Tag Archives: great houses

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!

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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

Usher Collage

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.


Out by Day

Work and family & friend commitments have kept me in Salem much more than I care to be this October, so I have assumed the habit of a reverse vampire, hiding myself away during the weekends and nights and coming out by (week)day. I just don’t care for the carnivalesque quality of Halloween in Salem, so it’s best to absent myself until November 1, or thereabouts. Salem is a great walking city, and I take long walks all year long: to work, along the water, in the two “botanical” cemeteries, Greenlawn and Harmony Grove, and around the Common and its neighborhoods. Only the cemeteries are safe on October weekends, but during the weekdays the city is mine! If you are traveling to Salem this October, do yourself a favor and: 1) take the train—our traffic has been horrendous— it’s an old city full of bottlenecks and one-way streets and more recent traffic experiments like the roundabout at the end of my street; 2) come during the week if you can— it’s less crowded, less smoky, and less of a carnival; and 3) step off the beaten track just a bit, and this is the city you will see.

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20191015_105404The Old Burying Point on Charter Street is closed (thankfully) all month long; if you do come during the week you can ride a scooter around town—but not on the weekend as they have been banned because of the crowds.


An Array of Entrances

There were two very positive developments regarding Salem’s historical fabric this week: the city’s Cemetery Commission voted to close the Old Burying Point during October, thus shielding our oldest cemetery from its annual occupation by Halloween tourists, and the Peabody Essex Museum announced that it would be returning the anchor which was situated in the front of East India Hall for a century or so to Salem. I am heartened and happy and have nothing to complain about or advocate for in this post! So let’s celebrate with some color, as found on a veritable rainbow of Salem doors. My first house in Salem had a red door, and everyone would comment on it when I told them where I lived; now red is pretty commonplace, but my impression is that the most common door color in Salem is still black. Greens—especially dark green—would be next, followed by a variety of reds, blues, pinks, and orange/peach doors, and finally brown and gray doors. Of course there are lovely Salem doors which are varnished rather than painted, but I’m not including them here. There are yellow doors in every neighborhood, but cream and white doors are hard to find: generally the latter are new Home Depot-ish doors, and not very interesting. There are some pretty nice new custom doors opening out onto the streets of Salem, but if I was in need of a door I think I’d rather find an old one at Old House Parts or somewhere similar. I’ve got one white door here, with some pretty distinctive hardware, and lots in more vivid hues, beginning with the painted door installation at Salem’s Tabernacle Congregational Church, representing diversity and acceptance of all.

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20190912_105451Another reason to praise PEM: the beautiful restoration of the Daniel Bray House on Brown Street: it doesn’t have its new/old door yet as you can see–and I’m not sure if it will be painted this light orange color.

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20190827_112305Dark Brown/Red is a classic Salem combination.

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pixlr-1Turquoise is the current it-color, I think.

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A Statesman’s Summer House

I was up in New Hampshire this past weekend for a spectacular summer wedding on Dublin Lake, and of course I made time for side trips; the Granite State continues to be a place of perpetual discovery for me after a lifetime of merely driving around or through it, to and from a succession of homes in Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts. On the day before the wedding, some friends and I drove north to see The Fells, the Lake Sunapee home of John Milton Hay (1838-1905), who served in the administrations of Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. Hay is the perfect example of a dedicated public servant and statesman, attending to President Lincoln as his private secretary until the very end, at his deathbed, and dying in office (at The Fells) while serving as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. He was also a distinguished diplomat, poet, and a key biographer of Lincoln. Fulfilling the conservation mission that was a key part of his purchase and development of the lakeside property, Hay’s descendants donated the extended acreage surrounding the house to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1960s, and it eventually became the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge. Hay’s daughter-in-law Alice Hay maintained the house as her summer residence until her death in 1987, after which it was established as a non-profit organization, open for visitors from Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekends.

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When it comes to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century country or summer residences in New England which are now open to the public, it seems to me there are three essential types: those of very rich people (think Newport), those of statesmen (The Fells; Hildene in Manchester, Vermont; Naumkeag in Stockbridge), and those of creative people (The Mount in Lenox;  Beauport; Aspet, Augustus Saint-Gauden’s summer home and studio in Cornish, New Hampshire). The last category is my favorite by far, but there’s always lots to learn by visiting the houses of the rich and the connected, and John Milton Hay was as connected as they come. I was a bit underwhelmed by the house, which is a Colonial Revival amalgamation of two earlier structures, until I got to its second floor, which has lovely views of the lake and surrounding acreage plus a distinct family feel created by smaller interconnected bedrooms opening up into a long central hall. The airiness of the first floor felt a bit institutional, but this was an estate built for a very public man, after all. For the Hays, I think it was all about the relation of the house to its setting, rather than the house itself.

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The gardens surrounding the house also seemed a bit sparse although it was a hot day in late July and we might be between blooms; certainly the foundations and structures are there, especially in the rock garden that leads down to the lake. This was the passion of Hay’s youngest son, Clarence, who established the garden in 1920 and worked on it throughout his life. After his death in 1969, the garden was lost to forest, but it was reestablished by the efforts of the Friends of the Hay Wildlife Refuge and the Garden Conservancy. When you’re standing in the rock garden looking up at the house, or in the second floor of the house looking down at the rock garden and the lake beyond, you can understand why the well-connected and well-traveled John Milton Hay proclaimed that “nowhere have I found a more beautiful spot” in 1890.

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