I love September: the cooler days and nights, the colors of late-summer flowers, the light, which can be both hazy and very, very clear. And then there’s that back-to-school feeling which I have experienced every year of my life with the exception of a few years ago, when I took a fall sabbatical. It’s a bit different this year, of course, with all of my classes online, but I still got that anxious/excited feeling on the first day of classes this week. Online teaching cannot compete with face-to-face instruction in my opinion, but it can “personal”, in the sense that you are staring right into the close faces (and homes) of your students; pre-packaged presentations can be more thematic and thoughtful than those which are delivered in person, especially with my conversational style. I put a lot of effort into structuring my online courses this summer to compensate for the slapdash efforts of last semester when we had to make rather quick transitions, so I think that my students will be getting a good mix of lecture, discussion, and writing. Still, with all of that said, I miss going back to school in person. But our home is a lot calmer now with the big kitchen renovation completed (big reveal next week: it’s still a bit of a mess), and it’s a good place to teach and write: I am very fortunate. I worked pretty steadily all summer, so I treated myself to a FOUR-day Labor Day Weekend, and the weather was GLORIOUS, as you can really see (I think) in these photos of New Hampshire, Maine, and Salem.
My long Labor Day Weekend: at the Wentworth Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth on Saturday; York’s McIntire Garrison (+my Dad) and Jefferds Tavern and some Cape Neddick and Ogunquit Houses on Sunday, on the When and If, the 1939 yacht of General Patton, on Tuesday night: it sails out of Salem in the summer and Key West in the winter.
With the new book contract, I won’t be traveling anywhere for quite a while so I guess our trip down to New Jersey last week was my last road trip! My husband is from the Jersey shore, and so we go down once or twice a year. I’m not really a beach person, so in the summers, I generally take the days that we are there to explore and come home for dinner with everyone: I think my husband’s family thought this was odd at first but now they seem quite adjusted to my behavior. I’m just very curious about Jersey: it’s one of those states I have always driven through and seldom explored thoroughly, and there’s a lot to see. This time I was set on visiting Lambertville on the Delaware River, just about due west from where we were on the Shore, and I also wanted to go south (and west) to the other Salem, New Jersey, to see the NicholsonHouse: I made it to the former but not the latter, so next time. But I thoroughly enjoyed Lambertville, a really cool historic city which is also the antiques hub of New Jersey, as well as its adjacent towns on both sides of the Delaware River. This is a perfect road trip if you are not too far from the region: just drive up NJ Route 29 from Trenton to through Lambertville to Frenchtown, then cross over to Pennsylvania, and travel south along Route 32 through New Hope to the Washington Crossing Historic Park. Here’s my trip.
How perfect is Lambertville? Clean, every storefront filled, an interesting array of houses, perfect SIGNAGE, and city-council candidates who run on a platform of stopping overdevelopment!
Still in New Jersey, heading north on 29 past the John Prall House and Mill, now a wonderful public park, into Frenchtown.
Route 32 in Pennsylvania, past the Thompson-Neely House, where Washington’s troops waited to cross over the river prior to the Battle of Trenton, into Upper Makefield, site of the Washington Crossing Historic Park, ending up back in Jersey at the Johnson Ferry House. Obviously there was a lot more to see in Buck’s County, but I had to make it back to the Shore for dinner!
I’ve been rather depressed about the state of historic preservation in Salem: after a strong commitment in response to full scale urban renewal in the 1960s and early 1970s we seem to be awash in a sea of vinyl siding and shed dormers. I’m not sure what happened exactly, although rising property values and the corresponding desire of developers to cram as many units as possible into old structures, thereby transforming their architectural profile beyond all recognition, likely has something to do with it. But history always brings perspective, and in recognition of both this Centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage, my own #SalemSuffrageSaturday series, and the Preservation Month of May, I am focusing on seven women who really made an impact on the recognition, and preservation, of Salem’s material heritage. These women faced far greater obstacles than I am seeing now, and they should be celebrated. This post is partly repetitive, as I’ve featured several of these women before, but there are some new heroines as well, at least new to me.
In chronological order:
Caroline Emmerton (1866-1942): the founder of the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association, and a founding member of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). Much has been written about Caroline Emmerton (especially as she was a rather mysterious woman), so I don’t have too much to add here, but she deserves recognition not only for reconstructing and creating the House of the Seven Gables and its campus, but also reorienting Salem’s—and the nation’s—appreciation of its first-period past. The House of the Seven Gables, and Emmerton’s vision of her native city, remains a strong counterweight to the commercial cacophony of Witch City. Emmerton seems like a rather “creative” preservationist to me, but certainly an influential one!
Caroline O. Emmerton, The Chronicles of Three Old Houses, 1935
Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958): As a du Pont, Mrs. Crowninshield was not from Salem, nor did she ever live here (although she summered in Marblehead), but she has to be included on any list of preservationists for her key efforts towards the preservation and interpretation of several Salem sites, including the Derby House of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Peabody Essex Museum’s Crowninshield-Bentley and Peirce-Nichols houses. She was also a board member of SPNEA, as well as of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum in Salem, and a founding trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You can read more about Louise in this post, in which I appeal to a potential successor to to emerge in contemporary Salem!
Louise duPont Crowninshield (center) surrounded by the ladies of the Kenmore Association in Virginia, one of her first preservation projects, Hagley Museum & Library.
Bessie E. Munroe (?-1975): Mrs. Munroe waited out urban renewal in Salem in her lovely Federal home on Ash Street, with demolition ongoing all around her. She was a widow in her 80s when the Salem Development Authority began implementing its 1965 urban renewal plan, which called for the demolition of 145 out of 177 buildings downtown, including her house! She was compelled to sell to the SRA in 1970, but fortunately the agency agreed to her life tenancy because of her age and health. And then a new Salem Redevelopment Authority emerged, more intent on preservation than demolition: at the time of Bessie’s death in 1975, her house—the last historic residence standing, facing a parking lot—was saved and sold to a preservation architect. It is now on the National Register.
Seeing red (demolition) in 1965; 7 Ash Street, the Bessie Munroe House, today.
Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013): Another woman who never lived in Salem (but long summered in nearby Marblehead like Louise duPont Crowninshield) yet had a tremendous effect on the city’s material heritage largely through her passionate indictments of the 1965 urban renewal plan (see above) published in the New York Times from 1965. Sometimes I think crediting her exclusively for the demise of this plan minimized all the efforts towards that aim by preservationists here in Salem, but still, there’s no denying her powerful impact, as she occupied a strong position of power as the architectural critic for the Times. Ms. Huxtable was not a strict preservationist, but she believed that it could be a useful tool against generic, thoughtless development with no historical or aesthetic merit: sterilizednon–places. She kept watch on Salem through its new redevelopment and credited its mix of old and new in later articles and her 1986 anthology Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger. In praising Salem for “renewing it right” she also asserted that “Salem’s results promise to be a stunning rebuke to every community that has ever thought the only way to revitalization lay through….mutilation of what was often a unique identity for shoddy-slick, newly jerrybuilt anonymity.” Every day I wonder what Ms. Huxtable would think of Salem’s newest buildings.
Ada Louise Huxtable’s condemnation of Salem’s 1965 Urban Renewal Plan in October of that year, the first of several pieces published in the New York Times.
Elizabeth K. Reardon Frothingham (1923-1983): A Salem native descended from several notable Salem families, “Libby” Reardon was a passionate afficionado and student of early American architecture who went on to become a professional preservationist, shepherding Historic Salem Inc. though its most turbulent era and writing several detailed inventories for the City of Salem. All of her records, unfortunately, were donated to the PEM’s Phillips Library and therefore moved from the city to which she was so dedicated: you can read more about that here. Given the pandemic, I haven’t been able to access her records or reports up there, but newspaper accounts testify both to her discovery (as a mere “housewife”) of two camouflaged Salem first-period houses, the Gedney and Samuel Pickman (pictured in the Huxtable article above, as well as below) Houses, as well as to her steadfast defense of Salem’s material heritage in the 1960s and 1970s. She was a real preservation heroine, gone too soon: I can only imagine what she might have achieved in the 1980s or 1990s—or now!
1965! What a year that must have been—-Salem’s preservationists had to have been functioning 24/7.
And speaking of gone too soon, I wanted to take this opportunity to recognize two women who were clearly effective administrators of their respective institutions as well as contributors to the preservation of Salem’s material heritage: Anne Farnam (1940-91) of the Essex Institute and Cynthia Pollack (1932-1992) of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Ms. Farnam served as Curator at the Institute from 1975 to 1983 and as its President from 1984 until 1991, while Ms. Pollack served as Superintendent of SMNHS from 1983 to 1992. I have no idea what their personal relationship was like, but they were clearly colleagues not only in advancing the missions of their institutions but also the stature of Salem as a heritage destination. Both were active in the Salem Project, the forerunner of the Essex National Heritage Area, and both worked towards a more layered and contextual interpretation of Salem’s history. When you study their careers, you can see how interpretation and preservation are integrated and complementary: as the chief administrator of an institution charged with the stewardship of eight historic houses, Ms. Farnam was by necessity a preservationist, but she also initiated the 1977 exhibition on “Dr. Bentley’s Salem: Diary of a Town” which seemed to have seamlessly merged textual and material history (I never saw it, but I do have the companion volume of the EssexInstituteHistoricalCollections). Likewise, Ms. Pollack deserves high praise for her dedication to the restoration of Salem’s historic wharves, but at the same time worked to enhance Salem Maritime’s interpretive reach: as the tribute sign at the Visitors Center’s Cynthia Pollack Theater reads: There were stories to be told, and she wanted visitors to see, touch, smell, and feel the maritime spirit that the site embodies. We all have a lot to live up to, I think.
A Boston Globe (glowing) review for Ms. Farnam’s exhibition, Dr. Bentley’s Salem. Diary of a Town in 1977 and 1992 photograph of Ms. Pollack.
A couple of years ago I complained about the lack of WPA murals in any of Salem’s public buildings: this struck me, as an impression and little else, as a lack of New Deal investment in Depression-era Salem. I’ve had time to survey the paper trail now and boy was I wrong: Salem benefited tremendously from the work of New Deal agencies, and not just in terms of its infrastructure but its culture as well. So this post will serve to set the record straight. I don’t think there is a Salem neighborhood that lacked a WPA project: there was work on different installations around Salem Harbor, at two Salem islands (Winter and Baker’s), downtown, in Forest River Park in South Salem and at Greenlawn Cemetery in North Salem. And so many agencies worked here, fanning out from a major field office in Barton Square with 300 Federal employees at first, and then a smaller office situated in a renovated Old Town Hall. Whether it mitigated the impact of the Great Depression effectively is another inquiry, but the Federal government certainly had a presence in Salem in the 1930s, and left its mark.
News clips from Works Progress Administration Bulletins, 1936-39, Boston Public Library; National Youth Administration Photos and Records, NARA.
Well of course parking lots, wharves, and cemetery plots were necessary and I think the timely renovation of Old Town Hall was key, but my favorite WPA agencies were those charged with more historical and cultural endeavors, most especially the Historical Records Survey (HRS) and the Historic Architectural Buildings Survey (HABS). Salem was fortunate in that it had a demonstrated commitment to the preservation of historic records and buildings, in the forms of the long-established Essex Institute and concurrent initiative to establish the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, but the HRS was instrumental at documenting essential records of American history across the US at their most endangered moment. It was originally part of the WPA’s Federal Writers Project, but it spun off on its own and then became a unit of the Research and Records Program in 1939, charged with compiling indexes to major genealogical sources such as vital statistics, cemetery internments, military records, and newspapers. The reports of the HRS are nothing short of heroic (Salem actually needs one now; I have no idea of the location or state of many of its public records) but little interesting items were also published in the 1930s, showing how historical research was interwoven into daily life. And as for HABS: is it impossible to underestimate the value of its photographs, measured drawings, and documented details of Salem’s built landscape, and with over 600 entries Salem was particularly favored by these dedicated professionals, working away in large field office in Boston.
HABS records, Library of Congress.
Another WPA cultural agency that seems to have been very active in Salem during the later 1930s was the Federal Theatre Project, which staged a succession of productions at the Empire Theatre on Esssex Street and several benefits around town—several premieres, no less. I can’t discern similar activity on the part of the Federal Art Project in Salem, though I suppose Salem artists could have exhibited at the Federal Art Gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. As I was researching the FAP, I did learn that it was not the chief administrating agency of all of those lovely Post Office murals which started me off on my charge years ago, but rather the Fine Arts Department of the Treasury Department. Another cultural agency which was under the aegis of both the WPA and the Federal Art Project was the IndexofAmerican Design, which commissioned artists (over 400) to create watercolor illustrations (over 18,000) of intrinsically American decorative art objects, including several Salem items.
Federal Theatre Project and Federal Art Project Posters from the Library of Congress; Salem Index of American Art renderings from the collection at the National Gallery of Art.
Finally, I don’t think I can conclude this survey of the New Deal’s contributions to Salem’s physical and cultural landscape without a brief mention of the Massachusetts volume in the American Guide Series produced by the Federal Writers Project: Massachusetts: a Guide to its Places and People (1937). This book was a bit controversial in its time as it was one of the first American Guide books and it definitely revealed a pro-labor perspective in its first part, which introduces readers to the Massachusetts people and their institutions. It certainly reflects its time and its intent, but regardless, the second part of the book contains absolutely amazing walking and driving tours of Massachusetts cities and counties. I actually drive around with it in my car! There are several walking tours of Salem and they are much better than that stupid Red Line thing we have now; we should just arm all of our visitors with a copy of the WPA map to the city and they would be far better served.
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.
Trade 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 notthe 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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
All 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.
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.
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.
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.
We 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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
Some 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?
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”.
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.
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.
Another Rumford Roaster! I really believe that Salem can lay claim to being the city with the most Rumford Roasters.
Beautiful views over Oliver Street on one side of the house, and the Common on the other.
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.
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.
Joshua Upham, the builder of 2 Oliver Street/33 Washington Square North, which is now for sale through J. Barrett & Company.