Tag Archives: great houses

How do You Re-open a Tourist Town?

After a pandemic—or in the midst of one? Obviously the answer is very carefully. I grew up in a summer tourist town, York, Maine, and have lived in a seasonal–going on all-year tourist town, Salem, Massachusetts, for several decades, so the question is very interesting to me, and obviously far more than interesting to the residents and business owners of both communities. I’m in York now, so I thought I would start with some observations of what is going on here, and then follow up with Salem (whose many restaurants started opening up yesterday—in the streets) when I return in a few weeks. The policy in Maine is self-quarantine for two weeks for all people coming from outside: I am following that policy I believe: I came up with two weeks’ worth of groceries and supplies and am going to no public places, with the exception of parks and walkways near our home which are open. Self-quarantining in Massachusetts allowed daily exercise as well as essential shopping, so I was assuming that the former is allowed here: I found some contradictory information, but if I am the wrong let me know, Maine authorities! I stay far away from everyone on my daily walks and wear my mask at all times. We have the perfect situation here, as we have a big family house where my husband, stepson and I are staying, and my parents–who are Maine residents—are in their condominium less than a mile away. So if we run out of anything they can go and get it for us! The one time I was walking in rather public place, with my Maine parents and mask on, they insisted on going to the walk-in counter of Rick’s All-Season Restaurant for Bloody Mary’s: I stayed far away from the window and we imbibed at home. There is an ice-cream take-out window in Salem, but I don’t know if we have a Bloody Mary one—-yet.

IMG_20200607_120623_791The Take-Out Window at Rick’s Restaurant in York Village

I was quite accustomed to seeing masks on the streets of Salem as well as inside public places: here in Maine there seems to be less mask-wearing outside, but as I haven’t been inside anywhere but our home I’m not sure what’s going on there. Obviously Maine is a much larger state than Massachusetts with a much smaller population, so there is less concern about population density: in York the population typically swells in the summer, but with this two-week self-quarantine policy in effect I would guess that this would not be the case this summer. That is the pressure point. York is a really large town, geographically, with a lot of public outdoor space: three major beaches, a mountain with trails, parks, ponds, pathways—lots of room for social distancing. The beaches are open for active use: no sunbathing, but walking, swimming, fishing are allowed. In York Harbor, where we live, there are two coastal paths: the Cliff Walk and the Fisherman’s Walk. I grew up walking on the former in four seasons: but there have been some access issues over the past decade or so, and the owner of one abutting property has built a fence to block pedestrian access to part of the walk. It has been Covid-closed, but the nearby Fisherman’s Walk is open so that is where I will be taking most of my harbor walks. As you can see, it’s lovely, and very uncrowded: we’ll see what happens as June progresses.

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20200609_101139Fisherman’s Walk, York Harbor, Maine, with a new house (next-to-last photo) rising over the Harbor.


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. 

20200504_124358The Patton Homestead, Hamilton

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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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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North Easton LOVE

In southeastern Massachusetts there exists a village that is both the ideal of a “company town” and a model for historic preservation and adaptive reuse of industrial structures: North Easton, shaped in so many ways by the prosperous Ames family in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but cared for with obvious appreciation by its current residents. I drove down on a brilliant February Saturday motivated to see one Ames Mansion—recently featured in Knives Out and the subject of one of my student’s capstone seminar paper—but saw so much more! I don’t know what took me so long to get down there; actually I think I’ve been both to Easton in general and North Easton in particular several times, but clearly I did not stop and look around. Now I can’t wait to go back again. It would make for a difficult commute to Salem–and my husband can never live away from his beloved ocean—but if not for those two factors I would move down lock, stock and barrel. I’m surprised at myself: I usually go for colonial towns—or Federal towns at the very latest—but North Easton is a nineteenth-century town through and through, and a late nineteenth-century town at that: a Henry Hobson Richardson town. But there is something about it………..

First up, the Ames Mansion at Borderland State Park: not exactly a beautiful house, but certainly a strident one. It was built in 1910 by Harvard botanist Oakes Ames and his wife Blanche, according to Blanche’s own design apparently, as no architect could fulfill their demands. Oakes was the son of a Massachusetts governor, and the great-grandson of the founder of the Ames fortune, Oliver Ames, Sr., who established the Ames Shovel Works in Easton. His sons and grandsons expanded the fortunes of the company, which supplied shovels to both forty-niners and railroad workers out west, as well as the prestige of the family through patronage and politics. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Ames mansion-building in Easton would begin, and continue up through the era of the great-grandsons like Oakes.

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The Ames Family Mansions, built in every conceivable architectural style! Queset House, currently under renovation is part of the Ames Free Library,  Langwater is still standing, Sheep Pasture was demolished in 1946, and the Stone House Hill House is now Donahue Hall of Stonehill College.

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Stone-HouseAll historical photos, Easton Historical Societyand Museum.

The foundation of all these mansions was the massive wealth generated by the Ames Shovel Works, a mid-19th century industrial complex built right in the center of North Easton in close proximity to Queset House and the Governor Ames Estate where Oakes Ames grew up. The buildings and “shops” of the complex have recently been converted into one of the most stunning housing developments I have ever seen, fulfilling the incessant demand for density in our region while also meeting (setting?) high standards for aesthetics and preservation. This project has won numerous preservation and design awards, and you can see more photographs on the website of its landscape architects.

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And finally H.H. Richardson: adjacent to the Shovel Works is Henry Hobson Richardson’s most utilitarian commission in North Easton, a perfect train depot which now houses the Easton Historical Society, and just across from it are his two most conspicuous buildings, the Ames Free Library and Oakes Ames Memorial Hall. A bit further afield is his stunning gate lodge, still in private hands and marking the entrance to the Langwater estate.

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What is so interesting about North Easton is the lack of housing segregation: interspersed among these monumental buildings are wooden houses which are quite humble in their scale, as well as larger residences. A century or so ago, everyone was working and living together in close proximity, in the midst of civic buildings which tied them together and represented an exuberant pride of place. And they still do.

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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…….


A Feminine Focus

The Reverend William Bentley’s Diary is justly famous as a detailed source of much of Federal-era Salem’s history, but I think that three memoirs written by Salem women deserve a bit more storied reputation as sources: Marianne C.D. Silsbee’s Half Century in Salem (1886), Eleanor Putnam’s (the pseudonym of Harriet Bates) Old Salem (1886), and Caroline Howard King’s When I Lived in Salem 1822-1866 (1937). Of these three reminiscences, I find myself returning to Silsbee’s Half Century again and again, so I thought I would feature her on my third Salem Suffrage Saturday post. She is of the next generation, and in a much more enviable position, than the Hawthorne sisters of last week’s post: I think she was also a working woman (like all women!), but by choice rather than necessity.

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20200114_111551_20200120094207958A Half Century in Salem, and two photographs of Marianne Cabot Devereux Silsbee from her 1861 photographic album at the Phillips Library in Rowley (PHA 58): the first dated 1851 and the second 1861.

Marianne Cabot Devereux was born in Salem in 1812 to Eliza Dodge Devereux and Humphrey Devereux: I believe that her father, who had been captured by the British during the War of 1812 and imprisoned on Bermuda, was not present at her birth. Upon his release and return, Humphrey eventually moved his family into a Chestnut Street mansion, but Marianne’s early life was spent elsewhere: I’m not sure exactly where her childhood residence was, but she remembered spending a lot of time at her maternal grandmother’s house on Front Street. Around the time that the Devereux family moved to Chestnut Street, Humphrey commissioned a pair of portraits of himself and his wife by Gilbert Stuart: I was thrilled to discover the latter in the collection of the Rehoboth Antiquarian Society, but I could only find a heliotype copy of Mr. Devereux’s portrait in the The Pickering Genealogy. 

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Silsbee Humphrey Devereux Pickering Genaology Vol 1 (2)

Mrs. Devereux looks rosy-cheeked in her Stuart portrait, which apparently pleased her very much (her dress apparently was not as pleasing, so the artist Chester Harding later repainted the ruff and drapery) but she was in fact an invalid, and died eleven years after this portrait, when Marianne was sixteen. I’m on the precipice on the dreaded psycho-history here, but I think that Marianne’s reverence for older women, so apparent in A Half Century as well as other works, might stem from her mother’s illness and death. I’m on stronger ground stating that the early years covered in A Half Century were based on her mother’s letters to Marianne, rather than her own reminiscences. So you kind of get a double feminine focus in this text, which dwells on food, shops, schools, entertainments, dress, homes—the life of women, or should I say relatively wealthy women—as well as “external” events: Lafayette’s visit in 1824, when the first steamship line commenced trips to Boston. The book is much more focused on personalities than events however, and women really pop out: the honorable Elizabeth Sanders (who will definitely be the subject of a later post), the charming Mrs. Remond, who catered all the meals at her beloved Hamilton Hall.

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Marianne Cabot Devereux Silsbee expressed herself a bit more publicly, but she was a traditional woman of her time, focused on her family and friends. She married Nathaniel Silsbee Jr., son of a U.S. Senator and later two-term Mayor of Salem in 1829 and moved into the Silsbee mansion on the Common (now undergoing a major renovation and expansion). They had five children, two of whom, George and her namesake Marianne, died in childhood. The Silsbees left Salem for Boston in 1862 when he became Treasurer of Harvard, and there was another move to Milton following his retirement. Throughout this time she wrote poems and reminiscences, some published, some not. Her first publication, Memory and Hope, a compilation of mourning poems edited and introduced by her, was issued anonymously in 1851 (one can understand her interest in this topic given the early deaths of two children), and thereafter there are published children’s rhymes, a handwritten journal of poetry entitled My Grandmother’s Mirror, A New England Idyll (a reference to her maternal Dodge grandmother, who was a Pickering), a book about the Boston Ladies Club, and finally A Half Century in Salem. 

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20200121_111833The Silsbee Mansion on Salem Common in 1884, George H. Walker; Memory and Hope (1851); Title page of My Grandmother’s Mirror (Essex County Collection, Phillips Library, E S585.3 1878).

Much of her writings dwell on home life, social life, all the little things that surround one’s daily existence: one poem in My Grandmother’s Mirror creates a scene in the old Pickering house, while another is written from the perspective of a woman who dwelt within the border, of the town of peace and order, Our pleasant little Salem, on the margins of the sea surrounded by her children and children’s children. Yet Mrs. Silsbee was also an active and engaged woman: a mayor’s wife who carried on a long personal correspondence with abolitionist Lydia Maria Child and whose personal photograph album compiled in 1861 contains as many photographs of soldiers and politicians as it does her own children and grandchildren. Most of the men in uniform are her own family, including her older brother, George H. Devereux, former adjutant general of Massachusetts, and his soon-to be heroic sons, Arthur F. Devereux, commander of the Salem Light Infantry and later the Massachusetts 19th at Gettysburg, and John F., a Captain in the 11th Massachusetts Infantry, as it was perhaps impossible to separate the private and public spheres at this particular time. Several photographs of President Lincoln are included, but also an image of what I can only presume to be the family cat! When it was over, once can hardly blame Marianne Silsbee for desiring to look back to a dimmer, and thus more pleasant past.

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The private and the public: Mrs. Silsbee’s poetry and President Lincoln in her photograph album: Phillips Library E S585.3 (1878) and PHA 58 (1861).


Built by a Master Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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


Two Amazing “Accessories”

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

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

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

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

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

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


Seeking Refuge in the Valley

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

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

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

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

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

Turners Falls

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

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It all Centers on the House

I am recovering from my second bad cold of the year, and have spent much time over the past few days watching television just like I did during my summer sickness. At that time, I made the dreadful mistake of watching Netflix’s The Last Czars (with dawning and intensifying horror) but this time I went for classic horror and watched a succession of Poe adaptations, perfect for this time of year. I really fell for the The Fall of the House of Usher and streamed every version I could access: the Vincent Price/ Roger Corman version from 1960, the 1950 British film directed (and produced, and shot) by Ivan Burnett, and two very avant-garde silent versions from 1928, a short film produced by James Sibley Watson Jr. and Melville Webber in the US, and a longer French version directed by Jean Epstein entitled La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). Then I read the short story again, read critiques of both the films and the story, and chased down all of the illustrations of the HOUSE that I could find: I assure you I seldom do this much preparation for a blog post but I was in a full sick-bed-induced Usher fever!

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20191022_1816331931 Cheshire House edition with illustrations by Abner Epstein; 1950 British film version.

I can understand why this story has resonance with readers, filmmakers and illustrators; it’s enthralling on different levels, both in terms of its relationships and its setting. The central characters, Roderick and Madeline Usher (siblings in the original story and most film adaptations; spouses in Epstein’s film) are a very odd pair indeed and one could dwell on them for a while, but I agree with the appraisal of the narrator of the 1950 British film, who tells us that it all centers on the house. The Fall of the House of Usher has a double meaning: it’s the end of the line and the end of the house and we readers and/or watchers witness the destruction of both, mirroring each other. I’m so fixated on houses that I often think of them as sentient, so it’s almost reassuring to see one depicted that way.

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screenshot_20191023-074149_chromeThe house exterior in the 1928 American film, the 1950 British Film, and the 1960 Roger Corman film; Jean Epstein’s 1928 film prefers to focus on its baronial interior.

As you can see, these are all Gothic/Victorian structures, characteristic of the haunted-house trope but not the decrepit old relics of Poe’s day: The Fall of the House of Usher was first published in 1839. When looking around for a spooky house, Poe, like Hawthorne, would probably have fixated on a seventeenth-century house, sometimes also called “medieval” here in America but never in Britain. There seems to be some consensus that the house which might have inspired Poe was the Hezekiah Usher House in Boston, built on Tremont Street in the 1680s by the namesake son of British America’s first bookseller. Hezekiah Jr. was also accused of witchcraft during the 1692 trials (of course–because there is always a Salem connection) but was apparently connected enough to avoid formal proceedings. When the Usher house was torn down around 1800, two skeletons were found in the basement, and that story might have caught Poe’s attention even though he never saw the house. And thus the haunted house trope is connected to another (or sub?) trope, someone/something is buried in the basement, in the story of The Fall of the House of Usher. It seems like a pretty straight line from Usher to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw to Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House to Sarah Waters’ Little Stranger (with many more titles in between) though I suppose the Castle of Otranto might have started the thread.

House of Usher Robert Swain Gifford 1884

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House of Usher poe-rackham-usher Arthur Rackham 1935

Grimly CollageThe House: illustrations by Robert Swain Gifford (1884); Daniel Walper (1922), Albert Dubout (1948), Arthur Rackham (1935) and Gris Grimly (2004).

artcont_1534959296Confronting a GEORGIAN haunted house: The Little Stranger (2018). Talk about a house-centered story! In both the film and the book, the house is a MAJOR character, even more so than in Usher. The juxtaposition of the airy (though decayed) Georgian and the “presence” heightens the tension, and you realize that possession has multiple meanings.