Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

A Cape Full of Color

So every year in early September we journey to Cape Cod on the weekend after Labor Day for my husband’s birthday. It is an odd time, just after “summer” is over and we have established our fall routines, and I always complain, but off to the Cape we go because he has wonderful memories of fishing in Provincetown and that’s what he always wants to do for his birthday. As is generally the case with us, he will fish and I will walk or drive around looking for old houses, but this time we spent most of the weekend together. Provincetown is one of those towns that I don’t think I want to go to before I go but once I’m there I’m happy: actually everyone seems happy in Provincetown! It’s not that it isn’t a wonderful, dynamic and scenic town, it’s that I always feel that it is overbuilt and too crowded, with both houses and people. And it is, but if you stop and look at individual houses you’ll see some wonderful details and landscaping. I had not seen the Public Library before, and that was a special treat, and of course I had to make my yearly pilgrimage to John Derian’s summer house with its shop in back. Another highlight: the recently-restored eighteenth-century Mary Heaton Vorse House, on which interior designer Ken Fulk seems to have spared no expense.

Saturday in Provincetown: the Pilgrim monument, Public Library in the former Center Methodist Church, featuring a half-scale model of the Rose Dorothea schooner on its upper floors, John Derian & Mary Heaton Vorse Houses, and, of course, the beach.

I posted a few pictures and an Instagram friend informed me that there was an “All around the Common” event on Sunday way back in Yarmouth Port, during which several historic houses would be open, including Historic New England’s Winslow Crocker House, which I had never visited. So that was all I needed to hear: I had no problem driving back to get into that house. It was a very blustery day, so my husband decided to join me in lieu of fishing: a big surprise. We then commenced a long drive back to Salem via nearly every Cape town on Sunday, with stops in Harwich and Yarmouth. We both really wanted to visit the Atwood-Higgins House in Wellfleet, which is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, but as soon as we got to the gates of the property a rather frantic park ranger drove up to us in his SUV and told us to proceed with extreme caution as there was a major mosquito infestation. We were still pretty gung-ho, but about ten steps in we were covered with mosquitos and ran back to our car: one Wellfleet mosquito rode all the way back to Salem with us! And then it was on to Yarmouth.

All we saw of the Atwood-Higgins property in Wellfleet.

I dashed through the Edward Gorey House and the Bangs Hallet across the Common, and then spent quite some time in the Winslow Crocker House: too much time for my husband. The house was built during the Revolution by privateer Crocker in West Barnstable, and moved by collector and descendant of an original land grant Cape family, Mary Thatcher, to Yarmouth Port in 1935-36. She had a new foundation laid, and removed all evidence of the division made by earlier owners. Miss Thatcher lived in the house all year long and filled it with antiques, all of which she donated to Historic New England. It’s a gorgeous Georgian house with warm wooden paneling throughout, lots of light, and some great William & Mary and Hepplewhite furnishings. I have added Miss Thatcher to my list of heroic female preservationists.

The Edward Gorey and Captain Bangs Hallet houses on Yarmouth Port Common and the Winslow Crocker House, built c. 1780. Miss Thatcher.

Our last visit was to the 1790s house of an old friend of my husband’s, also on architect, on the Herring River in West Harwich. Amazing setting and decoration, and some very striking mantles in particular (I hope you can pick up the detail in the pictures). A perfect end to our Cape dash, and then we dashed for home, with (miraculously) no traffic!

A beautiful end of our weekend in West Harwich.


Hudson River Valley Highlights

I’m just back from almost two weeks staying at my brother’s house in Rhinebeck, New York, right in the middle of the Hudson River Valley. I’ve seen a lot, and have many beautiful photographs to upload here, but I’m not quite sure how to curate them: no theme is emerging other than wow, there’s so much here. I’ve been to this region quite a bit over the past few decades, and I thought I knew it, but this longer stay has convinced me that I do not, really. You know I’m not really interested in nature (apart from its harnessing) so it’s not about the River for me, it’s about the houses and the towns, the built environment. Do I organize my hundreds of photos of structures and streetscapes by family (the Livingstons are everywhere), by chronology, by origin (Dutch vs. English), by size (the two cities of Kingston and Hudson on the west and eastern sides, surrounded by smaller towns and “hamlets” and the larger cities of Poughkeepsie and Tarrytown to the south), or by style? Mansions or private residences? Shops, or more particularly, shop windows (which seem to be curated here to a level we haven’t seen in Salem since the 1950s)? One theme which might work is that of stewardship, which I always think about when I’m in the midst of a region as architecturally and institutionally rich as this valley, but that will take some work and as I have officially entered the last week before classes that means I have SYLLABI looming: better stick to highlights!

Mansions and Cottages:

The stunning Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis for the Paulding and Merritt families over several decades beginning in 1838 and later acquired by Jay Gould, whose daughter left it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation; neighboring Sunnyside, the home of Washington Irving; Wilderstein in Rhinebeck and a detail from its stables; Montgomery Place and its stables, now the property of Bard College.

 

A Decayed Mansion with much potential: The Point, or Hoyt House, at the Mills Mansion/Staatsburg State Historic Site, Hyde Park.

There are several impressive structures on the vast riverfront acreage of the Staatsburg State Historic Site, including the Classically columned Mills Mansion, but I only had eyes for the Hoyt House on my hike. Designed by Calvert Vaux before his Central Park partnership with Olmsted, it just looks perfect, despite its decay (or maybe because of it?) The Calvert Vaux Preservation Alliance, of which my brother-in-law Brian is a director, is raising funds for the Hoyt House’s restoration and potential repurposing as a center of traditional craftsmanship training—talk about stewardship! I’m wondering if this cottage on the main road outside of the park is tied to the estate, as well as this adjacent entrance?

 

Alexander Jackson Davis’s furniture: almost everything is arched.

Chairs, beds, mirrors, even tables, so there is no “head” of the table: all at Lyndhurst.

 

Private residences: both vernacular and very high style—-all sorts of styles.

A Foxhollow Farm cottage, more contemporary board and batten, and two houses in Claverack to the north (I spent a lovely hour or so inside the white brick Hillstead, at the gracious invitation of Bruch Shostok and Craig Fitt); all sorts of restorations going on in Hudson; the lighthouse at the entrance to Kingston’s harbor.

 

And shopping! Mostly at Hudson, a bit at Kingston (Grounded) lured in by creative shop windows (which we need more of in Salem). History was in the windows too.


Merrimack Meandering: the Whitefield Project, part II

I’ve got a lot of gardening and exterior house projects to do, but we’re in the midst of a stretch of rainy, foggy and soggy weather, so I can’t trim my hedges or paint my scraped and sanded deck (especially the latter). After last year’s summer of writing, I am more focused on activity this year, but we’ve had too few days of that perfect dry and sunny New England weather: it’s either wet or hot! I know I shouldn’t complain, as many parts of our country have it far worse, but I seem to be doing it anyway. Tuesday seemed particularly gray, so I threw Edwin Whitefield in the car and drove off in search of greener pastures: to the Merrimack River Valley. It was lush, lush, lush, a benefit of this icky weather for sure, and I really didn’t get very far: I went for more byways than highways and consequently just covered a southeastern corner of a much larger area. Whitefield was not a great guide, frankly: he missed a lot of Homes of our Forefathers in Amesbury, and West Newbury, and even the major metropolis of the region, Haverhill (I didn’t make it as far west as Lawrence or Lowell). Here’s my route (well, sort of):

Obviously I did not follow a thought-out or straightforward path, which explains why I didn’t cover much ground: one place led to another and these are large towns with lots of great houses to be found on nearly every road, requiring many stops. I don’t know Haverhill as well as some of the other towns in the valley, and it is large and diverse with lots to see: I really could have spent the entire day there. I drove up to the river on route 97 through Beverly, Topsfield, Boxford, Georgetown and Groveland, and searched for the one little house Whitefield sketched in the last town: not sure I found it but below are my top candidates. The bottom house is the wonderful George Hopkinson House on the National Register: unfortunately it faces the river rather than backing up to it, as in Whitefield’s sketch. Then it was across the river into Saltonstall country: like Salem and several other Massachusetts towns, the storied Saltonstall family looms large in Haverhill. But there is no Saltonstall house standing: the first one, the so-called “Saltonstall Seat” overlooking the river, burned down in the early 18th century, and a Georgian house later relocated to the shores of Lake Saltonstall was taken down in 1920. The Buttonwoods Museum (which really should update its hours) is home to the Haverhill Historical Society and the Duncan and Ward Houses, situated on the site of the Saltonstall Seat. Behind the Museum are historic cemeteries and the Highlands neighborhood, full of amazing houses in every conceivable architectural style. And then lakes! Haverhill really has a lot going for it, including a pretty vibrant downtown.

Groveland houses; Haverhill and the Merrimack in the 1880s; Whitefield’s Haverhill houses; the Duncan and Ward Houses of the Buttonwoods Museum.

After exploring the Highlands for a while I wanted to see if I could find a vista similar to the one in the print above, so I crossed the river over into Bradford, which is actually part of Haverhill. It is home to the charming campus of the now defunct Bradford College which originated as an academy at the seventeenth-century Kimball Tavern, now for sale. As I looked at this building, built in 1692, I began thinking about Haverhill’s famous captive, Hannah Dustin, who has been in the news recently as there is discussion about the appropriateness of her statue, given that she killed and scalped ten members of the Abenaki family holding her hostage after the raid on Haverhill in 1697. Her statue is scary, so I decided to cross the river again and go in search of the garrison house which her husband Thomas was building at the time of the raid. It now sits rather oddly next to a modern house and across from a golf course, but still intact. Then I got back on Whitefield track and went in search of the birthplace of another famous Haverhillian, John Greenleaf Whittier. From Whittier’s birthplace, now open, I naturally wanted to visit the house in which he resided later in life, in nearby Amesbury.

The Kimball Tavern, Dustin Garrison House and Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, and Whitter Homestead, Macy-Colby House, and a private 17th century house in Amesbury.

I took a very indirect route to Amesbury via Rocks Village, yet another village of sprawling Haverhill! Its bridge brings you across the river into West Newbury, which is full of eighteenth-century houses, and then I drove east into Newburyport and across the old chain bridge into Amesbury, also home to many early houses and ignored by Whitefield. As the day progressed towards the golden hour, things got a bit brighter, but it was also time to drive south towards home along route 1A. As is the case with Salem, the two houses which Whitefield chose to sketch in Newburyport are no longer standing: the Toppan and Pillsbury-Rawson Houses, which were both on High Street, I believe. But all of the first period houses he sketched in “Old” Newbury have survived, including the Noyes and Coffin Houses. The former is one of my very favorite old houses in Essex County, if only for its situation: it takes you right back to the seventeenth century. The latter is a Historic New England house, and open on Saturdays over the summer. Newbury and Rowley to the south are North Shore towns that link the Merrimack River Valley to Cape Ann, which Whitefield sketched a bit more actively, but I’ll have to leave that for another day trip.

The Noyes and Coffin Houses in Newbury.


Riding with Edwin Whitefield

This was supposed to be the summer of LONG road trips but various things keep tethering me to Salem, so I’m taking lots of short ones. My companion over the last few trips has been Edwin Whitefield, a nineteenth-century English expat artist who loved old New England houses, and presented them in a series of portfolios entitled Homes of Our Forefathers published between 1879-1889. I’ve been an admirer of Whitefield for years, primarily because I admire his pioneering preservation perspective: he sketched obscure houses in small towns shorn of their modern additions and “improvements” to reveal their beauty and craftsmanship so that an ever-“improving” society might actually stop and see them and/or to document them, fearing that they were not long for this world. Whitefield had a successful career as a landscape and botanical artist, engraver, and lithographer from about 1840, with a specialty in color lithographs of North American city views. His Homes portfolios represent the last stage of his career as he died in 1892, and the portrayals of these old houses seem not only charming, but also poignant to me, with his little notes about their history and the precariousness of their present conditions. I imagine him walking around with his sketchbook, and now I’m driving around with my camera—and his books in the backseat. I fear that many of the houses which Whitefield preserved on paper will no longer exist in materiality.

The “Whitefield Project” started last week when I decided to drive over to Medford, an old city just outside of Boston which is home to Tufts University and the oldest brick house in New England, once called the Craddock House and now called the Peter Tufts House. There are so many photographs of this structure, but I wanted to see it as it might have been built, and so I pulled out one of my Whitefield volumes, and decided to take it (him) along. The Tufts House was so spectacularly preserved, and it was such a nice day, that I decided to keep going west along Route 16 (through Cambridge, which deserves its own Whitefield post), in search of a house which shares its page in my 1880 edition, the Abraham Browne House in Watertown, now one of Historic New England’s properties. As the Tufts House is a private residences and the Browne house is closed indefinitely, that was about the extent of my trail for that day.

This past Saturday, I had to go down to Plymouth, so I decided to bring Whitefield along. The South Shore was “Pilgrim country” to him: he clearly wanted to trace the tracks and document the efforts and experiences of his fellow countrymen. He sketched lots of houses in this region but I decided to follow Route 53 and focus on Hingham, Pembroke, and Kingston on this trip. I do not need an excuse to visit the Old Ship Meeting House in Hingham, one of the most important structures in New England. It is in amazing condition (but there seems to some kind of issue with its Federal-esque Rectory across the street), and Hingham is one of the prettiest towns in Massachusetts. Then it was off in search of the famous Barker House in Pembroke, which Whitefield believed was the oldest house in New England, built in 1628. Alas, Pembroke has a lovely old Quaker Meeting House, and a seventeenth-century house which serves as the headquarters of its historical society, but the Barker House is long gone: a genealogy of the Barker family informed me that it was likely built in 1650 and “fell to pieces” after the last of its members died without issue in 1883. Whitefield must have been heartbroken.

Heading south to Kingston, Whitefield led me to the Bradford House, another seventeenth-century structure maintained in immaculate condition (although with an altered roofline if we are to believe Whitefield) by the Jones River Historical Society, complete with a period garden. It was still closed for the pandemic, but the gentleman gardener watering on a hot afternoon told me all about the activities that generally went on there, including weekly breakfasts in the summer and the annual Lobster Boil. He admitted that he had added a few modern varieties among the period plants “for a spot of color” and left me to wander the grounds. And so I had a perfect seventeenth-century stroll, at the end of a long hot day.


Villages out of Time and Place

So this is going to be one of those posts in which I ask a lot of questions and have no answers (I think; maybe I will get to some). I’m trying to work out my own thoughts about a particular place and what it means: writing is one way to do that, as is solicitating the views of others, so blogging is a means to get to meaning. The place in question is Pioneer Village: Salem in 1630, a cluster of structures situated in Forest River Park which was built under the auspices of “architect-antiquarian” George Francis Dow as a representation of first-settlement Salem for the Massachusetts Tercentenary of 1630. The very engaged agricultural entrepreneur, Harlan P. Kelsey, a strong advocate for more energetic urban planning in Salem, undertook the landscape design. There was a grand historical pageant performed at the village, and then another recreation, of the ship Arbella of the Winthrop fleet, set sail for Boston. Pioneer Village was supposed to be a temporary installation, but it was such a popular regional attraction that it became a more permanent one, at the vanguard of outdoor “living history” museums in the United States: its claim to be the first of such museums is based more on interpretive practice than date, as Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village opened up in 1929 and the Storrowtown Village Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts also dates to 1930. Over the next few decades, a succession of outdoor history museums opened up across the country, including Colonial Williamsburg and Old Salem in North Carolina (1932 & 1950, respectively) and three additional institutions in Massachusetts alone:  Old Sturbridge Village (1947), Historic Deerfield (1952) and Plimoth Plantation (1957; now Plimoth Patuxet Museums).

Pioneer Village today and in its heyday, in the 1930s and 1940s, Historic New England and Digital Commonwealth photographs.

So if you have visited any of these museums as well as Pioneer Village you will immediately notice a dramatic difference in terms of size, scale, and apparent resources and mission. The former are all administered as foundations or corporations with large staffs and budgets; Pioneer Village has for the most part been a municipal initiative run by the City of Salem’s Park and Recreation Commission with the exception of recent brief periods when it was administered by several collaborations of local history and preservation professionals, the House of the Seven Gables, and a local college (not Salem State University, which is located nearby, but rather Gordon College in Wenham). Judging from the succession of newspaper stories dating from the 1930s into the 1960s, Pioneer Village might have been able to sustain itself on proceeds from the gate: it was quite a busy place. But as the popularity and practice of “living history” interpretation began to decline in the later 1970s, it lost its base, perhaps even its rationale. As it has always been a seasonal attraction, the Village has been vulnerable to deterioration and destruction by neglect, weather, fire and vandalism: I believe only about half of the original structures are still standing. The Arbella (which returned to its home “port” after the Boston celebrations) was severely damaged by a hurricane in 1954 and the only period structure, the Ruck House, was destroyed by fire in the 1960s. In 1985, the Park and Recreation Commission voted to dismantle the Village, but the first of a series of restoration and reactivation efforts reopened the site in 1988. From that point on, it has been a case of good intentions but insufficient resources, and now the City has proposed a rather radical plan to “save” Pioneer Village by exchanging its site with that of the turn-of-the-century tuberculosis Camp Naumkeag at Salem Willows. The rationale behind this proposed move is sound on paper—the Salem Willows is on the trolley route and the ballpark and other recreational spaces at Forest River are definitely expansive—but I am wondering if a Salem Willows Pioneer Village will still be Pioneer Village. And I am also wondering what Pioneer Village is. As I said at the outset, I’ve got a lot of questions, but these are the big three:

  1. What is the historical and cultural significance of Pioneer Village?
  2. Is Pioneer Village worth “saving”?
  3. If Pioneer Village, such as it is, is moved to another site, will it still be Pioneer Village, whatever that is?

Significance: To tell you the truth, I’ve never given Pioneer Village much thought. I teach seventeenth-century history, and this site has been in walking distance from my classrooms over my entire career: have or would I ever use it as a teaching resource? No. It was seldom consistently accessible and never in very good shape, and now I have all of the digital teaching tools that I need. I always thought that the Village represented a moment in place and time, and that moment was Salem 1930 rather than Salem 1630. As someone who has dabbled in Salem history here over that last decade or so, Pioneer Village looks to me like the culmination of a long period of overtly sentimental celebration of Salem, commencing with the Centennial of 1876. Generally it is seen as an expression of Colonial Revival culture, and I agree with that, but I also see it as an example of civic pride. Before Salem became Witch City, its leadership and residents were much more focused on productivity than infamy, and I think the Village still represents the former for those who wish the “Salem story” was a bit less focused on the Witch Trials. I like the terms “architectural museum” and “restoration village” used by the architectural historian Edward N. Kaufman, who traces the origins and inspiration for Pioneer Village and its successors to the big nationalist expositions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, commencing with the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris International Exposition of 1867: the latter had several recreated villages, like the “Austrian” and “Russian Peasant”  Villages  below. Like Pioneer Village, these were exhibits built for a specific event. Unlike Pioneer Village, they were dismantled after that event. Americans, including residents of Salem and its region, wanted their “history” stay around for longer.

Austrian and Russian Villages, International Exposition of 1867, Paris.

When you look at Pioneer Village as something that was built (and rebuilt) as an expression of civic pride it takes on the cast of a monument rather than a historical resource, at least for me. Another perspective relates to the history of preservation (or preservation technology in particular), one in which I had never explored before in relation to Pioneer Village. Apparently it was very consequential in demolishing the “Log Cabin Myth” which held that every seventeenth-century European arrival lived in a log cabin à la Lincoln. In his classic book of the same name, Howard Shurtleff observed that the myth was “an American belief that is both deep-seated and tenacious” and credited Dow for refuting it: Mr. Dow included in his reconstructed Salem a number of small framed cottages, each provided with a brick or “catted” chimney, and roofed with thatch. Some were walled with weatherboarding, sheathed with material boards, and the intervening space filled with “nogging”—clay, chopped straw and refuse bricks; others were walled with wattle and daub. This “Salem Pioneer Village” still stands (in 1939, when Shurtleff was writing and 20 years later, when his landmark book was reissued) and has proved far more effective than books in refuting the Log Cabin Myth. All of the contemporary commenters on Pioneer Village really emphasized its traditional, “authentic” construction, and this became another point of civic pride as Salem businesses made comparisons between their own productivity and that of their colonial predecessors in annual programs such as “Early American industries portrayed at the Pioneer’s Village, Salem, Mass.” In 1936, the Hygrade-Sylvania company presented an exhibit on early illumination, while the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company sponsored a demonstration of flax weaving and culture and local druggist John E. Heffernan highlighted seventeenth-century herbal medicines. The theme was very much see how far we have come in the midst of the Depression. The national Chronicle of Early American Industries, founded in 1933 and still in print, referenced Pioneer Village in nearly every issue.

Ok, now I’ve hit academic cruise control and could go on for quite some time: but this isn’t a journal article, it’s a blog post. So I’m going to start wrapping up in relation to my questions.

Significance conclusions: clearly Pioneer Village was significant in its time (1930) and for at least two decades thereafter. I think it’s still significant as an example of how a city uses its history, but I do not think it is an educational resource (bear in mind, I teach college students; early childhood educators might have a different opinion). I really think it’s a monument, like the Bewitched statue downtown, but much, much better in the sense that it seeks to highlight achievement and industry rather than exploit tragedy. I don’t have enough information to comment on its current state of repair and whether the original 1930 buildings could even make the move: because the City of Salem has “preserved” the Village it is now an historic artifact and will be subject to review by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. If the move is undertaken, I hope an expert in preservation technology and/or an architectural historian is consulted.

Should it be saved: yes, but with a clear understanding of what it is and what is it supposed to do. I only see logistical rationales for the move in the public discourse.

Will it still be Pioneer Village in Salem Willows? No. It will be something else entirely: a new Pioneer Village. It could be a hybrid Salem: 1630 and Salem: 2026 if the construction integrity of the original structures is preserved through the move, and new structures built utilizing the evidence and knowledge we have gained over the intervening century. The new Village could be a testament to both the Tercentenary spirit of 1930 and the Salem Quadricentenary spirit of 2026. If that was the aim, it would be nice to have Salem craftsmen, architects, and landscape architects involved in creating (rather than recreating) the new Pioneer Village: successors to George Francis Dow and Harlan Kelsey.

What Salem really needs: not a new Pioneer Village, but a new Salem Museum, which would integrate, interpret, and document ALL of Salem’s history: first settlement, Witch Trials, American and Industrial Revolutions, the experience of the Civil and World Wars,  native American, African-American, Irish American, Polish American, French Canadian and American, and everything and everyone between. Enough of this “siloed history!” This of course would be the ultimate Quadricentennial achievement and expression.


Slavery Siege in Salem

The occupants of a house on Bryant Street in North Salem, British emigre Thomas Spencer, his wife and mother, both named Mary, and their houseguests, experienced a very scary night in late October of 1835, and I am not referencing Halloween. For this Preservation Month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has selected the theme (or charge) of telling the full story, encouraging people across the country to dig deeper as they explore the histories of their built environment. I try to do that all the time here, as there are so many layers to Salem’s history, and this particular house is a perfect case in point: all at the same time it represents triumph over adversity, triumph over inequality, triumph over discrimination, triumph over terror, and candy. 

First the house, 17 Bryant Street, then the backstory, then the terrible night: Halloween Eve, 1835.

17 Bryant Street, the Thomas Spencer Homestead, built c. 1800. Here pictured in 1904 (Essex Institute Historical Collections), 1979, 1986 and yesterday. As the Macris inventory indicates, this Federal house has been “altered beyond recognition”.

The backstory: much as been written about the Spencers, yet there is still quite a bit of confusion about the essential facts of their lives, both in Britain and in Salem. I used some genealogical and British records to come up with my summary, but I still have questions. I think I can do better than the standard Salem tale, however, which is basically “poor shipwrecked soul (Mary Sr.) is washed up on the North Shore penniless and gifted a barrel of sugar which she transforms into a miraculous hard candy called Gibralters and sells on the front steps of the First Church and the streets of Salem from her ever-recognizable buggy (make sure to add one or more exclamation marks to the closing phrase:) which is in the collection of the PEM!!! This candy is still being made and sold in Salem, at the Ye Olde Pepper Candy Company on Derby Street near the House of the Seven Gables.

I really don’t have much to add about the candy: that seems covered. But there’s a lot more to say about the Spencers. Mary Smith (Spencer) was born in Nottinghamshire in 1759: I really don’t know how she became a Spencer. Nearly every record I tracked down seemed to confuse the “Thomas Spencer” who was supposedly her husband with the “Thomas Spencer” who actually was her son, who was born in 1792 or 1793 in Coventry. She booked passage on the New York ship Jupiter which left London in March of 1805: it hit an iceberg off Newfoundland and was shipwrecked. There were many reports in the eastern newspapers, including the Salem Register, identifying the 27 passengers who drowned, along with the captain and most of the crew, but the survivors are not named. These “persons preserved” in the Jupiter’s longboat ended up in Marblehead, and later, Salem, Mary Spencer among them. There are also newspaper reports of the charity extended to these survivors, including, the sugar that was reportedly granted to Mary Spencer by the benevolent ladies of Salem, enabling her to become the enterprising confectioner of  lore and legend.

Salem Register; the iconic image of Mrs. Spencer, from Early Personal Reminiscences in the old George Peabody mansion in Salem, Massachusetts by Clara Endicott Sears. 

I don’t think Thomas was with Mary; I believe he came over in the 1820s and eventually took over his mother’s business. He was married to Mary Robinson in England in 1817: their two sons, Franklin and John Kirby, were both born in Salem. Thomas remained in Salem, very much part of the community, until 1837, when he was bequeathed a considerable amount of property in the villages of Sturton and Bransby in Lincolnshire by the Reverend John Kirby, the namesake of his younger son. There was no “title,” as some of the Salem accounts suggest, but some very nice properties nonetheless. In various letters sent back to some of his friends in Salem, Thomas writes that he is finally doing what he always wanted to do: farming. He left his mark in Salem, however: as an entrepreneur, as part of the Quaker community, as a naturalist (a topic he spoke on regularly at the Salem Lyceum), and above all, as a abolitionist. Both Thomas and Mary R. Spencer were devoted Quakers, and a big part of the expression of their faith was an equally strong commitment to the transatlantic abolitionist cause. Thomas was one of the founders of Salem’s Anti-Slavery Society in 1834, and he and Mary attended a series of abolitionist conventions over the next few years, but the peak of their commitment to the cause was clearly their shelter and protection of their fellow English abolitionist George Thompson and his family in late October of 1835.

Salem Gazette; George Thompson in the 1830s, National Portrait Gallery.

Following the passage of the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833, which granted enslaved persons in many (but not all) of the colonies of the British Empire their freedom after a five-year period of “transition” and compensation to the slave-owners rather than those who were enslaved, British abolitionists focused on the immediate abolition of slavery in the empire—and the world. One of their most effective missionaries, George Thompson, was commissioned to undertake a series of lectures in the United States in 1834-1835 in collaboration with the American Anti-Slavery Society. It’s very clear that Thompson’s tour, or Thompson himself, was a lightening rod: while he was instrumental in inspiring the formation of more than 300 local abolitionist societies, he faced constant criticism (even in Northern newspapers) as well as threats of mob violence in all the major cities he visited, including Boston and Salem. The general criticism was along the lines of “who is this infamous foreign scoundrel who deigns to lecture the citizens of the United States on their domestic duties?” It was nativist, xenophobic, and nationalistic, with slight variations in each locale. When Thompson came to Salem on the last leg of his tour, he quite naturally stayed at the large Federal home of his countryman and fellow abolitionist Thomas Spencer, a bit removed from the city center. On the morning of October 30, this is the handbill that circulated around town: The Citizens of Salem, the friends of order, who are desirous to preserve the quiet of families, and the peace of town by driving from our society the foreign pest, who is endeavoring to agitate the country with his doctrines and to destroy the Union of State by his fanaticism, are earnestly requested to meet at the Town Hall, this afternoon, at 3 o’clock to adopt measures to effect this object. Salem, October 30, 1835. The main “measure” implemented was essentially the formation of a large mob, which surrounded Spencer’s North Salem house that very night, even though Thompson had fled. The Boston papers reported on “symptoms of violence” the next day, but Spencer was more forthcoming in a letter he wrote to one of Thompson’s sponsors, the Glasgow Ladies Auxiliary Emancipation Society.

Boston Morning Post; Thomas Spencer reports to the Glasgow Ladies Auxiliary Emancipation Society, 1835, in Three Years’ Female Anti-Slavery Effort, in Britain and America: Being a Report of the Proceedings of the Glasgow Ladies’ Auxiliary Emancipation Society.

Well obviously there’s a lot here: a mob of 400 men! The xenophobia (“one Englishman is as good as another” ) and the anti-Quaker expressions as well: shades of seventeenth-century Salem. Because of some notable abolitionist individuals and institutions like the Remonds and the Female Anti-Slavery Society, we are accustomed to thinking about Salem as a center of progressive abolitionism, but my Americanist colleagues remind me that only a small percentage (1-3%) of urban dwellers in antebellum cities identified as Abolitionists. Spencer writes about “Southerners from Boston” (which is a funny expression–do you think he means actual Southerners or did Salem people look upon Bostonians as “Southerners”?) as well as pro-Slavery men of Salem. His mother, the famous Mary Spencer, is obviously still alive, but I think she died that very year. His wife, the other Mary Spencer, has a “new-born babe” in her arms, but I can’t find any record of that child. Is it any wonder that Thomas Spencer sold everything in Salem and departed for England two years later after coming into his inheritance from the Reverend Kirby? And shouldn’t we be talking about a bit more than candy when we consider Mary and Thomas Spencer and the Salem in which they lived?

Home in Englanda special photograph of Thomas and Mary Spencer in front of their home in Bransby, Lincolnshire, in 1867 from the Sturton & Stow History Society. They both died in 1876.


Envisioning Salem, 1962

Salem is currently in the midst of implementing another urban renewal plan under the supervision of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA), the board that was created by the city’s first urban renewal plan in the 1960s. The story of the implementation of that plan is a pretty established narrative: over-ambitious SRA orders destruction of much of downtown and advocates for the construction of a highway into central Salem to increase access for shoppers lured away by the North Shore Shopping Center in Peabody until concerned citizens’ protests and the New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s extremely influential article brought national attention to the imminent destruction of Old Salem, shifting “renewal” towards redevelopment and preservation. Well, obviously I’m simplifying a much more complex process with many players: I’m starting to go through some of the sources which documented this process so I can understand it a bit better. I thought I would start with the early 1960s vision, as expressed by a series of reports issued by Blair and Stein Associates of Providence, RI, a planning firm hired by the City. Blair and Stein supposedly produced seven reports for the Salem Planning Board: I have found only three so far and the “Central Business District” report the most interesting: Salem, Massachusetts : central business district / prepared by Blair and Stein Associates in cooperation with the Salem Planning Board and the Massachusetts Department of Commerce (1962).

This study and its recommendations was not as focused on “tear it all down” as I expected: there are definitely recommendations for clearances, but also for preservation. Blair & Stein believed that the North Shore shopper, who is always referred to as “she,” could be lured back to downtown Salem if “blight” was cleared away and access improved. There are many references to urban blight, which was perceived as both decay and the reign of “inappropriate” facades and signs: after those were removed the state and fate of the stripped building should be considered. Because the emphasis is on renewing Salem’s shopping district above all, parking is very important, as is the overall design of pedestrian avenues around the downtown. Thus they gave us a pedestrian mall on Essex Street, Salem’s main street, but also on secondary routes leading into it. Salem would become an outdoor mall, with a mix of old restored buildings and new complementary structures: complementary not “imitative,” which is what I think most people would like to see now. It’s just annoying when advocates of sub-standard new construction accuse anyone who argues for higher standards of trying to turn Salem into a faux Federal city: I like the language below emphasizing scale, texture, character and “spirit” of new construction and did not expect to find it in a document of this nature and vintage.

Interesting spelling of “aesthetic” but these are goals I wish we were shooting for now!

Apart from the concerns about blight, parking and aesthetics, the major difference between this plan and the current one relates to housing: Blair and Stein envisioned a distinct shopping and cultural district and did not advocate for the expansion of residential buildings downtown, while that is a major planning goal at present. While they referenced tourism, they clearly saw it through a regional focus rather than a national one, and they don’t even mention Halloween. Salem would be a city of day trippers and day shoppers, returned to regional hub status.

Deed restrictions prevented all that planned Front Street parking, and inspired Artists’ Row, here pictured in 1978, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

The schematic sketches are just that, clean and orderly, and now I am seeking the specifics of how this rather vague plan turned into the scary plan of action recorded in the Boston Regional Office of HUD several years later: The Heritage Plaza East project advanced from the planning stage to the execution stage in February 1968. About 40 structures in the area will be rehabilitated, 140 will be razed, and 75 families will be relocated in the process of clearing the area. CLEARED OUT. The records of the SRA, which for some reason are deposited in the Phillips Library, will certainly shed light on the “progress” from planning to execution.

Appendix:  Historic Salem, Inc. has prepared a “Citizens Guide to the Downtown Renewal Plan” for those who wish to engage with its implementation, available here.


Circa 1775

For Patriots Day, I endeavored to find Salem houses built in 1775, but it turned out to be a bit more involved task than I envisioned. I was just going to walk around and look at the Historic Salem, Inc. plaques, then I decided to consult the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s MACRIS database, which gave me a very workable list. The former overruled the latter for many of the houses I encountered however, so “circa 1775” is the best I can do. Salem houses are sometimes tricky to date just by apparent style: there is a conservatism that dominates the quarter century after the Revolution when it comes to you average dwelling (as contrasted to the Federal mansions which rose at the same time). Several “Georgian” cottages were built in 1806 or even 1826. So these houses are very “circa” for the most part, in the most flexible sense of the word, and I’m not really going to be able to answer the question behind this post: how many people in Salem were confident enough to build a house after five+ years of escalating conflict and tension over representation and sovereignty in British America?”

First up is the Wendt House on Crombie Street: this house has been the object of consternation for decades. First it was threatened my Holyoke Mutual Insurance Company, which threatened to demolish it for parking spaces, then it was saved by Historic Salem, Inc. (HSI), now it is threatened again (not so much its form but its LIGHT) by a large apartment building proposal. Below, Summer, Cambridge and Hight Street Houses: 51 Summer Street is dated 1771 by Historic Salem, followed 6 Cambridge Street and 8, 14 and 21r High Street.

And over on the other side of town: a Briggs Street house which MACRIS dates to c. 1775 but for which HSI has a more precise history, a Daniels Street House which is a great example of the “conservative” trend I spoke of above, and 19-21 Essex Street, which has been through many transformations. Such a cool house, and pretty substantial even without its later additions, indicating that even though the political times were turbulent, the economic future perhaps looked a bit more promising from the perspective of 1775.

19-21 Essex Street in 1985, MACRIS.


A Derby House in Medfield

I busted out of Salem yesterday and took a road trip to Norfolk county in Massachusetts, southwest of Boston, and drove through a string of towns beginning with M: Medfield, Millis, Medway, Milford, Mendon. My “destination” was a first-period house with Derby connections in the first M town, the Dwight-Derby House, but really I just wanted to drive around. And I did—but I also found Medfield absolutely charming so I stayed awhile. Sometimes I think I could write the whole blog about and around Salem’s Derby family: their money, connections, and influence end up everywhere. In this case, however, neither their money, connections or influenced really impacted the history of a lovely first-period house overlooking Medfield’s Meetinghouse Pond. John Barton Derby, a grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, who profited immensely from Salem’s emerging East India trade and thereby became America’s first millionaire, did not stay in Medfield for long but his descendants lived in what became known as the DwightDerby House until the middle of the twentieth century.

John Barton Derby, grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, married Mary Townsend, whose family owned the Medfield house, in 1820. Rumors swirl around about John Barton and his brother Hasket, in contrast to the other children of John and Sarah Derby of Salem. The major clues to their outcast status are the facts that they were seldom in Salem and always in need of money. When John Barton married Mary Townsend, his deceased first wife (from Northampton, which is like Derby Siberia) had not been in her grave for very long, and he was apparently disowned by his father. He was practicing law in Dedham, and had been given a letter of introduction to Mary’s father by his uncle Benjamin Pickman, Jr., but that was about it for respectability. John and Mary remained together for about of 27 months and produced two children, Sarah and George Horatio, and then he was gone. I’m going to let Nehemiah Cleaveland and Alpheus Spring Packard, authors of the History of Bowdoin College with Biographical Sketches of its Graduates, from 1806 to 1879, Inclusive (1882) tell the rest of John’s story, but they are leaving out time spent as a recluse in the wilds of New Hampshire and as a patient at what later became known as McLean Hospital, which opened in the year of John Barton’s graduation from Bowdoin.

“JOHN BARTON DERBY, born in 1793, was the eldest son of John Derby, a Salem merchant. In college he was musical, poetical, and wild. He studied law in Northampton, Mass., and settled as a lawyer in Dedham. His first wife was a Miss Barrell of Northampton. After her death he married a daughter of Horatio Townsend. They soon separated. A son by this marriage, Lieut. George Derby of the United States army, became well known as a humorous writer under the signature of ‘John Phoenix.’ For many years before his death Mr. Derby lived in Boston. At one time he held a subordinate office in the custom-house Then he became a familiar object in State Street, gaining a precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares. He was now strictly temperate, and having but little else to do, often found amusement and solace in those rhyming habits which he had formed in earlier and brighter years, His Sundays were religiously spent — so at least he told me — in the composition of hymns The sad life which began so gayly came to a close in 1867.” What a poignant scenario: the grandson of a millionaire, with his “precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares” on the streets of Boston. No wonder the charming sign outside of the Dwight-Derby House features John Barton’s and Mary’s dashing son, George Horatio Derby, who served in the Mexican-American War, went on to a journalistic career in California and died at the young age of 38. You can read much more about the Townsends and the Derbys and the history of the house in a great little book that integrates both very well: Medfield’s Dwight-Derby House. A Story of Love and Persistence by Electa Kane Tritsch.

George Horatio Derby, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.

The Dwight-Derby House was purchased by the town of Medfield in 1996, and went through an intensive restoration before it was opened to the public, joining the town’s more famous colonial structure, the Peak House, as a period museum. And there’s lots more in Medfield: some beautiful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century private houses, a small historical society, and a “mobile history tour” using QR code plaques on utility boxes, signs, and murals. I fell in love with the eighteenth-century Clark Tavern, even (or perhaps because of) its state of extravagant decay, and was very relieved to discover that it has just sold and can only be restored to include TWO dwellings (despite being much bigger than the poor Barr house into which many more are being stuffed), or perhaps even to its original use.

I can’t wait to go back to Medfield to see the interior of the Dwight-Derby House, and the renovation of the old Clark Tavern. But there’s lots of history to see and read now at the Peak House (with its revised chronology) and along the town’s streets and sidewalks.


The Privateer’s House

On this very day in 1776, the Continental Congress authorized private vessels commissioned with “Letters of Marque and Reprisal” to “make captures of British Vessels and Cargoes” and Salem’s shipowners and shipmasters responded enthusiastically: 158 privateering vessels originated from Salem during the Revolution, capturing 458 prizes and the largest prize tonnage of any single American port. It seems appropriate to feature what once was the home of a particular (and particularly active) privateer today: a structure that long stood on Lynde Street downtown and is now in the process of being “transformed” into a much enlarged building in a Georgian-esque style, complete with a built-in garage. I don’t know how much is left of the James Barr House, actually, but a brief history of its most celebrated occupant and record of its evolution are below.

James Barr was born several years before his father, also named James, built the family homestead at 25 Lynde Street, but he spent most of his childhood and adulthood in the house and died in it in 1848, at age 93. His was a full and long life, on sea and on land. Fortunately we have a wonderful and accessible source: his grandson James Barr Curwen published Barr’s “Reminiscences,” including his Revolutionary War commissions, in the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute in 1890 (Volume 27). Barr spent the war in service: on the Black Snake as First Lieutenant in 1777 and as Captain of the Oliver Cromwell, the Rover, and the Montgomery thereafter. He took prizes and was taken prisoner: he spent several months onboard the infamous British prison ship Jersey in New York Harbor and was also transported by the British to Barbados: nevertheless he always seemed to be able to extricate himself and find another ship. Unfortunately his grandson includes more details about the terms of his commissions than his escapes. After the war, Barr became a merchant mariner in partnership with his brother John: their copper-bottomed ship Hope was apparently one of the speediest Salem ships to the East Indies. Mr. Curwen assesses his grandfather’s retirement as “quiet”: “in early days he was a staunch Federalist and later a Whig, but he never took a conspicuous part in politics. He lived a strictly honest and conscientious life and died respected by all who know him at the age of ninety-three years, four months, twenty-one days.” James Barr’s “Reminiscences” also include a portrait commissioned in Leghorn for East India Hall and a very rare photograph of the old captain in the year before his death.  Photographs of Revolutionary-war veterans have been the subject of several studies over the past few years and I’m not sure this particular one is well-known: what a record!

In another town, a famous privateer’s house might be preserved and celebrated: but that’s not the Salem way. The Barr house, built on the storied site of Salem’s first fort in 1759, left the family’s possession in the early twentieth century and its downtown location rendered it vulnerable to commercial and multi-residential use. Much of Salem’s downtown is under the jurisdiction of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) rather than the Salem Historical Commission: those identifying adjectives are apt. Here is the visual evolution of the house over more than a century: from Curwen ownership in the 1890s (captured in Frank Cousins photographs from the Phillips Library and Digital Commonwealth) to a MACRIS photograph from 2016, to the day it lost its gambrel roof last week, to this morning, and a rendering of its completed form encompassing however many condominiums were approved by the SRA.

And here’s the description from the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s 2016 MACRIS inventory by Neil Larson and Walter R. Wheeler: The Barr house is one of a diminishing number of mid-18th century vernacular wood frame dwellings in Salem. Although it has experienced minor alterations and significant additions over time, the original outline of the dwelling remains clearly readable; it retains its original form, feeling and materials, and continues to embody the distinctive characteristics of a mid-18th century side passage gambrel-roofed dwelling.