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.
Across from my house is Chestnut Street Park: this is not a public park but a private space, owned by all the homeowners of Chestnut Street. It was once the site of two churches in succession: a majestic Samuel McIntire creation which lasted for almost exactly a century and was destroyed by fire in 1903 and a stone replacement which was rather less majestic and lasted about half as long. The gate is usually open to everyone, but not for reseeding time as you can see by the sign. I walk down Cambridge Street by the park and across Essex into the Ropes Mansion Garden, not looking great now but an amazing high summer garden. Then I walk down Federal Court and across Federal Street to the Peirce-Nichols House which is owned, like the Ropes Mansion, by the Peabody Essex Museum. Unlike the Ropes, I can’t remember when the Peirce-Nichols was last opened to the public: it’s been decades. It has a lovely garden in back which was always open, and my favorite place to go at this time of year because of its preponderance of Bleeding Hearts. The gate to the back of the house has been closed for a couple of years now, but it is latched and not locked, so I entered and went into the rear courtyard, passing the memorial stone dedicated to the memory of Anne Farnam, the last director of the Essex Institute before it was absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum on my right. I never knew Anne but I’ve learned a lot from her articles in the Essex Institute Historical Collections so I always pay tribute. The gate to the garden in back was latched and locked, so I presume the museum does not want us to venture in there. I hope it was ok to go that far! While I am grateful for these pem.org/walks recordings I’m always wondering why these houses are never open.
Continue down Federal Street past the courthouses: you must avoid Lynde Street and Essex Street where witch “attractions” abound. I take a left after Washington street onto a street that no longer exists: Rust Street. I like the juxtaposition of the newish condominiums and the old Church and Bessie Monroe’s brick house on Ash Street on the right: a symbol of the opposition to urban renewal in Salem. Then it’s on to St. Peter Street, past the Old Jail and the Jailkeepers’s House (below), right on Bridge, and then right again, onto Winter Street.
As you approach Salem Common, you must bear left and head for the east side, as the west side is the territory of the Salem Witch “Museum.” There are some side streets with wonderful houses between the Common and Bridge Street which might be a bit more pleasant to traverse than the latter but you will be cutting close to the “Museum”: that’s why I always go with Winter. Once there, go straight by the Common on Washington Square East : you will pass the newly-renovated Silsbee Mansion, which long served as the party palace Knights of Columbus and has been converted into residential units with a substantive addtion and exterior restoration, and one of my favorite houses on the Common, the Baldwin Lyman House.
On Washington Square East.
Washington Square East will take you right to Essex Street: cross and go down the walkway adjacent to the first-period Narbonne House into the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. No witches or pirates here: you’re safe! I love the garden behind the Derby House: I think it is probably at its best in June when the peonies are popping but it’s a great place to go all spring and summer and even in the fall. On Derby Street, you can turn left and go down to the House of the Seven Gables or go straight down Derby Wharf: I went to the end of the wharf on this particular walk. The Salem Arts Association is right here too, but beware: there is a particularly ugly witch on its right so shade your view lest your zen walk be disturbed.
Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Salem Arts Association.
Back on Derby. Adjacent to the Custom House is a wonderful institution: the Brookhouse Home for Women, established in 1861! The Home is located in the former Benjamin Crowninshield Mansion, and it is very generous with its lovely grounds, which provide my favorite view of Derby Wharf. I always stop in here, and then I work my way back up to Essex Street on one side street or another. Essex Street east and west are wonderful places to walk, but the pedestrian-mall center is witch-central: a particularly dangerous corner is Essex and Hawthorne Boulevard, where the Peabody Essex’s historic houses face some of the ugliest signs in town. It’s a real aesthetic clash: gaze at the beautiful Gardner-Pingree House, but don’t turn around! If you want to go to the main PEM buildings or the Visitors’ Center further down Essex, approach from Charter Street north on another “street” that no longer exists: Liberty Street.
From the Brookhouse Home to the PEM’s row of historic houses on Essex Street. Memorial stone in the Brookwood garden: Miss Amy Nurse, RN, an Army Nurse (1916-2013).
Charter Street is the location of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point, recently restored and equipped with an orientation center located in the first-period Pickman House, which overlooks the Witch Trials Memorial. So this is a wonderful, meaningful place to visit, but beware: just beyond is the “Haunted Neighborhood” or “Haunted Witch Village” (whatever it is called) situated on the southern end of the former Liberty Street, abutting the cemetery. This is a cruel juxtaposition during Haunted Happenings, when you literally have a party right next to sacred places, but not too noticeable during the rest of the year, because for the most part witchcraft “attractions” create dead zones. But the tacky signage can still spoil your walk so avert your gaze as much as possible. Charter Street feeds into Front Street, Salem’s main shopping street, and from there you can find the path of least (traffic) resistance back to the McIntire Historic District, which is very safe territory. Broad, Chestnut, upper Essex and Federal Streets are lined with beautiful buildings, as are their connecting side streets, so take your pick. I usually just walk around until I get in my 10,000 steps: on this particular walk I ended up on Essex.
Salem is a great city for doors. There are so many exemplary doors in a succession of architectural styles: First Period, Georgian, Federal, Greek and Gothic Revival, all the Victorian varieties. There are simple plank doors, multi-paned doors, louvred doors, double doors, carved doors, doors with elaborate surrounds and vestibules, and doors of many colors (these have really multiplied over the last decade or so). There are Instagram accounts and hashtags for Salem doors. But one type of door is not very common in Salem: the rounded or arched door. I was looking through the remarkable memory album of G. Albert Lewis at The Library Company of Philadelphia, a volume with incredible illustrations of interiors and exteriors, when I became fixated on the arched entryways of his Philadelphia townhouses. I wondered if Salem had any rounded doors, did a quick Google image search (it was about 11:00 at night, otherwise I would have ran around town), and came up with multiple images of the doors of my own house! I never realized they were so conspicuous; rather I found them incongruous with the attached house next door, with its straightforward Federal entryway. See what I mean?
The second photo above is from the Instagram Account @doorsofsalem where you can see lots more Salem doors.
The double doors, and the entire entrance with bay window above, along with considerable interior alterations and a major addition, are the very tangible results of a considerable investment in the property made by its owner from c. 1860-1890, Willard Peele Phillips. Mr. Phillips was a lawyer, a state representative, and an aficionado of curves: he didn’t just bend the entrance of my house to his will: the parlor pocket doors, the china cabinets in his brand new dining-room, and all the first-floor entryways were rounded as well. He ripped out the elegant slim banister that ascended three stories and replaced it with a mahogany one that is much more bulky but also curvy. The second and third floors were left alone; I guess it was about keeping up appearances. It’s really interesting to compare the pristine house next door to my palimpsest one: 1827 versus 1877. Yesterday I went out in search of more rounded doors and did not find many, but it was fun to snap some beautiful square ones along the way. I’ve been taking photographs of Salem houses for over a decade just for this blog, but there is always a new door to discover.
As you can see, there is a rounded element in several of these Salem doorways in the form of the archways and fanlights, but the actual doors are still standard square (or rather rectangular). Besides my doors, I found arched doors on a famous McIntire summer house on the grounds of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Essex Street campus and its twin across town, constructed by a friend of mine just a few years ago, on Winter and Lafayette Street buildings, and what’s left of the Salem Armory. There are a few Salem churches which also have domed doors, but that’s about it.
But the Federal style which so defines Salem (for now, but maybe not much longer) emphasized light and decoration for its entryways, and so often there is an impression of roundness even if the door is more straightforward. A great example is the doorway of arguably the most beautiful house in Salem, the PEM’s Gardner-Pingree House: its portico and fanlight state (shout) round quite emphatically albeit elegantly. And look at the entrance to my neighbor’s beautiful Italianate house: all you see is curves but the door inside that fabulous vestibule is harmoniously straight.
So then I went back to my inspiration, the Lewis Memory Album at the Library Company, and looked at his doors, and was surprised to find they were not rounded at all—only their surrounds, and dormers! And therein is the magic of architectural texture, evident even on paper.
Illustrations from The old houses and stores with memorabilia relating to them and my father and grandfather / By G. Albert Lewis. The Library Company of Philadelphia.
One thing that I’ve always loved about Massachusetts is its regional topographical diversity. I’m not sure that this is the correct phrase: topographical generally refers to the natural landscape but I’m referring to the built environment. In nearly every region of Massachusetts, you can explore urban and rural environments adjacent to each other, within the time span of an hour or so. It’s a bit more difficult to get the urban/rural contrast within the general vicinity of Boston, where suburban streetscapes reign, but elsewhere you can explore the architecture of a densely-settled old city by foot in one hour and then find yourself driving amidst farmland in the next. This was my experience over the past few days as I explored the South Coast of Massachusetts, which extends from Cape Cod to Rhode Island along Buzzards Bay. It was my Spring Break breakaway, as I decided to stay relatively close to home rather than taking a big trip. This is beautiful coastline, but if you’re familiar with this blog you know that I’m more interested in human history than the natural world so I tend to explore territory through buildings and this region contains quite an array of architecture. It’s an easy day trip, basically just following Route 6 from Fall River to Wareham or the other way around, but I spent a lot more time in rural New Bedford and rural Dartmouth than I expected to, so I stretched it out to two days. You could do a wonderful Industrial Revolution tour of these region, starting with the Old Slater Mill National Historical Park in nearby Pawtucket, Rhode Island and then proceeding to the powerhouse cities of Fall River and New Bedford where factories remain in various states of redevelopment or decline, but I was a bit more interested in domestic architecture on this trip.
Beginning with the cities, where you can see the impact of all that wealth from whaling (New Bedford) and manufacturing (Fall River AND New Bedford) very clearly, as well as the impact of the DECLINE of these industries. But I was focused on the former! Very impressive mid-nineteenth century houses in both cities: Fall River experienced a fire in 1843 which was followed apparently by a building boom, but both cities have impressive revival buildings: Greek, Gothic, even Renaissance. I stayed away from everything relating to the notorious Lizzie Borden in Fall River for the same reason I don’t dwell on anything related to 1692 here: I’m not interested in the commercial exploitation of tragedy. In New Bedford, I breezed through the Whaling Museum too quickly: that definitely deserves its own post and both cities (of course) have active historical societies that document and exhibit their economic and social histories.
Great Gothic Revivals! This regional ramble was prompted by my desire to see just one house, the William J. Rotch cottage in New Bedford (first up below), and it has some impressive neighbors.