Tag Archives: House Museums

Lilac Days

Lilacs are so ubiquitous in New England in May that you tend to overlook them, but over the past pleasant days I have been seeking them out in some of my favorite spots. I’m always so conflicted during this month, as my academic responsiblities conflict with my desire to immerse myself in all things horticultural. Over the last few weeks, I missed both Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum, as well as the peak spring blooming at the Stevens-Coolidge garden in North Andover. But I finished my grading over the weekend, and found myself going to and from my family’s house in York Harbor, Maine on my own wayward routes, chasing lilacs along the way. I saw lilacs by the sea, lilacs in town, lilacs in the country, lilacs by front doors, back doors, bulkheads, gates, and many many fences.

Starting out in York Harbor yesterday (where it seems to me that there were many more lilacs in the past; I guess childhood memories are always like that!), then on to Portsmouth, where lilacs peaking through garden gates and alongside foundations lured me into Strawberry Banke. I really loved the garden at the Nutter House, the boyhood home of author Thomas Bailey Aldrich–this last lilac bush is in the garden his wife designed for him later and it is at least a century old. More on this garden later in the summer!

From Portsmouth, I drove to North Andover, as I decided to visit the Stevens-Coolidge garden even though I knew the tulips would be a bit past their peak: it’s still a lovely garden! Not many lilacs though: just a couple of tall hedges, which were waving constantly on this very breezy day. North Andover is an old town, so I knew I’d find some lilacs peaking out from any number of places, and I was not disappointed: they enclose several venerable house lots, the Parson Barnard House included.

From North Andover I headed home on the old Salem Road that takes you through Middleton and Danvers: bound for the beautiful Glen Magna garden in the latter town. I ended the day in a purple haze, but also with lots of gratitude and appreciation for the North Andover, Topsfield and Danvers Historical Societies, which maintain all these properties in such beautiful condition. From my jaded Salem perspective, the absence of cash-cow commodification of heritage sites is so welcome and refreshing. I visit the Glen Magna garden all summer long, and view it much in the same way that its founder and his successors, the Salem merchant Joseph Peabody and several generations of the Endicott family, must have: as a retreat from bustling Salem. Of course I can’t set myself up in the house like they did, but I’m very grateful for the open garden! The last Endicott to summer at Glen Magna, William Crowninshield Endicott, Jr., brought the 1794 summer house designed by Samuel McIntire for the Derby farm on Lowell Street in Peabody to Glen Magna in 1901. This amazing structure is worth a visit at any time of the year—it looks just as strking in the midst of winter as it does in the midst of all this green, and purple.

Lilacs against the Parson Capen House’s barn, and the gardens at Glen Magna.


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.


Revolutionary Jersey

I turned my return trip from a mid-Atlantic family/research weekend into a day trip focused on New Jersey’s Revolutionary history which is, of course, plentiful. I had been to the battle sites of Princeton, Trenton, and Monmouth before, but never to Morristown, so that was my focus. And I snapped a few photos at Monmouth as well, just because I was driving by and everything was so green. But mostly I was in Morristown, where General Washington located two winter encampments during the Revolution, in 1777 and 1780. The town’s location was strategic then, and convenient now, not too far from either New York City or Philadelphia. It has a lot to offer the tourist seeking historical places, but its vibrant downtown is evidence that it is not altogether focused on the past: destinations that deliver for both visitors and residents are always the best. There are blue and red markers near the sites of Revolutionary structures that are no longer there, and the sprawling Morristown National Historic Park encompasses those that survive. So while we don’t get to see Arnold’s Tavern, Washington’s headquarters during the first encampment, we do get to see the beautiful Ford Mansion, where he spent the second, during the coldest winter on record, in comparative luxury (though with a lot of other people). We also get to see the Wick farmhouse and land at Jockey Hollow, which was transformed into one of the country-in-formation’s largest settlements with the encampment of some 13,000 soldiers. Actually I was going to spend more time and get a true Revolutionary perspective by returning to Princeton and Trenton, but I got sidetracked by a pretty little town in the center of the state, Cranbury. It served as the encampment for Washington and his troops prior to the Battle of Monmouth in late June of 1778, and so set the theme for my little daytrip: encampments rather than battlefields. I must admit though: Cranbury’s houses were so great I would have spent time there regardless of any Revolutionary connection, and so you have to too!

The Monmouth Battlefield and nearby Cranbury; the last cute house is home to the Cranbury Historical & Preservation Society–everywhere I go there are city historical museums or societies and Salem is very conspicuous in its lack of one!

The encampment focus is one which highlights civilian as well as combatant experiences and sacrifices. At the Georgian Ford Mansion in Morristown, you cannot help but think about Theodosia Ford, who offered her gracious home to General Washington to serve as his headquarters in 1779, two years after her husband died during another winter quartering, with 35 soldiers in the house. During Washington’s occupancy, which included his wife Martha, five aides-de-camp, 18 servants (the NPS is not forthcoming on how many were enslaved), assorted guides and occasional dignitaries also in residence, Mrs. Ford and her four children were restricted to two rooms. At Jockey Hollow several miles away, the surviving Wick house, a very New Englandish structure built about 1750, would have been surrounded by small soldiers’ cabins built from 600 acres of the farm’s timber, while Major Arthur St. Clair of the Pennsylvania brigade quartered in the family home. They all endured through the “Hard Winter” together. Numerous monuments and plaques testify to the sacrifices of the Revolutionary soldiers who occupied Morristown at one time or another; I think the contributions of the Revolutionary citizens of Morristown should be marked as well. But perhaps they already are, by the witness houses still standing almost 250 years later.

The National Historic Park at Morristown, encompassing the Ford Mansion and Washington’s Headquarters Museum (one of the first NPS museums, designed by John Russell Pope and completed in 1937), as well as Jockey Hollow. Some exhibits inside the Museum, including an altar-esque presentation of an Edward Savage portrait of George Washington. The park does not include the Jabez Campfield House, c. 1760, but it’s just down the road from the Ford Mansion: this is the scene of the courtship of Alexander Hamilton and Betsy Schuyler in 1780, so it’s now referred to as the Hamilon-Schuyler house! The Wick house and its grounds, which are beautiful, including reproduction soldiers’ cabins and a wonderful herb garden maintained by the Herb Society of America. Like New England, New Jersey is very green this summer.


Merrimack Meandering: the Whitefield Project, part II

I’ve got a lot of gardening and exterior house projects to do, but we’re in the midst of a stretch of rainy, foggy and soggy weather, so I can’t trim my hedges or paint my scraped and sanded deck (especially the latter). After last year’s summer of writing, I am more focused on activity this year, but we’ve had too few days of that perfect dry and sunny New England weather: it’s either wet or hot! I know I shouldn’t complain, as many parts of our country have it far worse, but I seem to be doing it anyway. Tuesday seemed particularly gray, so I threw Edwin Whitefield in the car and drove off in search of greener pastures: to the Merrimack River Valley. It was lush, lush, lush, a benefit of this icky weather for sure, and I really didn’t get very far: I went for more byways than highways and consequently just covered a southeastern corner of a much larger area. Whitefield was not a great guide, frankly: he missed a lot of Homes of our Forefathers in Amesbury, and West Newbury, and even the major metropolis of the region, Haverhill (I didn’t make it as far west as Lawrence or Lowell). Here’s my route (well, sort of):

Obviously I did not follow a thought-out or straightforward path, which explains why I didn’t cover much ground: one place led to another and these are large towns with lots of great houses to be found on nearly every road, requiring many stops. I don’t know Haverhill as well as some of the other towns in the valley, and it is large and diverse with lots to see: I really could have spent the entire day there. I drove up to the river on route 97 through Beverly, Topsfield, Boxford, Georgetown and Groveland, and searched for the one little house Whitefield sketched in the last town: not sure I found it but below are my top candidates. The bottom house is the wonderful George Hopkinson House on the National Register: unfortunately it faces the river rather than backing up to it, as in Whitefield’s sketch. Then it was across the river into Saltonstall country: like Salem and several other Massachusetts towns, the storied Saltonstall family looms large in Haverhill. But there is no Saltonstall house standing: the first one, the so-called “Saltonstall Seat” overlooking the river, burned down in the early 18th century, and a Georgian house later relocated to the shores of Lake Saltonstall was taken down in 1920. The Buttonwoods Museum (which really should update its hours) is home to the Haverhill Historical Society and the Duncan and Ward Houses, situated on the site of the Saltonstall Seat. Behind the Museum are historic cemeteries and the Highlands neighborhood, full of amazing houses in every conceivable architectural style. And then lakes! Haverhill really has a lot going for it, including a pretty vibrant downtown.

Groveland houses; Haverhill and the Merrimack in the 1880s; Whitefield’s Haverhill houses; the Duncan and Ward Houses of the Buttonwoods Museum.

After exploring the Highlands for a while I wanted to see if I could find a vista similar to the one in the print above, so I crossed the river over into Bradford, which is actually part of Haverhill. It is home to the charming campus of the now defunct Bradford College which originated as an academy at the seventeenth-century Kimball Tavern, now for sale. As I looked at this building, built in 1692, I began thinking about Haverhill’s famous captive, Hannah Dustin, who has been in the news recently as there is discussion about the appropriateness of her statue, given that she killed and scalped ten members of the Abenaki family holding her hostage after the raid on Haverhill in 1697. Her statue is scary, so I decided to cross the river again and go in search of the garrison house which her husband Thomas was building at the time of the raid. It now sits rather oddly next to a modern house and across from a golf course, but still intact. Then I got back on Whitefield track and went in search of the birthplace of another famous Haverhillian, John Greenleaf Whittier. From Whittier’s birthplace, now open, I naturally wanted to visit the house in which he resided later in life, in nearby Amesbury.

The Kimball Tavern, Dustin Garrison House and Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, and Whitter Homestead, Macy-Colby House, and a private 17th century house in Amesbury.

I took a very indirect route to Amesbury via Rocks Village, yet another village of sprawling Haverhill! Its bridge brings you across the river into West Newbury, which is full of eighteenth-century houses, and then I drove east into Newburyport and across the old chain bridge into Amesbury, also home to many early houses and ignored by Whitefield. As the day progressed towards the golden hour, things got a bit brighter, but it was also time to drive south towards home along route 1A. As is the case with Salem, the two houses which Whitefield chose to sketch in Newburyport are no longer standing: the Toppan and Pillsbury-Rawson Houses, which were both on High Street, I believe. But all of the first period houses he sketched in “Old” Newbury have survived, including the Noyes and Coffin Houses. The former is one of my very favorite old houses in Essex County, if only for its situation: it takes you right back to the seventeenth century. The latter is a Historic New England house, and open on Saturdays over the summer. Newbury and Rowley to the south are North Shore towns that link the Merrimack River Valley to Cape Ann, which Whitefield sketched a bit more actively, but I’ll have to leave that for another day trip.

The Noyes and Coffin Houses in Newbury.


The Phillips House

I can’t believe that I’ve been blogging here for eleven+ years and have not featured 1) the only house museum; 2) the only house belonging to Historic New England; and 3) the only house which was (partially) moved to its site on the street where I live, Chestnut Street, before! There are two buildings which are open to the public on this famous street, Hamilton Hall and the Phillips House: the former is most definitely an assembly hall, while the latter is a home, and when you visit it, that will be one of your primary takeaways. Not only will you become familiar with multiple generations of the Phillips family, but also members of their staff (who were apparently never referred to as servants); not only will you see beautiful rooms “above,” but also working spaces “below.” The Phillips House has one of the best preserved historic working kitchens on the street (last used in 1962), which you will not see here, because I spent so much time and took so many pictures on my own personal tour with my former student Tom Miller that my camera was dead by the time I got there. So you must see it for yourself. The Phillips House opened for the season this past weekend: it is open every weekend through October but advance reservations are required.

The Phillips House on Chestnut Street is open! Great to see the flag flying. Tom Miller  opened the door for me on this past Friday, and we commenced a three-hour tour. Tom has been a associated with the house for 13 years, and knows everything about the Phillips house, its contents and inhabitants.

Because the house is a creation of many decades, families and styles, it has a lot to teach visitors, even though its interiors are presented as they were in 1919, several years after the Phillips family had taken possession and completed their renovations. Their fortune was based on Salem commerce, shrewd investments, and advantageous marriages, and they were well-traveled and engaged in society and civic affairs, so we can learn a lot from their stories as well. The story of the house begins with a maritime marriage and a messy divorce: between Elizabeth Derby, daughter of Salem’s wealthiest merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and one of his ship captains, Nathaniel West. Mr. Derby did not approve of the marriage in 1783, but nevertheless he left his daughter an enormous inheritance in his 1799 will, which she used to to build a magnificent country estate just a few miles inland, commissioning the justly-famous Samuel McIntire to undertake much of the design and craftsmanship. After an important reform to Massachusetts divorce law in 1806 allowed women greater property rights in divorce cases involving infidelity on the part of the husband, Elizabeth Derby West sued for divorce and won, in a very public case involving a parade of prostitutes perhaps paid to give evidence against Captain West by her vengeful brothers, with whom he had engaged in fist-to-cuffs down on the docks. Elizabeth moved to Oak Hill permanently and continued to lavish material attention on it until her death in 1814, leaving it to her three daughters with the stipulation that they never let their father have a piece of it. The youngest West daughter, Sarah, died intestate five years later and consequently  her father did indeed inherit a third of the estate, despite his former wife’s wishes. He detached four rooms of the estate and had them moved to Chestnut Street: four miles in two days via teams of oxen and logs. After installing a central hall-connector with Palladian window and doors, he now had a slim but elegant (McIntire!) house. Over the nineteenth century the house doubled in size with a succession of owners, and the Phillips family acquired it in 1911. The cumulative composition is a bit Georgian, a bit Federal, a bit Victorian, and a lot of Colonial Revival, with just a pinch of Gothic.

The house in 1916, with lines marking the original McIntire rooms moved to Chestnut Street. An oxen team moving a structure along State Street in Newburyport for comparison, and the house in the later nineteenth century, all collections of Historic New England.

As you move through the house you are aware that you are entering another architectural era, especially as you move from McIntire front to Colonial Revival rear—somewhat of a pale imitation with an expanded scale. But you’re also busy looking at all the things that tie everything together, the personal belongings of a very grounded though worldly family.

Colonial Revival-ized houses always seem to have or side stairs: the front hall must be wide and open; I seem to recall that this side doorway (the “carriage entrance”) was once in front and is McIntire.

Dinner is set for a small party on the evening of July 30, 1919 in the expansive dining room: part of the extensive additions to the back of the house. No McIntire mantel, but lots of movable decorative detail in the form of serving ware, and one of my very favorite paintings which I somehow forgot was here: Thomas Badger’s Portrait of Thomas Mason (with a squirrel). It was a delight to see it: you can have your Copley boy and squirrel painting, I prefer this Badger.

As I am writing this it is very hot, so I want some ORANGE FAIRY FLUFF. The amazing pantry at the Phillips House, and the Badger!

Upstairs, things are a bit more intimate: bedrooms and bathrooms and Mrs. Phillips’ day room for keeping the household accounts. On the third floor there are guestrooms and staff rooms: a rear staircase descends from the latter to the kitchen. There are really wonderful windows throughout the house, in all shapes and sizes, with great views of Chestnut Street, and more McIntire detail in the front two rooms on the second floor.

Another major painting which “surprised” me in residence at the Phillips House was Marblehead folk artist J.O.J. Frost’s Massey’s Cove ( The Hardships and Sacrifice, Massey’s Cove, Salem 1626) depicting the first European settlement of Salem. It was just wonderful to see it there, hanging in Stevie Phillip’s light-filled, McIntire embellished bedroom with the best views of Chestnut Street in either direction. A less happy surprise, in this most Salem of houses, was a crumpled-up sign for the James Duncan Phillips Library, a library which is, of course, no longer in Salem.

I think I had professorial privilege as Tom showed me EVERYTHING and the standard tour can’t be quite as expansive due to time constraints, but the interpretation of the Phillips House definitely emphasizes the close personal connections between the generations that lived in the house and their staff and this is highlighted by one of the special tours at the house, “The Irish Experience at the Phillips House,” which will be offered on August 5. An annual must-attend event which we all missed last year is the antique car meet, which is on August 8. Vintage cars line the length of Chestnut Street, and the juxtaposition of cars and houses is more than instagram-worthy, believe me!


A Derby House in Medfield

I busted out of Salem yesterday and took a road trip to Norfolk county in Massachusetts, southwest of Boston, and drove through a string of towns beginning with M: Medfield, Millis, Medway, Milford, Mendon. My “destination” was a first-period house with Derby connections in the first M town, the Dwight-Derby House, but really I just wanted to drive around. And I did—but I also found Medfield absolutely charming so I stayed awhile. Sometimes I think I could write the whole blog about and around Salem’s Derby family: their money, connections, and influence end up everywhere. In this case, however, neither their money, connections or influenced really impacted the history of a lovely first-period house overlooking Medfield’s Meetinghouse Pond. John Barton Derby, a grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, who profited immensely from Salem’s emerging East India trade and thereby became America’s first millionaire, did not stay in Medfield for long but his descendants lived in what became known as the DwightDerby House until the middle of the twentieth century.

John Barton Derby, grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, married Mary Townsend, whose family owned the Medfield house, in 1820. Rumors swirl around about John Barton and his brother Hasket, in contrast to the other children of John and Sarah Derby of Salem. The major clues to their outcast status are the facts that they were seldom in Salem and always in need of money. When John Barton married Mary Townsend, his deceased first wife (from Northampton, which is like Derby Siberia) had not been in her grave for very long, and he was apparently disowned by his father. He was practicing law in Dedham, and had been given a letter of introduction to Mary’s father by his uncle Benjamin Pickman, Jr., but that was about it for respectability. John and Mary remained together for about of 27 months and produced two children, Sarah and George Horatio, and then he was gone. I’m going to let Nehemiah Cleaveland and Alpheus Spring Packard, authors of the History of Bowdoin College with Biographical Sketches of its Graduates, from 1806 to 1879, Inclusive (1882) tell the rest of John’s story, but they are leaving out time spent as a recluse in the wilds of New Hampshire and as a patient at what later became known as McLean Hospital, which opened in the year of John Barton’s graduation from Bowdoin.

“JOHN BARTON DERBY, born in 1793, was the eldest son of John Derby, a Salem merchant. In college he was musical, poetical, and wild. He studied law in Northampton, Mass., and settled as a lawyer in Dedham. His first wife was a Miss Barrell of Northampton. After her death he married a daughter of Horatio Townsend. They soon separated. A son by this marriage, Lieut. George Derby of the United States army, became well known as a humorous writer under the signature of ‘John Phoenix.’ For many years before his death Mr. Derby lived in Boston. At one time he held a subordinate office in the custom-house Then he became a familiar object in State Street, gaining a precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares. He was now strictly temperate, and having but little else to do, often found amusement and solace in those rhyming habits which he had formed in earlier and brighter years, His Sundays were religiously spent — so at least he told me — in the composition of hymns The sad life which began so gayly came to a close in 1867.” What a poignant scenario: the grandson of a millionaire, with his “precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares” on the streets of Boston. No wonder the charming sign outside of the Dwight-Derby House features John Barton’s and Mary’s dashing son, George Horatio Derby, who served in the Mexican-American War, went on to a journalistic career in California and died at the young age of 38. You can read much more about the Townsends and the Derbys and the history of the house in a great little book that integrates both very well: Medfield’s Dwight-Derby House. A Story of Love and Persistence by Electa Kane Tritsch.

George Horatio Derby, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.

The Dwight-Derby House was purchased by the town of Medfield in 1996, and went through an intensive restoration before it was opened to the public, joining the town’s more famous colonial structure, the Peak House, as a period museum. And there’s lots more in Medfield: some beautiful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century private houses, a small historical society, and a “mobile history tour” using QR code plaques on utility boxes, signs, and murals. I fell in love with the eighteenth-century Clark Tavern, even (or perhaps because of) its state of extravagant decay, and was very relieved to discover that it has just sold and can only be restored to include TWO dwellings (despite being much bigger than the poor Barr house into which many more are being stuffed), or perhaps even to its original use.

I can’t wait to go back to Medfield to see the interior of the Dwight-Derby House, and the renovation of the old Clark Tavern. But there’s lots of history to see and read now at the Peak House (with its revised chronology) and along the town’s streets and sidewalks.


Pickering House Perspectives

A well-interpreted house museum can offer up multiple perspectives, encouraging visitors to explore what interests them. I’ve been on some less-inspired tours of historic houses, believe me: too many family stories without any context whatsoever and too much plastic fruit are my own particular aversions. But a good house tour is a veritable–and personal–window into the past, and if it’s a particularly old house, many windows. One of Salem’s oldest houses, the Pickering House (c. 1664), been part of my life for a long time, but the other day I realized I had never taken a formal tour of it, or written a post! So I decided to rectify both slights this past weekend. I should lay all my cards on the table: the Pickering House was notable for having Pickering family inhabitants for decades but now is home to two good friends of mine, both energetic stewards who have hired in succession two stellar graduates of the History Department at Salem State as research docents: so I am a bit biased for sure. However, it seems objectively true that graduate #1, Jeff Swartz, really expanded the interpretation of the Pickering House during his tenure, and graduate #2, Amanda Eddy, is clearly following his example.

As Amanda told me, the Pickering House was always owned by John Pickerings, from the 17th century to the 20th, but the most conspicuous Pickering was Colonel Timothy Pickering, Adjutant-General and Quartermaster General of the Continental Army, Washington-appointed Postmaster General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and Representative, negotiator of Indian treaties, including one (miraculously) still standing, farmer. He himself was a multi-dimensional man, so if you’re going to tell the story around him, you’re going to have many stories. But the other Pickerings are interesting too: I could tell that Amanda was particularly fascinated with the John Pickering VI, who oversaw the trim transformation of the house’s front façade in1841, in the midst of a Gothic Revival craze in Salem driven largely by Colonel Francis Peabody of Kernwood and Harmony Grove fame. Mary Harrod Northend believed that Mr. Pickering was inspired by famous Peacock Inn in Rowsley, Derbyshire, but I’m not so sure.

Colonel Tim presiding over the Dining Room, Amanda Eddy showing us the evolution of the house; the Peacock Inn, UK National Archives.

So if it’s architectural history you’re after you have a wealth of styles to explore in the Pickering House: First Period craftsmanship of the seventeenth century, Gothic Revival style of the nineteenth, Colonial Revival elements added in the twentieth. If you’re more focused on material or visual culture, there are wonderful examples of needlework, portraits of Pickerings by Joseph Badger, and lots of little things to see. I love curio cabinets, and Amanda opened up the Pickering cabinet for us and took out: a piece of Old Ironsides, a pair of old eyeglasses, and the skeleton key to the front door. If your interest is more textual, there is a fabulous family library in the east room, a fragment of Timothy Pickering’s and Rebecca White’s wedding banns in the west, and a manuscript cookbook in the dining room. As Amanda is working with the family archives in the attic, she brought down several of John VI’s handwritten topical pieces for us to see, touch, and read.

Western parlor with portrait of Mary Pickering Leavitt (1733-1805) and her daughter Sarah by Joseph Badger; Hessians!; wonderful portrait by Mary, restored by textile conservator Elizabeth Lahikainen in 2017; the Pickering family arms; from the curio cabinet; LOVE this china pattern but forgot to ask what it is—please inform, someone; family books and one of John VI’s essays.

These are the kind of fabled places which should thrive during this pandemic as we all strive for connections: personal, cultural, social, historical. No crowds: just careful and curious people. There were just five of us, inside yes, but keeping our social distance with masks in place. We signed the register: proper procedure but also contract tracing. And yes, there were even a few witches.

Photograph by Salem photographer and artist James Bostick.

 


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.  

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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.


I Miss the Assembly House

I miss the Assembly House, a Georgian structure on Federal Street built as an assembly house in 1782 and transformed by Samuel McIntire into a more elaborate residence in the next decade: its proper name is the Cotting-Smith Assembly House (although it was charmingly called the “old Assembly House” after Hamilton Hall was built in 1805) and it was donated to the Essex Institute in 1965, the last building to be added to the Institute’s collection of historic houses, I believe. Of course the house still exists–I can see it at any time–but it has changed from when I first knew it: it has lost all of its trees–and its life. It is still, dark, and stark. It’s a shadow of its former self, or a ghost.

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assembly house drawing hne bestThe Cotting-Smith Assembly House yesterday afternoon and in 1926, 1920 (in a painting by Felicie Ward Howell, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), c. 1910 (Cornell) and an undated drawing (Historic New England).

I know, houses are not sentient beings as friends and family often tell me. But the Assembly House looks sad and it makes me sad to look at it, as I remember many happy times there in the 1990s, both before and after the Essex Institute and its houses were absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum. I remember: teas, two baby showers, several anniversary dinners, a graduation party, a cooking class (???), coffees for candidates for local office—it seemed as if we were in there quite a lot! I remember feeling that the house was rather homey, despite its elegant interior details. I remember sitting on the back stairs talking to two friends who are no longer alive. I remember being wowed by the front staircase—with its second-floor landing and pedimented door—every time I saw it. But all these memories are from a long time ago, at least 20 years. I miss all of the Essex Institute/PEM houses, with the exception of the Ropes Mansion which was restored and reopened a few years ago. (Actually what I really miss is the Essex Institute, but that statement will always produce eye-rolls among those who believe that the Peabody Essex Museum rescued both the Institute and the Peabody Museum. This may be true–but it’s hard not to notice those dark stretches of Essex—and Federal—Streets).

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assembly house bg 1985Photographs of the Cotting-Smith Assembly House interior, Historic New England; Los Angeles Time, 1926; Boston Globe, 1963 and 1985.

The house where Lafayette danced in 1784 and Washington dined in 1789 and Susan Coolidge (above) came out and many other people celebrated weddings, anniversaries, and simply lived their lives was “restored, refurbished, and remembered” according to the 1985 story in the Boston Globe above but seems largely forgotten these days. It was celebrated across the country in 1926 as Salem marked its 300th anniversary, but seems likely to be overlooked as the city marks its 400th.


Land of the Livingstons

This past weekend I toured six “country seats” built by various members of the venerable and prominent Livingston family of the Hudson River Valley in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: most privately-owned, one owned by the state of New York. My brother and brother-in-law live in Rhinebeck, so I have visited this region quite a bit, but I find new old houses every single time I return, and this time was no exception. When we started off, I was thinking only 6 houses? we’ll be done in a flash and $60 for six houses! as our Christmas in Salem tour features more houses and a lower ticket price but it took us most of the day and was well worth it: I had an urban house tour in my mind where you just walk from place to place but these are rural county seats situated on vast acres of land—-mostly waterfront. The scale of both houses and land was much larger than your average house tour, and the tour was a bargain: I’m alway happy to support historic preservation in any case, and in this case it was Hudson River Heritage. I’m going to present the tour in the very order that we saw these houses and give you my impressions of each along the way: no interior photography was allowed except in the state-owned property, Clermont, but as one of the houses is currently for sale and others are included in the amazing (again, expensive but worth it) newly-published book by Pieter Estersohn titled Life Along the Hudson. The Historic Country Estates of the Livingston Family and other publications I can show you some interior views.

You will notice it getting progressively brighter; the day started out pretty dreary and ended with sun. Still all houses shone.

RICHMOND HILL, built in 1808

This federal—-no I think proper Palladian is more accurate–house was simply stunning: beautiful proportions and details. It is the most formal farmhouse I have ever seen as it sits in the midst of 58 acres and many outbuildings, including a period Dutch barn, also unlike anything I have ever seen (I’m such a New Englander!). It has not been lived in for some time and is currently for sale: the photographs on the real estate site (I’m including the west bedroom and basement kitchen below–there’s a modern kitchen too!) are not really doing it justice in terms of the details: one of the mantles had a pinecone design which (again) I have never seen before. 

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CHIDDINGSTONE, Built in 1860

This is a “Bracketed Italianate” house which has recently been restored and redecorated with 15-foot ceilings and a stunning river view. The interior is all about height over width: the rooms were not all that large in terms of size but those high ceilings, along with the floor-to-ceiling windows and furnishings, made them seem positively grand.

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The front parlor photographed by Pieter Estersohn

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CLERMONT, Built from 1779-82

Then it was on to the oldest Livingston house, Clermont, which was built in the 1730s but burned mostly to the ground by the British during the Revolutionary War and rebuilt between 1779 and 1782. Clermont is a state historic site with an informative visitors’ center and extensive grounds along the river. Here we had a proper (essentially genealogical) tour and were able to take photographs: the interiors are furnished in the Colonial Revival style adopted by the last Livingstons to live at Clermont in the 1930s.

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MIDWOOD, built in 1888

Midwood is a sprawling Colonial Revival house situated on 87 acres along the Hudson: it made quite the contrast from Clermont as it is a very much lived-in and lively house, furnished in an eclectic style that must reflect the spirit of its owner and felt very “Bloomsbury” to me: we spent quite some time there just because there was so much to see and we were not alone. You can take your own tour here, and I’m sharing two interior views below.

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Side Parlors photographed by Christopher Baker

 

CLARKSON CHAPEL, built c. 1860

One of many board and batten Carpenter Gothic structures in the region, the Clarkson Chapel was built following a dispute–a schism, I suppose– at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in nearby Tivoli. Here we met a wonderful guide/steward who had made her own chart of the division of the original Livingston Manor. This was very helpful, and another informative source is here.

Hudson Chapel