Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

A Viking Ship, Two Black Hats, and One Special Street

Despite the fact that I am a middle-aged woman rather than an adolescent boy, I was absolutely determined to see the reproduction Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre as it sailed into Plymouth Harbor yesterday. Plymouth is just one of the stops on the ship’s east coast tour, and it was the most convenient for me in terms of time and geography,  so down to the South Shore I went. It was a humid day and all was gray as we waited for a pending storm and the ship, which slid into Plymouth Harbor very gracefully. I had hoped to see it under sail, but of course that wasn’t going to happen in the wide, calm harbor. You (and I) will have to see it under sail here. I always enjoy seeing the juxtaposition of “old” and new vessels; of course Plymouth has that all the time with the Mayflower II in the harbor—but the Draken is so much more “alien”.

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Well, that’s it for the ship (which will be in port until Friday evening and then it’s going down the coast). Both before and after its arrival I occupied myself in my usual way: looking at old houses and comparing Plymouth to Salem as a tourist destination and purveyor of local history. Even though they are very different places, I can’t help making comparisons between these two New England ports, put on the map by their seventeenth-century origins and happenings as symbolized by two omnipresent black hats: of the Plymouth Pilgrim and the Salem Witch. Indeed, Salem and Plymouth have both been on the heritage map for quite some time, whether it be for educational or tourism purposes.

MA MAP 1966Colonization in America visual wall map, 1966, prepared by the Civic Education Service, Washington, D.C.; David Rumsey Map Collection.

In terms of physical size, Plymouth is one of the largest towns in Massachusetts, whereas Salem is among the smallest cities. Plymouth’s population is actually larger, I was surprised to realize, but Salem’s is much more concentrated. Salem is urban and closer to Boston; Plymouth doesn’t quite feel “suburban” to me but I guess it is. Both places are county seats and have vibrant downtowns and tourist-based economies. Both towns are “historic” but in very different ways: Salem’s history is predominately commodified while Plymouth is more committed to public history. As a heritage destination, Plymouth is what Salem would be if the Peabody Essex Museum had not absorbed and essentially obliterated the Essex Institute: its Pilgrim Hall Museum (founded in the very same decade—the 1820s–as the Essex Historical Society, one of the Essex Institute’s founding organizations) and Plymouth Antiquarian Society serve as public repositories and interpreters of the history of “America’s Hometown”. This makes for a very different projection. I’m not trying to pass judgement here (although regular readers will know how I feel): Plymouth seems to have preserved quite a bit of its “ye olde” parochial identity whereas we all know that the Peabody Essex Museum is a very sophisticated, global institution.

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Plymouth Adventure 13The Jabez Howland House is presented much like Salem’s “Witch House”, as a singular survivor and link to the seventeenth-century past.

Both Plymouth and Salem have impressive inventories of historic structures, although their waterfronts were altered considerably by twentieth-century state and federal initiatives designed to highlight their maritime heritages, ironically: the preparations for Plymouth’s tercentenary in 1919-1920 cleared out its unsightly wharves and created Pilgrim Memorial State Park while the Salem Maritime National Historic Site was created in a similar (but less radical) manner in the next decade. Salem has more concentrated historic districts but Plymouth has several special streets too: on this particular trip I could not get enough of Leyden Street (below) in particular. So many brick- or shingle-ended houses! And so few Federals, both compared to Salem and even the towns just to the north, Kingston and Duxbury. Both Plymouth and Salem had spectacular Tercentenary pageants and parades, and Plymouth is definitely gearing up for its 400th in 2020: Salem, I’m not so sure.

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Plymouth Adventure

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Plymouth adventure 12Leyden Street, with the storm coming in.


The Most Beautiful House in America (and the Power of Place)

On a very humid Friday I spent a precious hour in the most beautiful house in America: the Gardner-Pingree House, built here in Salem in 1804 and widely acknowledged to be Samuel McIntire’s masterpiece. The house has experienced several refurbishments following its donation by the Pingree family to the Essex Institute in 1933, and its most recent refresh (1989) remains definitive, exposing the colorful and crafted world of a merchant in the midst of Salem’s golden age. With the merger of the Institute and the Peabody Museum in 1992 and the consolidation of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), the house remains a seldom-scene showpiece, and also a symbol of the commitment of the Institute to Salem’s material heritage. Actually, to be fair, the house has served as a the setting for an interactive performance I attended a few years ago, and is apparently open for daily tours, but I can never figure out when from the PEM’s inscrutable website (you try!) so when I saw that it was going to be open all afternoon on a designated “Free Fun Friday,” I beat it over there.

Gardner Pingree Exterior

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Gardner Pingree Detail

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Gardner Pingree Kitchen

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Gardner Pingree Back parlor

It is an absolutely beautiful house, inside and out: I remain overwhelmed by the 1989 restoration and its ongoing ability to both accentuate the interior and somehow also make it more accessible and intimate. It is a storied house. It is a much-documented house: I did a cursory review of twentieth-century historical architectural texts and found it in nearly every one. It is an influential house: especially its entrance, which has been replicated on several stately suburban homes (oddly juxtaposed with houses which do not also replicate the Gardner-Pingree’s perfect proportions).

Gardner Pingree Detroit Publishing Co 1906 LOC

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Gardner Pingree Mansions of Massachusetts

Gardner Pingree Parlor

Gardner Pingree CollageDetroit Publishing Co. photograph of Gardner-Pingree, 1906, Library of Congress; Albert MacDonald, Old Brick Houses of New England, 1917; Mansions of Massachusetts, 1977; the front parlor in the 1940s,houses in Atlanta and Brookline, MA supposedly inspired by the Gardner-Pingree.

But it’s also a powerful house, in its original situation (unlike the Crowninshield-Bentley and Ward houses to its side and rear, also part of the PEM’s”Essex Block Neighborhood” of historic houses, which the Essex Institute referred to as an “outdoor museum”) overlooking Salem’s original main street and the former Essex Institute buildings which housed the Phillips Library collections up until their removal from Salem in 2011. As all of you no doubt know, this was supposed to be a temporary move but has now been made permanent: Salem’s Phillips Library is now ensconced in an industrial building off the highway in Rowley. The PEM has presented several sound arguments for this move–most grounded in the priority of stewardship rather than access–but also one which I never quite understood: the scholarly synchronicity of having material collections and texts in close proximity. But when you stand in this house right next door to where Salem’s historical archives were housed for so long, you can see the connection–but in this case it counters PEM’s rationale for archival relocation. The house—like all of PEM’s  houses—are material objects as well, and the textual context of its construction, embellishment, and occupation has now been removed. I felt this so strongly when I was in the second-story southwest bedroom: a very beautiful room which was also the site of sensational murder, of Captain Joseph White—the third owner of the house–in 1830. Looking at the site of the now-former Phillips Library from the western window of this room, I realized that all the questions that I had about this house could not be answered by going next door, but only by going to Rowley: there is no synchronicity in that reality!

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My questions–and where the answers can be found: in the Phillips Library, in Rowley:  How did the Gardner Family transform this parcel of land into “Gardner’s Corner” over the 18th century? What are the details of the spectacular rise and fall of the fortunes of John Gardner (1771-1847) who built this beautiful house and was only able to live in it for six years before selling it to his brother-in-law, Nathaniel West? Of course the War of 1812 had much to do with the fall, but I’d like to know more, and there are boxes of Gardner family history in the Phillips (MS 147). What was the extent of the slave trading of the murder victim, Captain Joseph White? (Log 9, for White’s brigantines Hind and Eliza, and MSS 0.188, John Fairfield’s account of a slave mutiny aboard the Felicity, also owned by White). I don’t think I have any questions about the murder and equally-sensational trial, which apparently inspired Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Parker Brothers, but I’d like to know how the Adroit Fire Club (Delay Not) worked, as well as the sources of the Rumford Roaster, and all about the (again!) rising, falling, rising and diverse fortunes of the two David Pingrees (MS 901). Family histories, house histories, Salem’s history: they’re all connected, of course.


Hawthorne Summer

Every single year I think about Nathaniel Hawthorne in the first week of July, as his birthday was on July 4, but this particular summer he—or his inspiration–is everywhere in Salem as this year marks the 350th anniversary of the house most closely associated with him: the House of the Seven Gables. In some ways, the Gables is as much of a creation as the story after which it was named, but it’s still a 350-year-old house overlooking the harbor, and therefore a standing symbol of Salem’s multifaceted past: in this year when so much of the city’s historic fabric has been removed by the Peabody Essex Museum I believe that its existence–and the role it plays in our city today–is more important than ever.

Gables PC Harvard

Gables Harvard 1910The newly-restored House of the Seven Gables, 1910, Harvard Fine Arts Library Postcard Collection

Not only does the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association serve as a solicitous steward of this iconic house, it maintains a packed schedule of programming, continues to fulfill the social welfare mission of its founder, Caroline Emmerton, and partners with other regional institutions to interpret and present Salem’s history and culture. Even though its focus is limited necessarily, in many ways it is as close to a historical society as we have in this “historic” city. Both the organization and the House stand as authentic and educational antidotes to Salem’s more sensationalistic offerings. And again–given what has happened to Salem over this past year, it’s more important than ever that the city’s existing historical organizations work together to shore up—and celebrate–our heritage. So I’m particularly happy to see the first big Hawthorne event of the summer: an ambitious and aptly-titled public reading called “Enduring Hawthorne: A Marathon Reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter”, a collaboration between the Gables, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Salem Athenaeum, and the Essex Heritage National Area on June 7 in front of the Custom House. The following weekend, Salem State University will screen the first film of a three-film series based on Hawthorne novels at Salem Maritime’s Regional Visitor Center, with a preceding symposium in which English faculty will discuss the historical context of The House of the Seven Gables. Then we will see the 1940 film, with The Scarlet Letter and Twice-Told Tales coming up on successive Wednesdays in July–with Q & A sessions after both. Scenes from The Scarlet Letter (1934) were apparently shot in then recently-constructed Pioneer Village, so I’m pretty excited to see that film in particular.

Summer at Salem State July 2018_Web Version

Scarlet Letter 3 Still from The Scarlet Letter, 1934. Pioneer Village?

With August comes Gables Fest: Celebrating 350 Years of Stories and Songs, a day-long event on the 4th which will take attendees on a musical “journey” through the history of the Gables (with food and drink) and a collaboration with another historic site celebrating a big anniversary this year: the Marblehead Museum’s Jeremiah Lee Mansion, built in 1768. Through “Architectural August” there will be architectural tours, visiting member events, and a comparative focus on these two structures built a century apart.

Interesting Houses collageFrom Burroughs & Company’s Interesting Houses of New England, 1915: with a photograph of the Gables before its restoration/recreation.

Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set. (Proverbs 22:28)


The Last Summer of White Court

The century-old Classical Revival mansion in nearby Swampscott which served as the “Summer White House” for Calvin and Mrs. Coolidge in 1925 is not long for this world, as just last week the Swampscott Historical Commission agreed to reduce the requisite demolition delay ordinance period to just 90 days in return for its purchasers’ agreement to salvage and reproduce significant architectural elements as they transform the estate into 18 condominiums. Looking at all of the old photographs of White Court, which was designed by architect Arthur Little and built near his family’s summer home on Little’s Point, “reproduction” seems unlikely; I can’t speak to salvage. In any case, the mansion will be demolished, and along with it will go a material reminder and symbol of a notable era in Swampscott’s history, a golden era when the residence of the President drew many eyes to this seaside town.

White Court 1900

White Court Arrival

Coolidge firstWhite Court in 1900, Bain News Service, Library of Congress; The arrival of President and Mrs. Coolidge at White Court in Swampscott in June of 1925, and the pair with one of their white collies (either Rob Roy or Prudence Prim ) at the estate during the summer, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries Special Collections and University Archives Alton H. Blackington Photograph Collection, ca. 1920-1963.

The Coolidges were welcomed warmly and seen about Swampscott and surrounding towns occasionally: according to the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation blog, the President worked from an office in Lynn, sailed on the presidential yacht Mayflower docked in Marblehead, and attended services with Mrs. Coolidge every Sunday at the Salem Tabernacle Congregational Church. There was not a lot of entertaining, as the Coolidges had lost their sixteen-year-old younger son, Calvin Jr., just a year previously. There were many strolls around the six-acre seaside property, white collie alongside, apparently: we only get to see one such stroll, right after the Coolidges arrive when the press were clearly on hand to see them settled into their summer home. Their smiles come and go; this is a dutiful walk—I’d like to see them on a more casual stroll but I’m glad the photographers were not enabled to intrude for too long. We have many photographs of their activities off the estate however: this was a well-documented presidential vacation!

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Coolidges White Court Leslie Jones Close Up

White Court SalemLeslie Jones photographs of President and Mrs. Coolidge at White Court, Swampscott, 1925, Boston Public Library; the Coolidges attend the Tabernacle Church in Salem, July 1925, Blackington Collection, University of Massachusetts.

I felt like I was intruding yesterday morning when I drove over to Little’s Point to see the condemned mansion, which was very much in the midst of a construction zone. It didn’t seem possible to walk down its long entry lane (which was also marked private) to snap a photograph, so I have no “now” to contrast with all of my “then”. The last time I was on the premises was a couple of years ago, when the mansion was the main building of Marian Court College, a Catholic commuter college operated by the Sisters of Mercy from 1964 to 2015. There were institutional additions to its exterior, and I did not see the interior, but the core of the building looked pretty much the same as it did in that spotlight summer of 1925. But apparently its foundation has deteriorated beyond repair, and so White Court must cease to exist, come September.

White Court Interior HNE

White Court Leslie Jones BPL The drawing room of White Court in its residential era, Historic New England; an exterior view by Leslie Jones, Boston Public Library.

Appendix: Thanks to Jonathan for informing me that White Court was the site of Northshore Magazine’s “Best of the North Shore” awards just last year: great photographs of the mansion below and more here. Also, in return for their reduced demolition delay period, the developers have agree to document the house thoroughly, so we will (at least) be able to see detailed architectural photographs at some point.

White Court 2017

White Court 2017 2


A Jewel Box on Mall Street

Just off Salem Common was a rather nondescript house, long consigned to institutional use, which was rescued by a couple who transformed it into what can only be described as a show house, with every single surface polished and embellished to perfection. Everyone in Salem watched the exterior metamorphosis with great interest, and then the doors of One Mall Street were opened up for the 2016 Christmas in Salem house tour and we were able to see inside, where everything was color and light, with more texture and detail than one could capture at first impression. That’s why I was so fortunate to be invited back into One Mall Street a month ago, and shown around by its owner-restorers, whose plan was to strip the c. 1800 house down to its studs and then rebuild it, with the best materials and more classical detail than its original builder could afford. A sun-splashed courtyard on the eastern side of the house (once an asphalt driveway) provided the orientation, and the house’s own “bones” the inspiration. The end result is a house that is nondescript no more.

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Jewel Box Macris

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As you might guess from the renderings just above, one half of this restoring couple is an architect: this is not a shoemaker’s-family-has-no-shoes scenario! Clearly this project was a labor of love. And now that it is complete, the family is moving on to a new one—in Vermont— and One Mall Street is now for sale. I can’t imagine a house in more move-in condition: essentially it’s been rebuilt from (below) the ground up: from the basement bar and workshop to the attic apartment. This house’s past is a bit murky (it was moved to its lot in 1906; no is really sure from where) but its future is clearly very bright.

Jewel Box Collagejewel box 30

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Above: One Mall Street in Salem today and in 1997 (MACRIS); various plans, the beautiful entrance hall and stairway, living room, kitchen, dining room, study, and back stairway. Below: more staircases, the amazing more-than-finished basement, complete with bar, pool table, and workshop—and that ceiling! This house has the most beautiful ceilings I have ever seen: I came right home and called the plasterer.

staircase collage

basement collage

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jewelbox30Listing for One Mall Street, Salem:  https://www.raveis.com/raveis/72311320/1mallstreet_salem_ma?ROWNUM=1&page=1&sortdir=DESC&sort=price&TOTAL=27


Remember the Armory

The opposition to the Peabody Essex Museum’s removal of Salem’s historical archives to an industrial park in Rowley incorporates a range of perspectives: some people have never been in the Phillips Library but nevertheless have been waiting for its return; others have very concrete memories of childhood forays or later visits to research some specific aspect of their Salem past: their house, their neighborhood, their family. Everyone had great expectations: as the Museum leadership closed the Library in 2011 with promises to return in two years, only to disclose the Rowley move six years later, under duress. Expectations are a powerful motivating force, but so too is distrust: and for those of longer Salem residence the latter is clearly apparent. For them, the PEM’s latest move (literally and figuratively) falls into an established pattern of behavior that has broken trust with the Salem community. And the event that looms largest in this pattern is the demolition of the storied Salem Armory in 2000, under the auspices of the Peabody Essex Museum, which had previously signed a memorandum of agreement to preserve and incorporate the Armory’s headhouse into its expansion plans. Only the Armory entry arch remains on Essex Street, right next door to what used to be the Phillips Library, a constant reminder of what was and what was not preserved.

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Salem Armory LOC

Armory Arch

The Salem Armory in 1992, ten years after a ravaging fire, and the year of the Memorandum of Agreement by which the “Museum Collaborative” promised to preserve its headhouse. This was also the same year that the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem were merged to form the Peabody Essex Museum, which was still bound by that agreement. Library of Congress.

The Armory story–of its rise, role, and fall–has been written about many times, and well: the preservation report and narrative for the MOA is here, some colorful context is here, and the story in parts, right up to arrival of the wrecking ball, is here. But one of the most poignant accounts of the Armory (or of any building’s destruction, frankly) that I have ever read is a Letter to the Editor (of the Salem Evening News) written by Salem architect Staley McDermet in 2002, two years after its demolition. Mr. McDermet asks for an apology that I don’t think he–or we–every received, and goes on to document everything that happened. Indeed, the letter is historical in terms of both intent and subject, but it is also a very timely document, in light of the PEM’s recent actions and their explanations for actions in the past, so timely that I thought it should be “published” again.

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Unobstructed Views

My self-education in historical architectural photography is now quite stalled in the realm of the photogravure, and I just can’t see enough tonal prints of old buildings, preferably but not necessarily of the New England variety. There is a slim volume titled Under Colonial Roofs by Alvin Lincoln Jones with forty stunning photogravures from negatives by Charles Webster that I keep by my bedside but I like the Internet Archive copy even better because it is annotated by a snarky little anonymous note facing the title page: the first good photographic study of New England’s historic houses was Alvin Lincoln Jones’ Under Colonial Roofs which appeared in 1894. The pictures, which are of a high quality, show us many buildings that have since disappeared. The picture of the Paul Revere House, when compared to a modern view, gives us some idea of how drastic the 1907 restoration must have been. Jones’ picture leads me to conclude that it is very easy to over-restore a building. I wonder what he/she thought of the coincidental restoration of the House of the Seven Gables! The 1894 version of the Paul Revere house is in fact very revealing, as is that of the Wells-Adams House, also in the North End, which would come down in the very same year that Under Colonial Roofs was published.

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Jones showcases only two Salem houses, a very un-restored Corwin/Witch House, which he calls the Roger William House as it is several years before Sidney Perley disproved that connection, and the Pickering House, which looks then pretty much like it looks now. There are so many more I wish he had included! But images of Salem’s “ancient” houses were being dispersed far and wide by Frank Cousins in the 1890s, so I can understand his sparing coverage. There are lots of Essex County houses in the volume: I was particularly drawn to the Cobbett House on East Street in Ipswich, which appears to be no longer with us, the striking image of the Whipple House (again–in its un-Colonial-revivalized state) and the Peaslee Garrison House up in Haverhill, which looks like it could have been built in East Anglia.

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Jones takes us to all of the usual houses in Lexington, Concord and Duxbury, but does not venture onto the Cape or “out west”. Perhaps the anonymous note-inserter is correct: there is something about the untouched, organic images of two houses that I am familiar with—the Abbot house in Andover and the Peter Tufts House in Medford (which Jones calls the “Cradock House”) that are so very revealing, even more than the photographic technique. These houses would survive the twentieth century: not so the Barker House in Pembroke, then boarded-up, overgrown and abandoned.

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undercolonialroo00jone_0223 Cradock House

undercolonialroo00jone_0343 Barker House Pembroke


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