Tag Archives: Architecture

New Salem

So now I am on my “spring break” with the reality of no return to my classrooms: everything is converted to digital/remote in this new corona community. This is ominous for me; I prefer to teach in person. I can rise to the occasion—I know how to access all the digital tools and resources—but I see them as appendices rather than the story. Nevertheless I will rise to the occasion. With no prospects of long-distance travel or local entertainment and the task before me, my spring break will therefore have to consist of a few road trips, and on Sunday I drove west for a couple of hours into north central Massachusetts in search of a a real destination and a few ghost towns. New Salem was founded in the mid-18th century by investors from Salem, who enticed farmers from “old” Salem to settle in the Swift River Valley. With settlement and incorporation the town was well-established as the most northern of a chain of towns in the valley, and the sole survivor after adjoining Dana, Prescott, Greenwich, and Enfield were all flooded to form the Quabbin Resevoir, the water source for Metropolitan Boston, from 1936-40. New Salem is the touchstone for all of these lost towns, and for old Salem as well: as I wandered through its oldest cemetery, I saw so many familiar names on the old stones: Southwick, Putnam, Pierce, Cook.

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As you can see from the photographs, it was a beautiful day, which made my visit all the more poignant, as no one was about. New Salem seemed like a beautiful ghost town—the perfect place for social distancing! It was almost eerie, but of course I was distracted by the architecture—and there were cars in the driveways.

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In North New Salem is the Swift River Valley Historical Society, a regional historical society devoted to preserving the memory of both the living and lost towns. It was closed, of course, but just outside was this amazing sign post (I don’t think that’s the right word???) with all the historical place names intact. I love this more than I can say. I love that it is preserved. I love the manicules. I love that the names of its maker and restorers are preserved. I have no idea why “Indianapolis” is on the sign!

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This sign made me want to search for more signs, as ways and links to the past, so I drove down every single road with any of the above place names—those with the “lost” place names led to water, and that was that: the point was driven home.

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20200315_151926An abandoned farmhouse on Old Dana Road, and the Quabbin Reservoir.


February in Newport

Another beautiful weekend, and I drove down south again: this time to Newport, Rhode Island. Newport is not really a likely February destination but why not when it is 50 degrees, clear and sunny? I had an academic rationale for my trip, but I spent most of the day wandering around looking at houses. The Remond family, the African-American family who lived and worked at Hamilton Hall in Salem for many years, was exiled to Newport from 1835 to 1843 when two of the Remond daughters were expelled from Salem High School: their father John, an advocate for abolition, desegregation, and universal suffrage, promptly moved his family out of town in protest. As I’ve got several talks scheduled on the Remonds in the next few months and I’ve largely ignored their Newport interlude, I went down to see some of the places they might have inhabited: not much luck with home or shop but I did find their church, or at least the present incarnation of what was their church: the Union Congregational Church, the first free black church in America.

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20200223_122718Trade Card from the Remond Family Papers, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

But 137 Thames Street is a parking lot, so off I went on an architectural tour. Structurally speaking, there are two Newports, of course, the old Newport and the Mansions of Bellevue Avenue. February is not the time to visit the latter and I’m more interested in the former anyway, so I kept to the narrower streets. I got a bit indignant when I found myself on Cornè Street, named after the Italian artist Michele Felice Cornè, who was brought to the United States on a Derby ship in 1800: I think of him as a Salem artist but a casual look at his biography indicates he spent much more time in Newport: his house stands at the beginning of his street, with a plaque noting his re-introduction of the tomato to the western hemisphere. There are far more National Registry plaques in Newport than Salem.

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Cornè’s house is in the midst of a color spectrum I am going to call “Newport Greige”: there are many houses along the historic streets of the city that share this spectrum, but they are distinguished by their colorful doors, among other architectural details. Here are just a few:

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Believe me, I could go on and on with this neutral palette, but there are plenty of colorful houses in Newport too: a few pumpkin-painted houses, bright red and “colonial” blue, a dark, dark green, and almost-black. They all pop among the greige, and as you can see, all are in pristine condition. The whole city is in pristine condition! No stumbling on these sidewalks—and they take care of their trees!

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So you can see I’m happy to wander around in the eighteenth century, but Newport’s historic district has considerable architectural diversity, and as you head towards the mansions, things get more stridently nineteenth-century, with the occasional lane of older houses: it all adds up to an interesting melange. I do like the Shingle houses, including the Newport Museum of Art and the Isaac Bell House below, which look amazing in the midst of the dormant February foliage, but the less “natural” Kingscote is my favorite of the Newport mansions: the rest are just too much, at least for February.

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Camouflage or Color Pop?

We drove up to Portsmouth to have lunch with my parents and afterwards took a long walk around the old town, as the restaurant I chose was definitely in the new! Portsmouth is experiencing a building boom like Salem, but better. We walked past Market Square in the center of downtown Portsmouth (where there was one lone sign holder—-everyone else was in Iowa, I presume) past the skaters in Strawbery Banke to the South End, and then back again in a big circle. Everything seemed gray-brown in the chilly damp air, except for the old houses, or should I say some of the old houses, painted in shades of gold and pumpkin, green and red. There seems to be a custom of leaving clapboards unpainted in Portsmouth, however, so some of these weathered houses faded right into the streetscape, like camouflage. Lots of contrast on the streets of Portsmouth—and texture.

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20200201_144330We caught the owner of this amazing 1766 house coming out, and he told us all about his restoration process—he replaced all those clapboards himself.

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Since I was in the neighborhood, I really wanted to check out my favorite house in Portsmouth, the Tobias Lear House, named for George Washington’s secretary. I have adored this house since my teens, and it is likely the source of my admiration for all historic houses, or at least Georgian ones. The last time I checked in, it was in rough shape, so I was a bit nervous when we turned the corner on Hunking Street, but yay: preservation in action!

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Then we walked by the famous Wentworth-Gardner House (once owned by Wallace Nutting!) and turned a corner and then: the ultimate unpainted house: so stark and stately, with pops of green potted plants in every window. I don’t remember ever noticing this house before, even though I grew up right over the bridge from Portsmouth. Wow!

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Circling back by the skaters in Strawbery Banke, and the lone sign holder in Market Square (it was the weekend before Iowa—this weekend will be very different!), with brief stops at shops (there really can never be enough plaid for Portsmouth), and along the Harbor, where a big ship was delivering sand for this so-far snowless winter.

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A February Saturday in Portsmouth…….


The End of Mill Hill?

Place names are a topic I have not explored much on this blog, which is odd, as they represent a major entry into the local past. There’s a great article in the old Essex Institute Historical Collections (Volume 31, 1894-95; it was also printed separately) by Essex Institute Secretary Henry Mason Brooks about Salem “localities”, featuring many names that are no longer with us and several that still are, including Carltonville, Blubber Hollow, and Castle Hill. Brooks weaves a historic narrative around most of his localities, but even though he references Mill Hill, he doesn’t have much to say about it. In his time, it was a relatively new route connecting central and South Salem, having only been “opened” or laid out in 1873-74. It is really just an extension of Salem’s central north-south thoroughfare, Washington Street, and a very short and shallow hill indeed. Yet despite its unimpressive size and scale, Mill Hill endured as a place name over the twentieth century. When I moved to Salem in the 1990s people would reference it often, and it took me quite a while to figure out where it was. A couple of years ago it was designated the site of a brand new development incorporating a Hampton Inn plus rental housing, but now that that prosaic structure sprawls across its base (and then some) I am wondering if this particular Salem locality has met its end.

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Mill Hill 1920s PEMSome different perspectives on Mill Hill beginning with the 1897 Atlas at the State Library of Massachusetts. The first view is looking NORTH, towards downtown Salem, the rest are looking SOUTH towards Lafayette Street. The Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth (NORTH), two post-fire scenes from the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections, and another Phillips Library view from about ten years later, after considerable post-fire reconstruction. Of course, the old St. Joseph’s–and the new St. Joseph’s–are long gone.

Ok, get ready for the view now, as it is a shocker: first, from my car, trying to take a photograph from the same location as the last photo above. What you see on the left is the side of the sprawling new Hampton Inn. And then: the front, supposedly the best face forward?

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This big boxy building features a conglomeration of materials over all of its facades: it actually looks pretty good from lower Lafayette/ Derby Street and the rear! Salem desperately needs a large commercial hotel to cater to its tourist traffic, but I can’t help but look upon this as a lost opportunity: more proliferation of plastic, or whatever that material is. I can’t understand why the City doesn’t work with chains to conform construction to some semblance of the architecture which made Salem Salem—at least a reflection, or even a nod. Washington Street just seems like a very different place now than when I first moved to Salem decades ago, with generic boxy buildings on every block and an uninspired train station at its head. It’s always been a busy, commercial thoroughfare in transition, but seems increasingly soul-less and place-less: and Mill Hill is clearly no more, as the new hotel is situated (as more than a few people have pointed out to me, so apparently “Mill Hill” does have resonance for Salem natives) at the corner of “Washington and Washington Streets”.

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A Portfolio of Prints

This is kind of a housekeeping post: the blog has gotten so big (over 9 years!) that I have lost track of what’s in it, so I’m going to gather together a few portfolios of images for ready reference. Today: some of my favorite Salem prints. I could spend hours going through every one of Frank Cousin’s photographs of Salem (especially now that so many have been digitized) but there’s something about prints that really captures the essence of a structure—or a street—so I’m always seeking them out. Below are some of my favorites: most from the nineteenth century, and most from books; some from the twentieth century and some “stand-alone” imprints. Some are from engravings; some from drawings. I think most have been featured in the blog before, but I’m not sure! In any case, they are all my go-to images when I want to conjur up a time and space in Salem’s history.

Salem Prints John Turner House, Drawing Circa 1899

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screenshot_20200105-104448_chromeMy favorite pre-restoration print of the House of the Seven Gables, 1889; prints by two women artists—Mary Jane Derby (North Salem) & Ellen Day Hale (Corner of Summer, Norman, and Chestnut Streets, where now we have a traffic circle!)–and pioneering lithography firms from the Boston Athenaeum’s Digital Collections.

These next images will seem familiar: they are from John Warner Barber’s Historical Collections of Massachusetts, which was first published in 1839. They have been reprinted many times, but my favorite version of them is in antiquarian George Francis Dow’s Old wood engravings, views and buildings in the county of Essex, a beautiful little volume published in 1908. Dow supplements Barber a bit with information and images he found in the Essex Institute, of course.

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As you can see in the caption for the (Downing-)Bradstreet house above, Joseph Felt’s Annals of Salem, first published in 1844, is the source of some classic Salem printed images, as are the guidebooks published in the later nineteenth century and national publications like Gleason’s/Ballou’s Pictorial and Harper’s. Salem got a lot of press once Hawthorne started selling, and the national Centennial and Bicentennial of the Witch Trials in 1892 also focused attention on “Old” Salem. And another great source for graven images is of course ephemera: the front and back pages of the successive Salem Directories are full of imagery, and many invoices, billheads, and other business paper contain beautiful prints. Fortunately the Salem State Archives is digitizing whatever comes their way.

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Salem Print Directory

20170207_145723Prints of the James Emerton Pharmacy in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum and the Salem Directory; Seccomb Oil Works billhead, Salem State Archives and Special Collections.

On the verge of the twentieth century, a lot of the classic images above were started to look a bit dated, so we get new versions of Salem’s most characteristic buildings and streets in periodicals and guidebooks like Moses Sweetser’s Here and There in New England and Canada, first published in 1899. Most architectural publications from this time and after used the photographs of Frank Cousins or (a bit later) Mary Harrod Northend for illustrations, with the notable exception of the measured and drawn renderings of “Colonial Work” contained in the Georgian Period portfolios. I can never get enough of these! More impressionistic, printed illustrations return in architectural books aimed at the general public in the mid-twentieth century: I particular like Ethel Fay Robinson’s Houses in America (1936, with drawings by her husband Thomas.

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Salem Prints Georgian Period Details Vol 1 1899

pixlr_20200105165102085Illustrations of Salem architecture from Here and There in New England and Canada, The Georgian Period, and Houses in America.


My December 2019 Book List

I generally post a book list around this time of year: my favorite books of the past year, books I want for Christmas, books I’m reading or assigning for my spring courses, books I want to read over the holiday break. This list is all of that except for the first category: I haven’t read much this past year because I’ve been working so hard—writing myself, teaching, and reading to teach—and so I really can’t play favorites. This was not a leisurely year and there is very little fiction on this list, and even very little history unrelated to my teaching: very little American history in particular. To a certain extent, this blog has been an exercise in discovering the American history which I avoided from high school: I’ve learned a lot but now I’m kind of done—it seems a bit repetitive to me. Other worlds call, and new books in my own fields are piling up! I’ll never be done with the histories of architecture (structure and landscape) and material culture though—and folklore, though nothing of that genre caught my eye this year. So proceeding in chronological order, here are the books which did.

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These books are all for my courses and an endless writing project which I hope to bring to fruition in the coming year. Simon de Montfort is one of those guys like Sir Philip Sidney: a glamorous representative of his age, in this case the thirteenth century, who has a very dramatic story which students love and which can also represent the best (anti-absolutism) and worst (antisemitism) of the time. I’ve read everything about de Montfort, and this book, by University of Lancaster Lecturer Sophie Thérèse Ambler, is very good, full of details and analysis which will enhance my teaching. I will be reading Renaissance Futurities and Gardens for Gloriana for pleasure and for context for own work over the break, and I am considering Walter Ralegh and Elizabethan Globalism for sections and courses on European expansion in the early modern era, although the latter is also an absolutely gorgeous book that could double as a more casual coffee-table text. Climate history is absolutely essential right now, as as the periods I teach encompass both the “Medieval Warm Period” and the “Little Ice Age” I’m always on the hunt for fresh environmental perspectives: Nature’s Mutiny is a potential adoption for several of my courses but I have to read it over the break to gauge its accessibility.

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Books Folio Society

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These are all books I WANT or want to read: I think Inventing Boston would inform my understanding of Salem craftsmanship in the same key era, Mark Girouard’s classic Life in the English Country House has been reissued in a stunning edition by the Folio Society this year with photographs from Country Life and a binding illustration by architectural artist John Pumfrey, and I collect Penguin clothbound editions by Coralie Bickford-Smith. I’m not sure I buy into Orlando Figes’ themes of European unity and modernity in the nineteenth century, but that is an era with which I need to engage, again. I’ve always been fascinated with Frank Lloyd Wright’s professional and personal life, and who doesn’t want to read about English Country House parties? Oh, and in addition to Sandition, I did want to read one other novel this year if only for the local reference in its title, but no, I cannot read Lucy Ellman’s 1000-page Ducks, Newburyport at this particular time: I just don’t have the ability (or the time) to dwell on a strung-out sentence of rambling thoughts, as experimental and interesting as it/ they may be. Maybe next year, or the year after.


Pristine Postcards

There are so many people interested in Salem’s history now that it gives me hope for the future and tempers some of my anxiety about the ongoing erection of dreadful buildings downtown: as our streetscape becomes less distinct at least our distinguished heritage is appreciated! It does seem to me that there’s more interest, and more intense interest, in the past now but I suppose that has always been the case—-Salem’s history is engaging, after all, and there have been a succession of historical “ambassadors”, for lack of a better term, over the decades and even the centuries. Once I decided I wanted to learn more about Salem’s history, after I had developed all of my medieval and early modern courses, learned to teach them a few times, and been granted tenure, I looked around for some guides and found them in published chroniclers and researchers like the Reverend William Bentley and Sidney Perley, but also in friends and neighbors. There were two lovely men in particular, my Chestnut Street neighbors Babe Dube and Russell Weston, who really piqued my interest with their tales of very material Salem history, and some great postcards. I seem to recall Babe (whose real name was the spectacular Borromee) giving me a stack of old Salem postcards after I oohed and aahed over them—but they must have been Russell’s, as he had amassed quite the collection. They are both gone now so I can’t ask, but I still have the postcards: lovely numbered Essex Institute “Albertype” postcards from the teens and twenties I believe, preserving images of Salem houses (and one Marblehead mansion) in pristine condition, whether they still stand or were swept away.

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Salem Prints Downing HOUSE PC Essex Institute

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Built by a Master Mason

On a sunny afternoon last week, I had to the opportunity to go inside Two Oliver Street on Salem Common, a grand brick Federal house built in 1811 and currently for sale (so you can go in too, if you want). I hadn’t been in the house for a while, maybe a decade or so, and while there have been some alterations made to the more utilitarian spaces, the historic “public” rooms remain perfectly preserved, including the Zuber & Cie wallpaper in the dining room. There is a beautiful double parlor, very large center halls on all three stories, a sweeping serpentine staircase, and countless bedrooms—I really lost count, though three third-floor rooms have been combined to make a large poolroom, rec room, man cave, whatever you want to call it (it’s not very cave-like). There is also a wine cellar, a lovely deck overlooking an enclosed garden, and a carriage house with a second-floor apartment! All of these features are wonderful, but for me, the key attraction of the house was its combination of modernized facilities and systems combined with historical “texture”: I don’t like it when age-old plaster looks too smooth. Well see for yourself: here are my photographs of the exterior and first, second, and third floors.

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20191106_161151Another Rumford Roaster! I really believe that Salem can lay claim to being the city with the most Rumford Roasters.

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20191106_155921Beautiful views over Oliver Street on one side of the house, and the Common on the other.

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I love old basements—-if they are clean, which this one definitely was (unlike mine). On our way back upstairs from the wine cellar (just below), we popped in to see the “unfinished” part of the basement, which is really quite impressive. Combined with all of the exterior aspects of the building, it really reinforces the sense of masonry craftsmanship. Yes, the woodwork is beautiful too (as you can see above) but I walked away thinking about brick.

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Generally I write about the occupants of historic houses, but as I walked away from Two Oliver with all that brick on my mind I wanted to research the builder: I knew it was Joshua Upham, who also built Old Town Hall and part of Derby Square, but that was about all I knew about this “talented” (I found this adjective in several places) mason. Fortunately his son published a biography: even though it’s a bit more focused on Upham’s faith and activism (he was a Deacon of his church and a very passionate abolitionist) we also get to read a bit about his long career, which began in Boston as a mason’s apprentice. After a fallout with his fellow apprentices, he went down to the docks to catch a ship for Newburyport (as there had just been a fire) but wound up in Salem instead. This was in 1803, just before Salem’s Federal building boom, and in the words of his son, “in the reckless runaway, with his one shirt, one pair of duck trousers and a spencer, it would have needed a prophetic eye to see the most successful master mason in town, under whom the larger part of its ancient brick dwellings and stores were erected.”  Two Oliver Street was built for merchant Joseph White Jr., who lived in the house for only five years, until his death in 1816. There followed a long occupancy by Benjamin H. Silsbee and family in the middle of the nineteenth century, after which the house became the parsonage of the Tabernacle Church on Washington Street and the long-time residence of several generations of the Clark family. Joshua Upham’s spectacular building career was followed by an equally spectacular second career as an inventor of fire “annihilators” designed to protect buildings under the auspices of the Salem Laboratory on Lynde Street, and when he died in 1858 he was still in the possession of several patents.

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Joshua Upham, the builder of 2 Oliver Street/33 Washington Square North, which is now for sale through J. Barrett & Company.


Two Amazing “Accessories”

All summer long I was obsessed with sheds—I wanted one, an old one of course, for my garden but never found the perfect one or the owner of the perfect one, except for the case of a southeastern New Hampshire shed whose owner would not sell to me (and frankly, if she had said yes, I’m not sure how I would have dislodged and transported it to Salem as my husband does not share my shed obsession). Sheds, carriage houses, even mundane garages, are all just accessory units to their main structures according to architectural classification, and I’ve got two AMAZING accessory units today: a permanent structure in Salem and a temporary “folly” in Marblehead. Here they are:

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Yes, one man has constructed a Samuel McIntire tea or summer house as a permanent accessory to his Salem Federal house near the public library, while another has built a fantasy ghost ship into/ out of his Marblehead garage—for the Halloween season only! Two disciplined and talented visionaries in adjoining towns! Marblehead architect Tom Saltsman, who you can read about here, is responsible for the ghost ship Oceanna, while my friend John Hermanski has been building the McIntire tea house over the past few years: I’ve been waiting, waiting, and waiting to feature it here, and finally last month it looked perfect, except for the McIntire urns he wants to add along the roofline. His inspiration is readily apparent in extant drawings of the McIntire outbuildings flanking the fabulous—and fleeting—-Derby mansion which once stood on Essex Street where Derby Square now is, as well as a couple of surviving McIntire pavilions: the Derby or McIntire Tea House at Glen Magna in Danvers (1793-94), and the Derby-Beebe Summer House (1799), which was originally located in Wakefield, Massachusetts and removed to the Essex Institute in Salem in the twentieth century.

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Accessory MansionThe new McIntire-Hermanksi Tea House on Monroe Street, the old McIntire Tea House on the grounds of the Peabody Essex Museum, and Charles Bulfinch’s sketch of the Derby Mansion by McIntire, with its flanking outbuildings, c. 1795, Phillips Library, PEM.

I’m not sure what Mr. Saltsman’s inspiration was: Pirates of the Caribbean, perhaps? It’s an ephemeral creation that will likely be gone by the time you read this (he says that he “loves that it goes away”), but fair warning for next Halloween as he has a 15-year track record of diverse constructions.

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We in Salem are fortunate to be able to gaze at John Hermanski’s mini-McIntire House in all seasons, either from across the driveway of the beautiful Federal house which adjoins it or from Essex Street, as the house sits right in back of the Salem Public Library’s side lawn: in fact, my favorite photograph of the house, an Arthur Griffin black-and-white from circa 1950, has this vantage point. But that view doesn’t show the ultimate accessory which stands there now.

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Monroe StreetThe John Hermanski-Barbara Taylor House on Monroe Street in Salem, 2019 (+accessory) and c. 1950, Digital Commonwealth.


Seeking Refuge in the Valley

We finally broke free of Salem for the last weekend of Haunted Happenings—-in the nick of time! It’s just been such a busy month, but on Saturday we abandoned all of our responsibilities and drove west to the Connecticut River Valley to visit my husband’s cousins, who live in the delightful town of Montague. I have been driving through or by Montague for many years, but never really stopped to explore it—or so I thought: it turns out that Turners Falls, a semi- regular pit stop for when when driving west or back east, is actually a village of Montague, along with Montague Center, Montague “City”, Millers Falls, and Lake Pleasant. We spent most of our time in Montague Center, and never found the elusive Lake Pleasant. On a long walk through the countryside surrounding the Center, we came across a beautiful first-period house for sale, which once belong to a mutual acquaintance of all of us: while staring at its characteristic over-the-top (by Salem standards) Connecticut-River-Valley doorway, I briefly imagined life “out west”, away from the Witch City and its exploitative “attractions” and Halloween hordes but also (unfortunately) far from work, family, and the ocean—which my husband could not live without. Oh well.

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20191026_122423A dreamy house—and former tavern—in Montague Center: listing here.

As you can see, Saturday was a beautiful day and we saw other wonderful houses (and many barns) as well, before lunching outdoors at a former mill and returning back to our cousins’ charming house—a former school and pocketbook factory— within which live FOUR cats (and a dog), and wonderful family heirlooms from Vienna arranged just so according to the wishes of their former owner. After indulging in cardamon-laced pastries on fine china (yes, we refugees were treated like royalty), we were off to Turners Falls, the largest of the Montague villages.

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pixlr_20191027150117299All around Montague Center: house & barns, the Book Mill, Valley cats, Viennese heirlooms, the Homestead.

I have stopped by Turners Falls over the years because it is unusual among Massachusetts towns (or villages, I should say), most of which have evolved organically. Turners Falls is a planned industrial settlement, the initiative of Fitchburg industrialist and railroad entrepreneur Alvah Crocker in the 1860s. Laid out on a grid, with harnessed hydropower, factory buildings and housing and very conspicuous tall-spired churches, Turners Falls has the look of an “ideal” industrial community, even as its factories are now vacant. It has a big broad Main Street, and most of its shops and restaurants seemed very much alive, but all I was interested in on this particular visit was the workers’ housing—mostly brick rowhouses in varied states of repair. They were all striking in their efficient design, but it was their conditions which were so curious, like those below with the boarded-up windows and their recently-painted red stoops!

Turners Falls

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20191026_163138Turners Falls, 1877, Digital Commonwealth ( I don’t think all of those streets were filled out!); the fast-flowing river after the Falls; workers’ housing. On the way home, the French King Bridge over the Connecticut River.

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