Tag Archives: Chestnut Street

Trudging Along

Yesterday was a beautiful winter day with everyone out and about cleaning up after the Saturday snowstorm, which was not as bad north of Boston as it was to the south.The streets of Salem were clear by mid-morning, if not before (I was sleeping in), and people were engaged in their regular Sunday activities. There were Sunday street-hockey players out my front windows, and hungry birds out back.

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I suddenly became curious about snow removal in the past–mostly because I didn’t want to go out and engage in my own snow removal in the present. I have–and have seen–quite a few historic photographs of winter scenes in Salem in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but none of them feature snow carts, snow plows, or snow removal. Salem has always been quite urban, and people needed to get around, how did they manage? What was the system then that so preoccupies us now? Both the New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library have quite a few photographs of various methods of snow removal in their collections, from simple shovel brigades to “snow rollers”–I’ve never seen anything like that for Salem: anyone out there have anything?

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Chestnut and Lafayette Streets in the 1870s in stereoviews by Charles G. Fogg. Carriages on the snow—not even sleighs! But it’s not too deep here.

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Chestnut Street in the 1890s, deeper snow, no signs of plowing–but these carriages do look like they are on blades. I’ve shown these before; they are from a family archive in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard.

My problem is that I don’t have any winter scenes of Washington or Essex Streets with tracks that needed to be cleared: Chestnut was and remains strictly residential. I still think people trudged around a lot more than we do now, however. Look at these two wonderful photographs of students from the Horace Mann “Training School” associated with the Salem State Normal School (now Salem State University, where I teach) and their teacher, visiting historic sites downtown in the snow.Look at her skirt: she’s not troubled by a little snow.

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E.G. Merrill photographs of Horace Mann students, 1904, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections

Like everything else, our toleration for snow in the streets changed with the automobile: we won’t settle for anything less than black the day after a snowstorm now. The wonderful book by Marblehead artist, photographer, and author Samuel ChamberlainSalem in Four Seasons (1938) shows winter streets cleared for cars and pedestrians. And he agrees with me: some of Salem’s most beautiful moments are in winter, when few visitors see it (though a lot more now, fortunately).

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Plowing Chestnut Street in the 1930s, from Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem in Four Seasons (1938).


Snowy Salem Saturday

A welcome snow day today, imposing calm on everyone–or at least me! I’ve always enjoyed winter, but the SuperWinter of two years ago, in which something like 11 feet of snow was dumped on us in February, tempered my appreciation for this particular season considerably. The snow was all around the house, the snow was in the house, and I plodded to work every day in tunnels of yellow snow. I felt a little vulnerable, especially when I woke up in the morning to see the latest damage inflicted on my plaster ceilings by ice dams. But all of that is fixed now, and we spent last year, with its relatively light winter, rebuilding our chimneys, sealing our windows, and putting on a new roof. Now I feel impenetrable, at least for this first snow storm. I’m sure hardly anyone agrees with me, but I think winter is Salem’s best season actually–I like to see the city return to a car-less state: it’s as close as you can come to seeing it in its glorious past. There’s a timeless quality to a snowy day, and the contrast of nature and structure is never more apparent. Here’s a few photographs I took as I walked around a very calm city this afternoon.

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Chestnut Street, Essex Street, and the Common.

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Two notable Salem houses in varying stages of restoration.

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Gambrel roofs embellished by snow.

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Some contrast; Trinity does not really care for snow.


Through Brown-colored Glasses

I can’t manage escapist day trips in the middle of the week so I was stuck in Salem, but life was not too rough on Chestnut Street, with beautiful, sunny weather, decorations on nearly every stoop, and a film crew present all day on Wednesday. I also wanted to play with an app (Vignette) on my phone and pretend that I was my very favorite turn-of-the-last century photographer Frank Cousins, so I shot my neighborhood, house, garden, and cats in sepia. Perhaps this was another form of escapism? In any case, it was interesting to see which architectural styles were actually accentuated  in brown, and which were not. I also experimented with a few other filters, just for comparison’s sake, but my favorite is definitely sepia. After all, the very first header of my blog was the sepia shot of the street below, taken in the 1890s by an unknown photographer.

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And here are some of my pictures from the last few days: some things definitely look better in sepia (Halloween decorations, Greek Revival houses, architectural details)–others, I’m not so sure–but it definitely brings out the shadows so evident at this time of year.filtered

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The filming at #12 (below) definitely looks better in color, but I like one of the old cars hired for the shoot in sepia, even though it was bright, blazing red. After everyone left, I managed to customize the filter and get a bit of both.

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I love Chestnut Street Park–sometimes called McIntire Park–in sepia, as well as my own garden, as it has no color at this time of year anyway: it kind of accentuates the fading. Inside, I only like my mirrors in sepia–and definitely not my cat Trinity, who is a very colorful calico. She looks uncharacteristically depressed in this tone.

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Hildegarde Hawthorne Hits Salem

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s granddaughter Hildegarde (1871-1952), a prolific author of ghost stories, garden books, biographies and travel narratives as well as an ardent feminist and suffragist, returned to her ancestral city the year after its great fire (which she mistakenly dates to 1913 rather than 1914) so that she might gather material for her forthcoming book, Old Seaport Towns of New England. With “Sister” in tow, she disembarks into a bustling city which she clearly does not find as charming as Newburyport to the north or Newport to the south. The “insistent present” is bothersome in Salem, and she feels much closer to the spirit of her illustrious grandfather when she looks at the “tenements” of Union Street than the new House of the Seven Gables, “which used to belong to some relatives of ours”. She does, of course, love Chestnut Street.

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Chestnut Street and the Beverly Bridge, Salem Side, by John Albert Seaford, from Old Seaport Towns of New England (1916)

And there’s lots more to see obviously, BUT (it seems like there is a but hanging over every sentence) new Salem or invented Salem seems to be intruding on old Salem too much:  You can easily spend a couple of days looking up the houses where famous men were born in this solid old city (for a feminist, she doesn’t seem to care about the house of famous Salem women). They seem to have had had an extraordinary hankering for the place. Not but what Salem must have been a particularly beautiful place in the days when these notable births were most common. It is now, in many spots, though it has lost much of its looks with advancing age.  For, oddly enough,as it becomes older it becomes younger, and the youth is not an improvement. After two days in town, Hildegarde left Salem at sunset, over the Beverly Bridge, vaguely disturbed by the conflicting impressions of her noisy, commercial present, that will not let you be, and the obstinate power of her past, equally insistent. It seems to me as if these last lines could have been written in 2016 as easily as 1916.

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Two of Hildegarde’s other titles; Hildegarde, second from left, at the New York Womens’ Suffrage Parade, 1913, ©Paul Thompson, Getty Images.


Ephemeral Elms

Every day, I’m thankful to live on my street because of its amazing architecture: I wake up in the morning, look out the window, and feel both wowed and grateful. But I’m also thankful because about halfway down Chestnut Street there is an elm tree: a graceful survivor, one of a handful in Salem. I walk down and touch it every day. Elm trees are touchstones for us now because they are so rare, of course, but I think it is useful to remember that even before the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease elms were always BIG: majestic, legendary, historical. I have a particular Massachusetts point of view here–the American elm is our state tree–but elms seem to have been held in high esteem wherever they have flourished and perished. Massachusetts had several George Washington elms and an assortment of “Great” elms and it was duly noted whenever they came down—in storms of 1876, 1923 or 1938–well before the tree plague came to our shores. The archives are full of stories about these trees, as well as prints and photographs: I particularly like those captured by international plant hunter Ernest Wilson on his Sanderson camera in the 1920s, part of the collection of the Arnold Arboretum. The first picture below is relatively rare; Wilson preferred to take pictures in the late fall or winter to reveal the trees’ “architecture”, and often posed his wife and/or car–or some nearby boy–in proximity so we can see their great scale.

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Great Elms in Lancaster, Holliston, Hingham (+sign) and Framingham, Ernest Wilson, Arnold Arboretum Collection.

There were two notable “George Washington Elms” in Massachusetts, one in Cambridge and the other in Palmer. Both were captured by Wilson as well as many other photographers: these were famous trees, even though there does not seem to be much verifiable truth behind their legends (particularly the Cambridge tree–whose remains or “relics” were scattered about after its death in 1923: you can read much more about it here). The Palmer tree came down in the Hurricane of 1938.

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“George Washington” elm trees in Palmer and Cambridge by Ernest Wilson; the remains of the latter, Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library.

An elm tree didn’t have to have Washington or Revolutionary connections to become “great” in Massachusetts: every town seems to have its beloved tree with an “ancient” name or association: the great “Queen Elm” in Lancaster (a town famous for its elms), the “Gulliver Elm” in Milton, the “Winning Elm” in Chelmsford and many “big” and “old” elms, like the stately elm on Boston Common which came down in 1876. In Salem we had the old “Bertram Elm” in front of the Salem Public Library (the former home of John Bertram) and many, many, more–now sadly gone, except for a few singular survivors, like our Chestnut Street tree. I believe there were a few new elms planted this summer, though–so things are looking up.

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Chestnut Street Elm


Anatomy of a Restoration

The new owners of a beautiful Chestnut Street townhouse, part of the street’s only triple house which also happens to be its tallest structure, very kindly allowed me to come in and take some pictures of their restoration process, which has begun in earnest. I’m so grateful, because this was the perfect time: the bones of the house were exposed in all of their beauty–and strength. Even with ceilings torn out and dust everywhere, the building still looked elegant–and solid–from top to bottom (well maybe the basement isn’t beautiful, but it sure is interesting, as you can see below). This is a very notable house not only because it is a “triplet”, but also because it was home to three Salem mayors, including the Reverend Charles Wentworth Upham, who was also President of the Massachusetts Senate, a U.S. representative, and author of Salem Witchcraft; with an account of Salem Village, a history of opinions on witchcraft and kindred subjects (1867). The entire house was commissioned by Salem shipowner Pickering Dodge, who lived next door, in 1828, ostensibly for several of his five daughters. A son-in-law, John Fiske Allen, oversaw the completion of the project after Dodge’s death in 1833 and his widow lived in the westernmost townhouse—our townhouse–until her death in 1851, followed by all those mayors in the nineteenth century and one of Salem’s most prominent preservationists in the twentieth. The restoration philosophy is conservative: reveal and burnish what is already there, and alter the systems and utilitarian rooms of the house (kitchen and bathrooms) so that they can “be useful to the daily lives of today” in the words of project architect Helen Sides: “Kitchens are no longer for servants and it’s nice not to share the bathroom if there are spaces to put new ones!  It is the responsible thing to update these houses so that they can stand for another 200 years”.

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Looking up Chestnut Street towards the triple house, 1916 (Frank Cousins) and 2016.

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Entrance hall and front and back stairs. This house has a lovely scale and great light (even though it has a firewall on one side) because it is two rooms deep–so you have windows both in the front and the back. Because it also has both front and back stairs I imagine it has great flow too…and the basement is a virtual museum.

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Restoration Collage Slatted Cupboards

Original basement kitchen, coal bin, and pantry with “slatted cupboards”—I’m not sure that’s what they are called, but I have the EXACT same ones in my house, built roughly at the same time (on the left with reindeer, swan, and pinecones: this is my seasonal decoration room). Back upstairs…..

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Bedrooms on the second, third, and fourth floors. The windows have their own dedicated restorer, Window Woman of New England, who have developed quite a reputation here in Salem. A very conspicuous aspect of this house is its built-in cupboards, cases, cabinets and closets–very evident in the second-floor study but also all throughout the house.

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Restoration Collage Cupboards

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A collage of cupboards between the bookcases of the second floor study and the first floor butler’s pantry (?) cabinets, which are PERFECT. I always notice COLOR in older houses—tones you don’t normally see–but in this house (in this state) it was really more about the color of wood, briefly exposed before new ceilings are installed.

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Love the red stairway (down to the basement) and green doors…various exposed ceilings…Tim of Peter Strout Construction building a new bathroom in this old house……out back: another house!

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Set in the midst of the long garden out back is a carriage house  (according to Bryant Tolles’ Architecture in Salem) which was converted to a residence c. 1912 utilizing materials from the demolished Chase house at 21 Federal Street. Obviously there was a deep appreciation for Salem craftsmanship then, which is very much in evidence here and now.

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Getting Ready for the Fourth

Salem celebrates the Fourth of July in a big way, with a Horribles parade at Salem Willows in the morning and fireworks accompanied by an orchestra at Derby Wharf in the evening. The Fourth is not perhaps as big an extravaganza as it used to be a while ago when a huge bonfire of barrels ruled the day (or night) in our city, but it is still big. I walked around and saw everyone putting out their colors today, and past the rather sad-looking Friendship which is missing its masts and getting hauled out for repairs the day after the holiday. The money shot of Fourth of July photography is the fireworks against the rigging and sails of the Friendship, so this year Salem photographers are going to have to be very creative! I put my own bunting on the house and stocked the refrigerator: my only regret is that I failed to make the famous Fourth of July punch featured on Chestnut Days past and in the 1947 Hamilton Hall Cookbook: apparently it takes two months to “ripen” so two days will simply not do.

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Festooned for the Fourth on Chestnut, Essex, Carlton, Williams and Winter Streets in Salem, the mastless Friendship, and the 1947 recipe for Fourth of July punch–too late for this year but keep in mind for next.

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