Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

It Happened on Salem Common

Increasing concern that the City might locate a commercial carnival on Salem Common during Haunted Happenings has brought me out of my seventeenth-century reverie: the present interrupts the past! The Common has been the site of concessions and children’s activities for quite some time, but the carnival, adopted over a decade ago to enhance the family-friendliness of Salem’s long Halloween season, was situated on a vacant lot on Derby Street. This lot is presently in the process of being transformed into a waterside park, so the hunt is on for a new location. This first came to the public attention just last month: I think many people in Salem–myself included—simply assumed that we were done with the carnival but apparently that is not the case. As with everything else related to Haunted Happenings, commercial concessions and “attractions” are somehow translated into a public good, and this is the rationale for the location of a private enterprise in a very public place: the beautiful Salem Common.

Salem Common 1836 Barber

Salem Mechanick Quick Step

Common 1863Salem Common in 1836 and 1863: Historical Collections of Massachusetts by John Warner Barber; Fitz Hugh Lane for Moore’s Lithography, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It’s not a done deal yet: there is actually a municipal ordinance specifically prohibiting mechanical rides or amusements, including carnivals and circuses on the Common, as well as general guidelines stating that that activities on the Common should not interfere or disturb the peace and enjoyment of all the citizens of the city and protecting it from adverse wear and tear. Of course having a carnival on the Common runs contrary to all of these codes, but the necessities of Haunted Happenings are paramount, and the City Council can waive these restrictions. There was a public hearing last week which I could not attend, but from what I’ve heard there was considerable resistance but also support for the idea. Those in the latter camp make a consistent argument that the Common has always been a busy place, and they are correct: just a casual glance at the historical record reveals a succession of military drills, pageants, rallies, baseball games and bicycle races, as well as balloon ascensions, firemen’s musters, and concerts—with some events drawing very large crowds. Every year about this time there were huge festivals marking the end of the playground season during which children from all of the neighborhood parks in the city would gather, compete and perform: I’m wondering when this tradition ended? The Common was a refuge for those displaced by the Great Salem Fire in 1914, the venue for the 700-cast-strong pageant performed for the Salem Tercentenary celebrations in 1926, and the scene of many triumphs–and also a few tragedies.

Common 1916

Salem Common Pageant 1916

Salem Common 1918

Salem Common 1920 Northend HNE

Common 1923

Salem Common SSU 1925

Salem COmmon Pageant 1926

Common 1935 Processing Tax

Common 1961All newspaper articles from the Boston Globe: playground festivals in 1916 and 1923, a film for the troops in 1918, a farmer’s market in 1920 (Historic New England), the celebration of the opening of the Hawthorne Hotel in 1925 and the stage for the Tercentenary pageant in 1926, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; a protest against the processing tax during the Depression, and an unfortunate death on Salem Common.

There is one thing that these very diverse events have in common: they were all public events. I’ve heard tales of sad circuses in more recent days, but for the most part Common events were held for the common good or were an expression of the common will. Even without taking into account the potential damage to the Common, or the noise, or the length of time involved (3 weeks?) it’s hard to see how a private carnival meets this criteria, but then again there is that very public portrayal of Haunted Happenings.  Another way of examining the civic perception of the Common is to look at projects, events and/or installations which were declined, and my favorite example of these is a statue proposed for the Common by millionaire Fred E. Ayer in tribute to his Southwick ancestors, who were persecuted intensely by Salem Puritans for their Quaker beliefs. In 1903 Ayer commissioned the very prominent sculptor J. Massey Rhind (who would later craft the statue of Joseph Hodges Choate at the corner of Essex and Boston Streets), who came up with a model depicting a Tiger, representing voracious Puritanism, about to devour his Quaker victims. After several years of deliberation, Salem’s Council said NO to the statue’s placement on the Common, the most treasured plot of ground in Salem, in the words of Alderman Alden P. White.

Salem Common 1906


Georgian Grandeur in Portsmouth

Portsmouth always struck me as a Georgian town, even from a young age, when I first developed an appreciation for historic houses at Strawbery Banke and first spotted what is still one of my very favorite houses nearby. There are Federal houses too, but it doesn’t feel as Federal as its sister seaports to the south, Newburyport and Salem. There is a range of Georgian houses in Portsmouth, from relatively simple to absolutely grand: on this past weekend I revisited three of the latter varieties: the Warner House (1716) the Moffatt-Ladd House (1763),  and the Governor John Langdon House (1784). Each house has a different owner, and a different………style, but all are exquisite representations of their era. The combination of the entirety of their construction with all the crafted details within—including the wonderful Portsmouth furniture in each house—is hard to capture: you’ll just have to visit each one yourself.

Georgian Portsmouth 14

Georgian ML

Georgian Langdon HouseThe Warner House, owned and operated by the Warner House Association from the early 1930s, The MoffattLadd House, owned and operated by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire, and the Governor Langdon House, a property of Historic New England.

I loved the colors of the Warner House: rich jewel tones throughout. It’s not too pristine: you do get the feeling that you are imposing on the past (although there is quite a lot of plastic fruit). Those wild murals! The textures are wonderful too—especially of the smalted rooms upstairs. This is the oldest urban brick house in North America and it feels that way: both old and urban. You look out its windows and see a bustling city—this would not have been the case in the 1930s when it was rescued or even later: the Warner guide, like all the Portsmouth guides I encountered last weekend, stressed the fact that the city’s current vibrance contrasts with its more depreciated state in the 1970s—and I remember that to be the case.

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Warner 2collage

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Warner 3collageParlors and bedrooms at the Warner House, a scary squirrel, and always the threat of fire (the tool is to take apart your very valuable bed).

The Moffatt-Ladd House has been very much in the thick of things from its construction; once it faced the wharves of prosperous Portsmouth, but now the horse chestnut tree planted in 1776 by General William Whipple upon his return from signing the Declaration of Independence still stands guard at the entrance to its courtyard. It’s a very airy house inside due to its elevated situation as well as its large entrance parlor—and its beautiful rear parlor, now in the midst of restoration, runs parallel to the wonderful terraced garden outside.

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Georgian Portsmouth 11

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Moffatt-Ladd Stairs

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Georgian Portsmouth 13Moffatt-Ladd parlors and stairs, front parlor original wallpaper and the parlor-in-process with its amazing mantle and Chinese Chippendale chairs; I always brake for fire buckets! The amazing garden.

I think Georgian houses have to be pre-revolutionary, but I’m the only one who thinks that, so I am including the Governor Langdon House, which was built the year after the American Revolution concluded. The scale is even larger here than Moffatt-Ladd, and the house reflects the passage of time, with Greek and Colonial Revival rooms as well as a dining room designed by Stanford White. It seems both national in inspiration but also very much a crafted Portsmouth house, as illustrated by those distinctive staircase balusters, contrasted below with those of Moffatt-Ladd (on the left).

baluster collage

Langdon Hallway

Georgian Portsmouth 7

Langdon Mantle

Georgian Portsmouth 4

Georgian Portsmouth Details

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Georgian Portsmouth 2Those Rococo mantles! And all that beautiful Portsmouth furniture. As you move back through the house, you move up in time, into Greek and Colonial Revival rooms.

While I was looking around for images of the houses in their earlier situations, I came across the works of two women artists among the digital collections of the Portsmouth Public Library: Sarah Haven Foster (1827-1900) and Helen Pearson (1870-1949). Both Portsmouth women clearly loved the architecture of their native city, and rendered it in series of charming vignettes, which were incorporated in their successive guidebooks. Wonderful discoveries: Foster’s naivete and Pearson’s detail both capture Portsmouth’s charm, past and (fortunately) present.

Georgian Warner Haven

Georgian Warner Pearson

Georgian Ladd Pearson

Langdon DoorVignettes by Sarah Haven Foster (the Warner House) and Helen Pearson (Warner, Moffatt-Ladd garden, Langdon doorway), Portsmouth Public Library Digitized Collections.


Rocks Village

We have had the longest stretch of horrible humid weather in my memory: it’s been hot too, but it’s the humidity that gets you, of course. The only place I’ve really been comfortable is my car, and so when I drove up to Maine for vacation last week I took a diverted and long route to get there by giving myself a silly challenge: I had to cross the two rivers on my way–the Merrimack and the Piscataqua–on bridges that I had never traversed before. Going out of the way is one of my favorite things to do so this was a characteristic challenge. I can only do it when I’m on my own, as my husband has no patience for meandering, but he and I had conflicting obligations last week so we were in separate cars (the key to a happy marriage for us). My challenge turned a trip that normally takes one hour into a four-hour excursion (with stops along the way) and I was able to arrive in Maine just in time for cocktails on the porch. My route took me slightly west to Haverhill in Massachusetts and then northeast through New Hampshire to Dover: I had crossed the big bridges in both of those cities but not the smaller ones, over the Merrimack from West Newbury to Rocks Village in Haverhill and over the Piscataqua from Dover to South Berwick, Maine. I think I have probably been on both of these bridges but not for quite some time, so they still count! Going further west and north would have been a bit silly, even for me. I braked for darling houses, of course, and found my first cluster right over the bridge in Rocks Village, a colonial village in East Haverhill right on the river. Situated at a nexus of old roads leading to and along the Merrimack, Rocks Village emerged as a center of trade and industry in the eighteenth century but was bypassed as Haverhill became a bustling industrial center in the nineteenth. It has a slightly lost-in-time feeling about it, even though the owners of its charming houses are clearly keeping up appearances.

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Rocks Village 8

Rocks Village 6

Rocks Village

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Rocks Village 13

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Rocks Village 1

Rocks Village 4

Right over the bridge from West Newbury you encounter the old tollbooth and the village Hand Tub House (for which the Rocks Village Memorial Association is raising restoration funds) and then all these wonderful houses. This is not an exhaustive portfolio, but my favorite is the last one above: interesting proportions, though you can’t tell from my photograph that it’s a saltbox. There’s a lot more to see in Haverhill but this village seems like a place apart: indeed, you can’t even find it on any of the maps of the bustling nineteenth-century city, which emphasize factories above all. After some leisurely searching, I finally found it on a map of the Newburys, dating from just about the time of the construction of the Hand Tub House.

Rocks Village Newburys MapRocks Village and Bridge on the 1831 map of the newly-divided Newburys (Newbury, Newburyport & West Newbury), Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.


A Huddle of Houses

Last weekend we were up in New Hampshire again as I continued my search for the perfect white antique 3-bedroom (maybe four, no more!) summer house. I was pretty fixated on Tamworth last summer; this summer I’ve decided to explore other regions of the Granite State. Even though my husband may be accompanying me, he’s not really engaging in the search: as he said to me after we found the perfect cottage in Jaffrey (see below): we have an old house that we have to take care of in Salem, why would we buy an old vacation house that we have to take care of when we are on vacation? Well, he has a point, but still, I press on. This Jaffrey house was on a road of perfect white houses leading to a pond with Mount Monadnock in the distance. I got so excited (by the houses, not the pond or the mountain) that my husband quite literally left me on the side of the road (“you should be alone”) and drove off for a bit, returning to find me in front of the cottage with several other people who had stopped to admire it. And here it is:

Huddle 1

Huddle 2

Huddle 3Palpitations.

Yes, I trespassed. But only after a couple in a convertible stopped and did so first! The house is empty, and the next-door neighbor came over and told us all about it, including the “amazing” terraced gardens which once descended down the hill. I saw the remnants—or maybe I should say the outlines— of those gardens, which of course put me in even more of a state of frenzy as there is nothing more engaging than the ghost of a garden. It’s a beautiful property; I’m sure someone has snapped it up already–let me just check. Ummm….not yet (as of 8/2/18). And here are more lovely white houses, in pristine condition, on the same road as what I now know to be the Benjamin Robinson Cottage, and also a few from the neighboring town of Hancock, which is very charming. I had originally titled the post a row of white houses, but then when I decided to include the Hancock houses that did not quite work, so I searched for another collective noun for houses and came up with huddle, which seems perfect.

The road to the cottage (and Thorndike Pond), Jaffrey:

Huddle Thorndike

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Huddle Thorndike 7

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Huddle THorndike 9

Huddle Thorndike 5

Huddle Thorndike 4

Huddle Thorndike 2

In Hancock:

Huddle 6

Huddle 5

Huddle 8

Huddle 4Can you believe this amazing DOUBLE HOUSE!!!!!!


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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Plymouth Adventure 2

Plymouth Adventure 20

Plymouth Adventure 3

Plymouth Adventure 4

Plymouth Adventure 5

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 16

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.

Plymouth Adventure 9

Plymouth Adventure

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Plymouth Adventure 11

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

Gardner Pingree 2

Gardner Pingree Detail

Gardner Pingree best

Gardner Pingree Kitchen

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Gardner Pingree 5

GP collage

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

Gardner Pingree collage 2

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!

GP PARLOR

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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)


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