Tag Archives: Architecture

Pickering House Perspectives

A well-interpreted house museum can offer up multiple perspectives, encouraging visitors to explore what interests them. I’ve been on some less-inspired tours of historic houses, believe me: too many family stories without any context whatsoever and too much plastic fruit are my own particular aversions. But a good house tour is a veritable–and personal–window into the past, and if it’s a particularly old house, many windows. One of Salem’s oldest houses, the Pickering House (c. 1664), been part of my life for a long time, but the other day I realized I had never taken a formal tour of it, or written a post! So I decided to rectify both slights this past weekend. I should lay all my cards on the table: the Pickering House was notable for having Pickering family inhabitants for decades but now is home to two good friends of mine, both energetic stewards who have hired in succession two stellar graduates of the History Department at Salem State as research docents: so I am a bit biased for sure. However, it seems objectively true that graduate #1, Jeff Swartz, really expanded the interpretation of the Pickering House during his tenure, and graduate #2, Amanda Eddy, is clearly following his example.

As Amanda told me, the Pickering House was always owned by John Pickerings, from the 17th century to the 20th, but the most conspicuous Pickering was Colonel Timothy Pickering, Adjutant-General and Quartermaster General of the Continental Army, Washington-appointed Postmaster General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and Representative, negotiator of Indian treaties, including one (miraculously) still standing, farmer. He himself was a multi-dimensional man, so if you’re going to tell the story around him, you’re going to have many stories. But the other Pickerings are interesting too: I could tell that Amanda was particularly fascinated with the John Pickering VI, who oversaw the trim transformation of the house’s front façade in1841, in the midst of a Gothic Revival craze in Salem driven largely by Colonel Francis Peabody of Kernwood and Harmony Grove fame. Mary Harrod Northend believed that Mr. Pickering was inspired by famous Peacock Inn in Rowsley, Derbyshire, but I’m not so sure.

Colonel Tim presiding over the Dining Room, Amanda Eddy showing us the evolution of the house; the Peacock Inn, UK National Archives.

So if it’s architectural history you’re after you have a wealth of styles to explore in the Pickering House: First Period craftsmanship of the seventeenth century, Gothic Revival style of the nineteenth, Colonial Revival elements added in the twentieth. If you’re more focused on material or visual culture, there are wonderful examples of needlework, portraits of Pickerings by Joseph Badger, and lots of little things to see. I love curio cabinets, and Amanda opened up the Pickering cabinet for us and took out: a piece of Old Ironsides, a pair of old eyeglasses, and the skeleton key to the front door. If your interest is more textual, there is a fabulous family library in the east room, a fragment of Timothy Pickering’s and Rebecca White’s wedding banns in the west, and a manuscript cookbook in the dining room. As Amanda is working with the family archives in the attic, she brought down several of John VI’s handwritten topical pieces for us to see, touch, and read.

Western parlor with portrait of Mary Pickering Leavitt (1733-1805) and her daughter Sarah by Joseph Badger; Hessians!; wonderful portrait by Mary, restored by textile conservator Elizabeth Lahikainen in 2017; the Pickering family arms; from the curio cabinet; LOVE this china pattern but forgot to ask what it is—please inform, someone; family books and one of John VI’s essays.

These are the kind of fabled places which should thrive during this pandemic as we all strive for connections: personal, cultural, social, historical. No crowds: just careful and curious people. There were just five of us, inside yes, but keeping our social distance with masks in place. We signed the register: proper procedure but also contract tracing. And yes, there were even a few witches.

Photograph by Salem photographer and artist James Bostick.

 


September, September

I love September: the cooler days and nights, the colors of late-summer flowers, the light, which can be both hazy and very, very clear. And then there’s that back-to-school feeling which I have experienced every year of my life with the exception of a few years ago, when I took a fall sabbatical. It’s a bit different this year, of course, with all of my classes online, but I still got that anxious/excited feeling on the first day of classes this week. Online teaching cannot compete with face-to-face instruction in my opinion, but it can “personal”, in the sense that you are staring right into the close faces (and homes) of your students; pre-packaged presentations can be more thematic and thoughtful than those which are delivered in person, especially with my conversational style. I put a lot of effort into structuring my online courses this summer to compensate for the slapdash efforts of last semester when we had to make rather quick transitions, so I think that my students will be getting a good mix of lecture, discussion, and writing. Still, with all of that said, I miss going back to school in person. But our home is a lot calmer now with the big kitchen renovation completed (big reveal next week: it’s still a bit of a mess), and it’s a good place to teach and write: I am very fortunate. I worked pretty steadily all summer, so I treated myself to a FOUR-day Labor Day Weekend, and the weather was GLORIOUS, as you can really see (I think) in these photos of New Hampshire, Maine, and Salem.

My long Labor Day Weekend: at the Wentworth Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth on Saturday;  York’s McIntire Garrison (+my Dad) and Jefferds Tavern and some Cape Neddick and Ogunquit Houses on Sunday, on the When and If, the 1939 yacht of General Patton, on Tuesday night: it sails out of Salem in the summer and Key West in the winter.


Mr. Berry’s Portfolio

The pen-in-hand sketching architect is one of my favorite perspectives of Salem’s material landscape, and there were quite a few, from the 1870s on. Salem was an important design source, from the Centennial through the height of the Colonial Revival in the 1920s. I recently discovered a slim volume of hand-drawn houses by a young architect from southern Maine, William E. Berry, which does not contain any Salem houses but is nonetheless so completely charming that I wanted to feature it: I love his drawings, which are much more impressionistic than measured, as well as his captions—even his chosen fonts! I was not surprised to learn that he was a friend and colleague of Arthur Little, another architect who sketched old buildings along the New England coast for inspiration: if you spend an hour or so looking at Little’s sketches in Early New England Interiors (1878) and Berry’s Pen Sketches of Old Houses (1874) you will be plunged into the world of the young New England architect of the era, engaging with the design details all around him (unfortunately I don’t think there are any similar volumes by her, although it would be interesting to compare if there were).

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Barry 3The “OLD Mansion” above is the Sewall House or Coventry Hall in York, Maine, my hometown: growing up in a large shingle house in the Harbor, this was always my touchstone for what a “proper” house should look like.

Barry 4 (2)Can anyone tell me about this house in Saco, Maine?

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Grove HallWOW. This is (was) the “Dearborn House” in Grove Hall, in Boston. You can read more about this amazing house here, or at least the search for more information about this amazing house. The photograph is by A.H. Folsom, c. 1868, Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

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Barry 6 (2) The Tufts House in Medford, an unknown (???) Boston house, and some exterior and interior details, including amazing “portable paneling”. Mr. Berry also went down south, but I am not going with him.


New Deal Salem

A couple of years ago I complained about the lack of WPA murals in any of Salem’s public buildings: this struck me, as an impression and little else, as a lack of New Deal investment in Depression-era Salem. I’ve had time to survey the paper trail now and boy was I wrong: Salem benefited tremendously from the work of New Deal agencies, and not just in terms of its infrastructure but its culture as well. So this post will serve to set the record straight. I don’t think there is a Salem neighborhood that lacked a WPA project: there was work on different installations around Salem Harbor, at two Salem islands (Winter and Baker’s), downtown, in Forest River Park in South Salem and at Greenlawn Cemetery in North Salem. And so many agencies worked here, fanning out from a major field office in Barton Square with 300 Federal employees at first, and then a smaller office situated in a renovated Old Town Hall. Whether it mitigated the impact of the Great Depression effectively is another inquiry, but the Federal government certainly had a presence in Salem in the 1930s, and left its mark.

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New Deal Greenlawn Collage

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New Deal Machine ShopNews clips from Works Progress Administration Bulletins, 1936-39, Boston Public Library; National Youth Administration Photos and Records, NARA.

Well of course parking lots, wharves, and cemetery plots were necessary and I think the timely renovation of Old Town Hall was key, but my favorite WPA agencies were those charged with more historical and cultural endeavors, most especially the Historical Records Survey (HRS) and the Historic Architectural Buildings Survey (HABS). Salem was fortunate in that it had a demonstrated commitment to the preservation of historic records and buildings, in the forms of the long-established Essex Institute and concurrent initiative to establish the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, but the HRS was instrumental at documenting essential records of American history across the US at their most endangered moment. It was originally part of the WPA’s Federal Writers Project, but it spun off on its own and then became a unit of the Research and Records Program in 1939, charged with compiling indexes to major genealogical sources such as vital statistics, cemetery internments, military records, and newspapers. The reports of the HRS are nothing short of heroic (Salem actually needs one now; I have no idea of the location or state of many of its public records) but little interesting items were also published in the 1930s, showing how historical research was interwoven into daily life. And as for HABS: is it impossible to underestimate the value of its photographs, measured drawings, and documented details of Salem’s built landscape, and with over 600 entries Salem was particularly favored by these dedicated professionals, working away in large field office in Boston.

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New Deal HRS Collage

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WPA LastHABS records, Library of Congress.

Another WPA cultural agency that seems to have been very active in Salem during the later 1930s was the Federal Theatre Project, which staged a succession of productions at the Empire Theatre on Esssex Street and several benefits around town—several premieres, no less. I can’t discern similar activity on the part of the Federal Art Project in Salem, though I suppose Salem artists could have exhibited at the Federal Art Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. As I was researching the FAP, I did learn that it was not the chief administrating agency of all of those lovely Post Office murals which started me off on my charge years ago, but rather the Fine Arts Department of the Treasury Department. Another cultural agency which was under the aegis of both the WPA and the Federal Art Project was the Index of American Design, which commissioned artists (over 400) to create watercolor illustrations (over 18,000) of intrinsically American decorative art objects, including several Salem items.

New Deal Theatre Collage

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Federal Art Project collage

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Federal Theatre Project and Federal Art Project Posters from the Library of Congress; Salem Index of American Art renderings from the collection at the National Gallery of Art.

Finally, I don’t think I can conclude this survey of the New Deal’s contributions to Salem’s physical and cultural landscape without a brief mention of the Massachusetts volume in the American Guide Series produced by the Federal Writers Project:  Massachusetts: a Guide to its Places and People (1937). This book was a bit controversial in its time as it was one of the first American Guide books and it definitely revealed a pro-labor perspective in its first part, which introduces readers to the Massachusetts people and their institutions. It certainly reflects its time and its intent, but regardless, the second part of the book contains absolutely amazing walking and driving tours of Massachusetts cities and counties. I actually drive around with it in my car! There are several walking tours of Salem and they are much better than that stupid Red Line thing we have now; we should just arm all of our visitors with a copy of the WPA map to the city and they would be far better served.

Massachusetts Guide Collage


Spring Break-Away

I’ve got a (virtual) stack of papers to correct but yesterday I gave myself the morning off to go visit the Patton Homestead in nearby Hamilton, the summer home of General George S. Patton Jr. and farm of his son Major General George S. Patton IV. We are in World War II week of our #SalemTogether project, and I had been reading about Beatrice Ayer Patton, a North Shore native who lived at the homestead during the war and after her husband’s death in Germany in December of 1945. Mrs. Patton was the guest of honor at Salem’s most spectacular war bond rally, held on the Common in September of 1943, and as all of the descriptions of her character and personality in the press accounts of this event were glowing, I wanted to see her house and garden. The Patton Homestead was donated to the town of Hamilton by the Patton family a few years ago: it’s a lovely late eighteenth-century house surrounded by outbuildings and fields named for heroes of the Vietnam War. The house was closed of course, but the grounds were open, and I spent a good bit of time wandering around, so much time that the morning was shot and I thought, well I might as well take the day. 

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Ipswich is right next to Hamilton, so I though I might as well drive up there and check out some of my favorite houses—there are so many. Once in Ipswich, I thought, why not drive up to Newbury and Newburyport along Route 1A and the marshes? Once in Newburyport, I thought, why don’t I drive along the Merrimack River for a while? Once in Haverhill, I thought, I’ll drive home along Route 97, which is such a pretty road. But I kept taking side roads, and stopping to look at houses, so it was dinnertime before I made it home to Salem. But I have no regrets: it was a warm spring day and I needed a getaway, mask in hand and on my face whenever I got out of the car.

An Essex County loop—some house “markers” along the way, Ipswich up and around to Topsfield:

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20200504_140333Ipswich: the Whipple & Heard houses and just a few beautifully preserved Colonials—there are so many more!

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20200504_145911Newbury and Newburyport: one of my favorite houses in the County, on Newbury’s Lower Green, plus the Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm (this is where you go if you really want to get away and pretend you are in England); just one house in Newburyport as I’ve featured so many in previous posts, but I couldn’t resist this little charmer!

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Two houses in Georgetown, above: I’ve always loved this bottom house, so prominently situated with its Tory chimneys. Below: the Holyoke-French House and a nearby farmhouse in Boxford Village (Boxford is a lovely town but it has no sidewalks, which I find perplexing and unfriendly). Finishing up at the Parson Capen House in Topsfield.

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Ideal Illustrations: Men and their Houses

The combination of a leg injury and a lot of work demands kept me inside and inactive at the end of last year and the beginning of 2021, but now that I am healthy and home full-time, like everyone else in Corona-world, I have more time for short runs and long walks, observing respectful and mandatory distances of course: last week I was walking around a neighborhood in nearby Beverly and found myself on the wrong side of the road as sidewalks are now one-way only, and masks are mandatory here in Salem. Even before these measures were put into place, everyone was keeping their distance, and so on nice, sunny days when there are more people on the streets you can observe circling encounters. This past weekend I took a walk up to Greenlawn Cemetery though North Salem and checked in on some of my favorite houses along the way: a cute Greek Revival cottage I’ve always admired, the Dearborn Street house where Nathaniel Hawthorne once lived, and a rather ramshackle early 19th-century shingled house which appeared to have survived unscathed through the years of Victorian protuberances and twentieth-century siding experiments. When I approached the latter, I saw a completely different house: huge shed dormer overwhelming its sloping roof, ripped-out door, vinyl siding. Had “my” house been torn down and replaced with this monstrosity in a matter of mere months? No, looking closer, I realized this was the same house, utterly and tragically transformed: was the same house, it survives no longer. In the same general vicinity more shed dormers loomed, horned in by developers who want to squeeze as many units as possible in old wood-frame houses, enabled by a city which prioritizes any form of development over historic preservation. So obviously, I could go on—indeed I am just getting warmed up—but I’m a bit too emotional and angry to write about this right now. A post on the plague of dormers and the death of historic preservation in Salem is coming, but later, after I’ve done my due diligence and reflected (and calmed down) a bit. I don’t think the vision of that martyred house will fade, unfortunately, but I will not refresh it: I’ll have to avoid Osborne Street for the rest of my life.

And let’s face it, melancholia looms right now: we all need a little bit of escapism rather than a diatribe against shed dormers! So I am going to post about architecture today, but features illustrations that are more whimsical than realistic. I’ve always loved architectural illustration, ever since I was a teenager when I discovered a cache of my uncle’s renderings in the attic: I never knew him; he died just after his graduation from architecture school and these drawings were packed away. They were a touchstone to him but I also just really liked them. Since I look at them as works of art rather than technical drawings, I’m drawn to more historical and whimsical examples: in fact, many of my favorite examples are more properly labeled illustrations rather than architectural illustrations. I love aesthetic depictions of structures, both interiors and exteriors, but I really love illustrations which include people, both inside and alongside their houses, large and small. So that’s what I am featuring today: it makes me happy just to look at these illustrations, and hopefully you will enjoy them too. Because I’ve been focusing so much on women in this Suffrage Centennial year, I thought I would give the men their day: so here is my portfolio of Men and Their Houses, all dwelling in a shed-dormerless world.

I think these are going to get progressively artistic, and we’re also going to go back in time (by subject): the artists’ portfolios, websites and/or shops are linked below.

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Screenshot_20200414-111924_InstagramTwo works by Argentinian illustrator Fer NeyraCuban street scene by Lou Baker Smith.

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Men and their housesDesign for a “Mannerist” house with a “catslide” roof in Kent by Charles Holland Architects; Mies van der Rohe depicted before his famous Farnsworth House, by Spanish illustrator and author Agustin Ferrer Casas in his graphic novel Mies.

Men and their houses ARCHILIFE-federico-babina-designboom-02Alfred Hitchcock in his Villa Savoye bathroom by Federico Babino.

Men William Morris Kelmscott (2)

Men Dr. Johnson (2)William Morris at Kelmscott House and Dr. Johnson in London, Amanda White Design (Etsy shop here).

Hampton-Court-2Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace by Josie Shenoy.


Salem in the Time of Corona

I imagine Salem must be like your town or city at this time: quiet and closed. As it is a compact and walkable city full of architectural treasures (still), the quiet more than compensates for the closure, but you are all too aware of the hardship that both are causing. It’s not a singular holiday that is allowing you to walk or bike freely with few cars in your path but rather a prolonged period of anxiety through stoppage for the freelancers and entrepreneurs among us, many in a city like Salem. I’m grateful for my security: there’s no stoppage for me, either of work or of income. I find that remote teaching takes more time than classes which actually meet in person: and while the latter invigorates you (or me) the former drains, so out in the streets of Salem I go to try to get some energy back. But again, I’m grateful for my security and have no complaints.

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This week’s weather is so much better than that of last week, when the sun failed to appear for days. I am determined to: 1) put on real pants, with zippers; 2) observe proper meal times; 3) drink more tea; 4) turn off the computer for one full day; 5) avoid the daily presidential briefings; and 6) try to play board games with my husband (I am a terrible game-player but he loves them). This is not a very challenging list, obviously. In addition to all these tasks and working, I take my daily walks, noting new architectural details but also new orders of business around town: restaurants which are still open for take-out, or have transformed themselves into makeshift grocery stores which deliver, shops whose owners will meet you at the curb with your online purchases. The signs for canceled events are the other conspicuous markers of Corona time, like those for Salem Restaurant Weeks (March 15-26) and the annual Salem Film Fest (March 20-29) in the reflective windows of the Chamber of Commerce.

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But there are other signs too: of support for health-care workers and grocery clerks, teddy bears and other animals for children’s scavenger hunts. And signs of Spring, of course.

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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…….