Tag Archives: Interiors

Is Purity Possible?

Architectural purity, I mean: there’s no philosophical, spiritual or political rumination going on here. My house is such an assemblage of Federal, Greek Revival and eclectic Victorian styles that I often find myself craving architectural purity: it was “transitional” when it was built in 1827 and it became even more so as it was expanded and remodeled over the next century. A whole rear elbow ell of outbuildings was attached and then shorn off. Inside straightforward Federal mouldings were replaced with rounded Italianate ones; a simple staircase was replaced with one much more detailed and made of mahogany, and 1920s etched glass was inserted into the original doors. Even its “classic” exterior with flushboard facade was altered: with the customary bay window that pops out nearly everywhere in the later nineteenth century and an elaborate doorway below, and some curvy trim attached to the first-floor windows, now long disappeared. I like my house, but occasionally I think I might want to live in the perfect First Period house, the perfect Georgian house, or the perfect Greek Revival house. However, I’m just not sure any of these houses exist, and if they do, whether they are the products of recreation or preservation. More likely than either is the organic and utilitarian evolution that most houses experience which robs them of their untouched purity but enhances both their livability and their accessibility (and occasionally their charm).Arch Purity 1

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My house features a “progression” of nineteenth-century interior mouldings, but even the all-First Period William Murray House on Essex Street in Salem experienced some evolution. 

Two cases in point are some houses I am currently “realestalking”: another 1827 house which just came on the market in Salem, and a First Period house in Ipswich which I’ve had my eye on for a while. I’ve always admired the Samuel Roberts House on Winter Street, but it’s hardly “pure” with its modified entry, addition (s), and twentieth-century garage. Yet somehow it all works (I would probably sacrifice the garage for more garden, but I think those mid-century garages are protected). The Ipswich house was built in 1696 and expanded considerably in 1803; I imagine the window came a bit later.

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I am always thinking about the evolution of houses, but this particular thread started when I was researching yet another lost seventeenth-century Salem structure: the Benjamin Marston House, which was built in the later seventeenth century and demolished around 1870. Unfortunately it was not photographed before its demolition (to my knowledge, and I looked everywhere) but the ever-dependable Sidney Perley made a drawing for one of his Essex Antiquarian articles. Through his deed research, he was also able to trace the ownership of the house as well as its increasing size, and what emerges is an image of a true hybrid house, with a First-period back and a Federal front! I wish I could see this house, even in photographic form, and I imagine the streets of Salem were full of these composite structures in the nineteenth century. The Marston house was replaced with a more imposing structure that remains pretty “pure” today: the imposing Second Empire Balch-Putnam House, sometimes known as “Greymoor”.

Benjamin Marston House, Salem, Massachusetts

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Sidney Perley’s c. 1900 illustration of the Benjamin Marston House; the location of the house (*) on Henry McIntire’s 1851 map of Salem, and the house on that site today.


Salem Interiors, 1896

I came across a book I had never seen before the other day at the wonderful Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture (beware, serious rabbit-hole potential here) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison: Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, published in 1896. I was doing something rather tedious so of course I put that aside and dug in. The book is not great in terms of information, and there were some pretty serious flaws that even an mere buff such as myself could spot immediately (such as referring to Samuel McIntire as James) but it is a treasure trove of plates, including many photographs of Salem interiors I had never seen before. These photographs are fascinating to me because many of them feature rooms decorated in a mishmash style that preceded the pure period room. Look at the east parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house below, for example: looking quite cluttered and Victorian rather than serenely Federal, with the exception of that beautiful fireside chair. Elwell wants to focus on the period furniture, but his photographs can’t always hide all the contemporary details of its setting.

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The sheer (and quite casual) display of Salem furniture from the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is a little overwhelming: some of the pictures seem to be taking us into attics (or the storage area of the Essex Institute) where tables and sideboards are lined up in a random fashion. The chair that is featured in the second photograph above, of the mantel of the west parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house, is one from a set of eight crafted by McIntire, one of which sold at a Christie’s auction last week for $15,000 (which seems like a bargain to me, no?) But the 1890s was a key decade in the development of a Colonial Revival consciousness that was both very national and very local: a key decade for the identification of  “Olde Salem”. Consequently along with the eclectic vignettes which mix periods and styles, there are also some “typical colonial” Salem rooms in Elwell’s book, forerunners of the period rooms of the next decades.

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Plates from Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, 1896.


A Heightened Sense of Detail

It’s rather jarring to read the lines written by Salem’s chatty diarist, the Reverend William Bentley, about his encounter with the Salem artist George Ropes Jr. in 1804: “Paid G. Ropes’ Bill for head of Curwin, Salem, Minister, the painting by him. He is a dumb boy with Corné. Had receipt. $4.00”.  Bentley had commissioned a portrait copy of the Reverend Samuel Curwen from Ropes, who was then an apprentice of the Italian emigré artist Michel Felice Cornè. George Ropes, Jr. (1788-1819), the son of a Salem sea captain (how many times have I written than?) was indeed born deaf and was by all accounts speechless for all of his relatively short life, but Bentley’s notes upon his early death are more telling: Died of consumption, deaf and dumb, a painter, active, acute, circumspect, and esteemed.”  Ropes had to become the primary breadwinner for his family upon his father’s death at sea in 1807 and so he became a practical  painter of signs and such as well as an artist. While all art is evidence for the historian, I’ve always felt that Ropes’ works are more documentary in their detail, particularly two paintings in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Launching of the Ship Fame (1802) and Crowninshield’s Wharf (1806). I’ve shown it here several times, but I can’t post on Ropes without including his masterpiece, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), which is also in the collection of the PEM. Those poplars! I can never see this painting too many times.

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George Ropes, Jr.: The Launching of the Ship Fame, Crowninshield’s Wharf, and Salem Common on Training Day, all courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

My favorite story about Ropes comes from the Pickering Genealogythe source of endless interesting anecdotes about Salem people. In another testimony to his skill and eye for detail, it is noted that on one occasion when the parlor in the house of Jarathmeel Peirce was being papered, it was found that there was not enough, and it being imported paper, more could not be obtained. He undertook to finish it by painting, which he did so accurately that it was impossible to tell where his work began or where it ended. A decorating crisis averted!  Ropes is probably best known for his marine paintings, including a lovely “portrait” of George Crowninshield’s famous luxury yacht Cleopatra’s Barge, and several paintings of the USS Constitution in battle during the War of 1812.The US Constitution Museum has a series of four paintings painted by Ropes (after Corné) depicting the famous engagement with the HMS Guerriere in August of 1812 which earned the victorious American ship the nickname of “Old Ironsides”, and at the end of next month, a Ropes painting of the victory of the Constitution over the HMS Java in December of 1812 will be auctioned off at Dan Morphy Auctions in Pennsylvania. Artistic reportage, and some pretty bold titles, from this silent “signmaker”.

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George Ropes, Jr., the last of the Constitution and Guerriere paintings, USS Constitution Museum Collection; Constitution vs. Java, Morphy Auctions.


Royal Recommendations

As we move into a new era (“reign”?) here in the United States I am quite determined to keep my blog as apolitical as possible but some events and occurrences will no doubt be provocative and/or inspirational. At those times I’ll probably have to delve in, but I will strive for a relatively detached perspective by placing these events and occurrences in as wide an historical and/or cultural context as possible. Here is a first attempt. The other day, our President-elect tweeted his endorsement of L.L. Bean based on a significant contribution on the part of one its family owners, the granddaughter of L.L. Bean himself. I immediately felt and heard the indignation and desire for retribution of seemingly-everyone in my adopted state of Massachusetts focused on one of the largest businesses in my home state of Maine. The employees of this venerable company are probably trembling in their boots: did they ask for this? And are we now entering an era of presidential commercial endorsements akin to the “Royal Warrant of Approval” system in Britain and other European countries which still have monarchies? Imagine the presidential seal of approval where the Royal Arms are below (along with very different entities) provoking an equal measure of purchases and boycotts across the nation.

Royal Warrants of Appointment granted to some of my favorite purveyors: Penhaligon’s (represented by my “Juniper Sling” perfume–which smells a lot like a gin & tonic!), Barbour, and Hatchards Bookshop in London. I’m sure there are a lot more royally-approved goods around the house, including the Twinings tea and Carr’s crackers in my cupboard and the Hunter boots in my closet. Apparently there are approximately 800 Royal Warrant Holders in Great Britain, representing myriad goods and services, everything from movers to jewelers.

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Royal Warrant Holders past and present: Eighteenth-century trade card for Maydwell and Windles, glass manufacturers, British Museum; Carter’s garden seeds, 1897; Pears soap advertisements from 1902 and 1911;  a Daimler ad from the 1930s, and a Colman’s Mustard label from 1887: this company is a particularly proud bearer of the royal arms; Sanderson Fabrics, a warrant holder since 1923, pays homage to Queen Elizabeth II during her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

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The House with Nine Lives

One of the projects that my husband’s architectural firm has been working on is coming to a close, so I took advantage of a holiday open house to go in and see how the much-altered former Home for Aged Men/Sons of Poland/ Emmerton Hall of the House of the Seven Gables was being transformed into six condominiums. I like my title, so I’m keeping it–but it is incorrect: 114 Derby Street is actually a building on the cusp of leading ten lives (if you count all the new units individually). It was built in 1806 for Salem sea Captain Joseph Waters, and remained a single-family residence until 1877 when the great philanthropist John Bertram purchased it for his newly-established Home for Aged Men. After the Bertram Home moved to the Common (where it remains), the Sons of Poland transformed 114 Derby Street into a fraternal headquarters and social club, and it continued to serve in the latter function, essentially, when the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association purchased it in 1966 and renamed it after its founder, Caroline O. Emmerton. As envisioned by Emmerton, the Gables was an institution that was founded to realize the joint goals of preservation and settlement, and its social activities had outgrown the constraints main campus across the street. Everyone in Salem consequently refers to this building as the “Settlement House”, though that identity was relatively short-lived in the context of its entire history. The Frank Cousins photograph below, taken in the early twentieth century when the house was the Bertram Home for Aged Men, shows some semblance of its original Federal appearance.

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The Waters House c. 1912 (Urban Landscape Collection, Duke University Library) and today. Third-floor ghost windows on both the main house and the 1983 addition of 114 Derby Street are reminiscent of the house’s Federal past.

Every “life” brought major architectural changes to the old Waters House, but it appears that the twentieth-century alterations were particularly extensive: the building’s exterior and interior were completely transformed by the Sons of Poland in the 1930s, and the Gables added the present addition to the back and side in 1983 (which everyone I know disdains but now looks pretty cool). The mission of the Gables has evolved over the last decade or so, and consequently its trustees made the decision to sell the building last year.This last (maybe!) evolution of 114 Derby Street has been pretty speedy, and the six (sold-out) residences should be ready for occupancy this spring.

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The addition s) and all those institutional uses mean that the new condominiums all (I think all!) have their own entrances.

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Old stairwells and New spaces being carved out of the Waters/Settlement House: as you can see, the units are quite large (1-3 bedrooms with expansive living/dining spaces) and include parking out back. 


Keeping Christmas

Well, after all that immersion into Puritan anti-Christmas tracts I was doubting my own Christmas observances–powerful stuff! I’m pretty Protestant in my religious sentiments (though raised Episcopalian—on the fence) so there is something there that resonates with me, plus I’ve been teaching Reformation history for 20+ years! So I thought I would go back to the ultimate source (well, after the bible), Martin Luther, and see what he thought about Christmas. Next year, coming fast, is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the commencement of the Reformation, so I have a stack of timely publications by my bedside to consult, but the best source by far was an older compilation, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by the eminent Reformation historian Ronald Bainton. It is very clear from this collection of Luther’s sermons that he was no Puritan, and some of his most inspiring words were written about the Nativity. Luther does not tell us how to celebrate this event, but given his exuberance at Christmas time, combined with his natural hospitality (offered through his wife Katharina, who regularly had visitors at her table in addition to their six children and assorted hangers-on), we can imagine that he would not condemn a festive observance of the holiday. Three centuries later, the German artist and illustrator Carl Schwerdtgeburth created an image of Luther and his family with a Christmas tree in their midst, an image that went viral just at the time that the Christmas we know and love was created. There is no historical basis for this image, but it was disseminated so far and widely in its time–and even more so in ours–that the legend of Luther’s Christmas tree will never die.

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The nineteenth century interprets the sixteenth: Carl Schwerdtgeburth’s popular print of Luther and his (lit) Christmas tree, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

While all Protestants sought to reduce the power of the saints by disdaining the observance of traditional Feast Days, Christmas was an exception for Luther (and even for Calvin, though not for all Calvinists–the Puritans a notable case in point) who clearly perceived it not only as a day that rightly focused on Christ but also as a social holiday. There is a liberation and a joyousness in Lutheran theology–attained only through God’s gift of grace in return solely for faith–that can support all sorts of festivity: for if you possess faith your heart cannot do otherwise than laugh for joy in God, and grow free, confident and courageous. For how can the heart remain sorrowful and dejected when it entertains no doubt of God’s kindness to it, and of his attitude as a good friend with whom it may unreservedly and freely enjoy all things. Such joy and pleasure must follow faith; if they are not ours, certainly something is wrong with our faith (2nd Christmas sermon, 1522). This is only one small passage of a much longer sermon, but I think it’s representative–and a great antidote to all those dour Puritan tracts!

I’ve always been a bit concerned that the joy and pleasure that I experience during the Christmas season is too materialistic–not focused on gifts per se but rather on the “trimmings” of the season: lights, decorations, trees, wreaths, food, drink, stuff.  But this year I’m given myself license to “unreservedly and freely enjoy all things”. Luther’s Christmas tree might be the stuff of lore and legend, but I don’t think he would have any problem with decking the halls.

“Keeping Christmas” in Salem, 2016–my favorite trimmings:  a beautiful Italianate house (which has been going through an extensive restoration) all dressed up for the season, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths, downtown lights, and Paxton’s perfect window.

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I’m not hosting Christmas this year, so I instead of the usual HUGE tree I went for two smaller potted ones, because I hate seeing trees die. The mantles and bookcases have the usual creature compositions, including mice, deer, foxes, elephants, rabbits, and a lone giraffe.

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And hedgehogs from medieval manuscripts for my gift tags: they supposedly rolled on the ground to collect grapes for their young, making them look quite Christmassy. Merry Christmas, everyone!


The Weekend before Christmas

A very Salem weekend before Christmas highlighted by the Christmas Dance (now called the Holiday Dance) at Hamilton Hall, preceded by pre-parties at gloriously-decorated houses, and followed by shopping downtown on Sunday. I was supposed to wrap all my presents last night but fell asleep on the couch while watching the 1970 version of Scrooge (not as good as the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, but it had to do, yet even a musical could not keep my eyes open; in particular this musical).We had terrible weather on Saturday–sludgy snow/rain–but Sunday was unseasonably warm until a wind whipped up in the later afternoon. Not picture-perfect “Christmas Weather” but lots of people were out and about anyway.

Saturday: the Hall next door before the big dance and showing our ephemeral cover of snow–now gone. I took a few pictures of one very stylishly-decorated Dutch Colonial during one pre-party, but then misplaced my camera–magically it appeared at the very end of the evening when we ended up at the Merchant. No matter, because I can never take good pictures at the Dance. I hope you can make out the wonderful Christmas tree below–lit from within by a lady offering up a gift!

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Sunday: shopping at the Christmas Market at Old Town Hall, Waite & Peirce, Joe’s Fresh Fish Prints, Wicked Good Books, and Modern Millie’s, the always-impressive windows at Emporium 32, and the Poinsettia Tree at the Hawthorne Hotel.

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And some online shopping: LOVE these “Windows of Salem”  hand-drawn digitally-designed cards by EVArtandDesign: you can buy individual cards or a curated-collection with partial proceeds donated to Historic Salem, Inc.

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