Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

The Wentworth-Gardner House

We were in York Harbor all last week with family and friends, several of whom had never been to this region of New England before. So I was a bit of a tour guide, in my fashion. On a morning tour of Portsmouth, we passed by my favorite house in town, the Tobias Lear House, as well as its more famous neighbor, the Wentworth-Gardner House, one of the most famous Georgian structures in the country. I’m very familiar with this house, but for some reason I’ve never been inside, and the door was open with a flag out front, so in I went, forgetting all about my companions. They followed me, but I really gave them no choice in the matter! We had a lovely tour with a very knowledgeable guide, and the house was ever more stunning than I imagined. I’m kind of glad that I had never been in before, as this house is probably the best example of the entrepreneurial antiquarian Wallace Nutting’s material and cultural impact in New England and I’ve come to appreciate him only recently. Nutting purchased the house in 1915 and added it to his collection of “Colonial Pictorial Houses” after his restoration, and thus it became one of the more influential representatives of the “olden time” in his time and the Colonial Revival in ours. Images of Nutting’s wispy colonial ladies in its midst are scattered throughout and a room is devoted entirely to his work.

The Wentworth-Gardner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire: present and before Wallace Nutting’s purchase in 1915; the amazing center hall with a stairway re-installed by Nutting, and one of his colonial ladies descending (from a large collection of Nutting images at Historic New England).

The houses was built by Mark Hunking and Elizabeth Rindge Wentworth in 1760 as a wedding gift for their son Thomas, who lived in it until his death in 1768. It was owned and occupied by Major William Gardner from 1793 to 1833, and thereafter by his widow. In the later nineteenth century the grand mansion became a rooming house as its South End neighborhood declined, and then Nutting came to its rescue! As you can see, his most extensive restoration was to its exterior, but the reinstallation of the stairway was a major undertaking as well. I know that the pineapple was a customary colonial symbol of hospitality, but I can’t help but wonder if Nutting was inspired by Salem’s “Pineapple House.”

Nutting’s restored doorway (Historic New England) and Salem doorheads from the 1895 Visitors’ Guide.

Nutting sold the house to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just after the close of World War I, initiating the threat of removal to New York City that was itself removed by the onset of the Depression. After a brief stint of stewardship by the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the Wentworth-Gardner (and adjoining Lear house) House was acquired by a group of local preservationists who eventually became known as the Wentworth-Gardner Historic House Associates in 1940. It’s just a great place to visit: so many wonderful structural and decorative details, including the wonderfully carved mantel in the front left parlor (another one of Nutting’s reinstallations), the newly-installed reproduction eighteenth-century flocked wallpaper, the very Colonial Revival kitchen with its steep steps leading to upstairs, several great bedchambers (I couldn’t call them simply bedrooms), the Wallace Nutting room, and a very nice exhibition on historic preservation in Portsmouth. I remain so impressed by this small city with all of its historic houses, in wonderful condition and all open to the public. It’s a great example of community commitment to material heritage and the importance of having several institutional stewards thereof, rather than just one or two.

Georgian and Colonial Revival styles/worlds merge in the Wentworth-Gardner House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


An Enigmatic Etcher

I wanted to share some examples of the work of the Salem artist George F. White, Jr., better known as George Merwanjee White (1849-1915), but I wish I could also share more details about his life. He’s a bit mysterious, particularly his chosen middle name, Merwanjee, a notable Parsi name. He was the proverbial “son of a Salem ship captain” whose most well-known works are quite local in focus, yet there is evidence that he also traveled widely, in both Europe and India. White’s father, George F. White Sr., made many voyages to the Indian Ocean for shipowners from Salem, Boston, and even New York, so perhaps his son might have accompanied him and was thus exposed to Indian influences, but this is complete conjecture on my part. In any case, by the time White Jr. married at the age of 27 he had shed the “F.” and acquired the “Merwanjee” and that is how he was known throughout his life. George M. White is recognized as part of an “Etching Revival” in Boston and Salem,, a movement which began in the last two decades of the nineteenth century in the latter city, exemplified by the little-known artists Harriet Frances Osborne and White and the more well-known Frank Benson. In addition to his etchings, White produced oil and watercolor paintings and was also recognized as a gifted producer of bookplates, but architectural etchings and drawings seem to be his preferred genre. There is a beautiful portfolio of his images of old Salem houses published by subsciption in 1886 entitled Etchings of Old Houses and Places of Interest in and about Salem which has been digitized for the “Peabody Essex Museum Publications” at the Internet Archive, and below are some of my favorite views. First, the process of production, followed by what was then generally known as the “Roger Williams House” and now the “Witch House,” the Philip English Mansion, the “Old Bakery” on St. Peter Street, later to be moved and renamed the John Ward House at the Essex Institute, the seventeenth-century survivor Narbonne and Pickering Houses, the lost Lewis Hunt and Richard Prince Houses, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location on Union Street.

 

White’s images are of both old Salem houses—emerging landmarks—which had survived the dynamic nineteenth century (or most of it) as well as fabled houses which had not, thus expressing the beginnings of a preservation conciousness which is also evident in the similar sketches of Edwin Whitefield’s Homes of our Forefathers series, which was published just about the same time. Whitefield is a bit more romantic; White a bit more realistic. White wants to show and tell us what was special about the English, Hunt, and Prince Houses, and he’s wistful about the “picturesque” past: this is a word he applies to both the lost Prince House and the “living” Pickering House, the exterior of which was “fashioned” in the picturesque style of a bygone age in the 1840s. You can’t help but feel that modernity is encroaching.

Heliotype prints from George Merwanjee White’s Etchings of Old Houses and Places of Interest in and about Salem, Limited Edition, 1886.


The Justin Morrill Homestead

Another week: another pink Gothic Revival house! If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been on a Gothic Revival kick for a while. It’s a style you can’t help but notice, and Salem is fortunate to have some notable examples, but I think it was spending a couple of weeks last summer in the Hudson River Valley, a crucible of Gothic creation, which rejuvenated my interest. I saw Lyndhurst and Sunnyside there, along with many other romantic structures and motifs. There are wonderful Gothic Revival buildings in New England as well, and after I saw the Rotch house in New Bedford on my spring break I knew I wanted to see more, so it was off to see Kingscote in Newport, and Roseland Cottage just a few weeks ago. Now I have a long list of houses that I want to visit or revisit, including one with which I thought I was familiar: the Justin Morrill Homestead in Strafford, Vermont. I lived in this village as a child while my father was beginning his academic caeer at Dartmouth, and I remember running all around the estate in the summers: it was irresistable because it was pink, and the site of multiple outbuildings (also pink) which were the source of countless made-up stories and scenarios as well as a mystical, seemingly bottomless, pond. My childhood focus was much more on the grounds than the house, though I have been in the house a couple of times since then, but not with my current Gothic Revival gaze. So this past GLORIOUS weekend, my husband and I drove up to Stafford, where a pink quatrefoiled fence marks the entrance to the Morrill house and grounds.

This was the home of Justin Morrill (1810-1898), or I should say the summer home, as after he made his fortune he began a life of public service which placed him in Washington from 1855 until his death. He served as a US Representative from 1855-1867, and then Senator from 1867 until 1898. Unlike so many of today’s Washington politicians, Morrill was an actual lawmaker, distinguished first and foremost as the crafter of the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act which provided federal funding to establish public universities in every state, but he was also (again, notably different than today’s “public” servants) a remarkably effective committee chair, serving in that capacity for the House Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War and for the Joint Committee on Public Buildings thereafter, as well as on the Senate Finance Committee. He financed the Civil War and the completion of the US Capitol! This pastoral pink cottage must have been a welcome sanctuary for the very busy Morrill, and it was very much his house, completed just before his marriage to Ruth Barrell Swan of Easton, Massachusetts in 1851. Just as I had never really considered his house, I had not thought much about Morrill himself until my re-visit this weekend, but both of our guides, John for the exterior and grounds and Eli for the interior, were clearly both very much fans as well as purveyors of lots of detailed information about the Senator and his family. The house is also rather intimate, much more of a cottage rather than a mansion, and it is furnished with items taken from the Morrill home in Washington, so it feels as if you are visiting a home rather than a museum, albeit a home fixed in a particular place and time.

Interiors of the Morrill Homestead: some Gothic Revival orientation, including the Brooks House in Salem; the family (+dog) on the porch, pantry, downstairs hallway, Gothic door details, monogrammed china, the parlor, a downstairs bedroom, stained glass in the Senator’s study, second-floor landing, hallway, and back bedroom, attic details.

And now for some magic! The house has these amazing painted window screens clearly visible from the outside as European-esque landscapes in shades of grey and black, but inside you see only the mesh screen! I have seen painted window screens in Baltimore before, but never in New England. They seemed magical to me, as magical as the ice pond on the estate USED to seem to me as a child: surrounded by trees, you came upon it as a secret, dark place, and again, it was seemingly bottomless. But this weekend, cleared of about half of its guardian trees, it seemed very much like just a pond. In fact, that’s what my husband said to me: “it’s just a pond, Donna.” I couldn’t even take a good photo of it as it was so sunny, sorry. An older photograph conveying the dark and magical qualities it possessed in my childhood mind is also elusive: just imagine a black hole!

The Justin Morrill Historic Site is one of ten historic sites and National Historic Landmarks owned and maintained by the state of Vermont through its Division for Historic Preservation with the active support of the Friends of the Morrill Homestead. All the essential information about visiting the Morrill Homestead is at the Friends’ website, as well as evidence of their very active interpretation of the site:  https://www.morrillhomestead.org/. Special thanks to John Freitag who gave us such a great tour, but also gave me a very substantive historical answer to a question I’ve long wondered about the Strafford Town House (below): why such a large structure for such a small village? Of course it’s all about the local politics of the American Revolution—and after.


After the Fire: a New Salem Saltbox

I like to recognize the anniversary of the Great Salem Fire (June 25, 1914) every year, or most years, as it was such a momentous event in so many ways, starting, of course, with sheer destruction and dislocation: 1376 buildings burned to the ground (out of around 5000 structures in Salem proper), 18,000 people lost their homes and 10,000 people lost their jobs. Only three people died, which seems incredible given the magnitude of this conflagration, but 60 people were injured. Like every disaster of this scale, there are so many topics to address about its aftermath: the immense shelter and aid effort, the rapid rebuilding program, the plans for a “new” Salem. New might not be the correct word, as the architects and planners and owners who sought to rebuild on the broad swath of fire-ravaged land along Lafayette streets and the harbor were very interested in fire-resistant building materials but their aesthetic preferences were more traditional. This is a moment when Colonial Revival Salem comes into full flower, after germinating for several decades. You could label the traditional brick, stucco, and wooden buildings which line lower Lafayette and its side streets “conservative” but I prefer the terms referential or contextual: I’m always impressed with the deep appreciation displayed by early twentieth-century architects for Salem’s colonial and federal architecture and their desire to study and emulate heritage buildings. Perhaps post-fire architects, builders and planners were a bit too deferential to the past (architectual author and photographer Frank Cousins seems to view the opportunity before Salem as one of colonial compensation after all those sub-par Greek Revivals and Victorians were swept away) but I’m alway happy to see the past privileged over the present. I thought I’d illustrate this Colonial Revival moment with just one “new” house: a saltbox built on Cedar Street for Mr. and Mrs. George A. Morrill as designed by architect A.G. Richardson.

Two Cedar Street, built 1815: today, in the 1980s, and as newly-built.

A.G. Richardson was a Boston architect who lived in Salem, and thus the recipient of quite a few post-fire commissions. His pre-fire work does not seem to be overwhelmingly reflective of colonial inspiration, but more like a mix of old and new. He did design a “new Colonial house” for a harborview lot on Lafayette which was featured in House and Garden magazine in June of 1907. But the Morrill house at 2 Cedar Street looks much more traditional, and Frank Cousins and his co-author Phil Riley even praised it as “practical” in their Colonial Architecture of Salem (1919): “the resulting house as it stands to-day represents virtually and exact copy of the Maria Goodhue house in Danvers, erected in 1690 and destroyed by fire in 1899. Its long roof-line, formed by the lean-to continuation of the same pitch, contributes a uniquely appropriate character to the modern architecture to the modern architecture of Salem and was found to provide a very practical way of bringing a piazza in the rear and all service appurtenances under one roof, thereby saving expense and avoiding all leadage complications common to roors considerably broken by gables or dormers.” Riley had praised the Morrill house earlier as “in the spirit of old Salem” in his 1916 article in The House Beautiful, but I think I should note that there were not many surviving saltboxes in early twentieth-century urban Salem, so Richardson had to look to nearby Danvers for inspiration! Fortunately Cousins had photographed the Maria Goodhue house (see below, from the Cousins Collection at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth) before it was destroyed by fire. The new door of Two Cedar Street was definitely old Salem, however: Richardson copied the entrance of the Captain John Hodges House on Essex Street.

There was something about the Fire that fueled preservation in Salem and elsewhere, as story after story in national newspapers and periodicals emphasized the fact that the older sections of Salem escaped its path: an early report indicated that the House of the Seven Gables had been swept away, and it seems like there was a collective sigh of relief when it was revealed to be false. Wallace Nutting, that exemplar of the Colonial Revival, featured ethereal ladies draped in timeless white dresses on the steps of Chestnut Street houses spared from the fire in his 1915 “expansable” catalog, and the equally timeless saltbox merged colonial charm, clean lines, and (space for) modern conveniences.


A Juneteenth Tour of Salem

I like to craft my own walking tours for every major holiday just for myself, so that I can get in the proper celebratory or thoughtful frame of mind. This weekend, I put together my first Juneteenth tour and it really took some time: I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to focus strictly on Salem sites related to abolition or spaces which are connected to more general African-American history. But it was time well spent as I reconsidered some special people from the past who have always inspired me, and also learned some new stories. There might be two tours leading off into different directions (literally), but I managed to do both pretty easily in an afternoon. As always, I started at Hamilton Hall, the home of the justly-celebrated Remond family of Salem because 1) it is right next to my house; 2) they have served as my “guides” to the nineteenth-century struggles, opportunities, and achievements of free blacks in New England; and 3) As an institution, I think the Hall has made the most serious commitment to African-American History in Salem and there is lots to learn there. This is a subjective tour but objectively I think that Hamilton Hall is the logical starting place for any African-American history walking tour of Salem. The Remonds of Hamilton Hall are being honored this coming week with a marker from the Pomeroy Foundation and the Womens Suffrage Celebration Coalition of Massachusetts for their commitment to the Suffrage movement: more information is here. While I think the overwhelming focus of their advocacy efforts was on abolition rather than suffrage the entire family was focused on improving human rights above all, and the youngest Remond, Caroline R. Putnam, was a dedicated suffragist.

Stop #1: Hamilton Hall, 9 Chestnut Street & the “northern” branch of my tour.

From the Hall I walked down Cambridge Street to the Ropes Mansion on Essex, because I really think it might be a good idea to consider that before this lovely Georgian mansion was known as the “haunted” home of Alison from Hocus Pocus there were enslaved persons held here by Samuel Barnard during his occupancy. If we are going to appreciate and understand  Juneteenth, we must consider what came before. Then I walked over to another house which belongs to the Peabody Essex Museum, the Peirce-Nichols House on Federal Street, to consider the setting of the wonderful 1907 portrait of the Remonds’ successor at Hamilton Hall. Edward Cassell. It’s one of my very favorite photographs of anyone: such dignity of place and person! Cassell is connected to the Remonds through their eldest daughter, Nancy Remond Shearman, so there was really a catering dynasty at the Hall. From the Peirce-Nichols House, I walked all the way down Federal Street to Flint, and then towards North Salem and Oak Street, where Caroline Remond Putnam lived with her husband James and his family, who were also active and prominent abolitionists from Boston. Charlotte Forten, the first African-American graduate of theSalem Normal School and Salem’s first African-American teacher, lived with the Putnams for a while. It’s a short walk from Oak Street along Mason to Harmony Grove Cemetery, where most members of the Remond Family are buried, and according to her diary, a place where Charlotte walked often.

Stop #2: the Ropes Mansion, Essex Street; Stop #3: the Peirce-Nichols House, Federal Street (photograph of Mr. Cassell courtesy of Historic New England); Stop #4: Oak Street (the Putnams’ house at # 9 no longer exists, this woodworking business occupies its site); Stop #5 Harmony Grove Cemetery.

So back at my house on lower Chestnut, I ventured south into a neighborhood associated with Salem African-Americans in the early nineteenth century around High Street, which descended almost down to the water at that time. That’s the thing: the landscape of Salem is so different now that we can’t really envision neighborhoods from this time. There was the large Mill Pond right in the center of Salem, with several African-American families on either side: around High Street on the western shore and on Pond, Ropes, Porter, and Cedar Streets on the easten side. These streets off Lafayette all got wiped out by the 1914 Salem Fire so it’s impossible to see the structures in which they inhabited, but the Salem Directories from the mid-nineteenth century document their residency. The Remonds had a house on Pond Street; Edward Cassell lived on Cedar Street and I came across the most amazing story of another Cedar Street resident in the 1850s: Bacon Tait, a notorious Richmond slave trader who moved north with his common-law, African-American wife, Courtney Fountain and their four children in 1851! What is going on here? I found Courtney Fountain (Tait’s) brother living on Cedar so I suppose that was the draw, but how did Mr. Tait escape the watchful eyes of Salem’s prominent abolitionists? I need to know more! Then it was on to the Derby House,, Derby (and Higginson) Square, the site of much commercial and community activity in the past and the present, and home via Norman and Crombie Streets. This was by no means an exhaustive tour of African-American heritage sites in Salem, but it was a meaningful one for me.

Mill Pond on Henry McIntire’s beautiful 1851 map of Salem; Stop #6: High Street, where Clarissa Lawrence, schoolteacher and aboliltionist, lived in the 4th house down the street; #7 Cedar Street, rebuilt after the Fire but home to several African-American families before, including Edward Cassell, and the family of the notorious Bacon Tait. #8 is the Richard Derby House of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site: constructed by Derby for his son Elias Hasket Derby while he lived just up Derby Street in what is commonly called the Miles Ward House–another example of slavery’s co-existence with Georgian elegance. The Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum has recently digitized a collection of broadsides, and one sheds a bright light on Derby’s slaveowning. Stop #9: Higginson and Derby Squares were very much the center of the Remond Family’s culinary enterprises outside of Hamilton Hall—and 5 Higginson Square was the residence for many Remonds at different stages of their lives. My last (#10) stop on the way back to Chestnut was at Crombie Street, where John Remond’s friend, fellow abolitionist, and culinary competitor Prince Farmer lived: such warriors were they!


Landmark Lineage

I’ve been obsessed with the work “landmark” ever since the Samantha statue incident of last week: a succession of news stories in the days following reported the vandalism inflicted on this famous Salem “landmark” and each time I heard or read that term applied to this horror installation I screamed “she is not a landmark!” in my head. Isn’t a landmark something notable, of value, an attribute of place or a place itself, but nevertheless something we admire and want to preserve? Several people pointed out that the word doesn’t have to connote subjective judgements: it is merely  something recognizable. I’ve just written a book which has chapters on both surveying and navigation, so you’d think I’d be a bit more confident in my understanding of this term. Its original use in navigation refers to a physical feature of the land with which you can find, or mark, your way, but I thought its meaning evolved in the past centuries with respect to architecture, historic preservation, and the recognition and  designation of built landmarks. My understanding of the term is coming more from those fields, so using the same term to apply to Samantha and say, the Ropes Mansion just seems wrong! Clearly it is time to look this word up, so I went straight to the Oxford English Dictionary (I am fortunate to have an institutional subscription but I go there only when I really need to, as it is a rabbit hole for me. But needs must.)

LANDMARK: object marking a boundary line; district;

 2. An object in the landscape, which, by its conspicuousness, serves as a guide in the direction of one’s course (originally and esp. as a guide to sailors in navigation); hence, any conspicuous object which characterizes a neighbourhood or district.

 3. (In modern use.) An object which marks or is associated with some event or stage in a process; esp. a characteristic, a modification, etc., or an event, which marks a period or turning-point in the history of a thing.

Ok, I’m going with the second part of #2 “any conspicuous object which characterizes a neighborhood or a district.” The key word for me here is characterizes. I’m just not comfortable with Samantha characterizing Salem: I want Samuel McIntire to characterize Salem. But obviously there has to be some sort of standard for designating a landmark, or is it all subjective? To try to answer this last questions, I decided to do a search for “Salem Landmark” in all of my newspaper databases. This query produced hundreds of hits, but I quickly determined that many of these references were to the Salem Landmark newspaper of 1835-36 which first published the wildly popular “Enquire at Amos Giles’ Distillery” temperance parable, which was reprinted all over the country. So I eliminated those entries, and came up with a clear succession of Salem landmarks.

For the most part, the word landmark was used in referenced to historic buildings in Salem, but there were some exceptions. Beginning in the 1870s, there seems to be an emerging concern that Salem is losing its historic structures because there is a succession of titles to the tune of “another Salem landmark gone.” Clearly the word could be used to ascertain an increasing interest in historic preservation, but it’s not just about loss: landmark appears when particularly old or otherwise notable buildings are sold or “substantially altered,” when there’s a fire, or some event happens in a well-know location. Here’s a few examples, starting with the “old Putnam Estate on Essex Street,” a house with which I’m not immediately familiar—I’m not quite sure about this Bridge/Osgood Street house either, but it has an interesting story! Sounds like part of it might still be around?

It’s easy to get caught up in the stories attached to these old buildings: I did so several times and forgot all about Samantha (which is good)! The two above are a bit more obscure landmarks, but anything to do with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel McIntire, the Witch Trials, the Revolutionary War, and political leaders or wealthy Salem merchants were designated as such. Sometimes I think the word was used a little loosely: a sailcloth factory? Well, it was a sailcloth factory that belonged to the legendary Billy Gray and was the studio of Ross Turner: I hope he didn’t lose any paintings! I had heard about the threat to the Pickering House before, which is why I am not expressing shock and awe now. Everything else below is pretty self-explanatory, but I should report the the Silsbee/Knights of Columbus mansion has just been completely restored and expanded and it looks great.

Besides Derby Wharf (above), the only designated landmarks I could find which were not buildings were a landmark store which closed after 114 years in business, and the famed “Brown’s Flying Horses” of Salem Willows. This carousel had been a major attraction of Salem Willows since the 1870s, and its sale to Macy’s Department Store in 1945 was big news and a big loss. By all accounts, it was a beautiful example of craftsmanship by a Bavarian woodworker, so comparing it to Samantha is a stretch, but both were/are popular “attractions,” so I guess that’s the landmark connection. I think I’ve worked myself out of my landmark labyrinth, but I’m still troubled by placement: certainly nothing could be more evocative and appropriate in a seaside amusement park than a carousel, but I still don’t think Samantha belongs in Town House Square.

Apparently this business had started in 1794 by the Driver Family and was run by relatives or in-laws until 1908, Boston Sunday Globe, September 20, 1908. Brown’s Flying Horses at Salem Willows, photographs from the “Essex Institute”/Phillips Library via Painted Ponies: American Carousel Art by William Manns et. al.


The Jeremiah Lee Mansion

There are two structures which made an impression on me early in my childhood and sort of set the standard for historic grandeur in my mind: Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth College, where my father began his career, and The Lady Pepperrell House in Kittery, Maine, close to my hometown of York where we moved when he moved on to the University of New Hampshire. Of course, Dartmouth Hall is a Colonial Revival reproduction of an earlier building, though apparently a very faithful one. I didn’t know that when I stared up at it when I was five or so, and a decade later when I first became concious of the Lady Pepperrell House it evoked that memory. To me, both were New England Georgian exemplars. And yesterday I visited another Georgian exemplar, the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in nearby Marblehead. It was the opening day of its season, and I knew that the charming Rick, one of the most knowledgeable people around about all aspects of local architectural history (just follow his instagram account and you will learn something every day, sometimes every hour) was on docent duty, so I made my reservation and ran over there. It was a cold and gloomy June 1 (especially after a warm Memorial Day weekend), but the house seemed warm and cheerful to me despite its size: this is a grand mansion in every sense of both words.

The Mansion is made entirely of wood, but designed to give the appearance of an ashlar stone facade.

A bit of history and then I’ll show you some of my interior shots—the gloom outside really highlighted the color inside and I got some great views, if I do say so myself! The mansion was built by 1768 by Colonel Jeremiah Lee (1721-1775), a wealthy “merchant prince” of Marblehead, who was just as engaged in the civic and political life of this bustling maritime community as he was in his brilliant shipping career. Lee was the wealthiest merchant in Massachusetts acccording to tax records from 1771, and he might have been America’s largest pre-revolutionary shipowner with full shares in over twenty vessels. For someone who clearly had so much at stake within the commercial context of the Atlantic world and the British Empire, it’s quite remarkable to see how Lee risked all by becoming a committed Patriot, and even though he did not die in battle, he contracted pneumonia by sleeping in a chilly and wet cornfield on the outskirts of Lexington and Concord on the eve of those battles in April of 1775, certainly a martyr to the cause. So Lee only lived in his trophy house for seven years, and his widow Martha Swett Lee for another decade. We have to dwell in the past a bit longer to understand the sheer scale of this mansion: it seems almost oversized for Old Town Marblehead now, but Marblehead in 1770 was the second largest settlement in Massachusetts, while Salem was the fourth! After the Revolution, Salem commenced its economic and demographic boom, but while the first US census of 1790 reported Salem as the 7th largest city in the new nation (with a population of nearly 8000), Marblehead was still in the pack in 10th place (with a population of 5661). So this mansion represents not only the wealth and cosmopolitan taste of Jeremiah Lee, but also of pre-revolutionary Marblehead. That said, this structure is so very conspicuous and grand, that I understand the words of Miss Hannah Tutt, historian of the Marblead Historical Society, which acquired and restored it after 1909:  Fashioned as it was, after the homes of his ancestors, it needed but the hawthorne and the hedgerows to transport one to old England, and indeed the very timbers, of which it was framed, were grown in the mother country. Built at a cost of over ten thousand pounds, it could hardly be rivaled throughout the whole province of Massachusetts Bay—and overshadowing, with its grandeur, the humble home of the fisher folk, no wonder it became to them the “Mansion,” and the “Lee Mansion” it has always been, the pride of the whole town (The Lee Mansion. What it Was and What it is, 1911). Ok, context completed, let’s go inside: first floor first.

Through the front door, you step into this amazing 16-foot-wide entrance hall which extends to the back of house, and it’s all about the central staircase and the handpainted English wallpaper panels, which extend up to the second floor. The house served as the Marblehead Bank for about a century after it left the possession of the Lee family and before it came under the stewardship of the Marblehead Historical Society, so the back and upper stories were closed off. According to Rick, visitors could strip of pieces of this wallpaper as souvenirs in the front part of the first-floor hall, so reproduction paper replaced those parts, but the most of the wallpaper is original and glorious. There is a grain-painted “banquet hall” to the left, and a parlor/drawing room to the right.

There are actually very few items related to Jeremiah Lee in the house; most of the decorative accessories derive from the period but not the family. One feels the presence of Jeremiah and Martha (especially as you pass the copies of their full-length portraits painted by John Singleton Copley on the way to the second floor; the originals are in the Wadsworth Athenaeum), but you feel like you are visiting an eighteenth-century house rather than their house. A very grand eighteenth-century American house. I really appreciated the curation: the Marblehead Historical Society/Museum has been the recipient of a steady succession of decorative donations over the century since it has acquired the Lee Mansion, but the decorative accessories on display were chosen clearly to highlight and complement rather than overwhelm. Nothing competes with the architecture (well, I don’t think anything really could.) On to the second floor.

Second-floor Chambers: the two front rooms are still of considerable size, but things get a bit cozier in the back. The blue-trimmed chamber is a suite of connected small rooms including one with odd proportions and amazing wallpaper! The room with all the yellow damask—a guest room according to Rick—is simply stunning. And you can see that the furniture is top-notch and very complementary.

Beautiful rooms on the second floor, as you can see, but what I am not really showing you is the view. Remember, Marblehead was a busy seaport when this mansion was built: it was not, and is not, a rural estate. Now its grounds are a bit deceptive: there’s a nice side garden but the original lot was quite shallow and a large parcel of land in the back was a later acquisition by the Museum (there is a very interesting article by Narcissa Chamberlain, the wife of photographer Samuel Chamberlain who lived just one street over, about its original boundaries in the April 1969 issue of the Essex Institute Historical Collections). The large windows of the mansion frame the street views out front and the very green views out back, but all I could see was yellow inside, because there is a lot of yellow, but also because I’m working on my new book, a study of saffron, and so I see it everywhere. On to the third floor.

More saffron and more chambers on the third floor: I need these “bed chairs” or whatever you call them! Writing in bed is one of my favorite activities but it takes a toll on one’s back. These third-floor bedchambers were precious. I love this portrait of Miss Selman, the hatboxes, these curvy fancy chairs and settee. Two other rooms on the third floor were a catch-all room with a random collection of museum items (including sea chests with their charts still inside!) and a parlor/playroom/servant’s room in the rear, also filled with wonderful items. I’m not really focusing on the portraits in this post, but there are many interesting ones to see.

And down another side staircase (I seem to remember that there are four staircases in the house) to the first-floor kitchen and a small dining/breakfast room where one of Colonel Lee’s logbooks rests on a table and his contemporary Elbridge Gerry looks on. I starting writing as soon as I got home so I wouldn’t forget all the detailed information which Rick imparted to me, but of course everything was just too much to take in so I’m going to have to go back again. I can think of so many sub-stories: the people in the portraits, a Dartmoor Massacre drawing, the wallpapers and printed tiles, those bedchairs, the contributions of my favorite preservationist, Louise du Pont Crowninshield, a summer Marblehead resident. The Marblehead Museum purchased the adjacent property, the site of the Mansion’s brick kitchen and slave quarters, just last year and archeological investigations into the histories of slavery and service in this corner of Marblehead are commencing this very summer. So while there is a lot to see in this majestic mansion, it is not a static site but rather a dynamic one, engaged in an evolving process of discovery and reinterpretation.

The Jeremiah Lee Mansion & Garden: more information and reservations here.


Skirting Witches and Pirates in Salem

Walking is my preferred form of transportation in Salem, but I tread carefully: I want my path to be lined with beautiful old houses, colorful shops and lovely green (or white) spaces. Attractions exploiting the terrible tragedy of 1692 and out-of-town-yet-territorial pirates cloud my view and dampen my day. I’m happy to meet real witches and pirates on my walkabouts, but kitschy parodies annoy me. If you are of like mind, there are many routes you can take in Salem on which you will not cross paths with anything remotely touristy, but if you are venturing downtown you must tread carefully too. Avoid the red line at all costs and follow my route below, which I have superimposed on an old map of the so-called “Heritage Trail”: I’m starting at my house on lower Chestnut Street and making a witch-less circle.

Across from my house is Chestnut Street Park: this is not a public park but a private space, owned by all the homeowners of Chestnut Street. It was once the site of two churches in succession: a majestic Samuel McIntire creation which lasted for almost exactly a century and was destroyed by fire in 1903 and a stone replacement which was rather less majestic and lasted about half as long. The gate is usually open to everyone, but not for reseeding time as you can see by the sign. I walk down Cambridge Street by the park and across Essex into the Ropes Mansion Garden, not looking great now but an amazing high summer garden. Then I walk down Federal Court and across Federal Street to the Peirce-Nichols House which is owned, like the Ropes Mansion, by the Peabody Essex Museum. Unlike the Ropes, I can’t remember when the Peirce-Nichols was last opened to the public: it’s been decades. It has a lovely garden in back which was always open, and my favorite place to go at this time of year because of its preponderance of Bleeding Hearts. The gate to the back of the house has been closed for a couple of years now, but it is latched and not locked, so I entered and went into the rear courtyard, passing the memorial stone dedicated to the memory of Anne Farnam, the last director of the Essex Institute before it was absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum on my right. I never knew Anne but I’ve learned a lot from her articles in the Essex Institute Historical Collections so I always pay tribute. The gate to the garden in back was latched and locked, so I presume the museum does not want us to venture in there. I hope it was ok to go that far! While I am grateful for these pem.org/walks recordings I’m always wondering why these houses are never open.

Continue down Federal Street past the courthouses: you must avoid Lynde Street and Essex Street where witch “attractions” abound. I take a left after Washington street onto a street that no longer exists: Rust Street. I like the juxtaposition of the newish condominiums and the old Church and Bessie Monroe’s brick house on Ash Street on the right: a symbol of the opposition to urban renewal in Salem. Then it’s on to St. Peter Street, past the Old Jail and the Jailkeepers’s House (below), right on Bridge, and then right again, onto Winter Street.

Winter Street

As you approach Salem Common, you must bear left and head for the east side, as the west side is the territory of the Salem Witch “Museum.” There are some side streets with wonderful houses between the Common and Bridge Street which might be a bit more pleasant to traverse than the latter but you will be cutting close to the “Museum”: that’s why I always go with Winter. Once there, go straight by the Common on Washington Square East : you will pass the newly-renovated Silsbee Mansion, which long served as the party palace Knights of Columbus and has been converted into residential units with a substantive addtion and exterior restoration, and one of my favorite houses on the Common, the Baldwin Lyman House.

On Washington Square East.

Washington Square East will take you right to Essex Street: cross and go down the walkway adjacent to the first-period Narbonne House into the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. No witches or pirates here: you’re safe! I love the garden behind the Derby House: I think it is probably at its best in June when the peonies are popping but it’s a great place to go all spring and summer and even in the fall. On Derby Street, you can turn left and go down to the House of the Seven Gables or go straight down Derby Wharf: I went to the end of the wharf on this particular walk. The Salem Arts Association is right here too, but beware: there is a particularly ugly witch on its right so shade your view lest your zen walk be disturbed.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Salem Arts Association.

Back on Derby. Adjacent to the Custom House is a wonderful institution: the Brookhouse Home for Women, established in 1861! The Home is located in the former Benjamin Crowninshield Mansion, and it is very generous with its lovely grounds, which provide my favorite view of Derby Wharf. I always stop in here, and then I work my way back up to Essex Street on one side street or another. Essex Street east and west are wonderful places to walk, but the pedestrian-mall center is witch-central: a particularly dangerous corner is Essex and Hawthorne Boulevard, where the Peabody Essex’s historic houses face some of the ugliest signs in town. It’s a real aesthetic clash: gaze at the beautiful Gardner-Pingree House, but don’t turn around! If you want to go to the main PEM buildings or the Visitors’ Center further down Essex, approach from Charter Street north on another “street” that no longer exists: Liberty Street.

From the Brookhouse Home to the PEM’s row of historic houses on Essex Street. Memorial stone in the Brookwood garden: Miss Amy Nurse, RN, an Army Nurse (1916-2013).

Charter Street is the location of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point, recently restored and equipped with an orientation center located in the first-period Pickman House, which overlooks the Witch Trials Memorial. So this is a wonderful, meaningful place to visit, but beware: just beyond is the “Haunted Neighborhood” or “Haunted Witch Village” (whatever it is called)  situated on the southern end of the former Liberty Street, abutting the cemetery. This is a cruel juxtaposition during Haunted Happenings, when you literally have a party right next to sacred places, but not too noticeable during the rest of the year, because for the most part witchcraft “attractions” create dead zones. But the tacky signage can still spoil your walk so avert your gaze as much as possible. Charter Street feeds into Front Street, Salem’s main shopping street, and from there you can find the path of least (traffic) resistance back to the McIntire Historic District, which is very safe territory. Broad, Chestnut, upper Essex and Federal Streets are lined with beautiful buildings, as are their connecting side streets, so take your pick. I usually just walk around until I get in my 10,000 steps: on this particular walk I ended up on Essex.

Charter, Front & upper Essex Streets.


Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem

The Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, steward of so much of Salem’s printed, written and visual history amongst its many collections, has recently digitized over 5000 images from the “Samuel V. Chamberlain Collection of Photographic Negatives, 1928-1971″ and they are available and searchable at the Digital Commonwealth. Combined with the Frank Cousins images which the Phillips made available several years ago, there is now a very strong visual record of Salem’s architecture and streetscapes in the first half of the twentieth century, or at least some of Salem’s buildings and streets as neither Cousins or Chamberlain were particularly interested in “working Salem”. Cousins was a bit more of a documentarian than Chamberlain, especially as his era (roughly 1890-1920) encompassed the Great Salem Fire of 1914. Chamberlain was a man of the world, a gourmand, and an artist: his Salem photographs encompass only one part of his work, but an important part as he lived in nearby Marblehead for many years so developed quite an intimate knowledge of the city. I’ve always been struck by his perspectives, but I thought that I’d seen most of his Salem shots as he published so many books of photography of New England scenes in general and of Salem structures in particular, including Historic Salem in Four Seasons (1938), Salem Interiors (1950), and A Stroll through Historic Salem (1969). But I was wrong: there are discoveries to be made among the 1600+ Salem images included in the Phillips Library’s Chamberlain negative collection at Digital Commonwealth. The vast majority of these photographs are of the McIntire Historic District in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, but I can see different details and angles in Chamberlain’s images of these perennially-showcased streets and structures—and lots of wonderful TREES.

New perspectives of old streets: and the interior of the depot!

These are images which struck me as “new” for one reason or another, although the first photograph is just the view of Chestnut Street from my window, over a half-century ago, and everything looks pretty much the same! Look at all the amazing elms: on the other end of Chestnut, on Essex, at the intersection of Federal and Washington Streets. A great photograph of the Lindall-Barnard-Andrews house (c. 1740; 3rd from top) and its amazing fence before some serious mistreatment in the later 20th century. Interesting views of Lynn Street, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site with trees, St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church and the Post Office and Washington Street before it became Riley Plaza (What is the white house on Norman?) One of my favorite little buildings on upper Essex Street was a bookstore! The Thomas Sanders house on Summer Street (2nd from bottom) looks much the same, but I want Mr. Chamberlain to turn around: what is behind him? And finally, a rare shot of the interior of the Boston & Maine train depot—rare in general but also for Chamberlain who preferred more timeless and aesthetic perspectives.

Change: Chamberlain was more interested in timelessness and continuity than change, but he couldn’t help but document some changes in Salem over the span of his work, from the 1930s through the 1960s. He was far more interested in urban survival than urban renewal, however: this was a man that sketched French chateaux amidst the destruction of World War I.

Two views of the London Coffeehouse or Red’s Sandwich Shop on Central Street; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location and from Hardy Street; The Curwen House rounds the corner from Essex to North Streets; 8 Chestnut Street very hemmed in by the second Second Church; which burned down in 1950, The Richard Derby House also very hemmed in; Charter Street before urban renewal; the cupola from the Pickman-Derby-Rogers House on Washington Street on the grounds of Essex Institute, now gone; the entrance to what Chamberlain called “the Italian Church,” St. Mary’s, built in 1925 and closed by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003.

A few interiors: Chamberlain’s interior images are lavish and full of architectural and decorative detail; I’ve only included a few shots here but what a resource! All the PEM houses are here, and many Chestnut Street interiors, as well as views of interiors of both public and private homes which are seldom seen. His Salem Interiors has been a favorite book of mine since I was a teenage, and this Phillips/Digital Commonwealth collection includes many shots which are not included in that publication so I’ll going back quite a bit.

Pictorial paper in the Sanders house on Summer Street (see exterior above); much to see in the Northey house parlors, but ships on mouldings—how Salem can you get? Amazing fireplace in the East India House on Essex Street.

Chestnut Street Days! Who knew Chamberlain was such a great photographer of people? Certainly not me. Probably the most charming Salem photos in the Phillips Chamberlain collection are his portraits of Salem residents in colonial dress for the Chestnut Street Days which were held on at least 5 occasions from 1926 to 1976. I think that the photos below are from the 1947 and 1952 Chestnut Street Days, but I’m not entirely sure about the former date. These are wonderful photos of happy people, men, women and lots of children, smiling at the man behind the camera, Samuel Chamberlain. Just delightful. I’m going to post more on these in the future, but I’ve really got to do some oral histories first.