Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

Meeting Houses of Rockingham County

(Sorry—I have been reading and writing about meeeting houses for the past few months but still do not know if their identifier is one word or two). On this past Sunday, a rather dreary day, the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance sponsored a driving tour of meeting houses in southern Rockingham County, encompassing structures in Hampstead, Danville, Fremont, and Sandown. I drove over from York Harbor, fighting and defeating an inclination to just stay cozy at home. There was an orientation at Hampstead, the only colonial meeting house of the four that features a steeple addition (I envisioned Salem’s third meeting house, built in 1718), and then we were off to Danville, Fremont and Sandown. I have to tell you, I was in awe all day long: these structures are so well-preserved (cherished, really), simple yet elegant, crafted and composed. I remember thinking to myself when I was first set foot in the Danville meeting house: “I’d rather be here than in Europe’s grandest cathedral” (I think because I had just talked to my brother, on his way to Rome).  There’s just something about these places, and the people who care for them. Just to give you a summary of  the orientation that I received: they were built in the eighteenth century as both sacred and secular buildings, as close to the center of their settlements as possible and by very professional craftsmen. In the early nineteenth century, their religious and polical functions were seperated, so they became either churches or town halls or were abandoned altogether as other denominations built their own places of worship. It seems to me that they survived because of the preservation inclinations of their surrounding communities, and we were introduced to each meeting house by contemporary stewards who were clearly following in a long line of succession. Nice to encounter historical stewards rather than salesmen.

Hampstead:

The second floor of the meeting house, with its stage and original window frames propped up against the wall and all manner of remnants of civic celebrations, was really charming.

Danville: (which used to be called Hawke, so that’s the name of the meeting house. Hawke, New Hampshire–how cool a name is that!)

Incredible building—I had to catch my breath! I think it has the highest pulpit of these meeting houses, and there was just something about the contrast of that feature and the simplicity (though super-crafted) of the rest of the interior that was striking.

Fremont (which used to be called Poplin):

This meeting house is the only one remaining in NH with “twin porches” on each side, plus a hearse house (see more here–I have long been obsessed and have been to Fremont before but never inside the meeting house or the hearse house) with a horse-drawn hearse inside plus an extant town pound! Very simple inside, but note the sloping second-floor floors in picture #4 above. Took me a while to get used to those.

Sandown:

The most high-style of this set of meeting houses, particularly impressive from the back, I thought. Very light inside, even on this miserable day. Another high pulpit, and more marbleized pillars. Short steps to the second floor–I’m a size 7!

My photos are a bit grainy–not sure what my settings were, I was shifting them around to get more light, and too awestruck by the architecture to really focus, so in compensation I want to refer to you the wonderful work of photographer Paul Wainwright, who has photographed all of these meeting houses and more. Simply stunning!


Colorways: a Parade of Portsmouth Doors

I’ve been in York Harbor all June and just returned to Salem. It was a very productive month removed from daily tasks and diversions, but I missed certain things and people: my husband (I brought the cats), my garden, my street. Certainly not the tour guides and groups though: they were in part what drove me away. Of course I found the usual Dunkin iced-coffee cup propped up on my stoop the moment I got home. Salem is busy and festive all year long now it seems; while the incessant witch tourism annoys me the other celebrations are great, and June is a particularly festive month with its mix of private and public celebrations: weddings and graduations, Juneteenth and Pride. Salem goes all out for Pride and  I missed that, and definitely craved some color amidst our rainy and foggy weather, so I took off for Portsmouth late last week seeking flags but finding doors. When I was growing up across river, Portsmouth was a much shabbier place: now you are hard-pressed to find an old house that is not in perfect condition. I expanded my usual downtown walk to include neighborhoods a bit more outlying like that bordering Christian Shore and the South End, and found so many lovely houses, all with very colorful entries. Red was an exotic front-door color before; now there is a veritable rainbow of Portsmouth doors. And I’ve got some flags here too.

Ok, I think I have the whole spectrum represented! It was surprisingly difficult to find white doors: as you see, one is hiding behind a tree. I wasn’t sure where to put taupe, so I paired it with brown. There are no painted brown doors, just various shades of natural woodwork. Not too many black doors either, but lots of green, and lots of yellow. Do not tell me that one of my purple doors is blue; it is purple. Portsmouth is the best walking city ever: beautiful neighborhoods, dynamic downtown, tons of historical markers, pocket parks, well-maintained sidewalks. More rainbows are there for the making!

Some singular Portsmouth doors: two-tone green and Happy Fourth!


A Big Move

No, not me: the Crowninshield-Bentley House! Visiting Louise DuPont Crowninshield’s former garden in Marblehead last week prompted me to reconsider her impact on Salem as a preservation advocate and philanthropist as it is considerable. At least two institutions in Salem, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Peabody Essex Museum, reflect her commitment to the preservation of Salem’s material heritage which was manifested both by her direct involvement and her inspiration. The best example of the latter is one of the Peabody Essex Museum’s historic houses, the Crowninshield-Bentley House, which was moved by the Essex Institute from a rather precarious position on Essex Street to its current location in 1959. This early Georgian house, home to generations of the Crowninshield family as well as Salem’s pre-eminent diarist the Reverend William Bentley, was originally located at 108 Essex Street. In 1958 the Hawthorne Hotel donated the house to the Essex Institute with the condition that it be removed to make way for a parking lot. The move to its new site adjacent to the Gardner-Pingree House and across the street from the Hotel, was preceded by the demolition of a venerable commercial building and succeeded by a comprehensive restoration to its 18th century form under the direction of Abbot Lowell Cummings as a tribute to the “work and memory of preservationist Louise DuPont Crowninshield.” The Crowninshield-Bentley House became the cornerstone of the Essex Institute (now Peabody Essex Museum)’s main “campus” of historic structures, and to complete the vision, gardens also dedicated to the legacy of Mrs. Crowninshield were installed in its midst. Another reason I wanted to post on this big move today is the great visual documentation by Essex Institute President Albert Goodhue, Jr., who snapped photographs of the the entire process over what must have been several days (weeks???) in 1965. These are among some great sources at the Phillips Library in Rowley documenting Salem’s ever-evolving streetscape, one of the major topics we’ll be covering in our upcoming book Salem’s Centuries.

Washington Square West and Essex Street, Salem (Mass.) Photographs, MSS 0.1619. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.

Amazing!!! I love the nonchalance of the pedestrians, and not a police detail in sight. Everyone is just going about their business while the walls are tumbling down! The building being demolished was quite a storied commercial building, also an 18th century structure (I think) but altered and extended considerably. There were some very notable apothecary and stationary shops located within, and Salem architect/artist William Henry Emmerton made an iconic image of it in 1850 when it was his cousin’s apothecary shop (Emmerton was a great draftsman, and the Phillips Library has digitized the records of his architectural firm, Emmerton, Foster & Putnam, so you can see more of his work here). Those big storefront windows were apparently the second of their kind installed in Salem, and the Paracelsus bust trade sign was pretty conspicuous too. After the move and restoration was completed, the Crowninshield-Bentley House received a lot of attention in both academic and popular publications: there are both feature articles and cover stories throughout the 1960s into the 1970s and even the 1980s. The more scholarly pieces tend to focus on the detailed 1761 probate inventory of Capt. John Crowninshield as a primary source for the restoration (which includes references to “a Negro man” valued at £66.13.4 and a “Negro woman” valued at £40 about whom I’d like to know more)§ while trade periodicals seem to focus overwhelmingly on the kitchen. There’s a big spread on the interior of the house in the July 1987 Colonial Homes, part of feature on Salem as the “showcase of early America,” which it was, then.

William Henry Emmerton, Apothecary shop of James Emerton in Salem, c.1850 (pen & ink and sepia wash on paper), Peabody Essex Museum; the Crowninshield-Bentley House on the cover of Americana, September 1973; the kitchen as photographed by Samuel Chamberlain (1970, Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth) and in House and Garden, January 1974; Frank Cousins photograph of the house in its original Essex Street location, 1890s, Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth. The House today.

§ The Phillips Library has also digitized all of the booklets in the Essex Institute Historic House Booklet Series, including The CrowninshieldBentley House, Essex Institute historic house booklet series, no. 2, by Abbot Lowell Cummings, Dean A. Fales, Jr., & Gerald W.R. Ward, which you can access here. “An Inventory of the Estate of Capt. John Crowninshield Late of Salem and Apprized by Us the Subscribers at Salem November 10th 1761” is included as an Appendix.


The Elizabeth Perkins House

One of the chapters I’m working on for Salem’s Centuries this summer is about Colonial Revival Salem, or should I say, a group of antiquarians who lived and worked in Salem from about 1890-1930 who were dedicated to preserving and promoting any and everything about Colonial-era Salem in their time and for the future. Our book is a work of social history, so our focus in on Salem people. But when it comes to the various expressions of the Colonial Revival movement, if you can call it that, I’ve always found that individuals and their often-passionate attachments to the past are so important, and this is particularly true in the case of the Elizabeth Perkins House, one of the Old York Historical Society’s  properties that has recently been reopened. For some reason, this is the one Old York house that I’ve never been inside, and I’d always heard that it was a perfect example of Colonial Revival influence in this region, so I was pretty eager when I showed up for my tour this past Friday.

The Elizabeth Perkins House of the Old York Historical Society, looking over the York River, Sewall’s Bridge and the Hancock Warehouse beyond. Its restorers, expanders and occupants: Mary Sowells Perkins and Elizabeth B. Perkins (photo on right from Old York Historical Society as featured in a very helpful Willaim & Mary 1988 thesis by Melisssa Mosher shows Elizabeth Perkins in front of the house).

This house is absolutely central to the preservation history of York as its early 20th century occupants, Mary Sowles Perkins (1845-1929) and her daughter Elizabeth B. Perkins (1869-1952) contributed it and several other structures (the Old Gaol, Jefferds Tavern, the old Schoolhouse, and the John Hancock warehouse) to what would eventually become the Old York Historical Society as well as encouraging other preservation efforts. So it seems right that Old York’s administrative offices have been relocated to this site as well. There was a whirlwind of restoration, expansion, embellishment and entertaining after the Perkins family purchased the house in 1898: they were from New York, and seem to have known everyone. Mark Twain came over from his summer rental across the river to use their telephone, the first one in York, and in 1905 they hosted the grandest party of the era: a Japenese-themed fête to celebrate the conclusion of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 with over 700 guests in attendence. The tour really focused on their house, so much so that I’m not really sure of its pre-Perkins history. Old York is dating the house to around 1730 now, which seems about right to me, but I have postcards from my childhood (showing the house exactly as it looks now and at the time of Perkins’ death in 1952) bearing the date of 1680. The one below of the dining room shows the very “colonial” room that the Perkins created but also one of its most off-putting features for me—the electrified girondoles along the back wall.

Postcard of the dining room from 1960s or 1970s? I think it is a rule that every Colonial Revival house must have Hessians!

At first the house seemed to me like one of those sprawling recreations/creations which Mary Harrod Northend, one of the Colonial Revivalists in my Salem chapter, showcased in her Remodeled Farmhouses (1915) and I immediately wanted to know if Harrod knew either of the Perkins women–the two Marys were of the same generation. But inside, besides the dining room, it felt a little different to me than standard Colonial Revival: I guess there is no standard Colonial Revival because it is often an individual expression. The parlors of the Perkins house felt very traditional to me, but also more cosmopolitan, more worldly, more lavish, more of a mashup between past and present than a “period rooms”. A case in point would be this wonderful 20th century copy of an earlier portrait: this modern woman dressed in period costume just like Elizabeth Perkins above (well, a bit more elegantly). I love this portrait!

Hooked rugs abound of course, but the Perkins ladies were great travelers so that accounts for the worldliness of their rooms and all the interesting assemblages. Now I’m wondering about comparative Colonial Revival settings: if you’re trying to create and preserve a “colonial” home in the country it’s a different experience than in the city, where change is so much more apparent—and threatening. My Salem people, including Harrod, Frank Cousins, George Francis Dow, Caroline Emmerton and Daniel Low, are living and working in an environment of constant development, fire, pollution, and immigration: it seemed like things were being swept away. The Perkins ladies were facing none of that in York, so I’m thinking that they didn’t have to be quite so strident in their pusuit and preservation of the Colonial. Just a thought.

Front parlors and a very traditional entry; love the 17th century “open-back” ??? chairs.

Loved the Currier & Ives presidential prints in the guest bedroom, which also has an en suite bathroom. The other bedrooms, including that of Mrs. Perkins above, have that “just left”/ I was just reading……. feeling, which is very Colonial Revival too: George Francis Dow pioneered the use of the folded-newspaper-by-the-gentleman’s chair motif in his period rooms in Salem, I believe.

Tours every Friday and Saturday available here.


One Hero and 17 Rescinders

I am staying in my family’s house in York Harbor for the month of June, mostly writing with occasional breaks for gardening and sightseeing. But you know me: I can never really get away from Salem! On this past Saturday, a single word was uttered which provided me with a connecting link between my hometown and my principal place of residence: rescinders. This is not a word you come across often, but within a couple of days I did, quite by happenstance. I love it when that happens, so here’s the context and the connection, starting with yet another preservation challenge back in Massachusetts concerning a structure associated with Revolutionary War Brigadier General John Glover. Glover is associated with two standing structures, a landmark house not far from Marblehead Harbor and a “retirement” home located on the Marblehead/Swampscott/Salem line which had a long and varied history following his death in 1797. “Glover Farm” was most recently the “General Glover House,” a restaurant owned and operated by Anthony Athanas of Pier 4 fame, but the entire property, including the 1762 house in which John Glover lived and died, has been left to deteriorate following its closure in the 1990s. While various officials of the town of Swampscott have proclaimed the property “blighted,” the Swampscott Historical Commission (which seems to be 10x more proactive than its counterpart in Salem) voted to issue a demolition delay and is seeking ways and means to save it in collaboration with the Swampscott Historical Society and local preservationists and any- and everyone who is interested in material heritage.

Glover Farm as the General Glover Inn, part of Sunbeam Farm, 1920s-1930s, Swampscott Public Library. Anthony Athanas opened the General Glover House in 1957 and here are menu covers and ads from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s from guidebooks of those eras. It looks like the perfect “ye olde” restaurant: I wish I had went!

General Glover was a true American hero, outfitting his own ships as privateers, ferrying General Washington across the Delaware on that fateful Christmas night in 1776 and serving at Saratoga, Newport, and the Hudson River highlands successively between bouts of ill health on his part and returns to Marblehead to attend to his ailing wife. He sought retirement at the close of the Revolution, and General Washington notified him of Congress’s approval in a letter dated July 30, 1782, closing with wishes for a restoration of health, attended with every happiness in your future walks of life. Apparently Glover found that happiness at the rural farm some distance from Marblehead’s busy docks, in a house that its still standing despite decades of active development all around it. I started digging into this particular Glover House when my friend and former colleague, Nancy Lusignan Schultz, brought it to my attention: as chair of the Swampscott Historical Commission, she is right at the center of the preservation efforts (which you can learn much more about in this podcast). But as soon as I realized who built the house, I was caught, or caught up: it was William Browne, Salem’s richest and most notorious Loyalist, whose considerable properties were confiscated after he fled to Britain in 1776, eventually ending up as the colonial Governor of Bermuda. Browne deserves much more scrutiny than I can give him here, but he was a powerful man in Salem and Massachusetts, whose fall from grace came when he became one of the 17 “Rescinders” who were described by John Adams as Wretches, without Sense or Sentiment after they voted to rescind the Massachusetts Circular Letter which had been drafted by the provincial Assembly in response to the Townshend Acts in 1768. The Letter called for resistance, and was sent to all of the other colonies, prompting the protest of Governor Francis Barnard on behalf of London. Bernard ordered the Assembly to rescind the letter, and the Assembly put the matter before a vote: 92 nays and 17 yeas, with Salem’s representatives Browne and Frye loudly voting YEA. This lead to one of the most important moments in Salem’s political history, a town meeting assembled to vote for replacements for Browne and Frye which exposed the deep divisions of the day, and about 30 Salem Loyalists. Browne and Frye and their 15 fellow wretches were “memorialized” by the ever-ready Paul Revere in his adaptation of a British broadside entitled The Scots Scourge issued under the title A Warm Place—[in]Hell and Boston merchant John Rowe noted the names in his diary, “for my own satisfaction.”

A Warm Place—Hell by Paul Revere, American Antiquarian Society.

How I love Rowe’s sentiment: I record the 17 yeas, that were so mean-spirited to vote away their Blessings as Englishmen, namely their Rights, Liberties and Properties and how lovely that one of Browne’s properties should go to such a self-sacrificing patriot as General John Glover. But this is not the end of my rescinder rap. I was so focused on Frye and Browne and Salem that I did not take note of all the names on Rowe’s list immediately. I drove up to York on Friday and went to an open house at our local Historic New England property on Saturday: the Jonathan Sayward House, where I interned in college. As soon as I stepped in the parlor, I remembered: he was a rescinder too, and there he is on Rowe’s list, just above Browne (Maine was of course part of Massachusetts until 1820). Sayward did not suffer as much loss as Browne, who I believe was a much bigger fish: no exile (just confinement to this very home), no confiscation, and reconciliation after it was all over. George Washington and King George III share wall space in the Sayward House today.

Portrait of Jonathan Sayward, Rescinder, in his family home, anonymous artist, and the right parlor, above. Below, our hero, Brigadier General John Glover: a study by John Trumbull drawn while Glover was living at his farm, 1794. Yale University Art Gallery.


Paint it Black

There are more and more and more witch shops in Salem, or perhaps I better loosen up that description to goth shops or macabre markets? In any case, our local chronicler had to reassure his readers that there were, in fact, places downtown where socks could be purchased. But sneakers? I think not. It is concerning as many of these shops are only open “in season,” producing a deadening effect downtown in the “off-season.” [Somewhat off-topic tangent: I often think that Salem’s planners are going for a “15minute city” but I don’t understand how that goal is compatible with Witch City—I’ll follow up in a later post] In the downtown, there is oversight for these shops’ signs and exteriors, and Salem is a constantly-evolving city, so I’m not inclined to get too perturbed about this darkening trend, unless said shops alter an historic interior radically, perhaps permanently: and that’s the case with the former Merchants National Bank, a much-heralded 1908 Little & Browne Colonial Revival structure on Essex Street now transformed into a local outlet of Blackcraft Cult, a Goth fast-fashion retailer based in California. The creative vision of this store is simple: paint it black, all black, walls and trim, ceiling and much of the floor. All is black except for a red witch descending from the center dome, replacing the gilded eagle that overlooked everything previously. Witch kitsch displaces classicism: I don’t think you can find a better visual metaphor for what’s happened to Salem over the last decade or so.

Once an Eagle……now the former Merchants National Bank building on Essex Street is home to Salem’s largest witch! In the vicinity are more seasonal shops, closed on this beautiful & sunny February afternoon.

This building was the fourth headquarters of the Merchants National Bank in Salem, founded in 1811. It received quite a bit of attention after it opened for business in 1908: in national architectural publications and local periodicals, as well as the Bank’s own centennial anniversary publication which tied its history and success to Salem’s history and success. There’s so much craftsmanship and detail and sheer abundance in Salem’s traditional architecture that we take it for granted: I wish I had spent more time in this building considering its now-darkened detail, and I wonder if Salem’s preservationist organization, Historic Salem, Inc., is considering a more agressive policy of seeking interior preservation restrictions and covenants. Perhaps it is time, before everything goes black.

Images of the Bank from 1911: in the Brickbuilder, its centennial anniversary booklet “In the Year 1811,” and an unsigned watercolor, Bull Run Auctions.


Beverly Jogs

I was following the discussion on a facebook group dedicated to the restoration of Colonial homes the other day, very deliberately avoiding preparing my syllabi for the new semester, when the term “Beverly jog” came up, and it was clear that a lot of people on the thread did not recognize it. That surprised me, but it might just be an eastern Massachusetts phrase. There might be other terms: I was reading Frank Cousins’ Colonial Architecture of Salem last week and he used the phrase “jut-by” to refer to such additions, as in: occasionally the rear half of a gambrel-roof house was extended several feet beyond the front half, as had often been the earlier lean-to, forming a “jut-by” to provide a side door facing front. All old houses have all sorts of additions and protuberances of course, and I think “lean-to” and simply “addition” can cover all the bases, but I learned the phrase “Beverly jog” when I was taking a tour of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Crowninshield-Bentley House long ago. It remains a perfect example of a very specific type of addition.

So here’s a good definition, from the Dictionary of Building Preservationa narrow addition on the end of a house with the back slope of its roof in the same plane as the back slope of the main roof; originally found on late 18c houses in the Boston, Massachusetts, area; now found in other areas. I had thought it was an Essex County building practice—hence the reference to Beverly, Salem’s neighboring city to the north—but over the past few years I’ve seen such additions in southern New Hampshire and on the Cape. The addition of a staircase was likely the primary reason for a Beverly jog: I remember from my historic plaque researching days how many people lived in these old houses: you don’t want them all coming in the front door, especially in the middle of the winter! And then you get the added benefit of the mudroom: another New England necessity. I don’t think a Beverly jog can be on any house other than a Georgian, or at least that’s where you’ll see them in Salem. Some of my favorites are below (these photos were taken two days ago, when the sky was white with our first snow, as opposed to the Crowninshield-Bentley photos from yesterday when the sun finally came out after several dreary weeks!)

The first house above is on Federal Street and its Beverly jog is perfect! My neighbor’s house on Broad Street; the green house on Andover Street, which belonged to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s aunt, has TWO Beverly jogs—one on each side. Does the orange house on River Street have a jog or merely an addition? I’m not sure about the plane……and the last house is no longer with us, a victim of urban renewal.


Secret Staircases

Every old house has secrets, but every old house does not have deliberately-constructed secretive places for hiding or hidden means of conveyence: such spaces are special. Novelists love secret staircases, and historians do too: they are evidence of intent. Well, I think everyone is fascinated by secret spaces in general: I have been since I was a child and my mother told me all about priest holes in England and that was that. When I was older and in England I was determined to find as many as I could, armed with the books below. When I was older still, and looking at the house I now live in, its owners (who were also realtors) showed me its two secret spaces: a door hidden in the master bedroom closet that opens up into the in-law apartment next door and a tunnel in the basement that opens up under the street. There’s a big door, with a big lock, leading to some underground space! I always call it a tunnel but I’m not sure how far it goes under Chestnut Street: as soon as the previous owners opened up the door and I saw black I ran upstairs! Twenty years later, I still haven’t been in that space: it’s too scary. I can assure you, however, that my husband and every single contractor who has worked in this house has been in there—they all seem to think it’s some sort of large coal bin but of course the previous owners told me it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. I have a theory that it might have been a space to store rum, as the man who built my house was Salem’s biggest distiller and he lived right across the street, but I’ve yet to find proof. So all of this is just an introduction to say: I’m interested in secret spaces! (And I was a Nancy Drew fan too and the Hidden Staircase is my favorite.)

I think that the American equivalent of priest holes are secret staircases and one of the most important secret staircases in America is right here in Salem, at the House of the Seven Gables. For generations of children in our region and beyond, myself included, the first impression or memory of the Gables is undoubtedly of the secret staircase: every child (and many adults) that I have taken to the Gables has been struck by both the idea and the experience of the secret staircase. Its aura is very interesting because it is a twentieth-century installation rather than an original feature of this seventeenth-century house. The House of Gables Settlement Association’s founder, Caroline Osgood Emmerton, and her architect James Everett Chandler, were “inspired” by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel in their restoration of the house: and so it acquired four more gables, a rebuilt central chimney, a second-story overhang, and a cent shop as well as additional room for the companion settlement mission. I love the headline for this Boston Sunday Globe article from January 1910:  all is revealed!

The house also acquired a secret staircase, right alongside the new chimney, even though there is no secret staircase in The House of the Seven Gables. So why? There are several reasons. The house’s previous owner, Henry Upton, maintained that there had been a secret staircase and so Emmerton believed that she was putting something back that had been there before. She also believed, apparently, that the novel needed a secret staircase and so she was giving the house one: “For it seems to be that we feel the absence of the secret staircase in the story just as we feel the absence of a bit of a picture-puzzle that has been lost and has left an unfiled place in the picture.” [The Chronicles of Three Old Houses,1935]. This seems like a bit of a rationalization to me, so I’m wondering if she merely wanted a secret staircase in the house to increase its allure: such discoveries made headlines in those days and they still do.

Boston Evening Transcript 8.5.1911 (not the word “museumized”!); the era of secret staircases: that found in Governor Tilden’s Gramercy Park mansion made national headlines in 1905.

And once the secret staircase was there, it took on a life of its own. I’m working on an article on the Colonial Revival in Salem, and just read a wonderful study on interpretation at the House of the Seven Gables over the last century, based on a succession of scripts [Tami Christopher, “The House of the Seven Gables. A House Museum’s Adaptation to Changing Societal Expectations since 1910,” in Amy K. Levin, ed., Defining Memory: Local Museums and the Construction of History in America’s Changing Communities (2007); the chapter on the Gables in Colin Dickey’s Ghostland is great too.]. In the beginning, the staircase was explained in terms of smuggling/tax evasion or “a means of escape in witchcraft times.” Then there was a shift to the Underground Railroad, and finally an admission of its 20th century origins. The staircase has reflected historical interests, and historical inquiry over time, but it has also been a means to express simple (childhood) curiosity, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Early twentieth-century postcard and the secret staircase in 1950 (National Geographic) and today (or recently).


The Wentworth-Gardner House

We were in York Harbor all last week with family and friends, several of whom had never been to this region of New England before. So I was a bit of a tour guide, in my fashion. On a morning tour of Portsmouth, we passed by my favorite house in town, the Tobias Lear House, as well as its more famous neighbor, the Wentworth-Gardner House, one of the most famous Georgian structures in the country. I’m very familiar with this house, but for some reason I’ve never been inside, and the door was open with a flag out front, so in I went, forgetting all about my companions. They followed me, but I really gave them no choice in the matter! We had a lovely tour with a very knowledgeable guide, and the house was ever more stunning than I imagined. I’m kind of glad that I had never been in before, as this house is probably the best example of the entrepreneurial antiquarian Wallace Nutting’s material and cultural impact in New England and I’ve come to appreciate him only recently. Nutting purchased the house in 1915 and added it to his collection of “Colonial Pictorial Houses” after his restoration, and thus it became one of the more influential representatives of the “olden time” in his time and the Colonial Revival in ours. Images of Nutting’s wispy colonial ladies in its midst are scattered throughout and a room is devoted entirely to his work.

The Wentworth-Gardner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire: present and before Wallace Nutting’s purchase in 1915; the amazing center hall with a stairway re-installed by Nutting, and one of his colonial ladies descending (from a large collection of Nutting images at Historic New England).

The houses was built by Mark Hunking and Elizabeth Rindge Wentworth in 1760 as a wedding gift for their son Thomas, who lived in it until his death in 1768. It was owned and occupied by Major William Gardner from 1793 to 1833, and thereafter by his widow. In the later nineteenth century the grand mansion became a rooming house as its South End neighborhood declined, and then Nutting came to its rescue! As you can see, his most extensive restoration was to its exterior, but the reinstallation of the stairway was a major undertaking as well. I know that the pineapple was a customary colonial symbol of hospitality, but I can’t help but wonder if Nutting was inspired by Salem’s “Pineapple House.”

Nutting’s restored doorway (Historic New England) and Salem doorheads from the 1895 Visitors’ Guide.

Nutting sold the house to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just after the close of World War I, initiating the threat of removal to New York City that was itself removed by the onset of the Depression. After a brief stint of stewardship by the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the Wentworth-Gardner (and adjoining Lear house) House was acquired by a group of local preservationists who eventually became known as the Wentworth-Gardner Historic House Associates in 1940. It’s just a great place to visit: so many wonderful structural and decorative details, including the wonderfully carved mantel in the front left parlor (another one of Nutting’s reinstallations), the newly-installed reproduction eighteenth-century flocked wallpaper, the very Colonial Revival kitchen with its steep steps leading to upstairs, several great bedchambers (I couldn’t call them simply bedrooms), the Wallace Nutting room, and a very nice exhibition on historic preservation in Portsmouth. I remain so impressed by this small city with all of its historic houses, in wonderful condition and all open to the public. It’s a great example of community commitment to material heritage and the importance of having several institutional stewards thereof, rather than just one or two.

Georgian and Colonial Revival styles/worlds merge in the Wentworth-Gardner House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


An Enigmatic Etcher

I wanted to share some examples of the work of the Salem artist George F. White, Jr., better known as George Merwanjee White (1849-1915), but I wish I could also share more details about his life. He’s a bit mysterious, particularly his chosen middle name, Merwanjee, a notable Parsi name. He was the proverbial “son of a Salem ship captain” whose most well-known works are quite local in focus, yet there is evidence that he also traveled widely, in both Europe and India. White’s father, George F. White Sr., made many voyages to the Indian Ocean for shipowners from Salem, Boston, and even New York, so perhaps his son might have accompanied him and was thus exposed to Indian influences, but this is complete conjecture on my part. In any case, by the time White Jr. married at the age of 27 he had shed the “F.” and acquired the “Merwanjee” and that is how he was known throughout his life. George M. White is recognized as part of an “Etching Revival” in Boston and Salem,, a movement which began in the last two decades of the nineteenth century in the latter city, exemplified by the little-known artists Harriet Frances Osborne and White and the more well-known Frank Benson. In addition to his etchings, White produced oil and watercolor paintings and was also recognized as a gifted producer of bookplates, but architectural etchings and drawings seem to be his preferred genre. There is a beautiful portfolio of his images of old Salem houses published by subsciption in 1886 entitled Etchings of Old Houses and Places of Interest in and about Salem which has been digitized for the “Peabody Essex Museum Publications” at the Internet Archive, and below are some of my favorite views. First, the process of production, followed by what was then generally known as the “Roger Williams House” and now the “Witch House,” the Philip English Mansion, the “Old Bakery” on St. Peter Street, later to be moved and renamed the John Ward House at the Essex Institute, the seventeenth-century survivor Narbonne and Pickering Houses, the lost Lewis Hunt and Richard Prince Houses, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location on Union Street.

 

White’s images are of both old Salem houses—emerging landmarks—which had survived the dynamic nineteenth century (or most of it) as well as fabled houses which had not, thus expressing the beginnings of a preservation conciousness which is also evident in the similar sketches of Edwin Whitefield’s Homes of our Forefathers series, which was published just about the same time. Whitefield is a bit more romantic; White a bit more realistic. White wants to show and tell us what was special about the English, Hunt, and Prince Houses, and he’s wistful about the “picturesque” past: this is a word he applies to both the lost Prince House and the “living” Pickering House, the exterior of which was “fashioned” in the picturesque style of a bygone age in the 1840s. You can’t help but feel that modernity is encroaching.

Heliotype prints from George Merwanjee White’s Etchings of Old Houses and Places of Interest in and about Salem, Limited Edition, 1886.


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