Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

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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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.

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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.

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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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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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We Need Louise!

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve become a bit obsessed with the prospect of an exiled and extracted Phillips Library; even though I’m living through it, it’s still difficult for me to grasp how this could happen to a city with as rich a heritage as Salem—-to any community really. I just don’t understand how or why the Trustees of the Peabody Essex Museum could acquiesce to such a radical policy, but then again, I don’t have many insights into the role(s) of contemporary trustees: I am governed more by characterizations from the past than present examples. I can suppress thoughts of Salem losing nearly all of its material history for a day or two, but then they come raging back: in dreams (or nightmares), first thoughts upon waking, and last thoughts at the end of the day. Lately I’ve found myself conjuring up people from the past and asking (myself–not them!) what they would think or do in this situation: Dr. Henry Wheatland, who devoted his life to the Essex Institute by all accounts, or James Duncan Phillips, the great Salem historian after which the Library is named. These men would not be happy, and they would make their unhappiness known, no doubt. But I think this particular crisis calls for another Essex Institute trustee from the more recent past: the pioneering preservationist Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958). I just know she would never let this happen.

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Francis & Louise du Pont Crowninshield and bridesmaids (+dog) on their wedding day, 1900 (Hagley Museum & Library)

Louise was a Gilded-Age princess: the heiress to the du Pont industrial fortune, raised at Winterthur, and married to Boston Brahmin (with Salem roots) Francis Boardman Crowninshield in 1900. She mixed in all the right circles but was obviously not content to just play and party: like her brother Henry, she was an energetic student and collector of early American material culture, and this passion brought her into the early preservationist movement. After restoring her family’s original homestead, Eleutherian Mills, she became involved with the rebuilding and restoration of two historic Virginia properties related to George Washington: Wakefield, his birthplace, and Kenmore, the Fredericksburg plantation that was home to his sister and her family. Crowninshield then worked her way up the east coast, participating in a succession of preservation initiatives, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia and several Massachusetts properties: Gore Place in Waltham, the Lee Mansion in Marblehead (where she and her husband summered at a beautiful estate on Peaches Point), the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, the Mission House in Stockbridge, and two Essex Institute houses: Peirce-Nichols and Gardner-Pingree. Her interest and investment in another Salem house, the Derby House, was integral to the establishment of the Salem National Historic Site as the first national historic site in the NPS. She was one of the founding trustees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949 and is the namesake of its most prestigious award.

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Louise du Pont Crowninshield in the center of the “Kenmore Ladies”, 1930s.

Louise du Pont Crowninshield was a powerful woman: so powerful that the substantial contributions she made towards the restoration of the Gardner-Pingree house in the 1930s entitled her to dictate (apparently–I’m relying on written hearsay here) that no mention be made of her relative-by-marriage’s key role in the savage murder of Captain Thomas White in the house in 1830 when it was opened for tours a century later, and to place furniture in the Derby House that was perhaps a bit “old” for its period. But her capital and connections were utilized overwhelmingly for the public good rather than vanity or recognition. She was committed: to her belief that Americans will be better for having around them some visible remains of their past, as well as to the importance of place in general and Salem in particular. She served on the boards of both the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum, and as President of the Salem Maritime Trust as well. If Mrs. Crowninshield was alive today I have no doubt that she would spare no expense of her cultural capital (telling her Marblehead neighbors and fellow trustees: we are not going to do this to Salem), and perhaps also her capital, to ensure that the Phillips Library was returned to Salem, adjacent to the buildings in which she invested so much of herself, and which bear her name. We need her now.

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Helen Comstock’s influential 1958 coffee-table book 100 Most Beautiful Rooms in America was a veritable memorial to Louise du Pont Crowninshield in the year of her death, with pictures of Winterthur, Kenmore, and (above), a Peirce-Nichols bedroom, the Crowninshield Memorial bedroom in the Gardner-Pingree House, and the Lee Mansion parlor. A true memorial is the Crowninshield-Bentley house, which was removed to the Essex Institute campus from its original location further along Essex Street and restored by subscription in 1959-60 in tribute to Mrs. Crowninshield. (Love these historic house pamphlets published by the Essex Institute in 1976-78—scoop them up if you can find them).

P.S. And of course there are Crowninshield papers in the Phillips Library deposited by Mrs. Crowninshield, as well as other purchased and donated in her memory.


Severed from Salem

Reading through the Phillips Library catalog is an activity that is simultaneously enticing and frustrating: one can glean the scope of the collections but not access them, provenances are presented but not deeds of gift or deposit (which is standard). Given the missions of its two founding institutions, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, the Phillips’ collections are both regional and global in nature, but one cannot fail to notice the prominence of Salem materials, consequences of content and/or bequest. To supplement that perception, just browse through the century-old Essex Institute Bulletins digitized by the Internet Archive, where you can easily access long lists of donations and deposits from descendants of scores of old Salem families and every type of organization: public, civic, commercial, religious, fraternal and sororal (a word I had to look up!). As is always the case in the Witch City, there’s too much focus on witch trial records: the tragedy of the removal of the Phillips Library by the Peabody Essex Museum is the vast amount of personal and institutional history–a cumulative cultural memory– that will be severed from Salem. Let me offer up just one collection of papers as an illustration: the Almy, Butler, and Robson Family Papers, which encompass the activities and associations of three intertwined Salem families from 1804 to 1982. Through these records, we can (or could) examine the rise and fall of one of Salem’s most prominent department stores, Almy’s, Bigelow and Washburn (1858-1985), a particular phase in the history of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Wesley United Methodist Church on North Street, which donated its archives to the Phillips as well), an edited manuscript of Katherine Butler Hathaway’s famous memoir The Little Locksmith (!!!!!), and considerable correspondence and materials relative to her niece Elizabeth “Libby” Reardon Frothingham’s energetic advocacy for historic preservation both during and after Salem’s battle with urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. Personal perspectives on Salem’s history.

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Phillips PC Just two Salem institutions whose records are preserved in the Phillips Library, and the Essex Institute in its heyday.

The personal nature of historical materials works both ways: the people of Salem should be enabled to engage with their history in a personal way. When I read the detailed catalog entry and finding aid for the Almy, Butler, and Robson family papers, I think of the Almy’s clock that still stands on Essex Street, the first time I read The Little Locksmith, just a few years ago, and Elizabeth Reardon’s house histories for Historic Salem, Inc., which I used as a model for my own reports way back when I first moved to Salem and wanted to learn about my new city house by house. I’ve read about her exciting “discovery” of two Salem first-period houses hiding in (somewhat) plain sight, and just last year, I visited the ongoing restoration of her former house, and saw the cupboards where her records–memorials of decades of service to Salem– were stored. And now they’re off to Rowley?

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Severed 4The Gedney House on High Street, soon after its discovery by Elizabeth Reardon and restoration by Historic New England, and an excerpt from Julie Arrison-Bishop’s article “A Witness to Four Centuries in Salem”, Historic New England Summer 2015; 1965 Boston Globe article on Elizabeth’s discovery of the Samuel Pickman House (hiding under a mansard roof), and the Pickman House today, with the Peabody Essex Museum in the background.


New Condos in Old Ipswich

Shameless promotion of husband’s work follows. Ipswich is my second-favorite Essex County town, so I was thrilled when my husband got the contract to convert its former town hall into condominiums. The project was long and complicated but is now completed: I accompanied him to the open house last week to take some photographs, but in all honesty I’ll seize any opportunity to go to Ipswich, whose inventory of First Period and later antique homes is without parallel. The District Condominiums provide quite a contrast to this material heritage in terms of interiors, but the exterior restoration of the building is faithful to its second incarnation. It began its life as a (one-story) Unitarian Church in 1833, was considerably enlarged in 1876 when it was transformed into the town hall, and underwent a series of additional alterations during its service as administrative offices and a district court before it was sold by the town in 2004. There were hopes for a theater conversion, but eventually condominiums emerged as the only option for its preservation (visit the wonderful blog Historic Ipswich for a far more detailed history and lots of photographs). While the building has long presented a dignified silhouette along South Main Street, it has been vacant for a decade, so I hope residents are happy with the new residences. The building is on the National Register and the local historical commission holds a preservation restriction, so there were considerable constraints governing the construction process, most notably windows. As you can see, there were two windows added to the front facade, and smaller ones in the back and sides, but all the other windows had to be incorporated into the interior design, in one way or another.

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Ipswich town hall 1930s

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The former Ipswich Town Hall/District Court (today and in the early 20th century) transformed into condominiums–across the green, the Ipswich Museum @ the Heard House, c. 1800; and just a few steps away, the Ipswich River. 


Hamilton House

While I was up in York Harbor for the weekend I took the opportunity to visit Historic New England’s Hamilton House on Saturday afternoon while everyone else was at the beach. I’ve been on a historic-house museum kick this summer, and while I’ve been to Hamilton House (in neighboring South Berwick) before, it merits repeated visits if only for its setting and gardens. It’s the perfect Colonial/Colonial Revival House, built in the earlier period (c. 1785) by new money and “restored” with not-quite-old Boston money at the turn of the last century. In between, it was a working farm, with hay in the attic and tenants on the first floor. After it was acquired by Historic New England in 1946, it was returned to its original appearance on the exterior, but the Colonial Revival summer house interiors were retained.

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Hamilton House today and in John Mead Howells’ classic Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua (1937)+ a Charles Woodbury illustration of the house, the setting for Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Tory Lover (1901). South Berwick native Jewett apparently convinced her friends Emily and Elise Tyson (Vaughan) to buy the derelict house for their summer retreat. The Tysons had sold their former summer house in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts to Henry Clay Frick, who promptly knocked it down. 

Because it was a summer house, there’s more than a bit of incongruity between the furnishings and the architecture: the former is genteel “shabby chic”, early twentieth-century style, and the latter is quite grand, especially the large central hall. The straw matting running through the house contributes quite a bit to this rambling mix. While obviously I am a Philistine when it comes to the interior of Hamilton House, it is much appreciated by others, and was also quite influential in its own time, as explained in this great post over at the Down East Dilettante. I did appreciate how its interiors related to its setting, poised as it is over the Salmon Falls River with gardens, fields and forest also in view, and the rather charming Zuber-esque murals of Portsmouth artist George Fernald Porter.

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First floor parlor, murals and dining room, and the requisite open hearth in the kitchen.

The summer furnishings also make the house feel very airy, particularly on the second floor. If the Tyson ladies found anything remotely Victorian in the house when they took possession, I am certain that it was banished immediately! As we ascended upstairs, we could see an exposed beam which was repurposed by the house’s builder, Captain Jonathan Hamilton: when he didn’t need it for one of his ships, it was used for his new house.

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Hamilton Dolls

Just three of Elise Tyson Vaughan’s vast collection of dolls: apparently the remainder are in the Peabody Essex Museum. It’s impossible to search its vast collections so who knows?

The Tysons moved an adjacent barn and laid out an enclosed garden of “colonial” flowers surrounding a sundial and fountain and extending to a garden cottage composed of salvaged doors and planks from a first-period house across the river: a shady respite from the summer sun but at the same time open to its environs. As you can see, it’s the season for phlox, which surely must be the perfect Colonial Revival perennial.

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