Tag Archives: Historic Houses

Open House in Essex County

It occurred to me the other day that during the long life of this blog I have never spotlighted Trails and Sails, a calendar of dedicated events and openings throughout Essex County in September organized by the Essex National Heritage Area. I feel remiss; I have friends and former students who work for Essex Heritage, and I myself am a commissioner! These folks know what heritage is and are able to discern it from tourism, and so they connect and cast light on institutions and areas which represent this region’s cultural and material legacy in meaningful ways. Trails and Sails is a 10-day extravaganza of free events throughout our region, beginning next weekend. I’ve picked my events, and my participation will pretty much revolve around visiting old buildings, but don’t let my game plan (mis-) inform yours: there are plenty of events that involve much more outside action like walking, paddling, biking, apple-picking, cider-making, birding, and even “forest bathing” (whatever that is) right here in Salem. So go to the website, or download the digital guide, and chart your course. Note that many (but not all) events and openings are recurring and some require reservations.

Saturday, September 17I’ve got to get into the glorious Grand Army of the Republic Hall in Lynn, so that will be my first stop. I’ve wanted to see this hall for about five years. From Lynn, I’ll drive over to Danvers to tour the 1670 Judge Samuel Holten House, another building which I’ve long admired and never been inside. Same with the Platts-Bradstreet House in Rowley, so that’s next, then back to Salem for a walking tour of Charlotte’s (Forten) Salem by History Alive, Inc.

Lynn’s GAR Hall, two seventeenth-century houses, and Charlotte Forten about to lead us around Salem!

Sunday, September 18: I know that I will have to do some lecture and presentation prep on this day but I am still going to the Open House at the Rocks Village Handtub Building and Toll House Museum on the Merrimack as I love that building and (again) have never been inside. I might as well go to the Brocklebank Museum on Georgetown as it’s on the way home.

Rocks Village,Georgetown, and the Jackman-Willet House in Newbury.

The following week, unfortunately, is super busy and I have my own presentation on Saturday the 24th, so that leaves Sunday the 25th, when I’ll go up to Newbury and see the seventeenth-century Jackman-Willet House and anything else that is happening in that part of the county. I feel like I’m missing out on some great events, particularly Fletcher Steele and Frederick Law Olmsted tours and a view of Gloucester from its grandiose city hall. But there’s always next year: Trails and Sails is an established tradition. As I was looking at the schedule, thinking about where I would like to go, and reflecting upon my past summer, it was just houses, houses, houses! I love visiting old open houses, but I think I must be an outlier among heritage tourists today. I’ve been talking to a few museum professionals over the summer, and they all tell me that house museums just aren’t as popular as they used to be. This might explain why so many in Salem are closed, including all of the Peabody Essex Museum’s houses save the Ropes Mansion and Salem Maritime’s Derby House (well, save the ell). But everywhere I have gone this summer—in New York, and all the New England states—there have been good-sized parties touring houses with me so it makes me feel like there are still some old-house afficionados out there! An anecdotal view, I know, but a hopeful one. Perhaps I should finally admit, however, that my essential childhood bedside book, Samuel Chamberlain’s Open House in New England, might have been a bit odd.


Dickinson Domicile

I drove “out west” to the recently-reopened Emily Dickinson Museum last week thinking it would just be a pleasant last road trip of the summer during which I would learn a bit more about the poet, take some photographs of her house and the surrounding Pioneer Valley, and then return home to dash off a quick post and then turn to my syllabus prep as the new semester starts TOMORROW. But that’s not how it worked out: I couldn’t dismiss Emily or the rest of the Dickinsons that quickly or easily. The “Homestead” was striking and the tour substantive, but I left with fewer pictures and more questions than I intended to have. Emily remains enigmatic, but I found myself more interested in her living conditions than her work: the physical space of the house and its surrounding land, which was much larger and more pastoral in her time, her dashing brother Austin and very close sister-in-law Susan next door, the constant companionship of her younger sister Lavinia, and what can only be called the LOOMING presence of her brother’s pushy mistress and the first editor of her work, Mabel Loomis Todd. Emily managed never to meet Mabel (which I find particularly impressive) but nevertheless she was there. It was just all too much for me, so I wondered how Emily persevered/flourished in such a space! So when I got home, I couldn’t possibly post before I read three books about Emily and her family, all when I should have been working on my syllabi! This beast was the best: I could not put it down for two days, an amazing work of scholarship.

The Dickinson “Homestead,” members of the family, the library and conservatory. The Museum places pinecones on period seating which it does not want you to sit on, but also provides period seating in green!

So much LOVE and DEATH! Emily’s parents die–her mother after a long incapacitation in the bedroom next to Emily’s, and then her beloved young nephew. His father, her brother Austin, begins his passionate and long affair with Mabel, wife of a young Amherst College astronomer, and Emily has to pussyfoot around her own house, the Homestead, to get to her conservatory off the library while they are having liasons! Next door at the Evergreens, the social center of Amherst it seems, her very best friend and “sister over the hedge,” Sue Dickinson, is in distress over her husband’s open adultery. Emily herself commences a passionate-yet-platonic (I think?) relationship with an old friend of her father’s, Judge Otis Phillips Lord from SALEM. She refers to him as “My Lovely Salem” in her letters and he visited her often before his death in 1884. Emily died two years later and then Mabel the Mistress takes over, with the approval, at first, of Lavinia. The Poet is established, but conflict between all of the surviving insiders ensues, resulting in many Dickinson possessions and Emily’s papers going to Harvard. The recently-restored Homestead contains period copies of everything and so you really feel the Dickinson presence (or at least I did) but Harvard’s Houghton Library is the major Dickinson repository.

The amazingly colorful double parlor: somewhat subdued walls and brightly-patterned floors seems to be the theme. The lovely runner and second-floor landing floorcover by Thistle Hill Weavers; Emily’s bedroom and stand-in “desk”—a Federal work table. The real desk in the Dickinson Room at the Houghton Library.

But displaced possessions don’t matter, believe me, the house is THE HOUSE, and it is so colorful and full of texture, it feels alive! I loved it: the curation of the interiors seemed to echo the “meticulous care” Emily took with her own life. There are period pieces, both authentic and reproduction papers and textiles, and also some donations from the recently-concluded Dickinson series. The Homestead is a palimpest house: built in 1813 in a more austere Federal style, it was expanded and embellished by Emily’s father, and interpreted as her family house. I think I responded to it so much because it reminded me of my own house, built in 1827 and “italianaticized” in the 1850s, but my double parlor is nowhere near as colorful as Emily’s! You’ve got to go; you’ll have your own response, believe me.

A fragment of period wallpaper in Emily’s room, and an utilitarian white dress representative of what she preferred; her mother’s room next door, furnished with a bed from Dickinson the television series; the only surviving tree from the Dickinson era: an oak which survived the Hurricane of 1938. The Evergreens, Austin’s and Sue’s house, which is closed now but apparently still perfectly Italianate inside.


The Wentworth-Gardner House

We were in York Harbor all last week with family and friends, several of whom had never been to this region of New England before. So I was a bit of a tour guide, in my fashion. On a morning tour of Portsmouth, we passed by my favorite house in town, the Tobias Lear House, as well as its more famous neighbor, the Wentworth-Gardner House, one of the most famous Georgian structures in the country. I’m very familiar with this house, but for some reason I’ve never been inside, and the door was open with a flag out front, so in I went, forgetting all about my companions. They followed me, but I really gave them no choice in the matter! We had a lovely tour with a very knowledgeable guide, and the house was ever more stunning than I imagined. I’m kind of glad that I had never been in before, as this house is probably the best example of the entrepreneurial antiquarian Wallace Nutting’s material and cultural impact in New England and I’ve come to appreciate him only recently. Nutting purchased the house in 1915 and added it to his collection of “Colonial Pictorial Houses” after his restoration, and thus it became one of the more influential representatives of the “olden time” in his time and the Colonial Revival in ours. Images of Nutting’s wispy colonial ladies in its midst are scattered throughout and a room is devoted entirely to his work.

The Wentworth-Gardner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire: present and before Wallace Nutting’s purchase in 1915; the amazing center hall with a stairway re-installed by Nutting, and one of his colonial ladies descending (from a large collection of Nutting images at Historic New England).

The houses was built by Mark Hunking and Elizabeth Rindge Wentworth in 1760 as a wedding gift for their son Thomas, who lived in it until his death in 1768. It was owned and occupied by Major William Gardner from 1793 to 1833, and thereafter by his widow. In the later nineteenth century the grand mansion became a rooming house as its South End neighborhood declined, and then Nutting came to its rescue! As you can see, his most extensive restoration was to its exterior, but the reinstallation of the stairway was a major undertaking as well. I know that the pineapple was a customary colonial symbol of hospitality, but I can’t help but wonder if Nutting was inspired by Salem’s “Pineapple House.”

Nutting’s restored doorway (Historic New England) and Salem doorheads from the 1895 Visitors’ Guide.

Nutting sold the house to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just after the close of World War I, initiating the threat of removal to New York City that was itself removed by the onset of the Depression. After a brief stint of stewardship by the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the Wentworth-Gardner (and adjoining Lear house) House was acquired by a group of local preservationists who eventually became known as the Wentworth-Gardner Historic House Associates in 1940. It’s just a great place to visit: so many wonderful structural and decorative details, including the wonderfully carved mantel in the front left parlor (another one of Nutting’s reinstallations), the newly-installed reproduction eighteenth-century flocked wallpaper, the very Colonial Revival kitchen with its steep steps leading to upstairs, several great bedchambers (I couldn’t call them simply bedrooms), the Wallace Nutting room, and a very nice exhibition on historic preservation in Portsmouth. I remain so impressed by this small city with all of its historic houses, in wonderful condition and all open to the public. It’s a great example of community commitment to material heritage and the importance of having several institutional stewards thereof, rather than just one or two.

Georgian and Colonial Revival styles/worlds merge in the Wentworth-Gardner House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


Massachusetts Route 57

I have taken a lot of road trips this summer: west, south, north. On my way to any place in the first two directions, I’ve tried to explore a territory I call “middle Massachusetts” between the greater Boston area (which I tend to extend to Worcester) and the Berkshires. The latter has a very strong identiy as you can see from the map I found in a shop in Great Barrington, below, as does greater Boston, the North and South Shores, and Cape Cod. But I’m just not sure about the middle: part of it could be called the Connecticut and/or Pioneer valley, but other parts seem not exactly mysterious to me, but rather amorphous. My attempts to discover and characterize Middle Massachusetts has taken me down some small old roads, and so far my favorite route has been Massachusetts Route 57, which extends from just south of Springfield almost to Great Barrington, just north of the Connecticut border. This route is perfect: not one chain store, lots of old houses, general stores, taverns, rolling hills, rivers, state forests, and a lake or two. I’m not sure why it’s not referenced on maps of nineteenth-century Massachusetts turnpikes, as it was clearly a major route from Springfield to the Berkshires from quite early on judging by the structures that line its path.

From the Berkshire perspective above, Route 57 includes several western Massachusetts towns, but I don’t know, Sandisfield doesn’t feel very Berkshirey to me although it is formally in that county My favorite town on Route 57, Granville, is definitely not a Berkshire town, nor is neighboring Tolland, and then you drive through the New Boston village of Sandisfield, Sandisfield proper, New Marlborough, Monterey, and then finally Great Barrington. Route 57 merges with Route 23, another nice old route but not quite as pristine and rural. Great houses line the road, some a little shabby, some very shiny. Soon I was in New York State, and I returned home on a series of other lesser-known east-west routes, in northern “Middle Massachusetts.” It’s just too easy to take the Mass Pike.

Structures in Granville, West Granville (for some reason I didn’t snap a picture of the very much open Granville General Store—which has great cheese—but I did capture the very closed West Granville Store) New Boston, Sandisfield and New Marlborough along Route 57.


Hooked on Kinderhook

I made a very quick trip out to the Hudson River Valley at the beginning of last week to visit my brother and brother-in-law, and despite its brevity I still made some discoveries, including the delightful Columbia County town of Kinderhook. I always try to find new places when I’m out there, so on the way home I headed north from Rhinebeck, where they live, before turning east towards Massachusetts. It was supposed to be an hour-long diversion to see the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site before I headed home, but there was so much to see in Kinderhook I lingered, and did not get to Salem until well after dark. The President’s house did not disappoint, but downtown Kinderhook blew me away: beautiful houses and gardens, so much history, a stunning art gallery. The picture-perfect historytown: well worth a weekend trip if you’re within driving distance (or a longer one if you’re not). For some reason, I expected Lindenwald, which Martin Van Buren purchased after his presidential term was over, to be a bit dull and dowdy but it was on my list: when I got there I found it neither. I’ve been on a Gothic Revival kick all summer long, but this house is more than that: it’s a late Georgian mansion house transformed into a Gothic Revival mansion with an Italianate tower! Quite a melange: and Zuber & Cie wallpaper inside. The house was built by Judge Peter Van Ness in 1797, and inherited by his son William, who was Aaron Burr’s second in the 1804 duel which fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton. After Van Buren was defeated (on a Whig ticket) in the 1840 presidential election he retreated to Lindenwald, but following another defeat in the election of 1848 (on the Free Soil Party ticket) he was ensconced there for the remainder of his life. In 1849 he hired architect Richard Upjohn (who must have been THE Gothic Revival architect as he designed my two favorite houses in that style: the Rotch House in New Bedford and Kingscote in Newport) to expand and transform it.

Exterior and interior views of Lindenwald, including the tower stairwell and first-floor parlors. The entire center of the house is one big dining hall with the restored Zuber paper: for some reason it was difficult for me to photograph so refer to the site’s website! Not sure what this little house was for but it is cute.

This was the last day of a week-long heat wave so I really wanted to stay in my car, but once I got into downtown Kinderhook I had to get out of it. There were so many beautifuly houses, I would just stop, run out and take a photograph, and run right back into the air conditioning. But this was happening so often and the houses were in such close proximity to one another that it was getting a bit comical, so I finally stopped and took a walk. There was a strong presence of history: I had the image in my mind of the Continental Army marching down the main street victoriously after the (Second) Battle of Saratoga in the fall of 1777, especially as I passed the house where the captive General Burgoyne was entertained which was very close to the house where the wounded Benedict Arnold was taken. Earlier in the war, General Henry Knox passed through Kinderhook on his heroic quest to deliver cannon from Ticonderoga to General Washington in Boston. There are all these beautiful brick houses—both Dutch and English. There were details on the wooden houses I had never seen before. I was a puddle after my walk through Kinderhook but it was worth it!

The Luykas Van Alen House, 1747, which is owned and operated by the Columbia County Historical Society, as is the James Vanderpoel “House of History,” built in 1810. (The Van Alen house had several front porches with these built-in benches you see on Dutch Colonial houses built in the 20th century). Some houses which caught my eye in Kinderhook Village–I could have included many more. House where General Burgoyne was entertained and Major General (Turncoat) Arnold was attended to.

It was so hot in the Van Buren house that our guide passed out these cool fans! Perfect keepsake and advertisement for all this region has to offer. New York State takes its history very seriously: there are markers everywhere (maybe even TOO many–a big statement from marker afficionado me), every town has an official historian, and no opportunity goes unutilized to showcase it.


Roseland Cottage

In the last week of June I drove down to the “quiet” northeastern corner of Connecticut to see a house that was a major presidential July 4th destination in the later nineteenth century, Roseland Cottage, Historic New England’s sole property in the Nutmeg State. Home to several generations of the prosperous Bowen family from its construction in 1846 until its acquisition, fully furnished, by Historic New England in 1970, Roseland Cottage is a perfect Gothic Revival summer cottage located on one of the most picturesque roads in New England, Route 169 (the old Norwich-Worcester Turnpike), across from the Woodstock common which could accomodate the crowds that accompanied the first presidential visit of Ulysses S. Grant in 1870. Successive July 4 celebrations grew in size mandating their relocation to nearby Roseland Park, but three more presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley, still stayed at the “cottage” and its outbuildings include both a presidential “two-seater” outhouse and a bowling alley built for Grant. When you read the accounts of these post-1870 Independence Day celebations you kind of get the feeling that this was a “July 4th is back” moment after the turmoil and division of the Civil War and its aftermath. I’d like to think that we are in a similar moment now, post-Covid, but I don’t think we are quite there (though it was nice to see the Pops last night). Roseland, however, is much more than a presidential pink palace: it feels very much like a family home, centered, but at the same time, out of time, as if it sprung from a fairy tale.

Roseland Cottage, built in 1846 for Mr. and Mrs. Henry C. Bowen: downstairs parlor, presidential bedroom, and outbuildings (including a carriage house bowling alley built for President Grant’s visit).

Because of its distinct style (even the furniture was custom-built for the house in Carpenter Gothic style, which foreshadowed Frank Lloyd Wright according to our guide), the house feels like a stage set in some ways, but also like we’ve just stepped in to a family home moments after its inhabitants have left as there are so many personal items remaining: Mr. Bowen’s commendations and commissions (he was a stalwart progressive Rebublican, which meant pro-abolition and suffrage in addition to pro-temperance, and also the founder and publisher of The Independent newspaper), Mrs. Bowen’s wedding dress and the Gothic Revival crib in which she rocked nine of their children (she died giving birth to their tenth and Mr. Bowen remarried a local girl), family photographs, books, prints, games, and decorative objects. I like to think that the pink china below was her preferred shade of her favorite color: Roseland has apparently been 13 shades of pink over its history and is now quite salmony-pink.

The other contradictory feeling is formality and SUMMER: Roseland Cottage is bordered by lush box-bordered gardens (which used to enclose roses but now mostly annuals, I believe), lawn, and Woodstock green so vivid green surrounds you inside, along with the bright colors of the stained-glass diamond-paned windows and the flowers outside. There are some fancy woolen carpets, but also thin matting under foot, and all of the soft furnishings are cotton florals and lace. Such a contradition, this house: dark and light, formal and fairytale-ish, solid and airy, sunshine and shadow.

My “HNE booties” and the grounds, displaying another contradiction: I wonder why there is a Greek Revival folly among all this GOTHIC Revival?


I Went for the Wallpaper

love Waterhouse Wallhangings, a company which has been manufacturing wallpapers based on historical patterns for decades, and will do anything or go anywhere to see their papers in situ, so when I saw an instagram post about a recently-completed restoration project up in Amesbury featuring their work I drove right up there despite the fact that I had just returned from another road trip and was fairly exhausted. The Amesbury house was where Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science faith and church, had lived for a time, and it was restored under the auspices of the Longyear Museum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, an institution which is charged with presenting and teaching all aspects of Eddy’s life. Towards this aim, the Museum owns and operates 8 historic houses (all in New England) in which Eddy has lived, and the Amesbury house is the latest restoration. I confess to knowing very little about Eddy and the Christian Science church, even though I’ve lived in fairly close proximity to three of her houses: the Chestnut Hill Mansion in which she died, which is quite close to Newton Center where I lived while I was in graduate school (now undergoing an extensive restoration), and the Lynn and Swampscott houses which are not far from Salem. My motivations for running up to Amesbury this weekend were exclusively materialistic: I went for the wallpaper, and not for Mary Baker Eddy. But when I got to this lovely little c. 1780 house and talked to the Longyear staff on hand for its open house, I came away very impressed with the overall restoration effort: it was almost as if they had pursued preservation as an act of faith. It is not a grand house, and Eddy did not live there for very long, but it was part of her story and thus no detail was spared to make it shine again. We could only see the shine, but an extensive and costly restoration, inside and out, preceded the decoration. I came for the wallpaper, but left with a great deal of restoration respect, and now I need to see more Longyear houses!

A wallpaper tour of the Bagley House in Amesbury, where Mary Baker Eddy lived for brief periods in 1868 and 1870:

Waterhouse has extensive archives of wallpaper prints, and can also reproduce from fragments, as you see here. The aqua floral paper that you can see in the larger bedroom above is “New England Floral”, the same paper we have in our dining room (below) and library. 


Landmark Lineage

I’ve been obsessed with the work “landmark” ever since the Samantha statue incident of last week: a succession of news stories in the days following reported the vandalism inflicted on this famous Salem “landmark” and each time I heard or read that term applied to this horror installation I screamed “she is not a landmark!” in my head. Isn’t a landmark something notable, of value, an attribute of place or a place itself, but nevertheless something we admire and want to preserve? Several people pointed out that the word doesn’t have to connote subjective judgements: it is merely  something recognizable. I’ve just written a book which has chapters on both surveying and navigation, so you’d think I’d be a bit more confident in my understanding of this term. Its original use in navigation refers to a physical feature of the land with which you can find, or mark, your way, but I thought its meaning evolved in the past centuries with respect to architecture, historic preservation, and the recognition and  designation of built landmarks. My understanding of the term is coming more from those fields, so using the same term to apply to Samantha and say, the Ropes Mansion just seems wrong! Clearly it is time to look this word up, so I went straight to the Oxford English Dictionary (I am fortunate to have an institutional subscription but I go there only when I really need to, as it is a rabbit hole for me. But needs must.)

LANDMARK: object marking a boundary line; district;

 2. An object in the landscape, which, by its conspicuousness, serves as a guide in the direction of one’s course (originally and esp. as a guide to sailors in navigation); hence, any conspicuous object which characterizes a neighbourhood or district.

 3. (In modern use.) An object which marks or is associated with some event or stage in a process; esp. a characteristic, a modification, etc., or an event, which marks a period or turning-point in the history of a thing.

Ok, I’m going with the second part of #2 “any conspicuous object which characterizes a neighborhood or a district.” The key word for me here is characterizes. I’m just not comfortable with Samantha characterizing Salem: I want Samuel McIntire to characterize Salem. But obviously there has to be some sort of standard for designating a landmark, or is it all subjective? To try to answer this last questions, I decided to do a search for “Salem Landmark” in all of my newspaper databases. This query produced hundreds of hits, but I quickly determined that many of these references were to the Salem Landmark newspaper of 1835-36 which first published the wildly popular “Enquire at Amos Giles’ Distillery” temperance parable, which was reprinted all over the country. So I eliminated those entries, and came up with a clear succession of Salem landmarks.

For the most part, the word landmark was used in referenced to historic buildings in Salem, but there were some exceptions. Beginning in the 1870s, there seems to be an emerging concern that Salem is losing its historic structures because there is a succession of titles to the tune of “another Salem landmark gone.” Clearly the word could be used to ascertain an increasing interest in historic preservation, but it’s not just about loss: landmark appears when particularly old or otherwise notable buildings are sold or “substantially altered,” when there’s a fire, or some event happens in a well-know location. Here’s a few examples, starting with the “old Putnam Estate on Essex Street,” a house with which I’m not immediately familiar—I’m not quite sure about this Bridge/Osgood Street house either, but it has an interesting story! Sounds like part of it might still be around?

It’s easy to get caught up in the stories attached to these old buildings: I did so several times and forgot all about Samantha (which is good)! The two above are a bit more obscure landmarks, but anything to do with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel McIntire, the Witch Trials, the Revolutionary War, and political leaders or wealthy Salem merchants were designated as such. Sometimes I think the word was used a little loosely: a sailcloth factory? Well, it was a sailcloth factory that belonged to the legendary Billy Gray and was the studio of Ross Turner: I hope he didn’t lose any paintings! I had heard about the threat to the Pickering House before, which is why I am not expressing shock and awe now. Everything else below is pretty self-explanatory, but I should report the the Silsbee/Knights of Columbus mansion has just been completely restored and expanded and it looks great.

Besides Derby Wharf (above), the only designated landmarks I could find which were not buildings were a landmark store which closed after 114 years in business, and the famed “Brown’s Flying Horses” of Salem Willows. This carousel had been a major attraction of Salem Willows since the 1870s, and its sale to Macy’s Department Store in 1945 was big news and a big loss. By all accounts, it was a beautiful example of craftsmanship by a Bavarian woodworker, so comparing it to Samantha is a stretch, but both were/are popular “attractions,” so I guess that’s the landmark connection. I think I’ve worked myself out of my landmark labyrinth, but I’m still troubled by placement: certainly nothing could be more evocative and appropriate in a seaside amusement park than a carousel, but I still don’t think Samantha belongs in Town House Square.

Apparently this business had started in 1794 by the Driver Family and was run by relatives or in-laws until 1908, Boston Sunday Globe, September 20, 1908. Brown’s Flying Horses at Salem Willows, photographs from the “Essex Institute”/Phillips Library via Painted Ponies: American Carousel Art by William Manns et. al.


The Jeremiah Lee Mansion

There are two structures which made an impression on me early in my childhood and sort of set the standard for historic grandeur in my mind: Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth College, where my father began his career, and The Lady Pepperrell House in Kittery, Maine, close to my hometown of York where we moved when he moved on to the University of New Hampshire. Of course, Dartmouth Hall is a Colonial Revival reproduction of an earlier building, though apparently a very faithful one. I didn’t know that when I stared up at it when I was five or so, and a decade later when I first became concious of the Lady Pepperrell House it evoked that memory. To me, both were New England Georgian exemplars. And yesterday I visited another Georgian exemplar, the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in nearby Marblehead. It was the opening day of its season, and I knew that the charming Rick, one of the most knowledgeable people around about all aspects of local architectural history (just follow his instagram account and you will learn something every day, sometimes every hour) was on docent duty, so I made my reservation and ran over there. It was a cold and gloomy June 1 (especially after a warm Memorial Day weekend), but the house seemed warm and cheerful to me despite its size: this is a grand mansion in every sense of both words.

The Mansion is made entirely of wood, but designed to give the appearance of an ashlar stone facade.

A bit of history and then I’ll show you some of my interior shots—the gloom outside really highlighted the color inside and I got some great views, if I do say so myself! The mansion was built by 1768 by Colonel Jeremiah Lee (1721-1775), a wealthy “merchant prince” of Marblehead, who was just as engaged in the civic and political life of this bustling maritime community as he was in his brilliant shipping career. Lee was the wealthiest merchant in Massachusetts acccording to tax records from 1771, and he might have been America’s largest pre-revolutionary shipowner with full shares in over twenty vessels. For someone who clearly had so much at stake within the commercial context of the Atlantic world and the British Empire, it’s quite remarkable to see how Lee risked all by becoming a committed Patriot, and even though he did not die in battle, he contracted pneumonia by sleeping in a chilly and wet cornfield on the outskirts of Lexington and Concord on the eve of those battles in April of 1775, certainly a martyr to the cause. So Lee only lived in his trophy house for seven years, and his widow Martha Swett Lee for another decade. We have to dwell in the past a bit longer to understand the sheer scale of this mansion: it seems almost oversized for Old Town Marblehead now, but Marblehead in 1770 was the second largest settlement in Massachusetts, while Salem was the fourth! After the Revolution, Salem commenced its economic and demographic boom, but while the first US census of 1790 reported Salem as the 7th largest city in the new nation (with a population of nearly 8000), Marblehead was still in the pack in 10th place (with a population of 5661). So this mansion represents not only the wealth and cosmopolitan taste of Jeremiah Lee, but also of pre-revolutionary Marblehead. That said, this structure is so very conspicuous and grand, that I understand the words of Miss Hannah Tutt, historian of the Marblead Historical Society, which acquired and restored it after 1909:  Fashioned as it was, after the homes of his ancestors, it needed but the hawthorne and the hedgerows to transport one to old England, and indeed the very timbers, of which it was framed, were grown in the mother country. Built at a cost of over ten thousand pounds, it could hardly be rivaled throughout the whole province of Massachusetts Bay—and overshadowing, with its grandeur, the humble home of the fisher folk, no wonder it became to them the “Mansion,” and the “Lee Mansion” it has always been, the pride of the whole town (The Lee Mansion. What it Was and What it is, 1911). Ok, context completed, let’s go inside: first floor first.

Through the front door, you step into this amazing 16-foot-wide entrance hall which extends to the back of house, and it’s all about the central staircase and the handpainted English wallpaper panels, which extend up to the second floor. The house served as the Marblehead Bank for about a century after it left the possession of the Lee family and before it came under the stewardship of the Marblehead Historical Society, so the back and upper stories were closed off. According to Rick, visitors could strip of pieces of this wallpaper as souvenirs in the front part of the first-floor hall, so reproduction paper replaced those parts, but the most of the wallpaper is original and glorious. There is a grain-painted “banquet hall” to the left, and a parlor/drawing room to the right.

There are actually very few items related to Jeremiah Lee in the house; most of the decorative accessories derive from the period but not the family. One feels the presence of Jeremiah and Martha (especially as you pass the copies of their full-length portraits painted by John Singleton Copley on the way to the second floor; the originals are in the Wadsworth Athenaeum), but you feel like you are visiting an eighteenth-century house rather than their house. A very grand eighteenth-century American house. I really appreciated the curation: the Marblehead Historical Society/Museum has been the recipient of a steady succession of decorative donations over the century since it has acquired the Lee Mansion, but the decorative accessories on display were chosen clearly to highlight and complement rather than overwhelm. Nothing competes with the architecture (well, I don’t think anything really could.) On to the second floor.

Second-floor Chambers: the two front rooms are still of considerable size, but things get a bit cozier in the back. The blue-trimmed chamber is a suite of connected small rooms including one with odd proportions and amazing wallpaper! The room with all the yellow damask—a guest room according to Rick—is simply stunning. And you can see that the furniture is top-notch and very complementary.

Beautiful rooms on the second floor, as you can see, but what I am not really showing you is the view. Remember, Marblehead was a busy seaport when this mansion was built: it was not, and is not, a rural estate. Now its grounds are a bit deceptive: there’s a nice side garden but the original lot was quite shallow and a large parcel of land in the back was a later acquisition by the Museum (there is a very interesting article by Narcissa Chamberlain, the wife of photographer Samuel Chamberlain who lived just one street over, about its original boundaries in the April 1969 issue of the Essex Institute Historical Collections). The large windows of the mansion frame the street views out front and the very green views out back, but all I could see was yellow inside, because there is a lot of yellow, but also because I’m working on my new book, a study of saffron, and so I see it everywhere. On to the third floor.

More saffron and more chambers on the third floor: I need these “bed chairs” or whatever you call them! Writing in bed is one of my favorite activities but it takes a toll on one’s back. These third-floor bedchambers were precious. I love this portrait of Miss Selman, the hatboxes, these curvy fancy chairs and settee. Two other rooms on the third floor were a catch-all room with a random collection of museum items (including sea chests with their charts still inside!) and a parlor/playroom/servant’s room in the rear, also filled with wonderful items. I’m not really focusing on the portraits in this post, but there are many interesting ones to see.

And down another side staircase (I seem to remember that there are four staircases in the house) to the first-floor kitchen and a small dining/breakfast room where one of Colonel Lee’s logbooks rests on a table and his contemporary Elbridge Gerry looks on. I starting writing as soon as I got home so I wouldn’t forget all the detailed information which Rick imparted to me, but of course everything was just too much to take in so I’m going to have to go back again. I can think of so many sub-stories: the people in the portraits, a Dartmoor Massacre drawing, the wallpapers and printed tiles, those bedchairs, the contributions of my favorite preservationist, Louise du Pont Crowninshield, a summer Marblehead resident. The Marblehead Museum purchased the adjacent property, the site of the Mansion’s brick kitchen and slave quarters, just last year and archeological investigations into the histories of slavery and service in this corner of Marblehead are commencing this very summer. So while there is a lot to see in this majestic mansion, it is not a static site but rather a dynamic one, engaged in an evolving process of discovery and reinterpretation.

The Jeremiah Lee Mansion & Garden: more information and reservations here.


The South Coast of Massachusetts

One thing that I’ve always loved about Massachusetts is its regional topographical diversity. I’m not sure that this is the correct phrase: topographical generally refers to the natural landscape but I’m referring to the built environment. In nearly every region of Massachusetts, you can explore urban and rural environments adjacent to each other, within the time span of an hour or so. It’s a bit more difficult to get the urban/rural contrast within the general vicinity of Boston, where suburban streetscapes reign, but elsewhere you can explore the architecture of a densely-settled old city by foot in one hour and then find yourself driving amidst farmland in the next. This was my experience over the past few days as I explored the South Coast of Massachusetts, which extends from Cape Cod to Rhode Island along Buzzards Bay. It was my Spring Break breakaway, as I decided to stay relatively close to home rather than taking a big trip. This is beautiful coastline, but if you’re familiar with this blog you know that I’m more interested in human history than the natural world so I tend to explore territory through buildings and this region contains quite an array of architecture. It’s an easy day trip, basically just following Route 6 from Fall River to Wareham or the other way around, but I spent a lot more time in rural New Bedford and rural Dartmouth than I expected to, so I stretched it out to two days. You could do a wonderful Industrial Revolution tour of these region, starting with the Old Slater Mill National Historical Park in nearby Pawtucket, Rhode Island and then proceeding to the powerhouse cities of Fall River and New Bedford where factories remain in various states of redevelopment or decline, but I was a bit more interested in domestic architecture on this trip.

Beginning with the cities, where you can see the impact of all that wealth from whaling (New Bedford) and manufacturing (Fall River AND New Bedford) very clearly, as well as the impact of the DECLINE of these industries. But I was focused on the former! Very impressive mid-nineteenth century houses in both cities: Fall River experienced a fire in 1843 which was followed apparently by a building boom, but both cities have impressive revival buildings: Greek, Gothic, even Renaissance. I stayed away from everything relating to the notorious Lizzie Borden in Fall River for the same reason I don’t dwell on anything related to 1692 here: I’m not interested in the commercial exploitation of tragedy. In New Bedford, I breezed through the Whaling Museum too quickly: that definitely deserves its own post and both cities (of course) have active historical societies that document and exhibit their economic and social histories.

Great Gothic Revivals! This regional ramble was prompted by my desire to see just one house, the William J. Rotch cottage in New Bedford (first up below), and it has some impressive neighbors.

This last red house is in Fall River; all the rest are in New Bedford, in the immediate vicinity of the Rotch Cottage.

 

Great Greek Revivals!

In both cities—-more institutional than residential I think, although some larger buildings began as residences and then became offices or institutions. The first house below is another Rotch house in New Bedford with a lovely adjacent garden, now a museum, and the following houses are also in New Bedford except for the last two, which are in nearby Mattapoisett: rural variations on a theme.

 

I didn’t expect Fall River to remind me of…….San Francisco? The Highlands Historic District looks WAY down on the Taunton River and Mount Hope Bay. I couldn’t really capture this in pictures, but here are a few houses in the district.

 

Idiosyncratic Buildings: The former Durfee High School/current Probate Court building in Fall River & the Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford.