiful doorway has not met a similar fate, along with all the architectural fragments in the PEM’s collections, but the removal from the cultural context which created them makes me anxious for their future significance—and meaning.

Napoleon “Eh bien, Messieurs! deux millions”: Napoleon displaying the treasures of Italy—in France, 1797, Library of Congress.


A Huddle of Houses

Last weekend we were up in New Hampshire again as I continued my search for the perfect white antique 3-bedroom (maybe four, no more!) summer house. I was pretty fixated on Tamworth last summer; this summer I’ve decided to explore other regions of the Granite State. Even though my husband may be accompanying me, he’s not really engaging in the search: as he said to me after we found the perfect cottage in Jaffrey (see below): we have an old house that we have to take care of in Salem, why would we buy an old vacation house that we have to take care of when we are on vacation? Well, he has a point, but still, I press on. This Jaffrey house was on a road of perfect white houses leading to a pond with Mount Monadnock in the distance. I got so excited (by the houses, not the pond or the mountain) that my husband quite literally left me on the side of the road (“you should be alone”) and drove off for a bit, returning to find me in front of the cottage with several other people who had stopped to admire it. And here it is:

Huddle 1

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Huddle 3Palpitations.

Yes, I trespassed. But only after a couple in a convertible stopped and did so first! The house is empty, and the next-door neighbor came over and told us all about it, including the “amazing” terraced gardens which once descended down the hill. I saw the remnants—or maybe I should say the outlines— of those gardens, which of course put me in even more of a state of frenzy as there is nothing more engaging than the ghost of a garden. It’s a beautiful property; I’m sure someone has snapped it up already–let me just check. Ummm….not yet (as of 8/2/18). And here are more lovely white houses, in pristine condition, on the same road as what I now know to be the Benjamin Robinson Cottage, and also a few from the neighboring town of Hancock, which is very charming. I had originally titled the post a row of white houses, but then when I decided to include the Hancock houses that did not quite work, so I searched for another collective noun for houses and came up with huddle, which seems perfect.

The road to the cottage (and Thorndike Pond), Jaffrey:

Huddle Thorndike

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Huddle Thorndike 2

In Hancock:

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Huddle 4Can you believe this amazing DOUBLE HOUSE!!!!!!


At the Eustis Estate

Nestled between busy Boston, Quincy, and Route 128, the town of Milton, Massachusetts still wears signs of its pastoral past. It’s an original streetcar suburb, but the Blue Hills drew prosperous Brahmins south to build country estates, and several are still standing, even thriving. Everywhere I go in the vicinity of Boston: north, west, south: I continue to be amazed at the legacy of nineteenth-century fortunes—and taste. Now it seems as if we still live amidst great wealth, but not so much taste. I drove down to Milton last week to see Historic New England’s latest acquisition, the Eustis Estate, where I spent all of my allotted time, but I could have also visited the Forbes House Museum or the Wakefield Estate. I did drive down Adams Street for a fleeting sight of the birthplace of President George H.W. Bush, but I was pretty focused on my singular destination: an amazing 1878 structure designed by the “Father of the Shingle Style”, William Ralph Emerson, set amidst subtly-shaped grounds designed by Ernest W. Bowditch.

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Historic New England has spared no expense or consideration in its restoration and interpretation of the Eustis Estate, which it acquired in 2012, after three generations of the family owned and inhabited the house. You can access their tour here–and you should if you really want a curatorial interpretation of the house because I’m just going to give you an impression: never have I been more conscious of my architectural naiveté as when I stepped foot into this house! My first–and strongest—impression is oddly one of contradiction: of the solidness of the exterior masonry and interior woodwork with the overall airiness of the house, accentuated by the three-story Grand Hall and all those windows framing outside views. You can see the frame of the house, and the house also serves as a frame for the landscape in which it sits. Inside, everything is a juxtaposition of dark and light, the light coming from outside but also from the burnished details within.

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Eustis Hall

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Eustis Window

As an Aesthetic structure, no surface is unembellished, and the architectural detail is almost overwhelming: I’m sure I overlooked many things and will have to return many times! The house’s many mantels are obvious focal points: the grand fireplace in the first-floor “living hall”, terra cotta masquerading as wood, is a symbolic tour-stopper. But everywhere there is detail to be considered: floor to ceiling and everywhere in between. I loved the coffered ceiling, the interior window shutters, the little “telephone cabinet”, the inter-connected pantries, the inter-connected bathroom, and the nursery rhyme tiles surrounding the nursery mantle. Just to mention a few details.

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EUSTIS FIREPLACES collage

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Eustis Last Detail

Wherever and whenever a considerable amount of money is spent in nineteenth-century Massachusetts, there is always a Salem connection, and that is the case with the Eustis Estate, which was built for young marrieds W.E.C. Eustis and Edith Hemenway Eustis on land given to them by Edith’s mother, Mary Tiletson Hemenway. Mrs. Hemenway was an energetic philanthropist whose activities were financed in great part by the wealth of her husband and Edith’s father, Salem-born Edward Augustus Holyoke Hemenway (1805-76). Mary herself had Salem roots, and the Hemenway Family Papers were deposited in the Phillips Library in Salem, which is of course now displaced to Rowley. The Hemenways’ stories are other stories, but also in part Salem stories. The estate’s landscape architect, Ernest Bowditch, represents another Salem connection as he was the grandson of the great Salem navigator Nathaniel Bowditch: and yes, the Bowditch Family Papers are also in the Phillips Library.

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Eustis Garden

Eustis Land

For another Emerson house: see this post. These photographs by Steve Rosenthal are all we have left of the Loring House, which was demolished in 2015.


A Viking Ship, Two Black Hats, and One Special Street

Despite the fact that I am a middle-aged woman rather than an adolescent boy, I was absolutely determined to see the reproduction Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre as it sailed into Plymouth Harbor yesterday. Plymouth is just one of the stops on the ship’s east coast tour, and it was the most convenient for me in terms of time and geography, so down to the South Shore I went. It was a humid day and all was gray as we waited for a pending storm and the ship, which slid into Plymouth Harbor very gracefully. I had hoped to see it under sail, but of course that wasn’t going to happen in the wide, calm harbor. You (and I) will have to see it under sail here. I always enjoy seeing the juxtaposition of “old” and new vessels; of course Plymouth has that all the time with the Mayflower II in the harbor—but the Draken is so much more “alien”.

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Well, that’s it for the ship (which will be in port until Friday evening and then it’s going down the coast). Both before and after its arrival I occupied myself in my usual way: looking at old houses and comparing Plymouth to Salem as a tourist destination and purveyor of local history. Even though they are very different places, I can’t help making comparisons between these two New England ports, put on the map by their seventeenth-century origins and happenings as symbolized by two omnipresent black hats: of the Plymouth Pilgrim and the Salem Witch. Indeed, Salem and Plymouth have both been on the heritage map for quite some time, whether it be for educational or tourism purposes.

MA MAP 1966Colonization in America visual wall map, 1966, prepared by the Civic Education Service, Washington, D.C.; David Rumsey Map Collection.

In terms of physical size, Plymouth is one of the largest towns in Massachusetts, whereas Salem is among the smallest cities. Plymouth’s population is actually larger, I was surprised to realize, but Salem’s is much more concentrated. Salem is urban and closer to Boston; Plymouth doesn’t quite feel “suburban” to me but I guess it is. Both places are county seats and have vibrant downtowns and tourist-based economies. Both towns are “historic” but in very different ways: Salem’s history is predominately commodified while Plymouth is more committed to public history. As a heritage destination, Plymouth is what Salem would be if the Peabody Essex Museum had not absorbed and essentially obliterated the Essex Institute: its Pilgrim Hall Museum (founded in the very same decade—the 1820s–as the Essex Historical Society, one of the Essex Institute’s founding organizations) and Plymouth Antiquarian Society serve as public repositories and interpreters of the history of “America’s Hometown”. This makes for a very different projection. I’m not trying to pass judgement here (although regular readers will know how I feel): Plymouth seems to have preserved quite a bit of its “ye olde” parochial identity whereas we all know that the Peabody Essex Museum is a very sophisticated, global institution.

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Plymouth Adventure 13The Jabez Howland House is presented much like Salem’s “Witch House”, as a singular survivor and link to the seventeenth-century past.

Both Plymouth and Salem have impressive inventories of historic structures, although their waterfronts were altered considerably by twentieth-century state and federal initiatives designed to highlight their maritime heritages, ironically: the preparations for Plymouth’s tercentenary in 1919-1920 cleared out its unsightly wharves and created Pilgrim Memorial State Park while the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created in a similar (but less radical) manner in the next decade. Salem has more concentrated historic districts but Plymouth has several special streets too: on this particular trip I could not get enough of Leyden Street (below) in particular. So many brick- or shingle-ended houses! And so few Federals, both compared to Salem and even the towns just to the north, Kingston and Duxbury. Both Plymouth and Salem had spectacular Tercentenary pageants and parades, and Plymouth is definitely gearing up for its 400th in 2020: Salem, I’m not so sure.

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Plymouth Adventure

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Plymouth adventure 12Leyden Street, with the storm coming in.


The Most Beautiful House in America (and the Power of Place)

On a very humid Friday I spent a precious hour in the most beautiful house in America: the Gardner-Pingree House, built here in Salem in 1804 and widely acknowledged to be Samuel McIntire’s masterpiece. The house has experienced several refurbishments following its donation by the Pingree family to the Essex Institute in 1933, and its most recent refresh (1989) remains definitive, exposing the colorful and crafted world of a merchant in the midst of Salem’s golden age. With the merger of the Institute and the Peabody Museum in 1992 and the consolidation of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), the house remains a seldom-scene showpiece, and also a symbol of the commitment of the Institute to Salem’s material heritage. Actually, to be fair, the house has served as a the setting for an interactive performance I attended a few years ago, and is apparently open for daily tours, but I can never figure out when from the PEM’s inscrutable website (you try!) so when I saw that it was going to be open all afternoon on a designated “Free Fun Friday,” I beat it over there.

Gardner Pingree Exterior

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Gardner Pingree Detail

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Gardner Pingree Kitchen

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Gardner Pingree Back parlor

It is an absolutely beautiful house, inside and out: I remain overwhelmed by the 1989 restoration and its ongoing ability to both accentuate the interior and somehow also make it more accessible and intimate. It is a storied house. It is a much-documented house: I did a cursory review of twentieth-century historical architectural texts and found it in nearly every one. It is an influential house: especially its entrance, which has been replicated on several stately suburban homes (oddly juxtaposed with houses which do not also replicate the Gardner-Pingree’s perfect proportions).

Gardner Pingree Detroit Publishing Co 1906 LOC

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Gardner Pingree Mansions of Massachusetts

Gardner Pingree Parlor

Gardner Pingree CollageDetroit Publishing Co. photograph of Gardner-Pingree, 1906, Library of Congress; Albert MacDonald, Old Brick Houses of New England, 1917; Mansions of Massachusetts, 1977; the front parlor in the 1940s,houses in Atlanta and Brookline, MA supposedly inspired by the Gardner-Pingree.

But it’s also a powerful house, in its original situation (unlike the Crowninshield-Bentley and Ward houses to its side and rear, also part of the PEM’s”Essex Block Neighborhood” of historic houses, which the Essex Institute referred to as an “outdoor museum”) overlooking Salem’s original main street and the former Essex Institute buildings which housed the Phillips Library collections up until their removal from Salem in 2011. As all of you no doubt know, this was supposed to be a temporary move but has now been made permanent: Salem’s Phillips Library is now ensconced in an industrial building off the highway in Rowley. The PEM has presented several sound arguments for this move–most grounded in the priority of stewardship rather than access–but also one which I never quite understood: the scholarly synchronicity of having material collections and texts in close proximity. But when you stand in this house right next door to where Salem’s historical archives were housed for so long, you can see the connection–but in this case it counters PEM’s rationale for archival relocation. The house—like all of PEM’s  houses—are material objects as well, and the textual context of its construction, embellishment, and occupation has now been removed. I felt this so strongly when I was in the second-story southwest bedroom: a very beautiful room which was also the site of sensational murder, of Captain Joseph White—the third owner of the house–in 1830. Looking at the site of the now-former Phillips Library from the western window of this room, I realized that all the questions that I had about this house could not be answered by going next door, but only by going to Rowley: there is no synchronicity in that reality!

GP PARLOR

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My questions–and where the answers can be found: in the Phillips Library, in Rowley:  How did the Gardner Family transform this parcel of land into “Gardner’s Corner” over the 18th century? What are the details of the spectacular rise and fall of the fortunes of John Gardner (1771-1847) who built this beautiful house and was only able to live in it for six years before selling it to his brother-in-law, Nathaniel West? Of course the War of 1812 had much to do with the fall, but I’d like to know more, and there are boxes of Gardner family history in the Phillips (MS 147). What was the extent of the slave trading of the murder victim, Captain Joseph White? (Log 9, for White’s brigantines Hind and Eliza, and MSS 0.188, John Fairfield’s account of a slave mutiny aboard the Felicity, also owned by White). I don’t think I have any questions about the murder and equally-sensational trial, which apparently inspired Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Parker Brothers, but I’d like to know how the Adroit Fire Club (Delay Not) worked, as well as the sources of the Rumford Roaster, and all about the (again!) rising, falling, rising and diverse fortunes of the two David Pingrees (MS 901). Family histories, house histories, Salem’s history: they’re all connected, of course.


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