Tag Archives: Historic Interiors

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.


The Christmas Ball at Hamilton Hall

It is formally called the “Holiday Dance” now, but I always think of it as the Christmas Dance or better yet, the Christmas Ball, held next door at Hamilton Hall since whenever. I’ve been going for decades, and it really never gets old for me. I remember well my first attendance, clad in some old Laura Ashley velvet frock, when appeared before me a woman in the most elegant vintage black gown, from the 1930s I think, and I immediately thought: I must up my game. I’ve tried to do so every since, and this very same woman, clad in a very different–but equally elegant–gown from India, was one of the dance patronesses this year. Yes, there are patronesses (and for the last few years patrons) to whom we bow and curtsey, escorted before them by ushers. There’s an amazing traditional punch which led to the loss of several Sundays in my past, but now I’m too smart (experienced) to imbibe, and a rather loose “grand march” at the end of the evening. I was in bed by that time, so no pictures, sorry.

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HH Christms Dance

This is a very traditional event, but not an exclusive one. Anyone can go: well, as many as can fit into the Hall. In years past, I remember smaller crowds but last night was definitely a crush. This event, along with a lecture series on world affairs that began right after World War II, is one of two major fundraisers for the Hall, which is primarily maintained through revenues from weddings and a more recent membership initiative. As a next-door neighbor, I would rather that the Hall was a little less busy, frankly (although the weddings are limited to 25 per year and there are none in July and August), but I know that it has to work for its living. It was built by subscription and maintained by its “proprietors” until the 1980s, when it was transformed into a non-profit. Everyone turned in their shares, but these were just paper: not an endowment. I’m really interested in how the “Proprietors of the South Buildings” (which included not only the Hall but Samuel McIntire’s majestic South Church across the street, which burned down in 1903) conducted their business: all the corporation’s records, like those of every Salem organization, are in the collection of the Phillips Library but as the shares were held privately you often see them on ebay or at ephemera sales. There were various management companies that ran the Hall and employed caterers and that famous “conductor of affairs” John Remond, who is announcing some major redecorations in 1844 below. Just before Christmas in 1850, the gaslights were turned on at Hamilton Hall, the very same chandelier and sideburners that shone so brilliantly via electricity last night.

Hamilton Hall Certificates Collage

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Hamilton Hall Gas

Hamilton Hall SHeila FoleyI love this view of the Hamilton Hall ballroom, with its “Russian” mirrors and green chandelier, by artist Sheila Foley: see more of her live event paintings here


Land of the Livingstons

This past weekend I toured six “country seats” built by various members of the venerable and prominent Livingston family of the Hudson River Valley in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: most privately-owned, one owned by the state of New York. My brother and brother-in-law live in Rhinebeck, so I have visited this region quite a bit, but I find new old houses every single time I return, and this time was no exception. When we started off, I was thinking only 6 houses? we’ll be done in a flash and $60 for six houses! as our Christmas in Salem tour features more houses and a lower ticket price but it took us most of the day and was well worth it: I had an urban house tour in my mind where you just walk from place to place but these are rural county seats situated on vast acres of land—-mostly waterfront. The scale of both houses and land was much larger than your average house tour, and the tour was a bargain: I’m alway happy to support historic preservation in any case, and in this case it was Hudson River Heritage. I’m going to present the tour in the very order that we saw these houses and give you my impressions of each along the way: no interior photography was allowed except in the state-owned property, Clermont, but as one of the houses is currently for sale and others are included in the amazing (again, expensive but worth it) newly-published book by Pieter Estersohn titled Life Along the Hudson. The Historic Country Estates of the Livingston Family and other publications I can show you some interior views.

You will notice it getting progressively brighter; the day started out pretty dreary and ended with sun. Still all houses shone.

RICHMOND HILL, built in 1808

This federal—-no I think proper Palladian is more accurate–house was simply stunning: beautiful proportions and details. It is the most formal farmhouse I have ever seen as it sits in the midst of 58 acres and many outbuildings, including a period Dutch barn, also unlike anything I have ever seen (I’m such a New Englander!). It has not been lived in for some time and is currently for sale: the photographs on the real estate site (I’m including the west bedroom and basement kitchen below–there’s a modern kitchen too!) are not really doing it justice in terms of the details: one of the mantles had a pinecone design which (again) I have never seen before. 

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CHIDDINGSTONE, Built in 1860

This is a “Bracketed Italianate” house which has recently been restored and redecorated with 15-foot ceilings and a stunning river view. The interior is all about height over width: the rooms were not all that large in terms of size but those high ceilings, along with the floor-to-ceiling windows and furnishings, made them seem positively grand.

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The front parlor photographed by Pieter Estersohn

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CLERMONT, Built from 1779-82

Then it was on to the oldest Livingston house, Clermont, which was built in the 1730s but burned mostly to the ground by the British during the Revolutionary War and rebuilt between 1779 and 1782. Clermont is a state historic site with an informative visitors’ center and extensive grounds along the river. Here we had a proper (essentially genealogical) tour and were able to take photographs: the interiors are furnished in the Colonial Revival style adopted by the last Livingstons to live at Clermont in the 1930s.

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MIDWOOD, built in 1888

Midwood is a sprawling Colonial Revival house situated on 87 acres along the Hudson: it made quite the contrast from Clermont as it is a very much lived-in and lively house, furnished in an eclectic style that must reflect the spirit of its owner and felt very “Bloomsbury” to me: we spent quite some time there just because there was so much to see and we were not alone. You can take your own tour here, and I’m sharing two interior views below.

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Side Parlors photographed by Christopher Baker

 

CLARKSON CHAPEL, built c. 1860

One of many board and batten Carpenter Gothic structures in the region, the Clarkson Chapel was built following a dispute–a schism, I suppose– at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in nearby Tivoli. Here we met a wonderful guide/steward who had made her own chart of the division of the original Livingston Manor. This was very helpful, and another informative source is here.

Hudson Chapel

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EDGEWATER, Built in 1825

Our last stop was at Edgewater, a magnificent Greek Revival mansion perched on the Hudson shore in Barrytown, the long-time home of Richard Jenrette, who died earlier this year. My first house was a Greek Revival, and so I studied and bought everything I could about this iconic architectural style, and Mr. Jenrette’s Adventures with Old Houses (1995) became a bible of sorts: my copy is coffee-cup stained, page-marked, and well-worn. Edgewater is preserved, polished, and furnished to perfection, and signs of Mr. Jenrette were all around within: notes, cards, the lift on the magnificent stairs, the program to his memorial service. Of course the whole house is a memorial to him, as is the foundation which now owns Edgewater and his other homes: the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. I had pored over pictures of Edgewater so many times that when I finally found myself inside, I felt like I was returning to it, which is the first time I’ve had that experience. That said, it’s even more beautiful than its photographs and is a very real, much-loved house indeed.

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Photographs of the Music Room and Dining Room by Dorothy Hong for the Wall Street Journal (above); the Edgewater guesthouse (below) was built in 1996.

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Hang the King and Queen in the Dining Room

Back to the seventeenth century, where I am working my way through a series of instructional books produced to meet the apparent and universal demand for better health, more wealth, and an enhanced quality of life. For most of yesterday I was in the company of William Salmon, Doctor of Physick, who wrote an comprehensive and detailed compendium titled Polygraphice: or The Arts of Drawing, Engraving, Etching, Limning, Painting, Washing, Varnishing, Gilding, Colouring, Dyeing, Beautifying and Perfuming, which was published in eight expanding editions from 1671 to 1701. Here we have the third edition, from the University of Heidelberg, which includes an additional “Discourse on Perspective and Chiromancy”. In some ways, this is your typical early modern mishmash of arts, “sciences”, and a bit of magic, but in other ways it is very precise and technical, the instructions for perspective and shading particularly so. Salmon is always referred to as an “empiric” in terms of his medical practice, but his publications are so diverse one assumes they are primarily derivative—yet there seems to be some strong opinions among the instructions.

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And the long seventeenth-century title does not mislead us: Salmon offers up instructions on all aspects of drawing, engraving, and etching, he tells us how to mix up paint colours, of both water and oil, and how to gild, varnish and dye, and then he makes the remarkable transition from painting canvases to rooms to faces! This is the rationalization: some may wonder that we should meddle with such a subject as this, in this place, but let such know; the Painting of a deformed Face, and the licking over of old, withered, wrinkled, and weather-beaten skin are as proper appendices to a painter, as the rectification of his Errors in a piece of Canvas. Well. Since he’s in the realm of cosmetics, he tells us how to make a variety of waters, and touches on alchemy for a bit—more in forthcoming editions. I was delighted to see a very early reference to “Popinjay Green”, which I think must be my favorite color (no–apparently not that early a reference: the Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the word first appeared in English in 1322, and the reference to the color began appearing in the sixteenth century).

Popinjay Green Collage

Popinjay Susan Sandford

Adding an anachronistic image here: this “Popinjay” collage of a turn-of-the-century dandy by artist Susan Sanford just seemed to fit in this post + I like it.

There is very little creativity in this text about art, but the time, place, author, and genre dictate didacticism. Salmon instructs us not only how to make paints, but also which colors to apply to which subjects, whether it’s the sky or the clouds or the grass in a “landskip” or the skin of the subject of a portrait. Once the paintings are complete, he tells his readers where they should be “disposed of” (hung) in their houses: royalty in the dining room, forbear all “obscene pictures” in the banqueting rooms, and family pictures in the bedchamber. Art is essentially skilled imitation of nature, in an ideal sense: the work of the Painter is to express the exact imitation of natural things; wherein you are to observe the excellencies and beauties of the piece, but to refuse its vices.

Salmon CollageThe dining room at the royal palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, over which King George IV reigns.


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


Georgian Grandeur in Portsmouth

Portsmouth always struck me as a Georgian town, even from a young age, when I first developed an appreciation for historic houses at Strawbery Banke and first spotted what is still one of my very favorite houses nearby. There are Federal houses too, but it doesn’t feel as Federal as its sister seaports to the south, Newburyport and Salem. There is a range of Georgian houses in Portsmouth, from relatively simple to absolutely grand: on this past weekend I revisited three of the latter varieties: the Warner House (1716) the Moffatt-Ladd House (1763),  and the Governor John Langdon House (1784). Each house has a different owner, and a different………style, but all are exquisite representations of their era. The combination of the entirety of their construction with all the crafted details within—including the wonderful Portsmouth furniture in each house—is hard to capture: you’ll just have to visit each one yourself.

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Georgian Langdon HouseThe Warner House, owned and operated by the Warner House Association from the early 1930s, The MoffattLadd House, owned and operated by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire, and the Governor Langdon House, a property of Historic New England.

I loved the colors of the Warner House: rich jewel tones throughout. It’s not too pristine: you do get the feeling that you are imposing on the past (although there is quite a lot of plastic fruit). Those wild murals! The textures are wonderful too—especially of the smalted rooms upstairs. This is the oldest urban brick house in North America and it feels that way: both old and urban. You look out its windows and see a bustling city—this would not have been the case in the 1930s when it was rescued or even later: the Warner guide, like all the Portsmouth guides I encountered last weekend, stressed the fact that the city’s current vibrance contrasts with its more depreciated state in the 1970s—and I remember that to be the case.

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Warner 3collageParlors and bedrooms at the Warner House, a scary squirrel, and always the threat of fire (the tool is to take apart your very valuable bed).

The Moffatt-Ladd House has been very much in the thick of things from its construction; once it faced the wharves of prosperous Portsmouth, but now the horse chestnut tree planted in 1776 by General William Whipple upon his return from signing the Declaration of Independence still stands guard at the entrance to its courtyard. It’s a very airy house inside due to its elevated situation as well as its large entrance parlor—and its beautiful rear parlor, now in the midst of restoration, runs parallel to the wonderful terraced garden outside.

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Moffatt-Ladd Stairs

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Georgian Portsmouth 13Moffatt-Ladd parlors and stairs, front parlor original wallpaper and the parlor-in-process with its amazing mantle and Chinese Chippendale chairs; I always brake for fire buckets! The amazing garden.

I think Georgian houses have to be pre-revolutionary, but I’m the only one who thinks that, so I am including the Governor Langdon House, which was built the year after the American Revolution concluded. The scale is even larger here than Moffatt-Ladd, and the house reflects the passage of time, with Greek and Colonial Revival rooms as well as a dining room designed by Stanford White. It seems both national in inspiration but also very much a crafted Portsmouth house, as illustrated by those distinctive staircase balusters, contrasted below with those of Moffatt-Ladd (on the left).

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Langdon Hallway

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Langdon Mantle

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Georgian Portsmouth Details

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Georgian Portsmouth 2Those Rococo mantles! And all that beautiful Portsmouth furniture. As you move back through the house, you move up in time, into Greek and Colonial Revival rooms.

While I was looking around for images of the houses in their earlier situations, I came across the works of two women artists among the digital collections of the Portsmouth Public Library: Sarah Haven Foster (1827-1900) and Helen Pearson (1870-1949). Both Portsmouth women clearly loved the architecture of their native city, and rendered it in series of charming vignettes, which were incorporated in their successive guidebooks. Wonderful discoveries: Foster’s naivete and Pearson’s detail both capture Portsmouth’s charm, past and (fortunately) present.

Georgian Warner Haven

Georgian Warner Pearson

Georgian Ladd Pearson

Langdon DoorVignettes by Sarah Haven Foster (the Warner House) and Helen Pearson (Warner, Moffatt-Ladd garden, Langdon doorway), Portsmouth Public Library Digitized Collections.


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