Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

February in Newport

Another beautiful weekend, and I drove down south again: this time to Newport, Rhode Island. Newport is not really a likely February destination but why not when it is 50 degrees, clear and sunny? I had an academic rationale for my trip, but I spent most of the day wandering around looking at houses. The Remond family, the African-American family who lived and worked at Hamilton Hall in Salem for many years, was exiled to Newport from 1835 to 1843 when two of the Remond daughters were expelled from Salem High School: their father John, an advocate for abolition, desegregation, and universal suffrage, promptly moved his family out of town in protest. As I’ve got several talks scheduled on the Remonds in the next few months and I’ve largely ignored their Newport interlude, I went down to see some of the places they might have inhabited: not much luck with home or shop but I did find their church, or at least the present incarnation of what was their church: the Union Congregational Church, the first free black church in America.

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20200223_122718Trade Card from the Remond Family Papers, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

But 137 Thames Street is a parking lot, so off I went on an architectural tour. Structurally speaking, there are two Newports, of course, the old Newport and the Mansions of Bellevue Avenue. February is not the time to visit the latter and I’m more interested in the former anyway, so I kept to the narrower streets. I got a bit indignant when I found myself on Cornè Street, named after the Italian artist Michele Felice Cornè, who was brought to the United States on a Derby ship in 1800: I think of him as a Salem artist but a casual look at his biography indicates he spent much more time in Newport: his house stands at the beginning of his street, with a plaque noting his re-introduction of the tomato to the western hemisphere. There are far more National Registry plaques in Newport than Salem.

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Cornè’s house is in the midst of a color spectrum I am going to call “Newport Greige”: there are many houses along the historic streets of the city that share this spectrum, but they are distinguished by their colorful doors, among other architectural details. Here are just a few:

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Believe me, I could go on and on with this neutral palette, but there are plenty of colorful houses in Newport too: a few pumpkin-painted houses, bright red and “colonial” blue, a dark, dark green, and almost-black. They all pop among the greige, and as you can see, all are in pristine condition. The whole city is in pristine condition! No stumbling on these sidewalks—and they take care of their trees!

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So you can see I’m happy to wander around in the eighteenth century, but Newport’s historic district has considerable architectural diversity, and as you head towards the mansions, things get more stridently nineteenth-century, with the occasional lane of older houses: it all adds up to an interesting melange. I do like the Shingle houses, including the Newport Museum of Art and the Isaac Bell House below, which look amazing in the midst of the dormant February foliage, but the less “natural” Kingscote is my favorite of the Newport mansions: the rest are just too much, at least for February.

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North Easton LOVE

In southeastern Massachusetts there exists a village that is both the ideal of a “company town” and a model for historic preservation and adaptive reuse of industrial structures: North Easton, shaped in so many ways by the prosperous Ames family in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but cared for with obvious appreciation by its current residents. I drove down on a brilliant February Saturday motivated to see one Ames Mansion—recently featured in Knives Out and the subject of one of my student’s capstone seminar paper—but saw so much more! I don’t know what took me so long to get down there; actually I think I’ve been both to Easton in general and North Easton in particular several times, but clearly I did not stop and look around. Now I can’t wait to go back again. It would make for a difficult commute to Salem–and my husband can never live away from his beloved ocean—but if not for those two factors I would move down lock, stock and barrel. I’m surprised at myself: I usually go for colonial towns—or Federal towns at the very latest—but North Easton is a nineteenth-century town through and through, and a late nineteenth-century town at that: a Henry Hobson Richardson town. But there is something about it………..

First up, the Ames Mansion at Borderland State Park: not exactly a beautiful house, but certainly a strident one. It was built in 1910 by Harvard botanist Oakes Ames and his wife Blanche, according to Blanche’s own design apparently, as no architect could fulfill their demands. Oakes was the son of a Massachusetts governor, and the great-grandson of the founder of the Ames fortune, Oliver Ames, Sr., who established the Ames Shovel Works in Easton. His sons and grandsons expanded the fortunes of the company, which supplied shovels to both forty-niners and railroad workers out west, as well as the prestige of the family through patronage and politics. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Ames mansion-building in Easton would begin, and continue up through the era of the great-grandsons like Oakes.

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The Ames Family Mansions, built in every conceivable architectural style! Queset House, currently under renovation is part of the Ames Free Library,  Langwater is still standing, Sheep Pasture was demolished in 1946, and the Stone House Hill House is now Donahue Hall of Stonehill College.

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Stone-HouseAll historical photos, Easton Historical Societyand Museum.

The foundation of all these mansions was the massive wealth generated by the Ames Shovel Works, a mid-19th century industrial complex built right in the center of North Easton in close proximity to Queset House and the Governor Ames Estate where Oakes Ames grew up. The buildings and “shops” of the complex have recently been converted into one of the most stunning housing developments I have ever seen, fulfilling the incessant demand for density in our region while also meeting (setting?) high standards for aesthetics and preservation. This project has won numerous preservation and design awards, and you can see more photographs on the website of its landscape architects.

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And finally H.H. Richardson: adjacent to the Shovel Works is Henry Hobson Richardson’s most utilitarian commission in North Easton, a perfect train depot which now houses the Easton Historical Society, and just across from it are his two most conspicuous buildings, the Ames Free Library and Oakes Ames Memorial Hall. A bit further afield is his stunning gate lodge, still in private hands and marking the entrance to the Langwater estate.

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What is so interesting about North Easton is the lack of housing segregation: interspersed among these monumental buildings are wooden houses which are quite humble in their scale, as well as larger residences. A century or so ago, everyone was working and living together in close proximity, in the midst of civic buildings which tied them together and represented an exuberant pride of place. And they still do.

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Camouflage or Color Pop?

We drove up to Portsmouth to have lunch with my parents and afterwards took a long walk around the old town, as the restaurant I chose was definitely in the new! Portsmouth is experiencing a building boom like Salem, but better. We walked past Market Square in the center of downtown Portsmouth (where there was one lone sign holder—-everyone else was in Iowa, I presume) past the skaters in Strawbery Banke to the South End, and then back again in a big circle. Everything seemed gray-brown in the chilly damp air, except for the old houses, or should I say some of the old houses, painted in shades of gold and pumpkin, green and red. There seems to be a custom of leaving clapboards unpainted in Portsmouth, however, so some of these weathered houses faded right into the streetscape, like camouflage. Lots of contrast on the streets of Portsmouth—and texture.

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20200201_144330We caught the owner of this amazing 1766 house coming out, and he told us all about his restoration process—he replaced all those clapboards himself.

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Since I was in the neighborhood, I really wanted to check out my favorite house in Portsmouth, the Tobias Lear House, named for George Washington’s secretary. I have adored this house since my teens, and it is likely the source of my admiration for all historic houses, or at least Georgian ones. The last time I checked in, it was in rough shape, so I was a bit nervous when we turned the corner on Hunking Street, but yay: preservation in action!

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Then we walked by the famous Wentworth-Gardner House (once owned by Wallace Nutting!) and turned a corner and then: the ultimate unpainted house: so stark and stately, with pops of green potted plants in every window. I don’t remember ever noticing this house before, even though I grew up right over the bridge from Portsmouth. Wow!

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Circling back by the skaters in Strawbery Banke, and the lone sign holder in Market Square (it was the weekend before Iowa—this weekend will be very different!), with brief stops at shops (there really can never be enough plaid for Portsmouth), and along the Harbor, where a big ship was delivering sand for this so-far snowless winter.

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A February Saturday in Portsmouth…….


The End of Mill Hill?

Place names are a topic I have not explored much on this blog, which is odd, as they represent a major entry into the local past. There’s a great article in the old Essex Institute Historical Collections (Volume 31, 1894-95; it was also printed separately) by Essex Institute Secretary Henry Mason Brooks about Salem “localities”, featuring many names that are no longer with us and several that still are, including Carltonville, Blubber Hollow, and Castle Hill. Brooks weaves a historic narrative around most of his localities, but even though he references Mill Hill, he doesn’t have much to say about it. In his time, it was a relatively new route connecting central and South Salem, having only been “opened” or laid out in 1873-74. It is really just an extension of Salem’s central north-south thoroughfare, Washington Street, and a very short and shallow hill indeed. Yet despite its unimpressive size and scale, Mill Hill endured as a place name over the twentieth century. When I moved to Salem in the 1990s people would reference it often, and it took me quite a while to figure out where it was. A couple of years ago it was designated the site of a brand new development incorporating a Hampton Inn plus rental housing, but now that that prosaic structure sprawls across its base (and then some) I am wondering if this particular Salem locality has met its end.

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Mill Hill 1920s PEMSome different perspectives on Mill Hill beginning with the 1897 Atlas at the State Library of Massachusetts. The first view is looking NORTH, towards downtown Salem, the rest are looking SOUTH towards Lafayette Street. The Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth (NORTH), two post-fire scenes from the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections, and another Phillips Library view from about ten years later, after considerable post-fire reconstruction. Of course, the old St. Joseph’s–and the new St. Joseph’s–are long gone.

Ok, get ready for the view now, as it is a shocker: first, from my car, trying to take a photograph from the same location as the last photo above. What you see on the left is the side of the sprawling new Hampton Inn. And then: the front, supposedly the best face forward?

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This big boxy building features a conglomeration of materials over all of its facades: it actually looks pretty good from lower Lafayette/ Derby Street and the rear! Salem desperately needs a large commercial hotel to cater to its tourist traffic, but I can’t help but look upon this as a lost opportunity: more proliferation of plastic, or whatever that material is. I can’t understand why the City doesn’t work with chains to conform construction to some semblance of the architecture which made Salem Salem—at least a reflection, or even a nod. Washington Street just seems like a very different place now than when I first moved to Salem decades ago, with generic boxy buildings on every block and an uninspired train station at its head. It’s always been a busy, commercial thoroughfare in transition, but seems increasingly soul-less and place-less: and Mill Hill is clearly no more, as the new hotel is situated (as more than a few people have pointed out to me, so apparently “Mill Hill” does have resonance for Salem natives) at the corner of “Washington and Washington Streets”.

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Pristine Postcards

There are so many people interested in Salem’s history now that it gives me hope for the future and tempers some of my anxiety about the ongoing erection of dreadful buildings downtown: as our streetscape becomes less distinct at least our distinguished heritage is appreciated! It does seem to me that there’s more interest, and more intense interest, in the past now but I suppose that has always been the case—-Salem’s history is engaging, after all, and there have been a succession of historical “ambassadors”, for lack of a better term, over the decades and even the centuries. Once I decided I wanted to learn more about Salem’s history, after I had developed all of my medieval and early modern courses, learned to teach them a few times, and been granted tenure, I looked around for some guides and found them in published chroniclers and researchers like the Reverend William Bentley and Sidney Perley, but also in friends and neighbors. There were two lovely men in particular, my Chestnut Street neighbors Babe Dube and Russell Weston, who really piqued my interest with their tales of very material Salem history, and some great postcards. I seem to recall Babe (whose real name was the spectacular Borromee) giving me a stack of old Salem postcards after I oohed and aahed over them—but they must have been Russell’s, as he had amassed quite the collection. They are both gone now so I can’t ask, but I still have the postcards: lovely numbered Essex Institute “Albertype” postcards from the teens and twenties I believe, preserving images of Salem houses (and one Marblehead mansion) in pristine condition, whether they still stand or were swept away.

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Salem Prints Downing HOUSE PC Essex Institute

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Built by a Master Mason

On a sunny afternoon last week, I had to the opportunity to go inside Two Oliver Street on Salem Common, a grand brick Federal house built in 1811 and currently for sale (so you can go in too, if you want). I hadn’t been in the house for a while, maybe a decade or so, and while there have been some alterations made to the more utilitarian spaces, the historic “public” rooms remain perfectly preserved, including the Zuber & Cie wallpaper in the dining room. There is a beautiful double parlor, very large center halls on all three stories, a sweeping serpentine staircase, and countless bedrooms—I really lost count, though three third-floor rooms have been combined to make a large poolroom, rec room, man cave, whatever you want to call it (it’s not very cave-like). There is also a wine cellar, a lovely deck overlooking an enclosed garden, and a carriage house with a second-floor apartment! All of these features are wonderful, but for me, the key attraction of the house was its combination of modernized facilities and systems combined with historical “texture”: I don’t like it when age-old plaster looks too smooth. Well see for yourself: here are my photographs of the exterior and first, second, and third floors.

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20191106_161151Another Rumford Roaster! I really believe that Salem can lay claim to being the city with the most Rumford Roasters.

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20191106_155921Beautiful views over Oliver Street on one side of the house, and the Common on the other.

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I love old basements—-if they are clean, which this one definitely was (unlike mine). On our way back upstairs from the wine cellar (just below), we popped in to see the “unfinished” part of the basement, which is really quite impressive. Combined with all of the exterior aspects of the building, it really reinforces the sense of masonry craftsmanship. Yes, the woodwork is beautiful too (as you can see above) but I walked away thinking about brick.

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Generally I write about the occupants of historic houses, but as I walked away from Two Oliver with all that brick on my mind I wanted to research the builder: I knew it was Joshua Upham, who also built Old Town Hall and part of Derby Square, but that was about all I knew about this “talented” (I found this adjective in several places) mason. Fortunately his son published a biography: even though it’s a bit more focused on Upham’s faith and activism (he was a Deacon of his church and a very passionate abolitionist) we also get to read a bit about his long career, which began in Boston as a mason’s apprentice. After a fallout with his fellow apprentices, he went down to the docks to catch a ship for Newburyport (as there had just been a fire) but wound up in Salem instead. This was in 1803, just before Salem’s Federal building boom, and in the words of his son, “in the reckless runaway, with his one shirt, one pair of duck trousers and a spencer, it would have needed a prophetic eye to see the most successful master mason in town, under whom the larger part of its ancient brick dwellings and stores were erected.”  Two Oliver Street was built for merchant Joseph White Jr., who lived in the house for only five years, until his death in 1816. There followed a long occupancy by Benjamin H. Silsbee and family in the middle of the nineteenth century, after which the house became the parsonage of the Tabernacle Church on Washington Street and the long-time residence of several generations of the Clark family. Joshua Upham’s spectacular building career was followed by an equally spectacular second career as an inventor of fire “annihilators” designed to protect buildings under the auspices of the Salem Laboratory on Lynde Street, and when he died in 1858 he was still in the possession of several patents.

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Joshua Upham, the builder of 2 Oliver Street/33 Washington Square North, which is now for sale through J. Barrett & Company.


Mary’s House

I’ve posted previously (several times, actually) on one of my favorite Salem Colonial Revivalists, the author, photographer, and photographic purveyor Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926), but I am focusing on her again today for two reasons: 1) I’ve uncovered quite a bit of new information about her; and 2) I think those of you who live outside of Salem might not be aware of what has happened to one of her primary residences, which sustained a terrible fire in late November of 2018. I say “primary” because my new information has uncovered a variety of addresses for Mary, but I still think of 12 Lynde Street as Mary’s House, and it’s been sad to see it in a distressed state for the past year. But never fear, it is rising from the ashes: its very responsible owners have hired (SHAMELESS PLUG FOLLOWING) my husband to shepherd its restoration. Whatever fabric (brick foundation, though all the bricks had to be reset and cleaned, some wood, including the front doors which will be dipped) could be saved will be saved, and it will get new window frames, wooden siding and windows, and a rebuilt interior. It was even lifted to straighten it out! It will be stunning, but it’s still unsettling to walk by, especially as I have such a soft spot for Mary.

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It looks better and better with each passing day, I promise! And while I have you here, does anyone know the name of the entrance detail motif? I have not seen that before: thankfully it was unharmed. Mary’s professional life remains enthralling to me: it started late in life (when she was in her 50s) and was still going strong when she died from complications sustained in an automobile accident in 1926. Consequently it was compacted, and intense: besides her twelve published books there were literally hundreds, maybe even thousands, of magazine articles, on everything from andirons to bread crumbs. In 1914 alone, she sold over 150 articles, employed a stenographer, several file clerks, and a full-time photographer, enabling her to illustrate her own works as well as those of other authors. She had started out ten years earlier with her own camera, and a few sporadic submissions to random publications: now she was almost an industry unto herself, an industry based on highlighting the best of Salem rather than exploiting the worst, darkest days. I guess that’s why I admire her so much.

Mary's House Letter

Here is a letter documenting the very beginning of her career, ten years earlier, from the Century magazine collection at the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery. At this point in her life, Mary, her widowed mother and younger sister, were living in what sounds like genteel poverty, in the Rufus Choate House just next door to 10-12 Lynde Street. As you can read, Mary has yet to take up her camera or her pen to highlight Salem’s streets and houses, but she is still trading on her Salem connections and heritage: in this case seeking to publish some letters from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “most intimate friend”, Horace G. (Connolly) Ingersoll, written to her father. She is trying to get in on the big Hawthorne anniversary that year (and boy is she a bad writer! or typist. or both). The Century did not publish these letters, but they are the substance of a 1937 article published in The Colophon by Manning Hawthorne. Mary met with success with other submissions shortly thereafter, largely by abandoning her father’s connections in favor of her own perspectives on architecture and antiques, culled from living in the rapidly-disappearing world of “Olde Salem”. In a marvelous biographical article in the 1915 issue of Massachusetts Magazine, she credits her success to her “friends, the citizens of my hometown, Salem. Had they not thrown open their homes for my inspection and reproduction, I would have been nothing.” The article’s author, Charles Arthur Higgins, opines a bit after that admission, asserting that “now the owners of those beautiful Salem mansions are as proud of the fame and authority of their author as they are of her subject matter” and revealing that “Miss Northen has been repeatedly urged to maker her abode in New York; but she states that nothing can make her forsake the city that has so kindly aided her to fame.”

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Mary's DoorsFame AND Authority:  Occasionally Mary Harrod Northend would present wistful Wallace Nutting-esque views, but mostly she was all about bringing antique material culture into the modern world; notices in Who’s Who in New England and the Architectural Record, citations in trade catalogs were common from 1915 on.


An Array of Entrances

There were two very positive developments regarding Salem’s historical fabric this week: the city’s Cemetery Commission voted to close the Old Burying Point during October, thus shielding our oldest cemetery from its annual occupation by Halloween tourists, and the Peabody Essex Museum announced that it would be returning the anchor which was situated in the front of East India Hall for a century or so to Salem. I am heartened and happy and have nothing to complain about or advocate for in this post! So let’s celebrate with some color, as found on a veritable rainbow of Salem doors. My first house in Salem had a red door, and everyone would comment on it when I told them where I lived; now red is pretty commonplace, but my impression is that the most common door color in Salem is still black. Greens—especially dark green—would be next, followed by a variety of reds, blues, pinks, and orange/peach doors, and finally brown and gray doors. Of course there are lovely Salem doors which are varnished rather than painted, but I’m not including them here. There are yellow doors in every neighborhood, but cream and white doors are hard to find: generally the latter are new Home Depot-ish doors, and not very interesting. There are some pretty nice new custom doors opening out onto the streets of Salem, but if I was in need of a door I think I’d rather find an old one at Old House Parts or somewhere similar. I’ve got one white door here, with some pretty distinctive hardware, and lots in more vivid hues, beginning with the painted door installation at Salem’s Tabernacle Congregational Church, representing diversity and acceptance of all.

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20190912_105451Another reason to praise PEM: the beautiful restoration of the Daniel Bray House on Brown Street: it doesn’t have its new/old door yet as you can see–and I’m not sure if it will be painted this light orange color.

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20190827_112305Dark Brown/Red is a classic Salem combination.

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An Almost-Golden Hour in Newburyport

Last week was a very busy time of transition. I have completed my six-year chair term and am going back to full-time teaching, which means four classes, four totally-overhauled syllabi and four first classes–for which I am always a tiny bit anxious, even after twenty+ years of teaching. But in the middle of the week I found myself up in Newburyport, an hour early for an appointment. This free hour was late in the afternoon, not quite the golden hour, on a bright and sunny early September day, so I took a short walk on several streets of Newburyport, where the inventory of seemingly perfectly-restored historic houses of every style seems endless, with more in transition. We’re always in transition in September, it seems, so you’ve got to grab a moment, or an hour, whenever it comes along.

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Early September in Newburyport.


Requiem for a Carriage House

There is nothing, nothing, that is worse than neglect, of anything that is in your care. I am always material-minded so I’m going straight to architecture: demolition by neglect infuriates me. It’s expensive to own an old house: I have a long list of tasks that my house needs and I wish I could spend the money that I’m going to spend on the house on travel, or a Sheraton sofa, or lustreware from the 1820s, but I can’t: I bought this house and I therefore I must be a responsible steward of it. I work hard to maintain it in the condition that it demands, as does my husband. The down payment for this house came from money I inherited from my grandfather, who also worked long hours to provide for his extended family; his father came over on a boat from southern Italy all alone at age 10 and worked as a tailor to send all four of his American-born children to college (even the girls) and leave them legacies which they passed down to their children. My legacy is my house, and I would never neglect it: it would be an insult to my family as well as my community. So when I see families of much more ancient American lineage, with the possessions to prove it, exhibiting carelessness at best, and neglect at worst, towards their properties, I get mad. Such is the case with a beautiful brick Federal house overlooking the Ropes Garden, left to rot for years by a family that first arrived in Salem in the seventeenth century, and only recently undergoing renovation. This house will be saved, at long last, but its owner has applied for permission to demolish the mansard-roofed carriage house in the rear of the property. The Historical Commission rules through the granting of certificates: non-applicability, appropriateness, hardship. The owner of this carriage houses seeks the latter, but this is clearly a case of willful neglect over many, many years, initiated by a man who is called, incomprehensibly, “an outspoken champion of historic preservation” in his obituary and carried on by his heirs.

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Felt House and Carriage House 2

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As you can see from the photographs (the black-and- white is a Frank Cousins view from the 1890s and the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum), the Victorian carriage-house doesn’t exactly go with the Federal house adjoining it: it was built as an outbuilding of the Italianate George. C. Shreve house fronting Federal Street and only purchased by our “outspoken champion of historic preservation” in the late 1960s, I believe. The Shreve House was converted to condominiums a while ago, and its residents are probably very tired of having this derelict building looming over their parking lot. But what a loss: of a once-elegant structure, of historical texture and fabric, of opportunity. It’s not difficult to find examples of Victorian carriage houses transformed into residences of all kinds, and just when the City of Salem is seeking to expand its inventory of “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) in response to an intensifying housing shortage in our region, the impending demolition of this likely candidate seems even more tragic.

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CARRIAGE-HOUSE-2Larry Kupferman, Victorian Carriage House, Carnegie Museum of Art; the converted carriage house at A Cambridge House Inn, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


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