Tag Archives: Historic New England

Out of the Closet

This is actually a post on Salem wallpaper, but there are so many anecdotes about long-forgotten patches of paper found in closets and cupboards by vintage wallpaper hunters/reproducers like Dorothy Waterhouse and Nancy McClelland that I thought I could get away with a more provocative title. A great example is “The Creamer” pattern manufactured by Thomas Strahan & Company in the 1930s after its discovery in the upstairs closet of a house (still very much standing) on Essex Street which belonged to the Salem stationer Benjamin Creamer. Before his untimely death in the early 1850s, Benjamin and his brother George were major stationers in Salem, supplying both writing papers and “room-papers” to their customers; George carried on alone from that date.

Salem Wallpaper Creamer

Salem Wallpaper 361 Essex

Salem Wallpaper Creamer Ad

“The Creamer”, manufactured by Thomas Strahan & Co., after a fragment found in the Nicholas Crosby House on Essex Street, home of the Benjamin Creamer family in the mid-nineteenth century; a trade card for Creamer Stationers.

I’ve checked in all (12) of my closets and found no remnants of rare French wallpaper, sadly: just dull old paint befitting a house that was once home to boarders and one very large family. But there are lots of other places to look for Salem wallpapers: Historic New England has digitized its extensive collection, the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum of the Smithsonian maintains a treasure trove of wallpaper images online, and both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, also have wallpaper samples among their digitized collections. And if you can’t find the original paper, images and descriptions of colonial reproductions in trade catalogs can also offer impressions of what once was, as well as verification of the importance of Salem as source. I love to look for and at old wallpaper for both aesthetic and historical reasons: it gives you the ability to imagine existing houses in earlier incarnations, and verifies the existence of houses that no longer exist. First the former.

Salem Wallpaper collage

Salem Wallpaper Capt Farlen House

Salem Wallpaper collage 2

Salem Wallpaper Nathaniel Hawthorne 1920

Salem Wallpaper collage 3

French block-printed paper, c. 1820-25, manufactured by Jacquemart & Bénard, originally in the Lindall-Gibbs-Osgood House on Essex Street, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; A fragment of paper taken from the upstairs chamber of the Capt. Thomas Farless House at 120 Derby Street, 1862, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; Two wallpapers associated with the Gardner-Pingree house: Zuber et Cie’s “Grinling Gibbons” and Nancy McClelland’s “Pingree House”, Cooper-Hewitt Collection and Hannah’s Treasures on Etsy;  “Nathaniel Hawthorne” wallpaper, c. 1920, once installed in the House of the Seven Gables, Cooper-Hewitt Collection; a Nancy McClelland catalog from 1941.

The wallpaper samples below were taken from houses that no longer exist: I had no knowledge of most of them so now I’ll have to go down another rabbit hole and find out everything I can about them! Just look at the first fragment below, from the Louisa Rhodes house on Essex Street (where was that?) and the collection of Historic New England: stunning. There are three Salem reproduction wallpapers manufactured by the venerable firm M.H. Birge & Co. in the collection of Cooper-Hewitt, all from houses that are no longer standing. One pattern (the last below), simply called “Old Salem” is also in the Historic New England archive, which includes the extraordinarily detailed notationan old colonial paper……laid by J.W. Everill on Dr. Cook’s house in Norman St., Salem, Mass., Oct. 22nd and 25th, 1852. A notation on the old paper from which this was taken established its age in this country as 63 years. Yet, the fact that this sample was made in sections or black, and fastened together, offers evidence that it was many years older. No papers being produced in rolls or continuous strips until after the year 1790. This Louis XV paper with its Swiss influence comprises a vista of romantic scenes, medieval castles and crags above a river. The author gets a bit more fanciful here, but his observations are still interesting: In picturing Dr. Cook’s house, as it was in the old days when the Halls echoed with laughter, and wax tapers were in vogue, the customs of dress with the men in knee breeches with silver buckles and gold lace, women in trailing brocades and rare laces, not to overlook the powdered puffs, and the negro servants coming and going on household errands, all tend to show why the charm of coloring, as well as the decorative character and excellent drawing of this design prompted its appropriate use. But I thought it was laid in 1852, hardly the setting described above: maybe it was stuck in a closet until that time?

Salem Wallpaper Rhode House HNE

Salem Wallpaper Sible Hancock ST

Salem Wallpaper Elm and Charter

Salem Wallpaper Old Salem

Wallpapers from the lost Salem houses of Louisa Rhodes (Historic New England); Mr. Sibble of Hancock Street (Birge, Cooper-Hewitt); Mr. Holbrook’s house at the corner of Elm and Charter Streets (Birge, Cooper-Hewitt), and Dr. Cook on Norman Street (Birge’s “Old Salem”, Cooper-Hewitt and Historic New England collections).


Of Pumpkins and Politics

I’ve spent the last few days up in York, far away from the maddening crowds in Salem. This strategy of exiling myself from Witch City in October as much as possible is working well so far. Do not be fearful of my title: I’m certainly not going to weigh in on this terrible election. But I do like to discuss politics as a historical and social phenomenon occasionally, and this weekend the consequences of our long national nightmare weighed heavily on me. It was a beautiful, golden weekend, with harvest festivals everywhere I went in southern Maine. In York, the entire spectrum of the community was assembled with tents and tables on the green before the First Church and Town Hall: representatives of local businesses, nonprofits and civic groups mingled with with colonial reenactors and festival attendees. The happy Democrats were there, but the Republicans, either due to embarrassment or division, were nowhere to be found. Their absence made me very sad, not for the sake of partisanship but for community: I grew up in a world where the important standards and goals were engagement and civility and discourse, and I fear that world is no more. I remember the Democrats’ table and the Republicans’ table being side by side, prompting a healthy, happy exchange; I remember holding a sign for my candidate and that of his opponent, while my neighboring, “opposing” signholder went for coffee for both of us.

Of course these sentimental/sad thoughts did not stop me from taking in the local color, which was very autumn-hued, and it’s always comforting to look at beautiful old houses, which have seen worse than this (maybe?)

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pumpkin-market-fest-york

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pumpkin-emerson-wilcox-house-york

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york-reenactors-old-gaol

York Village Pumpkin Patch and Marketfest this weekend, and some of the open houses of Museums of Old York:  Jefferds’ Tavern (c. 1750), the Emerson-Wilcox House (exterior and interior, c. 1742) and some militiamen in front of the Old Gaol (c. 1720). Below:  a bit further out: Hancock’s Warehouse on the River, a favorite house on Pine Hill Road heading towards Ogunquit, the McIntire Garrison (c. 1707) on Route 91, and two Historic New England properties, the beautiful Hamilton House (c. 1785)  and Sarah Orne Jewett  (c. 1774) House, both in South Berwick.

pumpkins-house

pumpkin-garrison-york

pumpkin-shed

pumpkins-hamilton-house-south-berwick

pumpkins-jewett-house


High Street

Generally the “High Street” of a city or town is a main street but this is not the case with Salem’s High Street which was named, I think, because it was literally a relatively high street which looked down towards Salem Harbor. It’s a short cut-through street today, and offers an instructive perspective on Salem’s architectural developments as seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth-century structures line its sidewalks. There are several really nice Georgian houses, a few Federal houses, and the first-period Gedney House, which is maintained by Historic New England as a study house. High Street was spared the obliteration by development of its neighboring street to the north, Gedney, and the obliteration by fire of its parallel street to the south, Endicott, though you can definitely see that the Great Salem Fire of 1914 cut a swath through its eastern end. Most of the street is remarkably preserved, even though in some cases it is through the fortification of asbestos siding. Unfortunately I only have a shallow understanding of the social history of High Street, but enough to know that it was the center of Salem’s African-American community in the earlier part of the nineteenth century and part of its Italian-American neighborhood a century later. That chatty diarist of the earlier era, the Reverend William Bentley, recalled an 1816 visit to “the square laying between Mill Street, High St., the Pickering Hill burying ground & the Mill Pond vulg[arly] called Roast Meat Hill. It was a mere pasture when I came to Salem. There is now a Twine factory & about 100 huts and houses for Blacks from the most decent to the most humble appearance.” (Bentley, vol 4, pp. 382-383). Less than a century later Salem’s Italian-American community built their own Catholic Church at the foot of High Street, St. Mary’s, which was closed by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003 (you can see some of its beautiful interior here).

High Street looking up

High Street 1874 Atlas

High Street 10

Looking “up” High Street, the neighborhood in the 1874 Salem Atlas, #10, one of three Georgian Colonial houses on the street.

There are several interesting houses on High Street but I suppose the most “notable” are the aforementioned Gedney House (1665), the neighboring Benjamin Cox House (1775), and the William Fabens House (1804). If you check out the Gedney materials at the Historic New England website (which includes the 1912 photograph of the house below) you can see a gallery of wallpaper samples taken from the house, including a fragment of my favorite “tumbling blocks”. The Cox House was acquired at the same time (1967) as the Gedney by Historic New England (then SPNEA) for use as an overseer’s house and extended to the rear for that purpose. The Fabens house is one of the most unusual in Salem: it has brick sides, each with its own entrance, and a stuccoed front facade—I’m assuming the latter is a legacy of the Great Salem Fire, which passed so close to the street.Not so renown, but impressive nonetheless, is the circa 1820 house at #16, which has been stripped of its Victorian embellishments to reveal a more streamlined Federal facade.

High Street Gedney Facade

High Street Pan

Gedney House 1912 Historic New England

High Street Cox House

High Street Cox House Side View

High Street Fabens

High Street plaque

High Street no 16 collage

Historic New England’s Gedney and Cox Houses; one of the side entrances of the William Fabens House; No. 16 High Street in the 1970s and today.


What would Ada think?

In honor of tomorrow’s symposium, Mightier than a Wrecking Ball: How Ada Louise Huxtable Saved Salem, jointly sponsored by Historic Salem, Inc., the Peabody Essex Museum, and Historic New England, I thought I would ask and consider what Ms. Huxtable (1921-2013) might have thought about the emerging streetscape of Salem in 2015, fifty years after her influential New York Times article “saved” Salem from the destruction of 100+ historic buildings and a four-lane highway running down its center in the guise of “urban renewal” in the fall of 1965. I think she would have abhorred the big glass-and-faux-brick boxes looming on our horizon both literally (now) and digitally (proposals for the future), but I don’t really know. She was certainly not an exclusive preservationist: such a stance would have been impossible in her capacity as the architectural critic for the Times. She seems to have detested “Williamsburging” nearly as much as the emergence of “slab cities” and heralded preservation as a bulwark against thoughtless development with little historical or architectural integrity. In an effort to answer my own question, I browsed through many of her articles in the archives of the Times: this took some time, primarily because she is such an amazing writer. I wanted to restrict myself to skimming, but her sharp observations and critiques (Albert Speer would love the Kennedy Center) kept me reading. Certain words and phrases kept popping up as architectural attributes: art, identity, variety, and the integration of new construction and preservation, and others as outcomes to be avoided at all costs. In this category, I would place the phrase sterilized non-place, which appears in her 1974 follow-up article “How Salem Saved Itself from Urban Renewal”.

Ada 1974 NYT

That phrase just says it all for me: sterilized non-place. And it makes me think that Ada Louise Huxtable, who summered right next door in Marblehead and would have taken a personal interest in all these new buildings going up in Salem, would not have viewed or reviewed them favorably. Lined up all together, as they are below, you can see an apparent generic uniformity on the one hand and a thoughtless, careless nod to Salem’s historic structures on another—just slap on some brick! So since we can never really know Ms. Huxtable’s opinion on these buildings, perhaps it is better to ask is Salem becoming a sterilized non-place?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Washington at Derby RCG

Big Box Hotel

Big Box District Courthouse

Two existing developments (the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center-and RCG Corporation’s Washington at Derby building) and two proposals (the winning design to replace the existing District Courthouse and RCG’s proposed Mill Hill development further down Washington Street).


Antique Automobiles Assembled (in August)

From my perspective, early August is not only for Americana but also antique automobiles, or perhaps they are the same thing. What started out as a small neighborhood event–a meeting of vintage automobiles on Chestnut Street sponsored by Historic New England’s Phillips House, accompanied by a makeshift lemonade stand organized by local children–has grown to a large assemblage of both cars and people. This year, there were 80 cars on the street with quite a crowd of onlookers and the added attractions of music, cannolis, and a Volkswagen van transformed into a photo booth. I think pretty much every decade of the twentieth century was represented by the cars–or at least the middle part thereof. Lots of Belairs, several wagons of varying vintage. There was a Lamborghini parked on the opposite side of the street which offered some pretty stiff competition, but the largest crowd of the afternoon was definitely in the proximity of the bright red Heinkel. It was nice, but no match for my “chrome crush” of last year, a BMW Isetta 600 Limo. The Heinkel was perhaps the primary representative of a group of classy foreign cars, mostly convertibles, which were surrounded by much bigger American cars. Even though it was not a car for purists (its owner had replaced the original seats with slightly more plush ones as he likes to drive his car) I really liked the 1960s Datsun convertible, and I learned quite a lot about its history.

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Autos 056

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Autos 147

Autos 110

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Autos 071

Autos 155

Autos 152

Autos 140

Autos 038


My Favorite Portsmouth House

I was running early for Easter dinner in York Harbor, and by myself because of a sick husband, so I decided to take a detour off 95 into Portsmouth to take a look at my very favorite house. As I grew up just over the bridge and down the road apiece in southern Maine, Portsmouth was our go-to town for pretty much everything, and its downtown became my ideal setting: small New England seaport with plenty of historic housing. There’s no question I settled in Salem in large part because Portsmouth was just too far away from Boston. There are several Portsmouth streets to which I return to time and time again, but only one favorite house:  the Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street, which to my untrained eye looks like the purest of Georgian structures. I think I first saw it when I was maybe 16, and it’s been part of my life ever since.

Lear House 004

Lear House 015

Lear House 008

The Lear House, built in 1740, was home to several generations of a Portsmouth family including Tobias Lear, one of George Washington’s personal secretaries. After it passed out of the family in the later nineteenth century it descended into multi-family tenement status (along with much of Portsmouth’s South End), only to be rescued by Wallace Nutting, who purchased the Lear and neighboring Wentworth-Gardner House in 1917. Both properties were eventually transferred to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA–the forerunner of Historic New England) and then to the newly-formed Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear Houses Association in 1940, in whose possession they remain. It seems to me that the Lear House has always been overshadowed by the High-Georgian Wentworth-Gardner, which Nutting restored in the Colonial Revival style he preferred for his ghostly photographs. Here is the sentiment of the SPNEA directors in 1919 that captures this “underappreciation” perfectly: the Society was urged to buy this house, which came on the market in 1917 for $1500, a price considerably higher for which it eventually sold. While considerably out of repair, it was a house but little altered since the days when Tobias Lear, private secretary to Washington, was its owner. Although a house we would have gladly preserved, it lacked the distinction worthy of a campaign for its purchase. It was bought by Mr. Wallace Nutting, whose famous Wentworth-Gardner house adjoins it. [Old-Time New England, 1919] It appears that the present-day restoration of the Lear House will have to wait, once again, until the Wentworth-Gardner houses is put to rights; nevertheless, when President Washington visited Portsmouth in 1789 (just a few days after he left Salem and this house), it was the “best parlor” of the Tobias Lear House to which he came.

Lear House 1917 SPNEA Old-Time New England

Lear House 009

Lear House 021

Lear House 022

The Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street in 1917 and today, and adjacent Wentworth-Gardner House on Mechanic Street.


Mary Harrod Northend

I’m not bound to such designations, but as we’re almost running out of Women’s History Month and our mayor has declared March 29 Salem Women’s History Day I’ve decided to feature a notable Salem woman on this last weekend in March. After much deliberation–as there are many notable women in Salem’s history–I’ve settled on the author and entrepreneur Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926). She has interested me for some time, and she’s popped up in several posts in the past, but she deserves her own. Northend was from old, old Massachusetts families on both sides, and this heritage is key to her life and work. Both parents were actually from northern Essex County, but moved south after their marriage: her father, William Dummer Northend, became a prominent attorney and a state senator for Salem. Mary was born at 17 Beckford Street, a side-to-street late Federal house, but the family moved over to Lynde Street, in the shadow of the Federal Street courthouses, in the later 1850s. Their grand Italianate double house, photographed for Mary’s books later, is now sadly chopped into 12 apartments by my count. The few biographical details I could gather refer to a childhood sickness; in fact by all accounts (or by no accounts) Mary led a quiet life in her childhood and adulthood, until she burst out in her 50s and started writing all about colonial Salem and colonial New England, necessitating regional travel, which she clearly embraced. Eleven books were published between 1904 and 1926, when she died in Salem from complications sustained from a car accident, and many, many articles for magazines such as Good Housekeeping, The Century and The House Beautiful: I haven’t had time to compile a proper bibliography. But she was an incredibly prolific woman: an acknowledged expert on New England architecture and antiquities, with a touch of Martha Stewart-esque domestic stature as well, forged by her publications on decorating and party-planning. Let us, she writes in a very Martha tone in The Art of Home Decoration: link the old and the new, working out entrancing combinations that are ideal, making our home joyous and bright through the right utilizing of great grandmother’s hoard.

Northend Portrait 1904 HNE

Northend Birthplace Beckford Street Salem

Northend 1862 Portrait

Mary Harrod Northend (and dog), circa 1906, in the early phase of her writing career, Historic New England; her birthplace at 17 Beckford Street, Salem; her father William Dummer Northend, newly-elected State Senator from Salem, 1862, State Library of Massachusetts.

Her books and articles reveal Mary to be a fierce advocate for “Old-time” New England; she is at the forefront of that (second?) generation of strident Colonial Revivalists, fearful that the (changing) world around them hasn’t developed proper appreciation for colonial architecture and material culture. She is evangelical in her love of clapboards, mantles, arches, doorways, garden ornaments, pewter and seamless glass. The phrase “detail-oriented” doesn’t even come close to capturing Mary’s appreciation of the things that were built and made in the colonial past: these things are her life and her world. And like any good educator–which she was–Mary wanted her (growing) audience to see her world and so she spared no expense when it came to photography, first taking her own photographs and then “directing” commercial photographers in the manner of a cinematographer, according to Mary N. Woods’ Beyond the Architect’s Eye: Photographs and the American Built Environment (2011). The end result was a vast collection of still images (there are 6000 glass plate negatives in the collection of Historic New England alone, though the entry in the biographical dictionary Who’s Who in New England for 1915 indicates that Mary has “20,000 negatives and prints of American homes”) which she used to illustrate her own books, sold to other architectural writers, and colorized in the style of  Wallace Nutting to sell directly to the public.

Northend Historic Homes 1914

Northend Doorways 1926

Northend Cook Oliver

Northend Framed Photo Cook Oliver

Two of Northend’s most popular titles, Historic Homes of New England (1914) and Historic Doorways of Old Salem (1926); the Cook-Oliver House on Federal Street in Salem, featured in Historic Homes and sold as an individual colorized print, “The Half Open Door”.

It’s relatively easy to research the work of Mary Harrod Northend: her books are still readily available in both print and digital form and prints from her photographic collection are at Historic New England and the Winterthur Library. But I wish I knew more about her business, the business of publishing books and photographs, writing, lecturing, collecting. I’m also curious about money: there’s definitely a bit of voyeurism in Northend’s books and I can’t discern why she remained in the family home on busy Lynde Street rather than move to the McIntire District just a few blocks away. In one of her most personal, yet still fictionalized, books, Memories of Old Salem: Drawn from the Letters of a Great-Grandmother (1917), the great-grandmother in the title lives on Chestnut Street, but Mary never did. This might have been a family matter: her widowed mother and sister lived right next door in the Italianate double house, which was also an appropriate “stage” for some of her photographs. I also think it was quite likely that Miss Northend was seldom at her own home, as she was so busy documenting those of others!

A very random sampling of Mary Harrod Northend photographs, mostly from Historic Homes and Colonial Homes and their Furnishing (1912), all from the Winterthur Digital Collections:

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Northend 10 Chestnut Door

Northend Robinson House Summer Street

Three very different Salem houses:  doorway at the House of the Seven Gables, entrance of 10 Chestnut, side view of the Robinson House on Summer Street.

Northend Pewter Mantle

Northend Waters House Mantle

Northend Mantles

Salem mantles: a pewter display, McIntire mantle at the Waters House (LOVE this louvred fire screen), Whipple and Pickman mantles.

Northend 29 Washington Square Hallway

Northend Ropes Windowseat

Northend Saltonstall House Haverhill Hall

Northend Kittredge House Yarmouth Remodeled Farmhouses Cape

Northend Bright House Beds

Details & decor I love:  hallway of 29 Washington Square, Salem, Ropes Mansion windowseat, entry hall at Saltonstall House, Haverhill, Attic and twin canopy beds on the Cape (from Remodeled Farmhouses, 1915–but all of Miss Northend’s books feature canopied beds! I would place them headboard to headboard.)

Northend Kate Sanborn House Spinning Wheel

Northend House Winterthur

Flagrant displays of Colonial Revivalism: Spinning wheel and fire buckets at the Kate Sanborn House, and Miss Northend’s own house on Lynde Street, all dressed up for Spring.


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