I know that it was a back-to-big-family-Thanksgiving for many people, but because of health and almost-conflicting family events my husband and I found ourselves alone this year. We made a last-minute decision to head to Historic Deerfield, where we stayed at the Inn for two nights and had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner at the Inn at Boltwood (previously the Lord Jeffrey Inn) in Amherst. We ran into old Salem friends and made new Pennsylvania friends at the Deerfield bar, walked around and in as many of those magnificent houses as we could, and “played” in the attic of the Flynt Center for Early American Life. I have under-appreciated this experience on past visits: there was something about this particular visit that made the “visible storage” of all sorts of items from Historic Deerfield’s collections—everything from ceramics to muskets to wrought iron, in multiples—so very engaging. Maybe it’s because we had this “attic” to ourselves. My husband and I have very different tastes, but he could be over there in the realm of metal-working tools while I was lingering in mocha ware, both of us content. We left the attic only because the weather was so beautiful: clear and sunny and bright, casting all those Connecticut River Valley doorways in stark relief.
Historic Deerfield has always been an exploration of maker/craft culture as much as architecture so a focus on objects on this particular visit seemed correct: I’ve always been too dazzled by the houses to take in the Deerfield-made baskets, famous blue-and-white embroidery pieces and pottery to take proper note of them in situ. Before there was Historic Deerfield, there was Arts and Crafts Deerfield, a haven and destination for traditional crafts and preservation at the turn of the last century, and before then there was of course colonial Deerfield: you can see and feel the layers as you walk down Old Main Street. We had the neighborhood to ourselves as we took a long walk on Thanksgiving morning, so we looked in a lot of windows and hung out in back amongst the barns.
A walk down Old Main Street from South to North and then back towards the Inn: village map with house names and dates.
A recent addition to Old Main Street are the Witness Stone markers laid before every house in which an enslaved person live and worked: these were installed just last month in partnership with the Connecticut-based Witness Stones Project. So there’s another layer uncovered and exposed. Museum neighborhoods can feel a bit static and fixed in time, but I’ve never felt that way about Historic Deerfield: rather it has always seems like an engaging mix of past and present or a cumulative work in progress to me. At the same time, time moves slower there: just turn off Route 5 for an hour or a day or two and catch your breath, take a walk, or rummage around in an attic.
Witness (to slavery) stones, a work in progress, and a signpost right in the midst of Deerfield Academy.
Wow, I don’t think I’ve posted on Salem real estate for quite some time! I’ve just been so serious, but actually there’s not much point: generally as soon as something comes on the market it is snapped right up. I’m sure that will be the case with this little house too, but I’ve also admired it, so I ran over this weekend for the open house. It’s a little two-story shop on Kosciusko Street, overlooking Derby Wharf and the entire Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Two stories, open-floor plan on both floors with a little bedroom and bathroom carved out of the second floor (as well as a “galley” full bathroom on the first), no parking, not much yard: very simple and very atmospheric.
As you can see, there’s been quite a few twentieth-century alterations to this building, especially its fenestration. The plaque report by Historic Salem, Inc. asserts that it is an eighteenth-century structure moved to this site about 1870. The MACRIS inventory calls it “colonial inspired!” Both reports also suggest that it might be an ell that was previously attached to the adjacent building at 159 Derby Street. I’m not sure how this precise 1701 date, so proudly proclaimed, came about. A photograph from the 1930s features an exterior that looks quite different: this can be found at the amazing house history of 159 Derby, now the home of the Salem Arts Association, researched by art historian Franny Zawadski. I was thrilled to learn that both houses were owned by the Salem chapter of the Ukrainian Workingmen’s Association, an organization about which I intend to find out a lot more.
The Shop on the far right above, and on the 1874 Salem Atlas.
I think there’s a bit of Colonial Revivalish embellishment here but it’s fine with me: someone wanted this little old building to look like a ye old cooper shop and it does! It also looks like minimal maintenance to me: a condo alternative with a very tight basement (the advantage of being moved to this spot, I imagine). Since I haven’t written a real estate post in some time, I think I should address the location a bit more. Anyone moving to greater downtown Salem at this point has to consider the impact of tourism, as our City seems hell-bent on driving that engine as much and as far as possible. If you complain about tourism now, you’re going to get a “well, you moved to Salem so you knew what you were getting” sentiment, which I don’t think is fair if you located here twenty years or more ago when Haunted Happenings was much less intense in terms of length and traffic volume of both feet and vehicles. But if you move to Salem now, you better know what you will face (especially if you don’t have a parking place). I think this location has the benefit of being in the zone but protected by the expanse of the Salem Maritime park: I was in this vicinity during the most crowded weekends last month and there were far fewer people here than in the center of the city. I just don’t think the majority of Salem tourists are interested in “history” and this cooper’s shop is in the thick of it.
First and second floors looking out on the Custom House and Derby Wharf (it was kind of dreary outside yesterday but I think the weather just enhanced the coziness).
I’m still frustrated with our city’s “revisioned” “heritage” trail: its blatant commercialism, its yellow color (the exact same shade as the lines in the middle of the road; tour guides have told me that their tourists ask if they have to keep right on the sidewalk which actually might not be a bad idea with the crowds at this time of year), the missed opportunities it represents. None of the promised streamlined signage is up yet so all we have is a yellow line superimposed right on top (or sometimes beside) the still-visible objectionable red line. Any criticism is met with a chorus of “it’s not finished yet!” from all involved, but it’s hard to have confidence going forward when the “product” is so obviously flawed, in terms of both presentation and content.
I’ve laid out my concerns about the latter in detail in an earlier post, but after walking the yellow line a few times I have another complaint: it’s not telling a story. It’s just a string of places, with no connecting narrrative or theme. Maybe this is coming too, but it’s not here yet. There seems to be a mismatch between narrative history and the built environment in Salem: you can have one or the other but not both. I’m sure the countless private tour guides are out there telling stories because that’s what successful, marketable walking tours do, but they are handicapped by Salem’s overwhelming focus on the Witch Trials. If you’re trying to present place-based history, the Trials don’t offer you a lot of options for Salem as there are only two actual material places associated with them: Judge Corwin’s House or the “Witch House” on Essex Street and the Witch Trials Memorial/Old Burying Point on Charter Street. A few “sites of” are fine for a walking tour but ten or more? It’s difficult to conjure up 1692 while standing in a parking lot. The combination of the emphasis on the Trials and the relative absence of structures from that era has placed an emphasis on performances in commercial interpretations, and ghosts, of course. But Salem has a wealth of historical structures, and they can and should tell stories too. My alternative Salem Heritage Trail is built primarily around buildings, and inspired by the Creating or Building walking tours you see in many cities, tours which are designed by heritage professionals to present a comprehensive and materialistic history of urban development. It’s a stripped-down version of tours I give to family and friends, and following the example of Toronto’s exemplary tour, Creating Toronto: the Story of the City in 10 Stops, I limited myself, with great difficulty, to ten sites.
Trail Sites/Stops: My trail starts at the Pickering House on Broad Street and ends at Salem Common. I’ve chosen the sites along the way because they are beautiful and important buildings and spaces, but also because they represent a number of events and themes in the “making of” Salem: they have to do double or triple or more interpretive duty! I’m aiming for 400 years of history through 10 buildings or sites, on a tour that should take about 90 minutes. It’s definitely a work in progress.
The Pickering House: Salem’s oldest house is a marvel visually and historically. It can represent both the first wave of European settlement and because of its conspicuous and active family, also a series of events and relationships that shaped Salem: King Philips’s War and relations between European and native populations, transatlantic trade, the Revolutionary War. As the house evolves, so does Salem. From the vantage point of the house, one can see the outskirts of Salem’s first African-American section as well as its Italian-American neighborhood, and the line at which the Great Salem Fire ended in 1914.
Hamilton Hall: Built on former Pickering land, along with the rest of Chestnut Street, Hamilton Hall represents the dynamic civic culture of Salem following the Revolution as well as the singularly Federal style of Samuel McIntire and the range of reform and entrepreneurial activities of Salem’s most prominent African-American family, the Remonds. It is also an important site of women’s history, as so many philanthropic events organized by Salem women were held at the Hall: from Abolitionist and soldiers’ aid events in the middle of the nineteenth century, to Red Cross efforts during World War I to the creation of the Hamilton Hall Ladies’ Committee after World War II.
The First Church:It’s the First Church, so it has to be on the tour even though its not in its original location—we’ll pass by there later. The history of the congregation should be prioritized over the history of the building: the transition from Puritanism to Congregationalism to Unitarianism, Hugh Peter & Roger Williams, the religious aspects of the Trials, Leslie’s Retreat, and then Salem’s (19th century, as opposed to today’s) Gothic phase (with a tie-in to the Pickering House).
The Witch House: The home of Witch Trial Judge Jonathan Corwin is the authentic witch-trial site in Salem, but also a place that can represent and illustrate the commercialization of the trials in the nineteenth century as well as the increasing role of historic preservation in the twentieth. This is a good spot to start the discussion of the legal aspects of the trials, but the next stop is better.
Court Houses on Federal Street: These courthouses are a great illustration of Salem as “shire town” or county seat, a very important part of its history and identity. When I was on History Alive’s “Charlotte’s Salem” tour a few weeks ago, Charlotte explained some of the legal aspects of slavery which were causing her anguish in 1857 right in front of the courthouses, and I thought it was the perfect spot, particularly because it was so quiet on a busy Saturday night. The Witch Trials were of course, trials, so this seems like a good spot to address their legal aspects, as well as the famous “witch pins” and several other important Salem trials. The different architectural styles of the court houses evoke their eras in Salem’s history.
Old Town Hall: The terrain between the court houses and Old Town Hall is full of important sites……that are no longer there: the actual 1692 court house, Town House Square, the site of Salem’s first meeting house, and the former sites of conspicuous residents like Judge John Hathorne and Lady Deborah Moody. I guess that dreadful Bewitched statue is part of the “creation” of Salem but I prefer to look at it as an abberation and I don’t want it in my story/tour. So we’ll just skip through Town House Square to the Old Town Hall or walk down Church Street past the Lyceum and cut over to Essex Street. Old Town Hall (long known as the “Market House”) and Derby Square remains a very busy place, so it’s the perfect space to represent the extremely dynamic and diverse commercial history of Salem. It’s also a great place to focus on food food: Salem seems like a foodie designation now but I think it always has been, and Derby Square and adjacent Front Street was a restaurant row. I guess it’s been reduced to an Instagram stage now, which seems appropriate since Instagram photos are one of Salem’s major products.
Old Burying Ground/ Witch Trial Memorial: The last three stops of my trail consider Salem’s evolving public presentation of history, along with other themes and events associated with each site. From the later nineteenth century on, as the City focused increasingly on tourism, there were three major draws: the Witch Trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and maritime history. For me, the Salem Witch Trials Memorial represents the triumph of the Trials: the City could go forward into full-fledged witchcraft tourism now (in 1992) as it had erected a memorial and pledged itself to toleration going forward. The more recent restoration of the adjacent Old Burying Ground and addition of the first-period Pickman House as a welcome center for both seems to me an admission that Witch City needed a bit more regulation: Salem has always taken care of its cemeteries.
The Salem Maritime National Historical Site. Carved out of Salem’s Polish neighborhood along Derby Street, Salem Maritime is also an illustration of history in the public sphere: it is a rebuilding and reframing of the City’s glorious maritime past, almost like a maritime memorial. Standing on Derby Street looking out onto Salem Harbor, we can consider both Salem’s maritime history as well as the historical and ongoing effort to preserve and showcase Salem’s maritime history, especially as the Custom House is closed for restoration. With its streetside shop on one side of the Derby House and garden out back, it is also a good place to consider Salem’s Colonial Revival influences and impact.
And on to Salem Common: where we could tell the entire history of Salem, from rope walks to food trucks! I think it would be interesting to end the trail with a consideration of what is “public” and what is not as it pertains to the Common and the myriad events that have happened there over the centuries. So many events: military musters and drills, neighborhood playground competitions, baseball games, concerts and films, speeches and protests, carnivals and circuses, commemorations. Just this past weekend, I was walking around the Common while a large food truck festival which apparently had no local vendors was happening, on “common” land.
What I left out. Many places! The ten-stop limit really challenged me. And of course, there will be no “suffering mannequins” on my tour. I left out both the Peabody Essex Museum and the House of the Seven Gables because these institutions are independent draws which also feature their own audio tours: both are obviously central to Salem’s urban and identity development. The PEM’s new Salem Witch Trials Walk looks like a good introduction to the Trials and there are also “PEM Walks” audio “postcards” for each of the Museum’s historic houses. Both Salem Maritime and the House of the Seven Gables also offer excellent audio tour options. So there’s really no need to follow that yellow line; indeed, no need for any paint on the sidewalks of Salem.
I made a very quick trip out to the Hudson River Valley at the beginning of last week to visit my brother and brother-in-law, and despite its brevity I still made some discoveries, including the delightful Columbia County town of Kinderhook. I always try to find new places when I’m out there, so on the way home I headed north from Rhinebeck, where they live, before turning east towards Massachusetts. It was supposed to be an hour-long diversion to see the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site before I headed home, but there was so much to see in Kinderhook I lingered, and did not get to Salem until well after dark. The President’s house did not disappoint, but downtown Kinderhook blew me away: beautiful houses and gardens, so much history, a stunning art gallery. The picture-perfect historytown: well worth a weekend trip if you’re within driving distance (or a longer one if you’re not). For some reason, I expected Lindenwald, which Martin Van Buren purchased after his presidential term was over, to be a bit dull and dowdy but it was on my list: when I got there I found it neither. I’ve been on a Gothic Revival kick all summer long, but this house is more than that: it’s a late Georgian mansion house transformed into a Gothic Revival mansion with an Italianate tower! Quite a melange: and Zuber & Cie wallpaper inside. The house was built by Judge Peter Van Ness in 1797, and inherited by his son William, who was Aaron Burr’s second in the 1804 duel which fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton. After Van Buren was defeated (on a Whig ticket) in the 1840 presidential election he retreated to Lindenwald, but following another defeat in the election of 1848 (on the Free Soil Party ticket) he was ensconced there for the remainder of his life. In 1849 he hired architect Richard Upjohn (who must have been THE Gothic Revival architect as he designed my two favorite houses in that style: the Rotch House in New Bedford and Kingscote in Newport) to expand and transform it.
Exterior and interior views of Lindenwald, including the tower stairwell and first-floor parlors. The entire center of the house is one big dining hall with the restored Zuber paper: for some reason it was difficult for me to photograph so refer to the site’s website! Not sure what this little house was for but it is cute.
This was the last day of a week-long heat wave so I really wanted to stay in my car, but once I got into downtown Kinderhook I had to get out of it. There were so many beautifuly houses, I would just stop, run out and take a photograph, and run right back into the air conditioning. But this was happening so often and the houses were in such close proximity to one another that it was getting a bit comical, so I finally stopped and took a walk. There was a strong presence of history: I had the image in my mind of the Continental Army marching down the main street victoriously after the (Second) Battle of Saratoga in the fall of 1777, especially as I passed the house where the captive General Burgoyne was entertained which was very close to the house where the wounded Benedict Arnold was taken. Earlier in the war, General Henry Knox passed through Kinderhook on his heroic quest to deliver cannon from Ticonderoga to General Washington in Boston. There are all these beautiful brick houses—both Dutch and English. There were details on the wooden houses I had never seen before. I was a puddle after my walk through Kinderhook but it was worth it!
The Luykas Van Alen House, 1747, which is owned and operated by the Columbia County Historical Society, as is the James Vanderpoel “House of History,” built in 1810. (The Van Alen house had several front porches with these built-in benches you see on Dutch Colonial houses built in the 20th century). Some houses which caught my eye in Kinderhook Village–I could have included many more. House where General Burgoyne was entertained and Major General (Turncoat) Arnold was attended to.
It was so hot in the Van Buren house that our guide passed out these cool fans! Perfect keepsake and advertisement for all this region has to offer. New York State takes its history very seriously: there are markers everywhere (maybe even TOO many–a big statement from marker afficionado me), every town has an official historian, and no opportunity goes unutilized to showcase it.
One hot morning last week I was looking at some paintings by the American Impressionist artist Matilda Browne (1869-1947) when I realized I wanted to see more. It was apparent that the best place to do that was the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, so I hopped in the car and drove down there, arriving in the early afternoon. I was supposed to be doing lots of other things but I ran (drove) away instead: I’m a firm believer in doing that from time to time and have always been grateful that I have the ways and means to do so. Old Lyme is a beautiful town: I’ve been there quite a few times but never to the Griswold Museum, and it was a real feast for the senses, especially at this time of the year, when the Colonial Revival garden in back of Miss Griswold’s mansion was at midsummer peak. There is the 1817 mansion, embellished with the art of Miss Griswold’s artist-boarders who established the Old Lyme Art Colony at the beginning of the twentieth century, the garden and grounds with trails along the Lieutenant River, the modern gallery with cafe and gift shop, and several studio-outbuildings which give the impression of an artistic community past and present. It was a perfect place to spend an afternoon in July, as everything was bathed in that golden midsummer glow, much like the painting by once-resident Edward Simmons of the same title. And I saw lots of Matilda Brown’s paintings too.
Edward Simmons’ July Afternoon, Old Lyme (1906) and the house, garden and grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum.
Florence Griswold’s life (1850-1937) was in some ways common, in other ways not. She was born into a wealthy family, exemplified by the grand 1817 mansion on Old Lyme’s main street, whose money was increasingly diminished to just the house and grounds with no means to keep both. After the death of her father in the 1870s, the house was transformed into a school for genteel ladies, and after the death of her mother in the 1890s, into a boarding house by Florence and her sister. The artist Henry Ward Ranger came to stay in 1899, and convinced other artists to follow suit in the years to come, and the house evolved into an artistic community with Miss Griswold very much in its center and her house the foundation of an emerging art colony in Old Lyme. Apparently extending patronage (in the form of credit) to artists became a higher priority than holding on to the family home, and she lost it before her death in 1937, but over the next decade the Florence Griswold Association was able to purchase it and establish the museum. The first floor of the house is maintained much as it was in her time, while the second floor has galleries devoted to the work produced there, including paintings of the house itself, illustrating her role as “the keeper of the artists.” Resident artists, including Matilda Browne, also painted the house itself, most prominently its door and mantle panels, leaving their mark in more ways than one. While the Old Lyme Art Colony is associated most prominent with American Impressionism because of the residency of Childe Hassam and others, you can also see works representative of the less well-known (at least to me!) school of Tonalism associated with Ranger. And there are also some very impressive cows.
ABOVE: Matilda Brown, Miss Florence’s; Charles P. Gruppe, The Griswold House at Old Lyme; Woodhull Adams, Miss Florence’s Parlor (1912); painted panels in the Griswold dining room. BELOW: Front hall and parlor of the Griswold House, Miss Griswold’s bedroom and a guest bedroom.
It was quite a shift to move from the mellow tones and painterly animals ensconced in the old Griswold House to the museum’s modern galleries, which are currently showcasing a retrospective of artist Dana Sherwood’s more whimsical work, including an installed Bedroom Bestiary (2021) below. Very charming images, but I wanted to stay in the past, as usual, and in the garden, which was lush, lush, lush. So back to Miss Griswold’s environment I went: to the realm of her boarders and borders. It was Matilda Browne who lured me to coastal Connecticut after all.
Works by Dana Sherwood in the 2002 Krieble Gallery; Matilda Browne’s Clark Voorhees House (1905) and Saltbox by Moonlight; William Henry Howe’s Repose, September Days in Normandy (1888-89); back in the garden—somehow I never thought of using sage as a border plant like this.
I wanted to share some examples of the work of the Salem artist George F. White, Jr., better known as George Merwanjee White (1849-1915), but I wish I could also share more details about his life. He’s a bit mysterious, particularly his chosen middle name, Merwanjee, a notable Parsi name. He was the proverbial “son of a Salem ship captain” whose most well-known works are quite local in focus, yet there is evidence that he also traveled widely, in both Europe and India. White’s father, George F. White Sr., made many voyages to the Indian Ocean for shipowners from Salem, Boston, and even New York, so perhaps his son might have accompanied him and was thus exposed to Indian influences, but this is complete conjecture on my part. In any case, by the time White Jr. married at the age of 27 he had shed the “F.” and acquired the “Merwanjee” and that is how he was known throughout his life. George M. White is recognized as part of an “Etching Revival” in Boston and Salem,, a movement which began in the last two decades of the nineteenth century in the latter city, exemplified by the little-known artists Harriet Frances Osborne and White and the more well-known Frank Benson. In addition to his etchings, White produced oil and watercolor paintings and was also recognized as a gifted producer of bookplates, but architectural etchings and drawings seem to be his preferred genre. There is a beautiful portfolio of his images of old Salem houses published by subsciption in 1886 entitled Etchings of Old Houses and Places of Interest in and about Salem which has been digitized for the “Peabody Essex Museum Publications” at the Internet Archive, and below are some of my favorite views. First, the process of production, followed by what was then generally known as the “Roger Williams House” and now the “Witch House,” the Philip English Mansion, the “Old Bakery” on St. Peter Street, later to be moved and renamed the John Ward House at the Essex Institute, the seventeenth-century survivor Narbonne and Pickering Houses, the lost Lewis Hunt and Richard Prince Houses, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location on Union Street.
White’s images are of both old Salem houses—emerging landmarks—which had survived the dynamic nineteenth century (or most of it) as well as fabled houses which had not, thus expressing the beginnings of a preservation conciousness which is also evident in the similar sketches of Edwin Whitefield’s Homes of our Forefathers series, which was published just about the same time. Whitefield is a bit more romantic; White a bit more realistic. White wants to show and tell us what was special about the English, Hunt, and Prince Houses, and he’s wistful about the “picturesque” past: this is a word he applies to both the lost Prince House and the “living” Pickering House, the exterior of which was “fashioned” in the picturesque style of a bygone age in the 1840s. You can’t help but feel that modernity is encroaching.
Heliotype prints from George Merwanjee White’s Etchings of Old Houses and Places of Interest in and about Salem, Limited Edition, 1886.
Another week: another pink Gothic Revival house! If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been on a Gothic Revival kick for a while. It’s a style you can’t help but notice, and Salem is fortunate to have some notable examples, but I think it was spending a couple of weeks last summer in the Hudson River Valley, a crucible of Gothic creation, which rejuvenated my interest. I saw Lyndhurst and Sunnyside there, along with many other romantic structures and motifs. There are wonderful Gothic Revival buildings in New England as well, and after I saw the Rotch house in New Bedford on my spring break I knew I wanted to see more, so it was off to see Kingscote in Newport, and Roseland Cottage just a few weeks ago. Now I have a long list of houses that I want to visit or revisit, including one with which I thought I was familiar: the Justin Morrill Homestead in Strafford, Vermont. I lived in this village as a child while my father was beginning his academic caeer at Dartmouth, and I remember running all around the estate in the summers: it was irresistable because it was pink, and the site of multiple outbuildings (also pink) which were the source of countless made-up stories and scenarios as well as a mystical, seemingly bottomless, pond. My childhood focus was much more on the grounds than the house, though I have been in the house a couple of times since then, but not with my current Gothic Revival gaze. So this past GLORIOUS weekend, my husband and I drove up to Stafford, where a pink quatrefoiled fence marks the entrance to the Morrill house and grounds.
This was the home of Justin Morrill (1810-1898), or I should say the summer home, as after he made his fortune he began a life of public service which placed him in Washington from 1855 until his death. He served as a US Representative from 1855-1867, and then Senator from 1867 until 1898. Unlike so many of today’s Washington politicians, Morrill was an actual lawmaker, distinguished first and foremost as the crafter of the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act which provided federal funding to establish public universities in every state, but he was also (again, notably different than today’s “public” servants) a remarkably effective committee chair, serving in that capacity for the House Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War and for the Joint Committee on Public Buildings thereafter, as well as on the Senate Finance Committee. He financed the Civil War and the completion of the US Capitol! This pastoral pink cottage must have been a welcome sanctuary for the very busy Morrill, and it was very much his house, completed just before his marriage to Ruth Barrell Swan of Easton, Massachusetts in 1851. Just as I had never really considered his house, I had not thought much about Morrill himself until my re-visit this weekend, but both of our guides, John for the exterior and grounds and Eli for the interior, were clearly both very much fans as well as purveyors of lots of detailed information about the Senator and his family. The house is also rather intimate, much more of a cottage rather than a mansion, and it is furnished with items taken from the Morrill home in Washington, so it feels as if you are visiting a home rather than a museum, albeit a home fixed in a particular place and time.
Interiors of the Morrill Homestead: some Gothic Revival orientation, including the Brooks House in Salem; the family (+dog) on the porch, pantry, downstairs hallway, Gothic door details, monogrammed china, the parlor, a downstairs bedroom, stained glass in the Senator’s study, second-floor landing, hallway, and back bedroom, attic details.
And now for some magic! The house has these amazing painted window screens clearly visible from the outside as European-esque landscapes in shades of grey and black, but inside you see only the mesh screen! I have seen painted window screens in Baltimore before, but never in New England. They seemed magical to me, as magical as the ice pond on the estate USED to seem to me as a child: surrounded by trees, you came upon it as a secret, dark place, and again, it was seemingly bottomless. But this weekend, cleared of about half of its guardian trees, it seemed very much like just a pond. In fact, that’s what my husband said to me: “it’s just a pond, Donna.” I couldn’t even take a good photo of it as it was so sunny, sorry. An older photograph conveying the dark and magical qualities it possessed in my childhood mind is also elusive: just imagine a black hole!
The Justin Morrill Historic Site is one of ten historic sites and National Historic Landmarks owned and maintained by the state of Vermont through its Division for Historic Preservation with the active support of the Friends of the Morrill Homestead. All the essential information about visiting the Morrill Homestead is at the Friends’ website, as well as evidence of their very active interpretation of the site: https://www.morrillhomestead.org/. Special thanks to John Freitag who gave us such a great tour, but also gave me a very substantive historical answer to a question I’ve long wondered about the Strafford Town House (below): why such a large structure for such a small village? Of course it’s all about the local politics of the American Revolution—and after.
I like to recognize the anniversary of the Great Salem Fire (June 25, 1914) every year, or most years, as it was such a momentous event in so many ways, starting, of course, with sheer destruction and dislocation: 1376 buildings burned to the ground (out of around 5000 structures in Salem proper), 18,000 people lost their homes and 10,000 people lost their jobs. Only three people died, which seems incredible given the magnitude of this conflagration, but 60 people were injured. Like every disaster of this scale, there are so many topics to address about its aftermath: the immense shelter and aid effort, the rapid rebuilding program, the plans for a “new” Salem. New might not be the correct word, as the architects and planners and owners who sought to rebuild on the broad swath of fire-ravaged land along Lafayette streets and the harbor were very interested in fire-resistant building materials but their aesthetic preferences were more traditional. This is a moment when Colonial Revival Salem comes into full flower, after germinating for several decades. You could label the traditional brick, stucco, and wooden buildings which line lower Lafayette and its side streets “conservative” but I prefer the terms referential or contextual: I’m always impressed with the deep appreciation displayed by early twentieth-century architects for Salem’s colonial and federal architecture and their desire to study and emulate heritage buildings. Perhaps post-fire architects, builders and planners were a bit too deferential to the past (architectual author and photographer Frank Cousins seems to view the opportunity before Salem as one of colonial compensation after all those sub-par Greek Revivals and Victorians were swept away) but I’m alway happy to see the past privileged over the present. I thought I’d illustrate this Colonial Revival moment with just one “new” house: a saltbox built on Cedar Street for Mr. and Mrs. George A. Morrill as designed by architect A.G. Richardson.
Two Cedar Street, built 1815: today, in the 1980s, and as newly-built.
A.G. Richardson was a Boston architect who lived in Salem, and thus the recipient of quite a few post-fire commissions. His pre-fire work does not seem to be overwhelmingly reflective of colonial inspiration, but more like a mix of old and new. He did design a “new Colonial house” for a harborview lot on Lafayette which was featured in House and Garden magazine in June of 1907. But the Morrill house at 2 Cedar Street looks much more traditional, and Frank Cousins and his co-author Phil Riley even praised it as “practical” in their Colonial Architecture of Salem (1919): “the resulting house as it stands to-day represents virtually and exact copy of the Maria Goodhue house in Danvers, erected in 1690 and destroyed by fire in 1899. Its long roof-line, formed by the lean-to continuation of the same pitch, contributes a uniquely appropriate character to the modern architecture to the modern architecture of Salem and was found to provide a very practical way of bringing a piazza in the rear and all service appurtenances under one roof, thereby saving expense and avoiding all leadage complications common to roors considerably broken by gables or dormers.” Riley had praised the Morrill house earlier as “in the spirit of old Salem” in his 1916 article in The House Beautiful, but I think I should note that there were not many surviving saltboxes in early twentieth-century urban Salem, so Richardson had to look to nearby Danvers for inspiration! Fortunately Cousins had photographed the Maria Goodhue house (see below, from the Cousins Collection at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth) before it was destroyed by fire. The new door of Two Cedar Street was definitely old Salem, however: Richardson copied the entrance of the Captain John Hodges House on Essex Street.
There was something about the Fire that fueled preservation in Salem and elsewhere, as story after story in national newspapers and periodicals emphasized the fact that the older sections of Salem escaped its path: an early report indicated that the House of the Seven Gables had been swept away, and it seems like there was a collective sigh of relief when it was revealed to be false. Wallace Nutting, that exemplar of the Colonial Revival, featured ethereal ladies draped in timeless white dresses on the steps of Chestnut Street houses spared from the fire in his 1915 “expansable” catalog, and the equally timeless saltbox merged colonial charm, clean lines, and (space for) modern conveniences.
There are two structures which made an impression on me early in my childhood and sort of set the standard for historic grandeur in my mind: Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth College, where my father began his career, and The Lady Pepperrell House in Kittery, Maine, close to my hometown of York where we moved when he moved on to the University of New Hampshire. Of course, Dartmouth Hall is a Colonial Revival reproduction of an earlier building, though apparently a very faithful one. I didn’t know that when I stared up at it when I was five or so, and a decade later when I first became concious of the Lady Pepperrell House it evoked that memory. To me, both were New England Georgian exemplars. And yesterday I visited another Georgian exemplar, the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in nearby Marblehead. It was the opening day of its season, and I knew that the charming Rick, one of the most knowledgeable people around about all aspects of local architectural history (just follow his instagram account and you will learn something every day, sometimes every hour) was on docent duty, so I made my reservation and ran over there. It was a cold and gloomy June 1 (especially after a warm Memorial Day weekend), but the house seemed warm and cheerful to me despite its size: this is a grand mansion in every sense of both words.
The Mansion is made entirely of wood, but designed to give the appearance of an ashlar stone facade.
A bit of history and then I’ll show you some of my interior shots—the gloom outside really highlighted the color inside and I got some great views, if I do say so myself! The mansion was built by 1768 by Colonel Jeremiah Lee (1721-1775), a wealthy “merchant prince” of Marblehead, who was just as engaged in the civic and political life of this bustling maritime community as he was in his brilliant shipping career. Lee was the wealthiest merchant in Massachusetts acccording to tax records from 1771, and he might have been America’s largest pre-revolutionary shipowner with full shares in over twenty vessels. For someone who clearly had so much at stake within the commercial context of the Atlantic world and the British Empire, it’s quite remarkable to see how Lee risked all by becoming a committed Patriot, and even though he did not die in battle, he contracted pneumonia by sleeping in a chilly and wet cornfield on the outskirts of Lexington and Concord on the eve of those battles in April of 1775, certainly a martyr to the cause. So Lee only lived in his trophy house for seven years, and his widow Martha Swett Lee for another decade. We have to dwell in the past a bit longer to understand the sheer scale of this mansion: it seems almost oversized for Old Town Marblehead now, but Marblehead in 1770 was the second largest settlement in Massachusetts, while Salem was the fourth! After the Revolution, Salem commenced its economic and demographic boom, but while the first US census of 1790 reported Salem as the 7th largest city in the new nation (with a population of nearly 8000), Marblehead was still in the pack in 10th place (with a population of 5661). So this mansion represents not only the wealth and cosmopolitan taste of Jeremiah Lee, but also of pre-revolutionary Marblehead. That said, this structure is so very conspicuous and grand, that I understand the words of Miss Hannah Tutt, historian of the Marblead Historical Society, which acquired and restored it after 1909: Fashioned as it was, after the homes of his ancestors, it needed but the hawthorne and the hedgerows to transport one to old England, and indeed the very timbers, of which it was framed, were grown in the mother country. Built at a cost of over ten thousand pounds, it could hardly be rivaled throughout the whole province of Massachusetts Bay—and overshadowing, with its grandeur, the humble home of the fisher folk, no wonder it became to them the “Mansion,” and the “Lee Mansion” it has always been, the pride of the whole town (TheLeeMansion. WhatitWasandWhatitis, 1911). Ok, context completed, let’s go inside: first floor first.
Through the front door, you step into this amazing 16-foot-wide entrance hall which extends to the back of house, and it’s all about the central staircase and the handpainted English wallpaper panels, which extend up to the second floor. The house served as the Marblehead Bank for about a century after it left the possession of the Lee family and before it came under the stewardship of the Marblehead Historical Society, so the back and upper stories were closed off. According to Rick, visitors could strip of pieces of this wallpaper as souvenirs in the front part of the first-floor hall, so reproduction paper replaced those parts, but the most of the wallpaper is original and glorious. There is a grain-painted “banquet hall” to the left, and a parlor/drawing room to the right.
There are actually very few items related to Jeremiah Lee in the house; most of the decorative accessories derive from the period but not the family. One feels the presence of Jeremiah and Martha (especially as you pass the copies of their full-length portraits painted by John Singleton Copley on the way to the second floor; the originals are in the WadsworthAthenaeum), but you feel like you are visiting an eighteenth-century house rather than their house. A very grand eighteenth-century American house. I really appreciated the curation: the Marblehead Historical Society/Museum has been the recipient of a steady succession of decorative donations over the century since it has acquired the Lee Mansion, but the decorative accessories on display were chosen clearly to highlight and complement rather than overwhelm. Nothing competes with the architecture (well, I don’t think anything really could.) On to the second floor.
Second-floor Chambers: the two front rooms are still of considerable size, but things get a bit cozier in the back. The blue-trimmed chamber is a suite of connected small rooms including one with odd proportions and amazing wallpaper! The room with all the yellow damask—a guest room according to Rick—is simply stunning. And you can see that the furniture is top-notch and very complementary.
Beautiful rooms on the second floor, as you can see, but what I am not really showing you is the view. Remember, Marblehead was a busy seaport when this mansion was built: it was not, and is not, a rural estate. Now its grounds are a bit deceptive: there’s a nice side garden but the original lot was quite shallow and a large parcel of land in the back was a later acquisition by the Museum (there is a very interesting article by Narcissa Chamberlain, the wife of photographer Samuel Chamberlain who lived just one street over, about its original boundaries in the April 1969 issue of the Essex Institute Historical Collections). The large windows of the mansion frame the street views out front and the very green views out back, but all I could see was yellow inside, because there is a lot of yellow, but also because I’m working on my new book, a study of saffron, and so I see it everywhere. On to the third floor.
More saffron and more chambers on the third floor: I need these “bed chairs” or whatever you call them! Writing in bed is one of my favorite activities but it takes a toll on one’s back. These third-floor bedchambers were precious. I love this portrait of Miss Selman, the hatboxes, these curvy fancy chairs and settee. Two other rooms on the third floor were a catch-all room with a random collection of museum items (including sea chests with their charts still inside!) and a parlor/playroom/servant’s room in the rear, also filled with wonderful items. I’m not really focusing on the portraits in this post, but there are many interesting ones to see.
And down another side staircase (I seem to remember that there are four staircases in the house) to the first-floor kitchen and a small dining/breakfast room where one of Colonel Lee’s logbooks rests on a table and his contemporary Elbridge Gerry looks on. I starting writing as soon as I got home so I wouldn’t forget all the detailed information which Rick imparted to me, but of course everything was just too much to take in so I’m going to have to go back again. I can think of so many sub-stories: the people in the portraits, a Dartmoor Massacre drawing, the wallpapers and printed tiles, those bedchairs, the contributions of my favorite preservationist, Louise du Pont Crowninshield, a summer Marblehead resident. The Marblehead Museum purchased the adjacent property, the site of the Mansion’s brick kitchen and slave quarters, just last year and archeological investigations into the histories of slavery and service in this corner of Marblehead are commencing this very summer. So while there is a lot to see in this majestic mansion, it is not a static site but rather a dynamic one, engaged in an evolving process of discovery and reinterpretation.
The Jeremiah Lee Mansion & Garden: more information and reservations here.
Walking is my preferred form of transportation in Salem, but I tread carefully: I want my path to be lined with beautiful old houses, colorful shops and lovely green (or white) spaces. Attractions exploiting the terrible tragedy of 1692 and out-of-town-yet-territorial pirates cloud my view and dampen my day. I’m happy to meet real witches and pirates on my walkabouts, but kitschy parodies annoy me. If you are of like mind, there are many routes you can take in Salem on which you will not cross paths with anything remotely touristy, but if you are venturing downtown you must tread carefully too. Avoid the red line at all costs and follow my route below, which I have superimposed on an old map of the so-called “Heritage Trail”: I’m starting at my house on lower Chestnut Street and making a witch-less circle.