Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

A Derby House in Medfield

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Privateer’s House

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

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

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

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

 


Windows into the Past

With warmer weather and the completion of my manuscript, I’ve been out on the Salem streets more, but every time I’m on a lovely walk I see some horrible structure that makes me run home: it’s not just the new big buildings but also the small old ones, purchased by developers so they can “save” them from rot and decay by gutting their interiors and blowing them out in every possible direction so they can shove five or six or more units into their then-unrecognizable structures, thus solving our housing crisis at the same time! Maybe we might be left with some semblance of a “historical” facade but that’s about it. I’m sure you can tell I’m not happy, but it’s a lovely spring Saturday and I’d like to focus on more pleasant and interesting things, like a really cool preservation/education project at an 18th century plantation ruin in Virginia. But beware: monster preservation (or lack thereof) post coming up: I’m gathering steam and data!

But for today: Menokin, the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It is a beautiful ruin in the Northern Neck of Virginia, once the center of prosperous Tidewater plantation. Despite its ruined status, Menokin is one of the best documented Georgian houses in America: the original plans exist, and a comprehensive inventory was created by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1940. It was left to decay for most of the twentieth century, and then a tree fell on it in the 1960s, nearly reducing it to rubble. Now it is under cover, and its owners, the Menokin Foundation, are in the process of “restoring” it in an innovative and transparent way—literally. Those portions of the house which are intact will be preserved and stabilized, while missing walls, floors, and sections will be replaced with glass, thus revealing its fabric and construction over time. The phrase dynamic preservation is used by those who envisioned the project: their goal is tell the story of Menokin through the process of reconstruction, “not as a snapshot in time but as a continuing narrative.” The “Glass House Project,” designed by architect Machado Silvetti in collaboration with glass engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan and landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand, began last summer and is scheduled to be completed in 2023. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Neither Ruin nor Relic,” Michael J. Lewis called the Menokin Glass House Project “the first postmodern restoration” and a “cannonball flung between the feet of the historic preservation community.”

Menokin in 1940 (HABS, Library of Congress), after the destructive tree fall, at present and envisioned.

A cannonball indeed! It will be interesting to see what the professional historic preservation community thinks of this project. I’m no professional, and I’m torn, but the educator in me is impressed by the Menokin Foundation’s obvious commitment to transforming the house and its surrounding 500 acres into a teaching tool. The Foundation’s interpretive arm, Menokin: Reimagining a Ruin, is very active, with a series of presentations on both material and human history. The complex topic of slavery is the focus of ongoing initiatives and discussions centered on its Remembrance Structure, built with historical techniques above the archaeological remains of one of the dwellings where the plantation’s enslaved laborers lived. The Foundation clearly has no interest in reconstructing the house according to the constraints of one moment in its history, and dressing up guides in pre-revolutionary or antebellum costumes to give tours to visitors about what once was. Its focus on evolving construction will facilitate more substantive discussions about how and why rather than just when.

Remembrance Structure at night; interior rendering.


Let’s Restore (Some Semblance of) Norman Street

Norman Street was and is an important thoroughfare in Salem, one of the major connections from the major route north to the center of the city, and ultimately the harbor. The street was charming in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with substantial houses lining its brick sidewalks and TREES. Two of my favorite Salem Georgians were on Norman, the Jonathan Mansfield House and the Benjamin Cox House: details of the former show up in all sorts of early American architecture books in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Norman Street in the later nineteenth century (1880s-1890s), Phillips Library, Peabody 

Norman Street was essentially annihilated in the twentieth century: its charming houses demolished and replaced by generic business boxes, its width expanded for automobiles, its trees left to die. I can’t think of a street in Salem so utterly transformed. Its bleakness is all the more apparent by the fact that it’s basically an extension of mansion-lined Chestnut Street, so the contrast is striking: I sigh with relief when I pass over Summer Street and everything gets greener and more friendly. All the twentieth-century forces aligned to kill this street: a big public works project (the Post Office), the car, of course, and the worst architectural eras of the century, the 1930s and the 1970s-1980s. There are three crosswalks, but cars whip around the corner onto Norman so you have to be a rather audacious pedestrian to think about using them. The street is so bleak it can only be improved, but the one vacant lot now set for redevelopment is in a particularly conspicuous spot: on a corner, between two historic districts, and between a residential district and the beginning of the commercial downtown: this project has the potential to CONNECT so many constituent parts of Salem, and restore some structure (and dignity) to Norman Street at the same time. I have high hopes and great expectations, and I really hope the permitting boards of Salem do too.

So let me show you the current lot and the prospective building: I am taking these photos from the presentation that the developers (Kinvarra Capital) and Architects (Balance Architects) gave to a neighborhood group last week, before they go before the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) next week. This presentation was very thorough in its consideration of all of the challenges and context of this site, I thought. You can see the whole thing for yourself here. Let me say that I don’t have really strong objections to this building: compared to recent construction in Salem, and to what defines Norman Street at present, it’s an improvement. But I think it could be better. And I REALLY think that it should prompt a city-wide discussion about design rather than just a neighborhood discussion about parking.

Existing conditions looking north (top) and east (bottom): Chestnut Street is right behind you in this second photo. The city has decided to put a roundabout at this busy intersection, but they haven’t really committed and it’s too small a space, so everyone just drives over that yellow circle.

Same vantage points as above with the rendering of the new building. The bottom image also show the recently-approved “suburban” addition to the adjacent Georgian house by the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA), the same board that has jurisdiction over new Norman Street building.

So you see, a challenging site. I don’t envy the architects: should they take their contextual cues from the adjacent 1980s plaza, or the Georgian with its (insert adjective; I have no words) addition, or the 1930s Holyoke building across the street or the Federal and Italianate buildings which open Chestnut Street? You know me, I’m a traditionalist and a historian: I’d like to restore something of what was Norman Street in its glory days, perhaps along the lines of the Julia Row in New Orleans, without the wrought iron. But you can’t really recreate that: it would look cheap with today’s materials, and it wouldn’t fit in with the twentieth-century buildings of Norman Street. It’s not the entire composition but rather the depth of façade and detail I’m after, and in this case I was particularly attracted to the parapet end wall: if integrated into a new building on Norman, it could match the one at 2-4 Chestnut Street, establishing continuity and connection.

Julia Row, New Orleans; Chestnut and Norman Streets in the 1880s, Salem Picturesque, State Library of Massachusetts.

The New Orleans building is also too big, as is the proposed Norman Street building. What you don’t see in these photographs is the Crombie Street Historic District tucked away in back, with smaller-scaled buildings than any of the other adjacent structures. I looked at some recent developments in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in which new construction was integrated into existing historic neighborhoods and came up with a few favorites in terms of scale and also texture, which is missing in most of the new construction I see. The first is in Bay Village in Boston, a small historic neighborhood tucked away in the midst of downtown Boston. The scale and detail of of Piedmont Park Square is nice: it fits right into its quaint neighborhood on the storied site of the Cocoanut Grove, where a tragic fire occurred in 1942. The building “stitches” together townhouses—what could be more connective than that?

Piedmont Park Square in Boston’s Bay Village by Studio Luz Architects.

As I searched for semblances of things I’d like to see in this important new building, I was motivated by scale, detail, texture, integration, contextuality, and some sense of the past: the proposed rendering reads “industrial” to me, and Norman Street was never industrial, so I don’t understand the reference. I don’t think I found what I was looking for, but I really like the integration achieved by a recent infill development in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, below. Tucked in between an early 20th century mansion on the site of its fire-ravaged garage and a row of 19th-century townhouses, this structure fits in but still makes a statement with its variegated façade and roofline and so much texture! This seems like an even more difficult challenge than Norman Street. I like it, but my husband-the-architect does not and neither, apparently, do its neighbors. All architecture is paradoxical, but urban architecture particularly so: it is so very public, yet the public has so little power to influence what is built.

Renderings of 375 Stuyvesant Street, Brooklyn by DXA Studio


Renaissance and Reign of Terror

1904 was a big year in Salem’s commemorative history: it was the centennial of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birth, and his birthplace received both regional and national attention. This was squarely in the midst of the time when Witch City and Hawthorne/Colonial City were duking it out to see which one would define Salem’s identify going forward: the former won, of course. Hawthorne was born on July 4, so in the midsummer there were lots of stories on Salem in the Boston papers, with a notable focus on material culture: his houses, other storied Salem houses, Salem gardens, Salem streets. As Hawthorne was so often focused on the past, so too was his commemoration.

Homes and Gardens in Salem, Boston Daily Globe, July-August 1904.

Salem was also featured in a book on American architecture published in 1904: American Renaissance. A Review of Domestic Architecture by Joy Wheeler Dow, Architect. This first caught my attention because I assumed “Joy” was a woman architect, but it turns out that Joseph Wheeler Dow preferred to be called Joy. He was a prolific writer and critic around this time, publishing in several “shelter” periodicals, and had a very forthright style. I like opinionated authors, and even though Dow was very snobby, concerned when anyone who lacked a Harvard education was in any position of authority and using the term “Anglo-Saxon” a bit too much for my taste, he’s still fun to read. His concept of the material “Renaissance” was strictly Victorian but he detested Victorian architecture: his division of American architecture centered on a Renaissance of craftsmanship and style in the colonial and first half of the nineteenth century and a “Reign of Terror” thereafter in which too much money and fashion (as opposed to style) created objectionable buildings. He loved Salem and placed its building firmly in the era and style of the American Renaissance.

Dow’s captions are great, so I included a few of them above: if you want atmosphere and plenty of it, go to Salem! (exclamation point mine, as that is how he writes). We’re so fortunate to have all of the houses above still standing, and they still provide a wonderful context and atmosphere. I don’t share Dow’s opinion of Victorian architecture, either residential or commercial, and I think buildings from that era—and after—add context and atmosphere as well. If I were to divide Salem’s built environment into periods I would have a long “Renaissance” era extending up to the twentieth century, perhaps even to the Great Salem Fire of 1914, then a rebuilding/accommodating the car era (not sure what I’d name it) and the “Reign of Terror” would begin in 2000 or so: we are clearly in a Reign of Terror now. It’s hard to characterize all of Salem’s new buildings: several appear to have tried for some context in the details but ended up as plastic pastiche, others could have been built everywhere and anywhere. I can’t explain the first building below, Salem’s new Hampton Inn: I really have no words. I’m not really sure what to think about the Brix, a new condominium development built on the site of the former District Courthouse: it’s a big boxy building but its downtown location can support that, even as the transition to a side street, Church Street, is rather abrupt. I guess it’s just the roofline that bothers me: why the overhanging eaves? This is the third or fourth new Salem building with similar roofs: has there been some secret pact to transform Salem into an exemplar of a revived Prairie Style? Maybe that’s the new “atmosphere” we’re going for but it seems odd given Salem’s illustrious architectural past. Away from the downtown, but not too far, are the new Halstead Apartments, which manage to represent a shadow of Salem’s vibrant industrial past in a rather reassuring, even atmospheric, way.

Salem’s new multi-colored Hampton Inn (+apartments) and multi-style River Rock development on Goodhue/Boston Streets; The new Brix condominium building on Washington and Church Streets; the Halstead Apartments on Flint Street.


Digging Up Derby Square

I was researching Salem’s struggle with/against urban renewal in the 1960s when I came across a massive collection of photographs from the career collection of Edmund Bacon, the famous Philadelphia city planner who is sometimes referred to as representing a “third way” between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. I honestly don’t know if Bacon was a critic or a fan of urban renewal: his work looks a little plaza-centric to me. Apparently he captured urban renewal funds for the rehabilitation of Society Hill in Philadelphia, however, and that is certainly to his credit. The landscape architect who worked on Society Hill was another Philadelphian, John F. Collins, and when Bacon was brought in to consult on Salem’s redevelopment after some (not all) of the planned destruction through “renewal” was thwarted, he recommended Collins to implement the new Heritage Plaza East Plan in the 1970s. Collins’ efforts reshaped downtown Salem over the decade, and you can read (and see) more about them here. But back to Bacon (father of Kevin, by the way): after his retirement he turned all of his papers and photographs over to the Fisher Fine Arts Library of the University of Pennsylvania, which is currently digitizing and crowdsource-cataloguing them through a project called the Ed Bacon Photo Project: the photographs are an amazing window into twentieth-century urban planning, and include several scenes of Salem’s little Dig.

During and after: Derby Square is such an important center for downtown Salem, although I wish the City was as dedicated to the maintenance of all the hardscape features incorporated by Collins as Philadelphia has been with Society Hill. The Cultural Landscape Foundation notes that “Collins’ details–richly patterned brick sidewalks and walls, granite curbs and backless benches, alleys, street trees, site-specific light standards and bollards – combined with small courtyards and pocket parks peppered throughout the 120-acre neighborhood, unite the unique blend of historic and modern buildings and landscape features.” The space has served as the site of grocers’ and farmers’ markets for decades–until last year when Covid mandated another location with more space for social distancing: I hope it can return this year. And on quite another note, I’m sure everyone will be thrilled to hear that one of Salem’s key businesses, Vampfangs®, is expanding into Derby Square with “Maison Vampyre,” an “elegant and uniquely themed private space, located in the heart of Salem at One Derby Square. Guests are invited to experience personal or group psychic readings from members of the local Vampire community.”


Cabot Constructions: Salem’s Lost Georgians

I am of two minds when it comes to genealogy: the professional historian in me thinks it is a bit antiquarian and lacking in context, but the local historian in me is very grateful to genealogists past, especially those who produced major family histories around the turn of the twentieth century, complete with lots of photographs of the old manses built by first, second and third generations. The other day I was looking for something other than the sources missing from my almost-completed manuscript’s endnotes, in other words, procrastinating, and somehow I found myself in the midst of the very comprehensive Cabot family genealogy: History and genealogy of the Cabot family, 14751927 by L. Vernon Briggs. The Cabots are a famous Yankee family, primarily associated with Boston now I think, but like so many Brahmin families—they started out in Salem. Some branches stayed, but most left: for Beverly, for Brookline, and for Boston. Everywhere they went they built great houses, and some of their best houses were right here in Salem. Unfortunately, only one survives: the Cabot-Endicott-Low House on Essex Street. I had read about the others, but never seen them, and in this great old genealogy, there they were! The Cabots had it all: ships and land and great country and city houses, but I only had eyes for these Salem Georgians.

The first Cabot house in Salem, built in John Cabot in 1708 at what is now 293 Essex Street; demolished in 1878: this is a great photo because you can see how commercial architecture imposed on Salem’s first great mansions on its main street.

Moved to Danvers! No time to run over there and see if it is still standing right now, but will update when I know.

Oh my goodness look at this Beverly jog! Built by second-generation Dr. John Cabot in 1739. Church Street was destroyed by urban renewal and is a shadow of its former self.

A familiar corner at the 299 Essex Street and North Streets: this Cabot house was built in 1768 by Francis Cabot and later occupied by Jonathan Haraden.

Survived! The Cabot-Endicott-Low House was built in 1744 by merchant Joseph Cabot and remains one of Salem’s most impressive houses. Its rear garden used to extend to Chestnut Street, and crowds would form every Spring to gaze upon it.


Stripped and Razed

I’m in the intense period of writing my book with a March 1 deadline looming, so posts are going to be very spotty over the next few weeks, but today, I needed a break from my ploughmen and practitioners. There’s a lost building in Salem with which I remain fascinated, one of several really. If I ever do write my Salem book, which I have titled “Dead History” in my mind, it will have one whole chapter on structures that were stripped of their amazing interior and exterior architectural detail, but remained standing for decades afterwards, often converted into unrecognizable commercial establishments which bore no resemblance to their glorious past. Then they were put out of their misery at some point in the twentieth century, that great century of destruction. Most, but not all, of these structures were on Essex Street, Salem’s main street from the seventeenth century, including the building I am spotlighting today, the Philip Saunders House, built in the mid-eighteenth century and demolished in 1965. Here’s a photograph of it from the early twentieth century—after it had been altered somewhat, with a lot more to come.

Sorry—I can’t attribute this photograph. I bought it on ebay several months ago, an unusual act for me (not buying on ebay, buying Salem photographs on ebay). Generally old Salem photographs for sale are just reprints of those freely available from their repositories, but the minute I saw this photograph I knew I hadn’t seen it before: this is 260 Essex Street, the Philip Saunders House. The two shops on its ground floor, The Salem Trimming Store and Mary E. Hayes, Hairdresser, were located there up until about 1920, and after that, a succession of shops until it was taken down by the City of Salem in 1965. In between, whoever was sourcing antiques for the Kennedy family purchased its spiral staircase and Georgian paneling, and transferred it to the main house of the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port just before the second World War. This happened to Salem houses constantly from about 1890 to 1950. The Saunders House was a unique three-story pre-revolutionary brick building, and there was resistance to its demolition from Historic Salem, Inc. and other organizations and individuals, but not enough, apparently. The preservationists of Salem had been putting our fires for some time in the 1960s, and it was about to get worse with the onslaught of urban renewal. You can almost hear the exhaustion in Elizabeth Reardon’s voice in the newspaper article below, and believe me, she was game.

Both Mrs. Reardon and other preservationists compared the Saunders House in Salem to the Ebenezer Hancock House in Boston, which was also threatened at the time, I think. But it survived: and when you look at it today you can’t help but think of what might have been in Salem.

The Ebenezer Hancock House (1767): in the mid 1970s, from a Boston Landmarks Commission Structures Report, and today.


Pickering House Perspectives

A well-interpreted house museum can offer up multiple perspectives, encouraging visitors to explore what interests them. I’ve been on some less-inspired tours of historic houses, believe me: too many family stories without any context whatsoever and too much plastic fruit are my own particular aversions. But a good house tour is a veritable–and personal–window into the past, and if it’s a particularly old house, many windows. One of Salem’s oldest houses, the Pickering House (c. 1664), been part of my life for a long time, but the other day I realized I had never taken a formal tour of it, or written a post! So I decided to rectify both slights this past weekend. I should lay all my cards on the table: the Pickering House was notable for having Pickering family inhabitants for decades but now is home to two good friends of mine, both energetic stewards who have hired in succession two stellar graduates of the History Department at Salem State as research docents: so I am a bit biased for sure. However, it seems objectively true that graduate #1, Jeff Swartz, really expanded the interpretation of the Pickering House during his tenure, and graduate #2, Amanda Eddy, is clearly following his example.

As Amanda told me, the Pickering House was always owned by John Pickerings, from the 17th century to the 20th, but the most conspicuous Pickering was Colonel Timothy Pickering, Adjutant-General and Quartermaster General of the Continental Army, Washington-appointed Postmaster General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and Representative, negotiator of Indian treaties, including one (miraculously) still standing, farmer. He himself was a multi-dimensional man, so if you’re going to tell the story around him, you’re going to have many stories. But the other Pickerings are interesting too: I could tell that Amanda was particularly fascinated with the John Pickering VI, who oversaw the trim transformation of the house’s front façade in1841, in the midst of a Gothic Revival craze in Salem driven largely by Colonel Francis Peabody of Kernwood and Harmony Grove fame. Mary Harrod Northend believed that Mr. Pickering was inspired by famous Peacock Inn in Rowsley, Derbyshire, but I’m not so sure.

Colonel Tim presiding over the Dining Room, Amanda Eddy showing us the evolution of the house; the Peacock Inn, UK National Archives.

So if it’s architectural history you’re after you have a wealth of styles to explore in the Pickering House: First Period craftsmanship of the seventeenth century, Gothic Revival style of the nineteenth, Colonial Revival elements added in the twentieth. If you’re more focused on material or visual culture, there are wonderful examples of needlework, portraits of Pickerings by Joseph Badger, and lots of little things to see. I love curio cabinets, and Amanda opened up the Pickering cabinet for us and took out: a piece of Old Ironsides, a pair of old eyeglasses, and the skeleton key to the front door. If your interest is more textual, there is a fabulous family library in the east room, a fragment of Timothy Pickering’s and Rebecca White’s wedding banns in the west, and a manuscript cookbook in the dining room. As Amanda is working with the family archives in the attic, she brought down several of John VI’s handwritten topical pieces for us to see, touch, and read.

Western parlor with portrait of Mary Pickering Leavitt (1733-1805) and her daughter Sarah by Joseph Badger; Hessians!; wonderful portrait by Mary, restored by textile conservator Elizabeth Lahikainen in 2017; the Pickering family arms; from the curio cabinet; LOVE this china pattern but forgot to ask what it is—please inform, someone; family books and one of John VI’s essays.

These are the kind of fabled places which should thrive during this pandemic as we all strive for connections: personal, cultural, social, historical. No crowds: just careful and curious people. There were just five of us, inside yes, but keeping our social distance with masks in place. We signed the register: proper procedure but also contract tracing. And yes, there were even a few witches.

Photograph by Salem photographer and artist James Bostick.

 


September, September

I love September: the cooler days and nights, the colors of late-summer flowers, the light, which can be both hazy and very, very clear. And then there’s that back-to-school feeling which I have experienced every year of my life with the exception of a few years ago, when I took a fall sabbatical. It’s a bit different this year, of course, with all of my classes online, but I still got that anxious/excited feeling on the first day of classes this week. Online teaching cannot compete with face-to-face instruction in my opinion, but it can “personal”, in the sense that you are staring right into the close faces (and homes) of your students; pre-packaged presentations can be more thematic and thoughtful than those which are delivered in person, especially with my conversational style. I put a lot of effort into structuring my online courses this summer to compensate for the slapdash efforts of last semester when we had to make rather quick transitions, so I think that my students will be getting a good mix of lecture, discussion, and writing. Still, with all of that said, I miss going back to school in person. But our home is a lot calmer now with the big kitchen renovation completed (big reveal next week: it’s still a bit of a mess), and it’s a good place to teach and write: I am very fortunate. I worked pretty steadily all summer, so I treated myself to a FOUR-day Labor Day Weekend, and the weather was GLORIOUS, as you can really see (I think) in these photos of New Hampshire, Maine, and Salem.

My long Labor Day Weekend: at the Wentworth Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth on Saturday;  York’s McIntire Garrison (+my Dad) and Jefferds Tavern and some Cape Neddick and Ogunquit Houses on Sunday, on the When and If, the 1939 yacht of General Patton, on Tuesday night: it sails out of Salem in the summer and Key West in the winter.


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