Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

The Architecture of Memory

I suppose it’s a bit melancholy to be dwelling on cemeteries in the midst of a golden August but the community conversation around the proposed closure of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point on Charter Street, during October when it is besieged by crowds, has my head spinning in several directions. I’m thinking about preservation, education, memory, and reverence, public history and family history. Cemeteries are more complicated than I thought, but generations past valued these spaces in ways worthy of revisiting, and to do so I started searching through some old photographs of Charter Street, most by Frank Cousins, whose large collection of glass plate negatives has recently been digitized by the Peabody Essex Museum and Digital Commonwealth. There are no people in Cousins’ photographs of Salem cemeteries in the 1890s and 1910s, so they don’t shed any light on social practices, but the fact that he made so many photographs of both graveyards and gravestones is a testament to their perceived value in the urban landscape. I always thought of Cousins as primarily an architectural photographer, but of course cemeteries are a form of architecture, and he was also a contemporary of Harriette Merrifield Forbes (1856-1951), whose Early New England Gravestones and the Men who Made Them, 1653-1800 (1927) was a groundbreaking work on colonial funerary art. Forbes included Charter Street gravestones in her work, and I think every single regional guidebook from this fledgling age of heritage tourism drew Salem visitors to the Old Burying Point in general and the graves of Bradstreet, Mather, Lindall, Hathorne, McIntire, More (and more) in particular.

Charter Street Forbes

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Charter Street LindallIt seems as if Timothy Lindall’s gravestone has always been in the spotlight.

Cousins photographed all of Salem’s cemeteries–the “newer” ones, Greenlawn and Harmony Grove as well as the Colonial grounds, Broad, Howard, and Boston Streets—but he really focused on Charter Street, in more ways than one. We see all the details of the individual stones as well as the big picture, including a built context which is very different now. The photographs are just beautiful, and important, as he captured fragile objects for all time.

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Charter James Jeffrey

The fragility of these memorials is very apparent when we compare Cousins’ photographs to their condition today (though I am not the photographer that Cousins was obviously and I think black-and-white really serves cemetery photography better). Of course time wears everything down, and the competing demands of Salem’s rich material heritage necessitate prioritization: as I said in my last post, I think the City should be commended for its preservation initiatives of recent years. But we really need to remember that these memorials are going to deteriorate under the best of conditions, and the intense crowds of every October are the worst of conditions.

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Charter Cousins Mores Collage

pixlr-4I feel particularly bad for Mr. and Mrs. Nutting, put to rest in a lovely calm neighborhood and now in the midst of the Salem Witch Village! And I really wish that Cousins had photographed my very favorite Charter Street gravestone: that of Mr. Ebenezer Bowditch. What are those carvings? Does anyone know?

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When our descendants look at photographs of the Old Burying Point in our time a century from now, what will they see? I really hope it’s these weathered but still-stately stones, and not the props I saw when I searched through several social media sites with the hashtag #salemcemetery. This is just a sampling, I’m sorry to say.

pixlr-5Old Burying Point Cemetery, Charter Street, Salem, October 2017 & 2018.


A Cemetery under Siege

The Agenda for the meeting of the Salem Cemetery Commission tonight includes a “Recommendation to Close Charter Street Cemetery during  October”. I support this recommendation, and urge others who do so to either attend the meeting or forward their thoughts to the Commission. Here is my letter.

I urge the Salem Cemetery Commission to authorize the complete closure of the Old Burying Point Cemetery on Charter Street during the month of October, when it is clearly exposed to unrelenting population pressures which threaten its vulnerable monuments and landscape. Certainly it is within the discretion of the Commission to authorize this closure and provide access to those who formally request it on a much more limited basis. Salem already has one closed cemetery, the Quaker Burying Ground on Essex Street, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation grants municipalities wide latitude in their recommendations for library stewardship, particularly for historic cemeteries located in urban areas. The City of Boston has closed nine of its 16 historic burying grounds.

The City of Salem is to be commended for its preservation initiatives of recent years, including the ongoing restoration work at Charter Street funded by the Community Preservation Act and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the safeguarding of this investment is certainly an important justification for the closure of the cemetery during October. Another reason, equally compelling, is the opportunity for the City to express reverence for a site that is not only historic, but sacred. The dramatic escalation of Haunted Happenings has turned downtown Salem into a for-profit playground during much of the fall, and the Charter Street Cemetery and bordering Witch Trials Memorial must be excluded from this commercial context: their unfortunate proximity to the adjacent Salem Witch Village diminishes (no, eradicates) the line between carnival and commemoration.

As an educator, it concerns me to see any historical resource removed from public access. I wish that the Charter Street cemetery could serve as an authentic counterweight to the dramatic excesses of Haunted Happenings where visitors could learn from real remnants of the past but that can’t happen in an environment of crushing crowds and rampant irreverence; instead it is utilized as a textual backdrop for photographs at best and for more active endeavors at worst. Over the years, I have seen people eat, drink, sit, lie, jump, dance and skype on or near graves in Charter Street; I didn’t see the infamous diaper-changing incident but was not surprised. It’s lovely to trail behind individuals and families in April or June or even September as they read the inscriptions and revel in the sheer weight of the past that is so very evident in our most ancient cemetery, but that’s not possible in October. October in Salem is a time for a quite different type of revelry, and the Old Burying Point should not be its scene.

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20190812_125514The Old Burying Point on Charter Street in mid-August.

Charter Street Linden Tea FlickrThe Old Burying Point in October via @Linden Tea on Flickr.

Update: last night the Cemetery Commission voted to continue the matter to its September 10 meeting. The Friends of the Downtown Salem Historic Cemeteries submitted a proposal to the Commission which you can see on their website: https://www.salemcemeteries.org/. This proposal calls for the Old Burying Point Cemetery to remain open during the week and be restricted to approved tour groups on the weekends. I have great respect for the Friends group, which has been advocating for better interpretation and preservation of the downtown cemeteries for several years, but I think I’ll stand by my statement and plea for complete closure during October: I have simply seen too much disrespectful behavior in the cemetery and I have the luxury of speaking only for myself rather than having to mitigate between different vested interests as the Friends group does. To me, Charter Street is a cemetery, rather than an “attraction”, and I think we owe the Dead and their families more respect than we do tourists accommodation. But Charter Street is also a public space, and a public process in which all interested parties have an opportunity to weigh in must govern its use, so I’m grateful to the Cemetery Commission for overseeing this process, and to all parties for their input.


Covered Bridges & Hearse Houses

I took a very long way home from and through New Hampshire on Sunday, in pursuit of covered bridges and hearse houses. I’ve seen a lot of the former, but I saw my first hearse house on Saturday morning and knew instantly that I needed to see more. I’ve been obsessed with old sheds recently, as I want one for my garden, but this was such a super-specialized shed, just sitting there on the side of the road in Marlow, New Hampshire, locked up with (I assume?) its special carriage still inside, serving no purpose other than to remind us of a public responsibility of the past.

20190727_100654The Hearse House in Marlow, New Hampshire.

Any form of historic preservation is impressive to me, but there’s something about the consideration given to these simple and obviously-anachronistic structures that I find particularly endearing. I stumbled across the hearse house in Marlowe: there was no sign and it is obviously not a historical “attraction”. The covered bridges are more so: New Hampshire’s 55 preserved bridges (out of around 400 built) all have signs, numbers, plaques, and are included in a guide with which you can plot your own scenic drive.

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20190728_115632The McDermott Covered Bridge in Langdon (1864); the Meriden Bridge in Plainfield (1880); the Cilleyville (or Bog) Bridge in Andover (1887); the Keniston Bridge, also in Andover (1882); just two of Cornish’s FOUR covered bridges: somehow I missed the “Blow Me Down” Bridge and the Cornish-Windsor Bridge over the Connecticut River is here.

My focus was much more on the more elusive prey of hearse houses that afternoon; these bridges came into view along the way. After Marlow, I assumed that many New Hampshire towns would have preserved hearse houses, but this was not the case: near the end of the day, dejected and heading home to Salem,  I found only two more in Salisbury and Fremont. In Salisbury (which also has some great Federal houses), the town historian told me that their hearse house also served as a storage shed for the town’s snow roller, and Fremont’s wonderful meeting-house compound featured an informative marker.

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20190728_185821Salisbury & Fremont, New Hampshire.

Of course now I want to search out hearse houses closer to home: it looks like the town of Essex has a great example, with a very interesting story attached. There’s no surviving hearse house in Salem (for which I am actually grateful, because I dread to think how it would be utilized in Witch City), but it looks like there were actually two at one time, according to this 1841 account in the Salem Register. There is a small stone house in Harmony Grove which I thought was a tomb, but maybe not………..

Hearse House Salem_Register_1841-08-19Salem Register, August 19, 1841.


Historical Habitation

A couple of months ago, I decided that this would be the Summer of The Secretary: I’ve been wanting to purchase an antique secretary for my front parlor for quite some time, and as “brown furniture” seems positioned for a revival after the mid-century modern mania we’ve been in for a while I think that prices will start to climb back to the level where they were when I first started to furnish my home. I have the perfect, slightly-recessed spot and I think a secretary will really complete that room, which I can never seem to get right. So I’ve been looking at all of the auction listings, and the other day I saw a piece that looked vaguely familiar in a Skinner Country Americana Auction. The description confirmed my suspicion: this secretary, along with several other pieces in the same auction, came from the colonial house in South Berwick, Maine which serves as the subject of Paula Bennett’s book Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America through History, Food, and a Georgian House.

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Imagining Ichabod Secretary

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Bennett and her husband owned the Goodwin house in South Berwick for over a decade, during which time she pursued every possible avenue to create an ambiance as historical as possible in their home: research into the textures, furnishings, food and events of the era in which the two Ichabod Goodwins lived (1740-1829), through primary and secondary sources, archaeology, and what I like to call “shopping research” ( in which I indulge often) via period houses, auctions, and antique shops. Imagining Ichabod details this very personal and material journey in words, pictures, and recipes, as Bennett is an enthusiastic cook—indeed, one gets the impression that she is enthusiastic about everything! After this complete immersion, it was off to a Boston condo for the Bennetts, which is why their Georgian furnishings ended up at Skinner.

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Imagining Ichabod Table Skinner

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Imagining Ichabod Entrance Table

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Imagining Ichabod Marble Table

The cumulative and intensive effort to create a perfect eighteenth-century (-esque) house, only to dismantle and leave it after a relatively short period, is interesting to me, as I wonder about the constraints of “period living”, and by that I mean aesthetic constraints rather than practical ones, as even the most passionate antiquarians have indoor plumbing! Everyone I know in Salem lives in an old house, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but no one furnishes their homes in an exclusively period style: it’s generally a melange of old and new, with some nods to the era in which the house was built and a lot more comfortable furniture. When I first purchased my current house, which was built in 1827, I went about it much like Paula Bennett: I wanted period furniture, period drapes, period plates, period lighting, period wallpaper, and period hardware; I was particularly obsessed with finding the correct switch plates, but of course no switch plate is “correct” in an 1827 house. After about a decade of that design philosophy, I grew tired of the constraints and loosened up considerably, and now my house is a mix of past and present, as it no doubt appeared in 1927, 1877, and even the year it was built. But I still want a secretary—and the Bennett’s Georgian one is too early.

Sandy Agrafiotis photographs in Paula Bennett’s Imagining Ichabod. My Journey into 18th Century America Through its History, Food, and a Georgian House (Bauer and Dean, 2016). I never attempted period cooking like Paula Bennett, but I’m always on the lookout for a good rum punch, and the idea of roasted oysters intrigues, as both my father and husband are oyster aficionados.


A Genteel Boarding House in Salem

My fascination with the newly-digitized glass plate negatives of Frank Cousins, documenting Salem at the turn of the last century, continues: right now I’m curious to know all there is to know about the legendary Doyle Mansion on Summer Street, home to many members of ancient Salem families, whether they were “in transition” or truly settled in. Cousins gives us a glancing view of its Summer Street facade in one photograph, but he’s clearly more interested in its rambling additions in the rear. There are also several drawings by a Miss Sarah E. C. Oliver included in an absolutely wonderful 1948 article in the Essex Institute Historical Collections based on the memoirs of Miss Bessie Fabens, whose aunt was a fabled resident of the Doyle Mansion. This same article also includes the first-floor plan of the “ell-ongated” composition by architect Phillip Horton Smith, likely rendered just before the mansion was taken down in 1936.

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Doyle Mansion EIHC 1948

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Cousins Doyle House 2Summer Street from Broad with the Doyle Mansion on the right, Frank Cousins collection of glass plate negatives from the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, via Digital Commonwealth; drawings by Miss Sarah E.C. Oliver and first-floor plan by Phillip Horton Smith in “The Doyle Mansion—Some Memories and Anecdotes” by Bessie D. Fabens, Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 84 (1948); Cousins’ views of the back of the house and its many addition (+ the lost Creek Street). 

This house was huge and home to 30-35 inhabitants during its peak years: from the 1880s until its closure in 1933.  The original rectangular Federal construction was built by the Reverend Joshua Spaulding of the Tabernacle Church around 1800, but a half-century later it became a boarding house under the ownership of an Irishman named Thomas Doyle: as the tenants of “Doyle’s” increased so did its additions. Miss Caddie (Caroline Augusta) Fabens, Bessie’s great-aunt and the inspiration for her mansion memoir, moved in in 1878 intending to stay only a few weeks; instead she became its “star boarder” over the next 58 years. Bessie visited her often, and got to know the house very well, and so her memoir is incredibly detailed. As verified by Cousins’ photographs, she notes that “ell after ell” was added on “until one side extended the whole length of the old-fashioned garden which sloped down from the back of the house”. These ells very clearly demarcated on the exterior, but inside “no one knew where the original house ended and the additions began”. Bessie describes a rabbit warren with eleven staircases, countless rooms, but only three toilets (all on the ground floor), and a single bathtub for the mansion’s 30+ residents, secured by “appointment only”. Within members of all the “distinguished” families of Salem lived together, “stray survivors” of the Silsbee, King, Cushing, Shepard, Trumbull, Brown and Chase families, in relative harmony, as “not only did [the Doyles’] denizens all know each other, but they knew all the ramifications of their family histories for at least four generations. It was sort of a big family party with the likes and dislikes which go with New England families, and the impersonal toleration which prevents them from being obnoxious”. Wouldn’t this be a great setting for a novel or play?

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Doyle Table Cousins_02351Views of the exterior and interior of the Doyle Mansion by Frank Cousins, collection of glass plate negatives at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, Digital Commonwealth.

All of these people brought their furniture and furnishings—including “shelves of blue Staffordshire and Canton China never used in all those years”, documented by both Bessie and Cousins. Bessie adds that “almost every room had its fireplace or Franklin stove” and all the comforts of home except perhaps for the “scanty” plumbing, and concludes that A legend grew up that every true Salemite must at sometime or other stay at the Mansion and there were very few of us who had not done our time there. The Mansion’s time came to an end in 1933 and much of the land on which it sat—as well as Samuel McIntire’s house next door at #31–was sold to the Holyoke Mutual Fire Insurance Company for the construction of their behemoth concrete building in 1934. Despite the recognition that both houses were “historic”, they were both swept away (along with Creek Street) by 1936 for the block-filling structure that still stands there.

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20190708_162115Boston Globe, June 1934; the Holyoke Mutual Fire Insurance building, built in 1936 and now owned by Common Ground Enterprises (and its rather weedy sidewalk!)


Cousins Comparisons

It’s been really wonderful to see people in Salem respond to the large collection of Frank Cousins glass plate negatives which were digitized and uploaded to the Digital Commonwealth by the Peabody Essex Museum just last week. It was verified that columns from Mechanic Hall, which burned down in 1905, had been situated in a River Street garden for quite some time, we all saw how connected the city was a century ago with tracks running everywhere, and people are zooming in on all sorts of details we could never possibly grasp without these visual “windows” to the past. Sometimes I’m a bit wary about historical photographs: people do tend to get focused on the details rather than look for the bigger picture. But it is impossible to deny their instant accessibility and capacity for driving historical engagement, especially by enabling comparisons of the past and the present. That’s what I have been doing all week, whenever I could find or make the time: walking around with the Cousins collection and placing myself in the spot (or vicinity) where he took the picture a century and more ago. So much is revealed when you look at the city through a historical lens: some places have hardly changed, others are unrecognizable, everything is illuminated. Before I get to the details, some big picture observations: the city appears much cleaner in Cousins’ day (most of these photos are from the 1890s) than ours, and much less crowded (although he is not showing us Salem’s working-class neighborhoods), and the impact of cars is obvious. I do wonder about the pristine streets in Cousins’ photographs as this was a world of horses: did Cousins bring his own broom or helper to sweep the streets before he took his photographs? But there was no food-and-drink detritus then: Salem is awash in coffee cups, paper plates, and nip bottles now.

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pixlr-1The John P. Felt House on Federal Court past and present: despite a rough last half-century or so, the house is still standing in good form, lacking only its widow’s walk and shutters.

pixlr-2Barton Square has been pretty much annihilated.

pixlr-3Change and continuity on Bott’s Court: old house on the left, newer (both 1890s) houses on the right. Cousins is showing us the demolition of the former house on the right with his preservationist eye.

pixlr-5Kimball Court present and past: Cousins is showing us the birthplace of Nathaniel Bowditch below: this house is in the top right corner above. In front of it today is a house that was brought over from Church Street during urban renewal in the 1960s when that street was wiped out.

pixlr-618 Lynde Street: this appears to be the same house, with major doorway changes.

pixlr_20190705142016939The house on Mall Street where Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the Scarlet Letter: there was an addition attached to the house at some point in the 1980s or thereabouts.

pixlr-7134 Bridge Street: As a major entrance corridor–then and now—Bridge Street has impacted by car traffic pretty dramatically over the twentieth century; Cousins portrays a sleepier street with some great houses, many of which are still standing—hopefully the progressive sweep of vinyl along this street will stop soon.

pixlr-817 Pickman Street seems to have acquired a more distinguished entrance; this was the former Mack Industrial School (Cousins’ caption reads “Hack” incorrectly).

pixlr-9Great view of lower Daniels Street–leading down to Salem Harbor–and the house built for Captain Nathaniel Silsbee (Senior) in 1783. You can’t tell because of the trees, but the roofline of this house has been much altered, along with its entrance.

pixlr-10Hardy Street, 1890s and today: with the “mansion house” of Captain Edward Allen still standing proudly on Derby Street though somewhat obstructed by this particular view. You can read a very comprehensive history of this house here, drawn from literary sources in the Phillips Library’s collections.


Sweeping through Beauport

Historic New England offers comprehensive “nooks and crannies” tours through several of its properties occasionally, and I was fortunate to go on one of these basement-to-attic-and-all-the-closets-in-between tours of Beauport, the rambling Queen Anne “cottage” on Eastern Point in Gloucester, the beneficiary of a generous friend’s conflict! Beauport was built and decorated in great detail by Henry Davis Sleeper, one of America’s first professional decorators, over several decades beginning in 1907: it is an incremental construction driven by Sleeper’s evolving vision and career. The former was preserved by Helena Woolworth McCann, who purchased Beauport after Sleeper’s death in 1934, following the advice of Henry Francis DuPont: “the minute you take things out of this house, or change them about, the value of the collection does not exist, as really the arrangement is 90%. I have no feeling whatsoever about the Chinese room, as I think it is distinctly bad; but the rest of the house really is a succession of fascinating pictures and color schemes.”  Mrs. McCann had Sleeper’s pagoda removed from the China Trade room and made it her own, and likely packed away some of Sleeper’s stuff while she and her family were inhabiting the house over successive summers, but seems to have understood DuPont’s assertion that the house was the sum of its parts–and her family donated the intact property to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) in 1942. So when you go to Beauport today, you are stepping into Henry Davis Sleeper’s house, the way he wanted it, and you know that this is a man who admired arrangement above all, incorporating the contrast of light and dark, all color of glass, green, anything and everything that projected the spirit of idealized and romanticized pre-industrial American and English material culture, depictions of great men (George Washington above all, but also Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette, and Lords Nelson and Byron, among others), and a fair amount of whimsy. Beauport is a lot to take in, even on a standard tour much less this exhaustive one, so I’ve divided my photographs into room views and details—but they represent only a small measure of both! You’ve really got to see Beauport for yourself: several times.

The bigger picture: it’s really difficult to photograph the entirety of this house, except from above or the ocean! I focused on inside, but there’s some lovely photographs of both the interior and exterior taken by T.E. Marr & Son c. 1910-1915 here.  

Beauport HNE

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20190628_142353The China Trade Room from Sleeper’s “Minstrel’s Gallery” above, within the Book Tower, the Octagon Room, where it’s all about eight, the Golden Step dining room, the South Gallery,  the Master Mariner’s Room, the “Red Indian” Room with its ships-cabin overlook of Gloucester Harbor, the Strawberry Hill room which became Sleeper’s bedroom, the Belfry Chamber—my favorite room in the house—-the Jacobean Room, the Chapel Chamber Room, and the Franklin Game Room.

Every salvaged discovery provoked an aesthetic reaction from Sleeper, and his design sense was so strong that it lives on well after his death in Beauport. Despite its size (it grew to 56 rooms by Sleeper’s “reactions”) the house remains very personal. It certainly reflects Sleeper’s personality, but as his collection of objects was so vast and varied it is possible to have a personal reaction to what you are seeing. That certainly happened for me, so my more detailed focus below reflects my own taste, in reaction to what I was seeing. And you will notice many other things that I missed.

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20190628_135742Details, Details: marble mantle and 18th century hand-painted wallpaper from China in the China Trade room (it was purchased by Philadelphia financier Robert Morris in 1784 and discovered, still rolled up, in the attic of the Eldridge Gerry House in Marblehead in 1923), wooden “drapes” in the book tower room, a portrait by Matthew Prior (c. 1845) in the Blue Willow room, fishermen’s floats ( I think Sleeper was the original high-low decorator!), beehive pull, memorial to the death of a former slave, majolica hedgehog or porcupine (?) Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Belfry Chamber, Green glass urn in the Chapel Chamber, plate commemorating the visit of Hungarian nationalist Louis Kossuth to Boston in 1852 & window shade commemorating the American victory in the Spanish-American War in the Pine Kitchen or Pembroke Room, my favorite of Sleeper’s many hooked rugs, and the portrait of a dapper anonymous man.

♠ A more comprehensive history of both the house and the man can be found here.


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