Tag Archives: great houses

Historic Happenings in Salem

As always, I’m excited for the Salem Film Fest commencing this weekend and running through most of next week, but next weekend will see two big events inspired by Salem’s dynamic 18th-century history: the Resistance Ball at Hamilton Hall on Saturday the 6th, and “Salt Cod for Silver: Yankees, Basques, and the North Shore’s Forgotten Trade”, a symposium focused on greater Salem’s trade with the Basque port of Bilbao on Sunday the 7th. I wish every weekend in Salem could be like next weekend, highlighting history in creative, comprehensive, and collaborative ways. The Resistance Ball is co-sponsored by Hamilton Hall and the Leslie’s Retreat Committee, dedicated to the ongoing interpretation and commemoration of the event of February 26, 1775 in which a large group of Salem citizens foiled the attempt of a British regiment to confiscate concealed cannon in particular and the spirit of resistance in general, while the “Salt Cod for Silver” symposium is co-sponsored by the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Salem State History Department, Historic Beverly, the Marblehead Museum, and the Bilboko Itsasdarra Itsas Museoa (Bilbao Maritime Museum).

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Historical Flyer

I am going to both events and you should too if you are in our area: tickets for the ball are still available here, and the symposium is a first-come, first-seated event (the capacity is 200 at the Visitor Center). This is the second run for the Resistance Ball, and we hope to make it a regular occasion. Do not be deterred by fear of period dress: there will be some 18th-century dress (both reproductions and costumes) in attendance but also formal and creative garb. I prefer to be inspired by the spirit of resistance rather then the actual eighteenth-century event myself. I made a list of my favorite female resistors, and at the very top was Joan of Arc, but I do think this is an American history-themed event so I am forgoing armor in favor a toile dress with quite a modern, short cut: I guess I’m just going as myself, the perpetual PEM resistor! There will be period dancing, but again: do not be fearful: the caller from the last ball, whom we have engaged again, was an amazing instructor and so it was really easy and fun to participate.

Salem Resistance Ball

Salem Resistance Ball2There WILL be fiddlers—and dancing! (Not really sure who took these pictures at the last ball two years ago, sorry)

I’m excited about the symposium for several reasons. In terms of interpretation, it seems like all Salem trade is China trade and even a cursory glance at the sources contradicts that perception. Yet I imagine that China is still part of the picture. Years of teaching European and World History in the early modern era has familiarized me with the concept of the Chinese “Silver Sink”: the west wanted so many things from China, but all it really had to offer (before Indian opium) was American silver, the first truly global commodity, and consequently much of it ended up there. So North Shore merchants are trading are trading fish for silver, which I presume they are using to purchase Asian wares and commodities? A variation on the same theme, or did more silver stay in Salem rather than just flowing eastward? We shall see. Any research on this trade has got to be based on the rich sources in the Phillips Library, so it will be wonderful to hear about what has been mined in these treasures, particularly the papers of the Orne and Pickman families. (The Essex Institute used to publish such information: see the wonderful text by its librarian Harriet Tapley published in 1934, Early Coastwise and Foreign Shipping of Salem; a Record of the Entrances and Clearances of the Port of Salem, 1750-1769). And of course I’m also eager to discover the stance of Great Britain regarding this trade, particularly before the Revolution.

The Ornes

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Salem merchant Timothy Orne, flanked by his daughters Rebecca and Lois, in paintings he commissioned from Joseph Badger in 1757. The portraits of the girls (I have always loved Rebecca and her squirrel, so I took this opportunity to showcase her again, and Lois is the mother of the woman who lived in my house for its first few decades) are from the Worcester Art Museum, and the Orne’s portrait belongs to the Newport Restoration Foundation.  The Orne House at 266 Essex Street (here in a Frank Cousins photograph from the “Urban Landscape” collection at Duke University Library) is still standing, though much changed. Orne is a very good representative of Salem’s “codfish aristocracy”, with more than fifty ships in operation over his commercial career, sailing to the West Indies and Europe and carrying fish, spirits, molasses, cloth and other commodities, as well as slaves, in addition to a fleet of fishing ships.

Below: As I don’t think the technology of drying cod has changed over the centuries, I thought I’d add this photograph of a shop in Lisbon two weeks ago.

Cod in Lisbon


The Snow Castle

We haven’t had many snowstorms this winter, but two nights ago about a foot of snow dropped onto the streets of Salem. My first thoughts when I woke up were: how much snow did we get (and) should I run down the street and take a picture of the snow house? Classes had been cancelled the night before, so that was no concern of mine. I saw that we had quite a bit of snow, so of course I thought of the Wheatland/Pickering/Phillips house, a Classical Revival confection that I always think of as the “snow house” or the “snow castle” as it looks so beautiful when its exuberant trim is frosted with snow. I adore this house in every season, but especially in the winter. It really is my first thought when I wake up on a snowy morning.

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It was quite warm yesterday morning, and so the snow had already started to melt by the time I made it down the street (as a snow day meant an extra cup of coffee) so here are some “freshly frosted” views from a few years back, when the blue sky afforded more contrast and shadow.

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WHite Castle 2014

My Snow Castle, which I guess we should call the Wheatland-Phillips House after its original and present owners, was designed by Salem native John Prentiss Benson (1865-1947), a brother of the well-known American Impressionist Frank Benson who became an esteemed artist himself after his retirement from architecture. I don’t possess the architectural vocabulary to describe this house so I’ll use the words of Bryant Tolles from Architecture in Salem: “a spectacular, flamboyant example of the Colonial Revival style……[in which] the architect employed a variety of Colonial Revival idioms, including the ornate cornice (with dentils and pendants in relief), the wide fluted Corinthian pilasters (reminiscent of the work of McIntire, the flat window caps, the second-story Palladian window with miniature pilasters, the broad doorway with semi-elliptical fanlight, and the overly large flat-roofed porch with Corinthian columns” in a “innovative, almost whimsical manner”. Tolles concludes that “the house gives the impression of being an original late 18th century building” even though it is in fact one of the newest houses on Chestnut Street, constructed in 1896 for Ann Maria Wheatland, the widow of Stephen Wheatland, who served as the Mayor of Salem during the Civil War. I’m not sure why Mrs. Wheatland desired such a large house, but she lived in it until her death in 1927. Despite its mass, the house has always seemed whimsical to me, and also timeless, and its allure is no doubt enhanced by its stillness as I don’t think anyone has lived there during the whole time I’ve lived on Chestnut Street. I have to resist trespassing every time I walk by this house, in every season: in summer I see myself having a gin & tonic on its left-side (deck? seems to mundane a word) and I would love to see if there is a veranda out back. I do resist, so I don’t know.

Snow Castle 1940 HABSThe House in 1940; HABS, Library of Congress.

By many accounts, John Prentiss Benson wanted to be an artist from early on, but as that trail was blazed by his brother Frank, he settled for architecture. Nevertheless, he seems to have had a successful career, with a New York City practice and several partnerships. He lived for several years in Plainfield, New Jersey where there are several John P. Benson houses: there was a tour devoted to them in 1997 titled the “Mansions of May”. None of these houses—or that designed for his other brother Henry on Hamilton Street in Salem—seems to bear any resemblance to the Wheatland-Phillips House: it’s as if he just let loose with wild abandon. Perhaps Mrs. Wheatland gave him carte blanche, or very strict instructions. Or maybe he was influenced by memories of the Benson family home on Salem Common: an exuberant Second Empire structure that was situated on what is now the parking lot of the Hawthorne Hotel.

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Snow Castle Portsmouth Benson Family Home

Snow House WillowbankOther Benson houses, including his own, top right; the Benson family home on Salem Common and Willowbank in Kittery Point, Portsmouth Athenaeum.

After his retirement from architecture in the 1920s, Benson moved to a waterside estate in Kittery Point, Maine named Willowbank and began painting full-time until his death in 1947: he was prolific, and consequently his identity is more that of a maritime artist than an architect at present. The Portsmouth Athenaeum has his papers, and has digitized many photographs of his life and work at Willowbank, which also happens to be the birthplace of the 6th Countess of Carnarvon, Ann Catherine Tredick Wendell, who became mistress of Highclere Castle in 1922. And thus we have a very distant and indirect connection, through John Prentiss Benson, between the Snow Castle and Downton Abbey!

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Benson Galleon Vose Galleries

Galleon, 1923 by John Prentiss Benson @Vose Galleries: I love galleons, and I’m using this one to sign off for a while as I’m off to Portugal on spring break! I’ll be back with many pictures of azulejos, no doubt.


I Miss the Assembly House

I miss the Assembly House, a Georgian structure on Federal Street built as an assembly house in 1782 and transformed by Samuel McIntire into a more elaborate residence in the next decade: its proper name is the Cotting-Smith Assembly House (although it was charmingly called the “old Assembly House” after Hamilton Hall was built in 1805) and it was donated to the Essex Institute in 1965, the last building to be added to the Institute’s collection of historic houses, I believe. Of course the house still exists–I can see it at any time–but it has changed from when I first knew it: it has lost all of its trees–and its life. It is still, dark, and stark. It’s a shadow of its former self, or a ghost.

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assembly house drawing hne bestThe Cotting-Smith Assembly House yesterday afternoon and in 1926, 1920 (in a painting by Felicie Ward Howell, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), c. 1910 (Cornell) and an undated drawing (Historic New England).

I know, houses are not sentient beings as friends and family often tell me. But the Assembly House looks sad and it makes me sad to look at it, as I remember many happy times there in the 1990s, both before and after the Essex Institute and its houses were absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum. I remember: teas, two baby showers, several anniversary dinners, a graduation party, a cooking class (???), coffees for candidates for local office—it seemed as if we were in there quite a lot! I remember feeling that the house was rather homey, despite its elegant interior details. I remember sitting on the back stairs talking to two friends who are no longer alive. I remember being wowed by the front staircase—with its second-floor landing and pedimented door—every time I saw it. But all these memories are from a long time ago, at least 20 years. I miss all of the Essex Institute/PEM houses, with the exception of the Ropes Mansion which was restored and reopened a few years ago. (Actually what I really miss is the Essex Institute, but that statement will always produce eye-rolls among those who believe that the Peabody Essex Museum rescued both the Institute and the Peabody Museum. This may be true–but it’s hard not to notice those dark stretches of Essex—and Federal—Streets).

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assembly house bg 1985Photographs of the Cotting-Smith Assembly House interior, Historic New England; Los Angeles Time, 1926; Boston Globe, 1963 and 1985.

The house where Lafayette danced in 1784 and Washington dined in 1789 and Susan Coolidge (above) came out and many other people celebrated weddings, anniversaries, and simply lived their lives was “restored, refurbished, and remembered” according to the 1985 story in the Boston Globe above but seems largely forgotten these days. It was celebrated across the country in 1926 as Salem marked its 300th anniversary, but seems likely to be overlooked as the city marks its 400th.


Reaching for McIntire

There might be a bit of fiction, or historical reach, in the narrative part of this post, but really it’s just an opportunity to show you some pictures of a newly-restored McIntire house which is available for RENT. The Butman-Waters House at 14 Cambridge Street, built in 1806-1807 by Samuel McIntire for Salem merchant (tailor, merchant, captain, colonel?) Thomas Butman, has been beautifully restored under the direction of one of Salem’s foremost residential architects, Helen Sides, and is available for rent immediately: it’s refreshed and ready and stunning, as you can see from these photographs. It features the most beautiful serpentine stairway I have ever seen.

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I told you, but you need to see more. The first, next-to-last, and last photographs are mine; while those in the middle are from the listing: which is here. The photographs speak for themselves but probably don’t convey what I can only call the humanistic proportions of the house: some architectural histories refer to the Butman-Waters house as “simple” and maybe that word is appropriate when comparing it with other McIntire houses, but it is “simply” elegant. The details make it so, but also the scale—and that staircase.

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mcintire stairThat staircase!

Every house has a story so here comes the semi-creative part, because Thomas Butman is a hard man to pin down. He was born in New Orleans, and he died in New Orleans, in the yellow fever epidemic of 1819-20, only 45 years old, along with the son and daughter from his first marriage. From at least 1803 until his death, he was in Salem. His second marriage, to Nancy Gedney Clarke, who was descended from two old Salem families, had occurred only three years before his death, and she and their infant son survived the yellow fever—actually I can’t determine whether they were even in New Orleans. Nancy and Thomas were married just two years when the beautiful house he had commissioned from Samuel McIntire a decade before had to be sold at public auction: when I patched together the succession of commercial notices Butman placed in the Salem newspapers from 1814-1818 it is clear that he was struggling, changing partners and storefront locations frequently. At first he is a tailor, and then a merchant: it’s hard to see how he could have afforded 14 Cambridge Street in the first place unless his first wife was very rich, and she’s even more mysterious than he is. Occasionally he is referred to as “Captain”, but “Colonel” or “Major” are his designations after 1811, when he and John G. Waters were named majors of the Salem Regiment which was preparing for what would eventually be called the War of 1812. Waters would eventually purchase 14 Cambridge Street: I like to imagine a kind of “band of brothers” bond which inspired to him to rescue Butman from financial distress but in reality the house was sold at public auction in 1818 and had a series of short-term owners before Waters acquired it in 1834. But it appears that while Butman was reaching for the life of a rich Salem merchant, Waters achieved it, primarily through the Zanzibar trade which reinvigorated the Salem economy in the middle of the nineteenth century. When Waters made news, it is about exotic cargos, including the two Arabian horses he brought to Salem, along with their “Arab handler”. The Waters family retained possession of 14 Cambridge Street all the way until 1962, when it was purchased by the Salem architect James Ballou and his wife Phyllis, and it remained in the Ballou family until just last year.

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14 cambridge collage1818 & 1912

And a few more views of the staircase, about which I learned an interesting fact from my friend Michael Selbst, the realtor: apparently it was reinforced by Mr. Ballou with the addition of iron rails every 10th spindle–you can see the brace if you look closely. What a great idea!

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14 Cambridge Street, the Butman-Rogers House: rental listing here.


Two Sides of Salem

I haven’t been posting on Salem very much: my blog is going to lose its name! Long-time readers will know that I always hide or leave during October as I do not care for Haunted Happenings, but I’ve been out of step with Salem for about a year now: it doesn’t really feel like home anymore. Lovely people, lovely houses, and the perfect small-city vibe remain, but I can’t get past the history thing. I grew up in a town (York, Maine) with a strong sense of historical identity, and moved to Salem because I felt that same strong sense here. I took it for granted, and went about my business, which is European history, and only became more locally-focused when I started this blog. Now I feel the effects of the removal of the Phillips Library, the repository of so much of Salem’s history, every single day. All the towns around Salem have these great historical museums—-the Marblehead Museum, the Beverly Historical Society, the Ipswich Museum, I could go on and on—and we have the Witch Museum. I’m jealous, and fearful of the future, because I know how much effort and energy past generations invested in the preservation and presentation of Salem’s multi-faceted history and I don’t see that same conviction here and now.

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Two Sides 6Apparently over 1.5 million people visit Salem each year, with nearly 54% of that number in the month of October: for many of those 800,000 or so (I am severely math-challenged), this ⇑⇑ is historical interpretation.

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Two Sides 3Carnival Confusion: a City ordinance against mechanical rides on the Common prohibited the annual carnival there, so it was relocated to the middle of Federal Street, but somehow there are electrical rides on the Common as well. This is all very confusing to me, but a colleague of mine commented that the Federal Street location was ok, as those columns on the Greek Revival courthouse are Egyptian Revival, so the Pharaoh fits right in.

BUT, I must stress that there are still considerable efforts and energies in evidence in Salem. We do not have a single institution charged with collecting and interpreting the city’s history, but we do have myriad heritage and cultural organizations, all pursuing their own missions and planning their own programming. There’s the ever-expanding Peabody Essex Museum, the evolving Punto Urban Art Museum of murals in the Point, and a really active arts association. There’s a big university, a big hospital, and a big courthouse (which doesn’t have a carnival in front of it). Salem is accessible by both train and seasonal ferry, and for better or worse, is in the midst of a major building boom. It’s a lively place, to be sure, and right in the midst of all this it happens that four of my very favorite Salem houses are for sale at the same time, so if you can put the history thing aside, take a look: actually I think this first one is already under agreement.

Two Sides 10 22 Andrew Street: a beautiful Federal (built 1808) located on a lovely street right off the Common (which will not be the site of a carnival for much longer): looks like its sale is indeed pending.

Two Sides 9 One Forrester Street is right on the Common—it looks Federal but was actually built in 1770. When I first moved to Salem this was the home of a lovely woman whose family had owned it since the 19th Century. It’s been cherished throughout its history, and is still for sale.

Two Sides 1The Stephen Daniels House is a first-period house which just came on the market. It was expanded and transformed into its present shape in the eighteenth century. It’s on a side street that runs from Essex down to Derby, on a really nice lot that could be a great garden. 

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Machado House

Machado House 2Five Carpenter Street, in the McIntire District, is a gorgeous Federal which was once the home of the architect Ernest Machado. This was one of Mary Harrod Northend’s favorite doorways in Salem: she must have taken 30 pictures of it for her 1926 book Historic Doorways of Old Salem (1926). These stills are from Winterthur Digital Collections.

So you can sense that I’m torn. I seem to be dissing and selling Salem at the same time! Maybe I’ll snap out of it in November–I generally do, but this year feels different. In the meantime, I’m hoping that more of the thousands of tourists who descend upon Salem this month for its “history” make it into the neighborhoods to see Salem’s beautiful houses, not far from the maddening crowd, as I would rather they take away an impression of preservation than opportunism. I do see more tour guides and their increasingly-large groups out my window—and that’s good news.

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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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A Turnkey Homestead

I’m using the expression “turnkey” in typical contrary fashion here: it’s a real estate term which generally means a house that requires no repairs or refurbishment, just turn the key and you are home in your new purchase. The Rundlet-May house in Portsmouth struck me as a turnkey house in another sense: Ralph May, the fourth of his generation to live in the house, donated it to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation for New England Antiquities) in 1971 and now when you enter the house (or turn the key, in a sense) it seems as if you are within a space that he just left. This is an imposing Federal, made less so by the lived-in ambiance of a home to four generations of the same family.

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Rundlett May 18The Rundlet-May House (1807) and views out back from its second and third floors.

Even though the house itself is an extravagant construction on large urban acreage, everything about its interior speaks to Yankee thrift: from the original peach damask wallpaper in one of the front parlors to the original Edison light bulb in a fixture on the second-floor landing–which is turned on once a year. It’s the perfect old-money house. John Rundlet, the self-made man who built (and apparently designed?) the house purchased and commissioned the best of everything (including a Rumford Roaster and a Rumford Range) and his descendants seem to have changed very little other than altering the use of its rooms to suit their activities and professions.

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Rundlett May 9First-floor parlors, hall and kitchen (with Rumford Roaster) and fire buckets, of course. I found several early 20th-century postcards of the house which referred to Samuel McIntire as the carver of the right parlor’s mantle (above), but I think this is just an illustration of the Salem architect and woodcarver’s fame in the midst of the Colonial Revival era.

There’s probably too much furniture–beautiful as it all is—in the house: tables and dressers and painted chairs. Should a beautiful card table be situated just inches away facing an even more beautiful Portsmouth bureau in a narrow window nook of an upstairs bedroom? No necessarily, but this placement allows us to see both of these pieces. There’s also a lot of stuff. But it’s their stuff and their home, and we are all privileged to be able to enter within!

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Ralph MaySecond and Third Floors, including Ralph May’s 3rd floor study, with all of his stuff. Below: this “musical” decorative motif ran through the house—it caught my eye because the same motif is on one of my Fancy chairs. (the last photograph).

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Fancy Chair


At the Eustis Estate

Nestled between busy Boston, Quincy, and Route 128, the town of Milton, Massachusetts still wears signs of its pastoral past. It’s an original streetcar suburb, but the Blue Hills drew prosperous Brahmins south to build country estates, and several are still standing, even thriving. Everywhere I go in the vicinity of Boston: north, west, south: I continue to be amazed at the legacy of nineteenth-century fortunes—and taste. Now it seems as if we still live amidst great wealth, but not so much taste. I drove down to Milton last week to see Historic New England’s latest acquisition, the Eustis Estate, where I spent all of my allotted time, but I could have also visited the Forbes House Museum or the Wakefield Estate. I did drive down Adams Street for a fleeting sight of the birthplace of President George H.W. Bush, but I was pretty focused on my singular destination: an amazing 1878 structure designed by the “Father of the Shingle Style”, William Ralph Emerson, set amidst subtly-shaped grounds designed by Ernest W. Bowditch.

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Historic New England has spared no expense or consideration in its restoration and interpretation of the Eustis Estate, which it acquired in 2012, after three generations of the family owned and inhabited the house. You can access their tour here–and you should if you really want a curatorial interpretation of the house because I’m just going to give you an impression: never have I been more conscious of my architectural naiveté as when I stepped foot into this house! My first–and strongest—impression is oddly one of contradiction: of the solidness of the exterior masonry and interior woodwork with the overall airiness of the house, accentuated by the three-story Grand Hall and all those windows framing outside views. You can see the frame of the house, and the house also serves as a frame for the landscape in which it sits. Inside, everything is a juxtaposition of dark and light, the light coming from outside but also from the burnished details within.

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Eustis Hall

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Eustis Window

As an Aesthetic structure, no surface is unembellished, and the architectural detail is almost overwhelming: I’m sure I overlooked many things and will have to return many times! The house’s many mantels are obvious focal points: the grand fireplace in the first-floor “living hall”, terra cotta masquerading as wood, is a symbolic tour-stopper. But everywhere there is detail to be considered: floor to ceiling and everywhere in between. I loved the coffered ceiling, the interior window shutters, the little “telephone cabinet”, the inter-connected pantries, the inter-connected bathroom, and the nursery rhyme tiles surrounding the nursery mantle. Just to mention a few details.

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EUSTIS FIREPLACES collage

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Wherever and whenever a considerable amount of money is spent in nineteenth-century Massachusetts, there is always a Salem connection, and that is the case with the Eustis Estate, which was built for young marrieds W.E.C. Eustis and Edith Hemenway Eustis on land given to them by Edith’s mother, Mary Tiletson Hemenway. Mrs. Hemenway was an energetic philanthropist whose activities were financed in great part by the wealth of her husband and Edith’s father, Salem-born Edward Augustus Holyoke Hemenway (1805-76). Mary herself had Salem roots, and the Hemenway Family Papers were deposited in the Phillips Library in Salem, which is of course now displaced to Rowley. The Hemenways’ stories are other stories, but also in part Salem stories. The estate’s landscape architect, Ernest Bowditch, represents another Salem connection as he was the grandson of the great Salem navigator Nathaniel Bowditch: and yes, the Bowditch Family Papers are also in the Phillips Library.

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For another Emerson house: see this post. These photographs by Steve Rosenthal are all we have left of the Loring House, which was demolished in 2015.


The Most Beautiful House in America (and the Power of Place)

On a very humid Friday I spent a precious hour in the most beautiful house in America: the Gardner-Pingree House, built here in Salem in 1804 and widely acknowledged to be Samuel McIntire’s masterpiece. The house has experienced several refurbishments following its donation by the Pingree family to the Essex Institute in 1933, and its most recent refresh (1989) remains definitive, exposing the colorful and crafted world of a merchant in the midst of Salem’s golden age. With the merger of the Institute and the Peabody Museum in 1992 and the consolidation of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), the house remains a seldom-scene showpiece, and also a symbol of the commitment of the Institute to Salem’s material heritage. Actually, to be fair, the house has served as a the setting for an interactive performance I attended a few years ago, and is apparently open for daily tours, but I can never figure out when from the PEM’s inscrutable website (you try!) so when I saw that it was going to be open all afternoon on a designated “Free Fun Friday,” I beat it over there.

Gardner Pingree Exterior

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GP collage

Gardner Pingree Back parlor

It is an absolutely beautiful house, inside and out: I remain overwhelmed by the 1989 restoration and its ongoing ability to both accentuate the interior and somehow also make it more accessible and intimate. It is a storied house. It is a much-documented house: I did a cursory review of twentieth-century historical architectural texts and found it in nearly every one. It is an influential house: especially its entrance, which has been replicated on several stately suburban homes (oddly juxtaposed with houses which do not also replicate the Gardner-Pingree’s perfect proportions).

Gardner Pingree Detroit Publishing Co 1906 LOC

Gardner Pingree collage 2

Gardner Pingree Mansions of Massachusetts

Gardner Pingree Parlor

Gardner Pingree CollageDetroit Publishing Co. photograph of Gardner-Pingree, 1906, Library of Congress; Albert MacDonald, Old Brick Houses of New England, 1917; Mansions of Massachusetts, 1977; the front parlor in the 1940s,houses in Atlanta and Brookline, MA supposedly inspired by the Gardner-Pingree.

But it’s also a powerful house, in its original situation (unlike the Crowninshield-Bentley and Ward houses to its side and rear, also part of the PEM’s”Essex Block Neighborhood” of historic houses, which the Essex Institute referred to as an “outdoor museum”) overlooking Salem’s original main street and the former Essex Institute buildings which housed the Phillips Library collections up until their removal from Salem in 2011. As all of you no doubt know, this was supposed to be a temporary move but has now been made permanent: Salem’s Phillips Library is now ensconced in an industrial building off the highway in Rowley. The PEM has presented several sound arguments for this move–most grounded in the priority of stewardship rather than access–but also one which I never quite understood: the scholarly synchronicity of having material collections and texts in close proximity. But when you stand in this house right next door to where Salem’s historical archives were housed for so long, you can see the connection–but in this case it counters PEM’s rationale for archival relocation. The house—like all of PEM’s  houses—are material objects as well, and the textual context of its construction, embellishment, and occupation has now been removed. I felt this so strongly when I was in the second-story southwest bedroom: a very beautiful room which was also the site of sensational murder, of Captain Joseph White—the third owner of the house–in 1830. Looking at the site of the now-former Phillips Library from the western window of this room, I realized that all the questions that I had about this house could not be answered by going next door, but only by going to Rowley: there is no synchronicity in that reality!

GP PARLOR

GP PARLOR 2

GP PARLOR 3

My questions–and where the answers can be found: in the Phillips Library, in Rowley:  How did the Gardner Family transform this parcel of land into “Gardner’s Corner” over the 18th century? What are the details of the spectacular rise and fall of the fortunes of John Gardner (1771-1847) who built this beautiful house and was only able to live in it for six years before selling it to his brother-in-law, Nathaniel West? Of course the War of 1812 had much to do with the fall, but I’d like to know more, and there are boxes of Gardner family history in the Phillips (MS 147). What was the extent of the slave trading of the murder victim, Captain Joseph White? (Log 9, for White’s brigantines Hind and Eliza, and MSS 0.188, John Fairfield’s account of a slave mutiny aboard the Felicity, also owned by White). I don’t think I have any questions about the murder and equally-sensational trial, which apparently inspired Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Parker Brothers, but I’d like to know how the Adroit Fire Club (Delay Not) worked, as well as the sources of the Rumford Roaster, and all about the (again!) rising, falling, rising and diverse fortunes of the two David Pingrees (MS 901). Family histories, house histories, Salem’s history: they’re all connected, of course.


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.

Trimmed out KB

Trimmed out KB 2

Trimmed out KB 3

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? 

Trimmed out 1965 LOC

Trimmed out 1965 barn

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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