Tag Archives: Historic New England

Tragedy amidst the Everyday

I LOVE Diaries: they offer such personal perspectives into the past, encompassing both “big” events and everyday occurrences. I read diaries, teach with diaries, and think about diaries often. I even like books about diaries, such as Kate O’Brien’s volume in my favorite Britain in Pictures series. So it is rather odd that I have omitted one of the most important diaries of a Salem woman in this year of #SalemSuffrageSaturdays until now: that of Mary Vial Holyoke (1737-1802), the second wife of Salem’s most eminent physician, Edward Augustus Holyoke (1728-1829). Mary’s diary was published in a compiled volume of Holyoke diaries published by the Essex Institute in 1911, after having been in the possession of several collectors, including the famed Salem numismatist Matthew Stickney.

Photograph of a Greenwood Portrait of Mary Simpson Vial before her Marriage.

1771 Portraits of Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke and Mary Vial Holyoke by Salem artist Benjamin Blyth, referred to in Mary’s diary: Dr. Holyoke’s portrait, which descended in the Osgood family, is from the Northeast Auctions archive; Mary’s portrait, which descended in the Nichols family, appears to be lost at present.

 

Last week’s list of “notable Salem women” from the perspective of 1939 included Mary and drew me back to her diary, a record of 40 years of her rather enclosed life in Salem from 1760 to 1799. I had read it several times before but found it………….. unpleasant is the word I think I want to use. At first reading, the impression that I formed was of a superficial woman who gave birth to babies annually—most of which died within days—and resumed her social activities and household duties without missing a beat. None of this was unfamiliar to me as an early modernist: infant mortality hovered between 15 and 20% while 60% of all children born died before the age of 16 in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and childbirth was the leading cause of death for women, who were not especially introspective when they took pen to paper. But both Mary’s losses (8 of her 12 children) and her diary’s quickfire mix of the mundane and the sorrowful are comparatively extreme. Just one page of entries from the summer of 1767 contains entries about gardening, polishing or “scouring” furniture brasses, hanging bed curtains, attending “turtle” feasts and hosting the regular Monday assembly. Then on September 5 she was “brought to bed” at 2:00 in the morning, and gave birth to a daughter baptized Mary on the next day. On September 7 she reports that “The Baby very well till ten o’clock in the evening & then taken with fits.” Two days later, “It Died about 8:00 in the morning.” On the next day, we read simply “was buried” without even a pronoun.

A child’s shoe last from the first half of the nineteenth century, Historic New England

As I read the diary again over this past week more carefully, Mary emerged as a more thoughtful, caring, and substantive person. She was among a circle of women in Salem who were not just drinking tea and attending “turtles” (I love this name for social gatherings and think we should resume it) with great regularity, but also attending all those were brought to bed: for birth, for illness, for death: they were always “watching”. Mary was watched, her dying children were watched, and she herself watched. The entry above seems cold to be sure, but Mary generally referred to “my dear child” while noting the burials of her infants. And then there was the particularly poignant entry after the death of yet another of her newborns in 1770: the same as all the others. You almost can’t blame her for getting right back to the business of household work, which she does with great relish after she and the Dr. (this is how she refers to her husband) move into their permanent house on Essex Steet: this becomes “our house” and there’s a lot of work to do to maintain it: scouring, provisioning, ironing, soap-making, bottling, sewing, cooking, gardening, preserving (preserved damsons, a week too late! exclamation mine) and other tasks are all noted in detail. I think I dismissed the diary previously because Mary had little to say about the Revolution, but she does take note of the repeal of the Stamp Act and the “setting off” of a “feathered man” before the Revolution, and as it proceeds she gradually refers to the Americans as “our people”, perhaps reflecting her husband’s transition from Tory to Patriot. Dr. Holyoke was an early adopter of smallpox inoculation, and she records the constant outbreaks as well as the incremental inoculations. Earthquakes also appear with surprising regularity in the diary: I had no idea Salem was subject to so many tremors in the later eighteenth century. Extreme weather was also notable: Salem experienced some very hot summers and several “great” snows during Mary’s lifetime she elaborates on the former and is quite succinct about the latter. There’s more to learn about and from Mary Vial Holyoke, to be sure: you’ve just got to read carefully, between the lines and with careful attention to the personal pronouns, as she brings us into her world.

The Bowditch-Holyoke House at the corner of Essex & Central Streets in Salem, presently the site of the Naumkeag Block     


Break for Ice Cream

I was reading and writing about the 1563 plague in London—very deadly and very overshadowed by later Tudor and Stuart plagues—when I had to take a break for ice cream in the midst of a stifling afternoon. The break went on a bit longer than expected because I became diverted into the history of ice cream: I just opened up an old cookbook I had for a moment (really!) but the recipe looked similar to some that I had seen in the seventeenth-century cookbooks that I am going to be writing about later in this chapter that I’m working on so I indulged myself for a bit longer in the name of “research”……and before you I knew it I had abandoned early modern England and was looking into the history of ice cream in Salem. From the plague to ice cream in a half hour: the balance of book and blog will not work well if I continue to be so indulgent (but it was hot).

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Take three pints of the best cream, boyle it with a blade of Mace or else perfume it with orang flower water or Ambergreece, sweeten the Cream, with sugar[,] let it stand till it is quite cold, then put it into Boxes, e[i]ther of Silver or tinn, then take, Ice chopped into small peeces and put it into a tub and set the Boxes in the Ice covering them all over, and let them stand in the Ice two hours, and the Cream Will come to be Ice in the Boxes, then turn them out into a salvar [salver = dish] with some of the same seasoned Cream, so sarve [serve] it up to the Table.

This is Lady Ann Fanshawe’s handwritten recipe for “icy cream” from the mid-seventeenth century and the Wellcome Library’s digitized recipe-book collection (MS.71113) . It is unusual when compared to the first published recipes for ice cream in the next century, which are more custard-style creams, made with egg yolks, and then frozen. But Lady Fanshawe’s ingredients–mace, orange-flower water, and even ambergris (well maybe I should exclude ambergris)–were not that unusual: early ices were made with a wide range of ingredients: all sorts of fruits and herbs, honey, tea and coffee, crumbled cakes and biscuits. Ice cream history in the nineteenth century is marked by two big developments, both in the US: the development of the portable ice cream “freezer” and “Philadelphia-style” ice creams, made without eggs. But nineteenth-century ice creams, sorbets and sherberts were still more exotic than we think they were, or at least thought they were: Mrs. Lincoln’s Frosty Fancies and Frozen Dainties, published in the late nineteenth century for best-selling freezer manufacturer White Mountain, feature lots of interesting ices, and ice creams made with arrowroot, cornstarch, and gelatin for their foundation, rather than eggs.

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And yes: I think this is yet another aspect of Salem’s history which seems notable, although I did not extend my break to make a city-by-city, town-by-town comparative analysis of ice-cream production and consumption. Salem had a very early ice cream “manufactory”, from at least 1856, as well as several antebellum retail shops or saloons. And these multiplied over the later nineteenth century and then of course opened up in the tourist destination that was (and remains) Salem Willows. Salem also had ice cream “peddlers” from the late nineteenth century on, and even a “millionaire milkman”: Gilbert H. Hood of the famous H.P. Hood Company, still very much with us, who spent the summer and fall of 1921 “learning the business from the ground up” while based at Hood’s Salem ice cream factory, now the site of luxury condominiums.

Salem Ice Cream

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Hood Collage

Notice of Salem’s first ice cream manufactory in the Salem Register, June 30, 1856; Salem Willows postcards from 1905; The manufactory at 271 Essex became a “saloon” in the 1870s and another popular ice cream parlor was the Holly Tree on Central Street (Collections of Historic New England); “Ira Moody Chute standing in front of his ice cream wagon, Salem, Mass., ca. 1898,” (Historic New England); The Newburyport Daily News, August 19, 1889; Gilbert H. Hood in the Boston Herald, October 9, 1921.

More! The SERVING of ice cream was serious business a century ago, and Historic New England has some great examples from the Phillips House: ice cream forks, scoops, molds, trays, etc….: check them out here.


Riverside Gardens

Sunny June continues, showcasing gardens all around me in the Seacoast region of southern Maine and coastal New Hampshire. I’m back to Salem today, and then off on other adventures, but first I wanted to share some photographs of gardens along (or not too far away from) the York and Piscataqua Rivers, including an absolutely stunning private garden which is cultivated by friends of my parents. It is behind a gate, which reveals nothing of the wonders within, so I feel very fortunate to have been granted access: the garden was in its last stage of late-spring bloom, but I’m sure you can discern its full-blown glory even with my amateur photographs. A bit further down (up?) the York River, the “old-fashioned” garden at the Elizabeth Perkins House, now the main office of the Old York Historical Society, has always been one of my favorite York gardens: this year it is untended due to the pandemic, but I have no doubt it will rise again.

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20200620_134748A spectacular private garden along the York River and the Elizabeth Perkins House and grounds.

Over in Portsmouth, I found refuge from a largely-maskless crowd on Juneteenth in the city’s pocket gardens and on the grounds of the Governor Langdon House, which belongs to Historic New England. So again, not a lot of garden-tending, but good bones!

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20200619_135210Portsmouth gardens on Juneteenth.


Spring Break-Away

I’ve got a (virtual) stack of papers to correct but yesterday I gave myself the morning off to go visit the Patton Homestead in nearby Hamilton, the summer home of General George S. Patton Jr. and farm of his son Major General George S. Patton IV. We are in World War II week of our #SalemTogether project, and I had been reading about Beatrice Ayer Patton, a North Shore native who lived at the homestead during the war and after her husband’s death in Germany in December of 1945. Mrs. Patton was the guest of honor at Salem’s most spectacular war bond rally, held on the Common in September of 1943, and as all of the descriptions of her character and personality in the press accounts of this event were glowing, I wanted to see her house and garden. The Patton Homestead was donated to the town of Hamilton by the Patton family a few years ago: it’s a lovely late eighteenth-century house surrounded by outbuildings and fields named for heroes of the Vietnam War. The house was closed of course, but the grounds were open, and I spent a good bit of time wandering around, so much time that the morning was shot and I thought, well I might as well take the day. 

20200504_124358The Patton Homestead, Hamilton

Ipswich is right next to Hamilton, so I though I might as well drive up there and check out some of my favorite houses—there are so many. Once in Ipswich, I thought, why not drive up to Newbury and Newburyport along Route 1A and the marshes? Once in Newburyport, I thought, why don’t I drive along the Merrimack River for a while? Once in Haverhill, I thought, I’ll drive home along Route 97, which is such a pretty road. But I kept taking side roads, and stopping to look at houses, so it was dinnertime before I made it home to Salem. But I have no regrets: it was a warm spring day and I needed a getaway, mask in hand and on my face whenever I got out of the car.

An Essex County loop—some house “markers” along the way, Ipswich up and around to Topsfield:

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20200504_140333Ipswich: the Whipple & Heard houses and just a few beautifully preserved Colonials—there are so many more!

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20200504_145911Newbury and Newburyport: one of my favorite houses in the County, on Newbury’s Lower Green, plus the Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm (this is where you go if you really want to get away and pretend you are in England); just one house in Newburyport as I’ve featured so many in previous posts, but I couldn’t resist this little charmer!

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Two houses in Georgetown, above: I’ve always loved this bottom house, so prominently situated with its Tory chimneys. Below: the Holyoke-French House and a nearby farmhouse in Boxford Village (Boxford is a lovely town but it has no sidewalks, which I find perplexing and unfriendly). Finishing up at the Parson Capen House in Topsfield.

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Whirlwind Weekend

I am pleasantly tired at the end of a busy weekend, which included: a sunset sail, several garden walks, a tour of the Coast Guard’s tall ship Eagle, long conversations into the night, the annual vintage car show on Chestnut Street, and a Red Sox game. Highlights of a New England summer all in one weekend! We have (for now) made it out of the muggy days of midsummer and are in the golden days of late summer: no humidity, just bright sun, warm days and cooler nights with just a whiff of Autumn in the evening breeze. The disappearance of humidity always recovers my will to live: I am not a summer person, but as long as there is a cool breeze mitigating the hot sun I’m fine—-everybody’s fine. I’m sure the humidity will return—and Fall will be here soon—which makes beautiful August days like these all the more precious.

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20190811_151931Mid-August in Salem and Boston: a sunset sail on the Schooner Fame Friday night, Salem Story Walk in the Ropes Garden & a visit to the US Coast Guard’s Barque Eagle on Saturday, the Phillips House-sponsored annual vintage car meet on Sunday morning, at Fenway Sunday afternoon (the Red Sox lost in extra innings–I was so impressed with the score-keeping of the kid in front of me, who only took a break for an ice cream cone).


Sweeping through Beauport

Historic New England offers comprehensive “nooks and crannies” tours through several of its properties occasionally, and I was fortunate to go on one of these basement-to-attic-and-all-the-closets-in-between tours of Beauport, the rambling Queen Anne “cottage” on Eastern Point in Gloucester, the beneficiary of a generous friend’s conflict! Beauport was built and decorated in great detail by Henry Davis Sleeper, one of America’s first professional decorators, over several decades beginning in 1907: it is an incremental construction driven by Sleeper’s evolving vision and career. The former was preserved by Helena Woolworth McCann, who purchased Beauport after Sleeper’s death in 1934, following the advice of Henry Francis DuPont: “the minute you take things out of this house, or change them about, the value of the collection does not exist, as really the arrangement is 90%. I have no feeling whatsoever about the Chinese room, as I think it is distinctly bad; but the rest of the house really is a succession of fascinating pictures and color schemes.”  Mrs. McCann had Sleeper’s pagoda removed from the China Trade room and made it her own, and likely packed away some of Sleeper’s stuff while she and her family were inhabiting the house over successive summers, but seems to have understood DuPont’s assertion that the house was the sum of its parts–and her family donated the intact property to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) in 1942. So when you go to Beauport today, you are stepping into Henry Davis Sleeper’s house, the way he wanted it, and you know that this is a man who admired arrangement above all, incorporating the contrast of light and dark, all color of glass, green, anything and everything that projected the spirit of idealized and romanticized pre-industrial American and English material culture, depictions of great men (George Washington above all, but also Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette, and Lords Nelson and Byron, among others), and a fair amount of whimsy. Beauport is a lot to take in, even on a standard tour much less this exhaustive one, so I’ve divided my photographs into room views and details—but they represent only a small measure of both! You’ve really got to see Beauport for yourself: several times.

The bigger picture: it’s really difficult to photograph the entirety of this house, except from above or the ocean! I focused on inside, but there’s some lovely photographs of both the interior and exterior taken by T.E. Marr & Son c. 1910-1915 here.  

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20190628_142353The China Trade Room from Sleeper’s “Minstrel’s Gallery” above, within the Book Tower, the Octagon Room, where it’s all about eight, the Golden Step dining room, the South Gallery,  the Master Mariner’s Room, the “Red Indian” Room with its ships-cabin overlook of Gloucester Harbor, the Strawberry Hill room which became Sleeper’s bedroom, the Belfry Chamber—my favorite room in the house—-the Jacobean Room, the Chapel Chamber Room, and the Franklin Game Room.

Every salvaged discovery provoked an aesthetic reaction from Sleeper, and his design sense was so strong that it lives on well after his death in Beauport. Despite its size (it grew to 56 rooms by Sleeper’s “reactions”) the house remains very personal. It certainly reflects Sleeper’s personality, but as his collection of objects was so vast and varied it is possible to have a personal reaction to what you are seeing. That certainly happened for me, so my more detailed focus below reflects my own taste, in reaction to what I was seeing. And you will notice many other things that I missed.

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20190628_135742Details, Details: marble mantle and 18th century hand-painted wallpaper from China in the China Trade room (it was purchased by Philadelphia financier Robert Morris in 1784 and discovered, still rolled up, in the attic of the Eldridge Gerry House in Marblehead in 1923), wooden “drapes” in the book tower room, a portrait by Matthew Prior (c. 1845) in the Blue Willow room, fishermen’s floats ( I think Sleeper was the original high-low decorator!), beehive pull, memorial to the death of a former slave, majolica hedgehog or porcupine (?) Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Belfry Chamber, Green glass urn in the Chapel Chamber, plate commemorating the visit of Hungarian nationalist Louis Kossuth to Boston in 1852 & window shade commemorating the American victory in the Spanish-American War in the Pine Kitchen or Pembroke Room, my favorite of Sleeper’s many hooked rugs, and the portrait of a dapper anonymous man.

♠ A more comprehensive history of both the house and the man can be found here.


My First Visit to the Phillips Library in Rowley

Well, I knew the day had to come: my first visit to the Phillips Library in Rowley. Even as many were protesting the move of the Peabody Essex Museum’s research library, which includes the historic records of hundreds of Salem families, institutions, and organizations, to a town 40 minutes to the north, the Museum opened up its Collection Center in Rowley this summer with a new Phillips Library within the great expanse of a former toy factory. Shuttles delivered scores of curious Salemites to Rowley for an open house in July, but that’s the last we have seen of this service. If you want to go to Rowley, you must drive there, but it is indeed worth the trip for any Salem history lover (or any history lover, because Salem’s history is so rich and multi-faceted), because that’s where Salem’s history is: it is not convenient, it is not right, but there it is. 

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This sign on Route One says everything: “Collection Center” rather than “CollectionS Center”. The entire rationale for the move was the conflation of object collections with the texts of the library, but libraries are very different things than storage facilities. Libraries are about community, and it’s difficult to understand how this transplanted Phillips Library is going to develop a community in this rather remote and odd place. The small and utilitarian reading room—very different from all of the research libraries I’ve worked in with texture and age and wood–is on the immediate right of the building above. Just walk in through glass-box door, register with the very nice guard at the entrance, put your coat and accessories in a locker, and go into the reading room, where you will be directed to register as a researcher. I paged the documents I wanted to see beforehand (at research@pem.org) and they were right there waiting for me when I got there, but I also asked for additional materials while I was there. The librarians were very friendly, helpful, and professional.

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That’s as close to a document that I can show you—it might even be too close: I was just trying to photograph the room. The Library’s photography policy specifies study/research purposes only. I was doing some research for Hamilton Hall on the Remond family who lived and worked there, and so I was looking at amazing stuff—menus, bills and orders for all sorts of commodities, trade cards, letters—I took pictures for myself but can’t show them to you. If you find things that you want to reproduce, you must go through the PEM’s rights and reproductions process, which I did, though this too seems more oriented towards objects than texts. This is pretty standard procedure, although many research libraries now allow photography for social media purposes and you will see lots of researchers sharing their discoveries in the Houghton Library, the Folger, the American Antiquarian Society, the Beinecke Library, and more, on Twitter and Instagram: hashtags are a great way to showcase collections and build communities. This type of scholarly sharing is not the policy of the Phillips Library at present, although the Library’s old Instagram account (@pemlibrary) has been revived so you can see some of its treasures there.

PEM 6Nostalgic call slips featuring the old Salem locations in Daland and Plummer Halls.

But that’s about the extent of efforts to engage for now. Will there be exhibits, lectures, or workshops? It’s hard to envision the general public clamoring to convene in this rather remote location (especially at night!), so I’m thinking the only form of community which might form around this new Phillips Library is a virtual one of dedicated researchers. Digital crowdsourcing initiatives would be great, because so much of its collections remains undigitized. But for now, it is imperative that people go: we need to extract Salem’s stories from this place! Even if the PEM had lived up to its promises of digitization made years ago, the real Phillips Library is going to yield surprises and discoveries for decades, wherever it is. Libraries are not only essentially about community, they are also about discovery, and there is a lot to discover among the rich collections of the Phillips. I’ll give you an example from this first visit. Included in one of my Remond folders was a letter about the African-American caterer who succeeded John Remond in Hamilton Hall, Edward Cassell, dated July 25, 1910, addressed to someone named “John” and written by N.D. Silsbee of Cohasset, Massachusetts (I think this must be Nathaniel Devereux Silsbee). John had obviously asked Silsbee for his recollections of Cassell, who was lauded in a celebratory article in the Boston Globe at just about the same time. In this letter, Silsbee delivers, and I learned all sorts of things about Cassell which I did not know: I transcribed the whole thing and will report later! Unfortunately, to establish some sort of intimacy between himself and John, or some strange type of context, Silsbee also includes one of the most racist lines I’ve ever read (TRIGGER WARNING): “There, John, is a reminder of the good old slavery days,’ befo de wah’, when good servants were cheap and plenty!” (MSS 271 BI F6, “Letter of N.D. Silsbee, page 2). Discoveries, of both the pleasant and unpleasant kind, always happen in libraries with collections as large as that of the Phillips: catalogs and finding aids inevitably miss things. That’s the thrill of the hunt, and the reason that opening up a folder of manuscript materials is always going to be more exciting than clicking on a link.

Cassell Photograph HNE The always dignified Mr. Edward Cassell (who catered events at far more places than Hamilton Hall!) standing before the Peirce-Nichols House in Salem, 1907. Courtesy of Historic New England.


Wooden Houses on Beacon Hill

I had two appointments in Boston yesterday, but I parked my car in a spot that was rather inconvenient to both just so I could go over the hill: Beacon Hill, one of the few neighborhoods in which all the variant architectural styles of the nineteenth century coalesce into a completely harmonious quarter. Victorian exuberance was definitely restrained–to rooflines for the most part–for the greater good, and the Federal and Greek Revival aesthetic appears to have lingered and evolved rather seamlessly into the Colonial Revival. Brick is it on Beacon Hill, so it’s the wooden houses that really stand out: I snapped a few on my way over the hill to one appointment and back to another, but I was a bit pressed for time so I certainly didn’t capture them all. I always stop at one of my favorite Beacon Hill houses, which is also the oldest house in the neighborhood: the George Middleton House at 5 Pinckney Street, built in 1786-87. Distinguished by his service in the American Revolution as well as his roles as founder of the African Benevolent Society and Grand Master of the Prince Hall African Lodge of Freemasons, George Middleton is an important figure in Boston’s African-American history, just as Beacon Hill is an important locale: the Black Heritage Trail links his house to other important historical sites such as the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School. The Middleton house and One Pinckney Street, just two doors down, form a perfect little corner of Beacon Hill’s earliest built history on its North Slope.

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Even though wooden houses are few and far in between on Beacon Hill, there are quite a few houses in which one or more part is clapboarded: a front facade or a side wall, or some “dependent” part. My favorite example of this is the amazing John Callender House on the corner of Walnut and Mount Vernon Streets, built in 1802 as a “small house for little money” according to Allen Chamberlain’s Beacon Hill: its Ancient Pastures and Early Mansions (1925—a really great book) and the long-term home of Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick a century later: every source refers to its conspicuous “boarding” along Mount Vernon Street as unusual for Beacon Hill. And then there are those bay windows made of wood, some very conspicuous and not quite so-understated: Beacon Hill was home to a vibrant artistic community in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and some homeowners obviously wanted to bust out a bit.

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beacon hill collage 14 Walnut Street historic photographs from Historic New England, Allen Chamberlain’s Beacon Hill, MACRIS, the City of Boston’s Archives, and the Boston Public Library.


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.


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.

Rundlett May 11

Rundlett May 14

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.

Rundlett May 12

Rundlett May 13

Rundlett May 10

Rundlett May 8

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!

Rundlett May

Rundlett May 5

Rundlett May 15

Rundlett May 4

Rundlett May2

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).

Rundlett May 16

Rundlett May 17

Fancy Chair


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