Tag Archives: Historic New England

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.

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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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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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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.

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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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