Tag Archives: Gothic Revival

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.

 


The Older Andover

About forty minutes inland from Salem to the northwest are the towns of Andover and North Andover, both early settlements and bustling towns today. Due to the anniversary of the last executions of the Salem Witch Trials on Friday, I had Samuel Wardwell—who hailed from Andover, along with several other victims—on my mind, so I decided to drive there and see if I could find the location of his farm, which is always referred to as lying in the “southern” part of what was then one big Andover. That was my goal, but I got waylaid and distracted by the other Andover, the North Parish, which became North Andover in 1855. I hadn’t realized that North Andover was actually the first settlement: whenever I see North or South or East or West I assume that that designated location was settled after the adjoining town without the geographical adjective (is there are word for that?) But in the case of the Andovers, this assumption is incorrect. And because I assumed North Andover was later, I had always given it short shrift and driven through or around or by it—but this Saturday, the weather was fine and I had time so I drove into it, and spent a considerable amount of time in the vicinity of its perfectly pristine center village, in which a striking Gothic Revival Church overlooks one of the prettiest commons I have ever seen. It was the first day of Fall, and the North Andover Fall Festival was in full swing, so I parked the car and walked all around the old town center.

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All of the houses above surround the large Common, and bordering it is the little building built for the North Andover Hay Scales Company, established in 1819, which Walter Muir Whitehill refers to as “a rustic corporation of twenty-five proprietors who not only missioned a public utility but had a good sociable time doing so”. (Old-Time New England, October 1948). And down the road apiece is the Trustees of Reservations’ Stevens-Coolidge estate, with its extensive gardens, and this intriguing brick double house.

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On the other side of the Common, I walked past the North Andover Historical Society, a rather stately Greek Revival house and two “Salem Federals”, which really do have the air of displaced Salem houses, especially the Kittredge Mansion (1784), which looks just like the Peirce-Nichols House! Apparently its design is attributed to Samuel McIntire, which is complete news to me—must find out much more about this house.

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Kittredge House

Kittredge House 2The Kittredge Mansion & gate in HABS photographs from 1940-41, Library of Congress.

Finally I came to the beautiful Parson Barnard House (1715), which was long believed to be the home of Simon and Anne Bradstreet and has been owned and maintained by the North Andover Historical Society since 1950. It is perfectly situated and colored for early fall reveries, and I could have sat there looking at it for quite some time, but Wardwell business was pressing, so I retrieved my car, drove over the other Andover, and took a really cool virtual tour of its downtown courtesy of the Andover Center for History and Culture.

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Trimmed Out

I grew up a few towns over from the famous “Wedding Cake House” in Kennebunk, Maine, more formerly known as the George W. Bourne house, and so it’s always been a part of my life. But it’s been a few years, so I drove by last weekend and was saddened to see some of its famous “icing”, or Gothic trim, in poor condition due to a succession of harsh Maine winters. Really it’s a miracle that all that confection has lasted as long as it has in the New England climate: certainly its survival must be a testament to the fact that it remained in the Bourne family for three generations and only left the family’s ownership in 1983. I can’t imagine a Bourne failing to honor the personal craftsmanship and labor of Mr. Bourne, who utilized his ship-building skills after a trip to Europe brought him to gaze upon Milan Cathedral and inspired his construction of an elaborate Carpenter Gothic frame around his spare Federal house, by not taking very special care of all that trim.

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The Wedding Cake House, Kennebunk, Maine My pedestrian pictures, and a stunning photograph by Carol Highsmith in the 1980s, Library of Congress.

As you can see, everything was “Gothicized” in the 1850s: the main house, built in 1825 as a classic two-story late Federal, new barn with connector, and fence. There’s a few little Gothic outbuildings too. I remember always being absolutely awed by this house, every time I saw it, and after I went to Italy and saw the Milan Cathedral for myself I drove up to see if I could “see” Bourne’s inspiration upon my return. And I could! I still can, but this last time I saw the house I had a heretical thought: I wonder if it would look better without all that trim? 

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Duomo Milan

The George W. Bourne House and Barn in 1965, HABS, Library of Congress; the Duomo in Milan in 1846 by British photographer Calvert Richard Jones, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of the Gothic Revival, but after looking at lots of houses and house plans over the years I think I prefer those structures that were designed in this style from the outset rather than adapted to conform to ideals (and instructions!) offered up by Andrew Jackson Downing and others. Indeed, The Horticulturalist, a periodical edited by Downing from 1846 until his death in 1852, published an illustration of a “common country house” transformed and “improved” by the addition of gable, porch and trim in July of 1846. I have to admit: I prefer the “before”.

Trimmed Out Horticulturalist July 1846

But then again: Americans are (were?) ever in search of “improvement” and I can’t think of anything more American than George W. Bourne rushing home from Europe to transform–by hand–his “common country house” into a mini Milan Cathedral! I don’t think it happened quite like that, but I love that story, and I also love the ultimate Gothic conversion on the next street over: the Pickering House (although I must admit that I would really like to see an image of it in its original seventeenth-century form).

Trimmed Out Pickering


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