This is going to be an odd post which will start out sweet and end up a bit sour, but I can promise you that it will be colorful throughout. There’s one aspect of Salem’s history that I never seem to be able to cover completely, despite the longevity of this blog: its horticultural history. Salem was really famous for its horticulture a century or so ago: you can’t browse through a stack (or a database) of house and garden magazines from the first half of the twentieth century without encountering articles on the “old–fashioned” gardens of Old Salem. Several really notable cultivators and landscapers lived here, and one still does! There is continuity: the city still has some wonderful private and public gardens: among the latter are the Ropes Mansion and Derby House gardens, which are open to the public. There are so many flowering trees and to see in Salem just while walking down the street, especially at this time of year or a bit earlier. So I’ve got some nice photos from the past two weeks or so, and that was going to be the exclusive focus of this post: a parade of colors in Salem for Pride month! But, stuff happens, and in the middle of this very a trouble man painted the Bewitched statue in Town House Square red, setting off a wave of national headlines and local commentary. So I think I’ll add Samantha to this colorful mix. But first: Ropes and Derby:
Salem in June: the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ropes Mansion garden is really more of a high/late summer garden, but the Derby House garden at the Salem Maritime National Historic site is perfect in June.
My garden can’t really compete but I do want to show you my lady’s slippers and I really like the meadow rue that blooms at this time of year. I’ve thinned out my rose bushes, because they just don’t earn their keep in my small garden, so I only have the best bloomers and they are putting on a show right now. This the lady’s mantle time too: I’ve been training my younger cat Tuck on a leash, and the minute he gets it on he goes right for it, so you can see pre-bloom last week and bloom this week. Then there is the vertical garden at the new downtown condo building named Brix (not a fan of this building but I do like its exterior embellishments), peonies from around town, an impressive plant for which I need an identification outside the Peirce-Nichols house (baptisia?) and more roses, on Cambridge Street.
So that brings us to more unnatural color: blue trees and a red Samantha. In the side yard adjacent to the Peabody Essex Museum, the trees have been painted bright blue, a very bright royal blue. This is the 27th international installation of the artist Konstantin Dimopoulos’s The Blue Trees, an “environmental call to action” with watercolor which will fade with time. Very striking, especially at this time of year. With no manifesto and paint that was certainly not biologically-safe, a homeless man spray-painted the upper part of the Bewitched statue a few blocks away in downtown Salem in the middle of this past week. Red Samantha didn’t last long; indeed I’ve seldom seen a quicker response by the City. By the end of the day she was cleansed and a gofundme account set up to restore her to her former “glory”. For those of us in the never-Samantha camp, it was hard to bear the comments on social media protesting this act of vandalism as “disgusting” and “disrespectful” because that’s just how we view the statue: as disgusting and disrespectful to the victims of the 1692. Or maybe I should just speak for myself. As the story created regional and national headlines that night and the next day, I just couldn’t bear the use of the word “landmark” applied to this horror: a landmark should be something that one points to with pride, not embarrassment, which is generally how I feel every time I pass by Samantha. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll praised the quick cleanup by her public services team and opined that “Samantha brings a degree of joy and whimsy to our downtown and has become a landmark location for thousands of visitors to Salem each year” but such craven capitalization on suffering remains incomprehensible to me. To return to my color theme (and lighten up things a bit), there was also a difficult juggling act for those who did not want to praise vandalism by any means, but at the same time thought that Samantha looked better draped in red. Anything could improve that eyesore, and I always see red when I gaze in her direction.
The Blue Trees of Konstantin Dimopoulus; and a fleeting Red Samantha.
What do place names mean? Whenever I’m walking around a town or city I look at the names of streets and spaces and assume that they are clues to the history of said town or city but what if these names mean nothing? What if they are just slapped on there to give an impression, rather than as a form of remembrance—and honor? Taking its cue from our long-serving Mayor, Kimberley Driscoll, Salem’s municipal government sees itself and sells itself as progressive, and loses no opportunity to broadcast that message, often in reference to “history”. Actually, this public relations policy predates Mayor’s Driscoll’s reign: Salem had to become a City of “toleration” to compensate for its famous Witch Hunts and enable those who profit from that tragedy to do so with a clear conscience. It seems to me that the virtue-signaling has been switched on to hyperdrive more recently, however. The Trump era afforded Mayor Driscoll many opportunities to expound upon the lessons of real witch hunts as the Mayor of Salem, a tolerant (and hip, never forget hip) city which nevertheless showcases a statue of a fictional television witch in the midst of its most historic square, Town House Square. Two relatively new Salem parks have been named after prominent African-American residents of Salem, even though their locations bear no relation to their namesakes. To my knowledge, Remond Park, on the outskirts of town far from where that family lived and worked, has been the scene of no commemoration or education apart from a sign bearing incorrect information since its naming a few years ago. The name represents the extent of the City’s commitment to the Remonds’ memory. Charlotte Forten Park, once a muddy vacant lot bordering the South River along Derby Street, was created in 2019 and named for Forten (Grimké), the African-American abolitionist, poet and educator who came to Salem in 1854 to live with the Remonds while receiving her education in the city’s recently-segregated public schools and later Salem Normal School, the founding institution of Salem State University. Forten became Salem’s first African-American teacher upon her graduation, and went on to live an active life of advocacy, instruction, and reflection. Salem residents had a rare moment of enfranchisement in that they were actually able to VOTE on the name of the park upon its completion, and Sarah won by a mile, I think! It was a rather rigged election with only a few choices and I can’t even remember what the other names were, but still, it was a somewhat public process, a rarity for Salem. I will share my guilty secret that I didn’t vote for Charlotte (I think I wrote in Luis Emilio). It’s not that I don’t admire her, or believe that she deserved such recognition: it’s rather that I thought that the finished space, which was more modern concrete than timeless green, did not reflect her interests or her character in design or location. You just have to read a few snippets of Charlotte’s Journals to discern her love for nature, and calmness: she was always ready to engage with the world but she needed respites from it as well. The new park, with its limited green space and its mission to be a happening place with a plaza for programs and performances and built-in percussion features, seemed rather disconnected to Charlotte for me, but the City pledged to pay tribute to her life and legacy with more than a name.
Charlotte Forten Park in Salem, shortly after it opened in 2019 in two pictures from my post from that year and a photograph from the City’s facebook page (tables and chairs; the photographer wasn’t identified, sorry! It’s a great photo: this space always looks nicer at night); An excerpt from Charlotte’s Journal: she loved to walk in Harmony Grove Cemetery, which is very close to the house of Caroline Remond Putnam, with whom Charlotte lived for a while.
There’s been talk of a statue of Charlotte for the park: not sure what the status is of that project. I think that would be great, but as of this weekend, I really don’t see how this space can be crafted into anything evocative of Charlotte, because “her” park has been plundered by PIRATES! Real Pirates. The Real Pirates Museum (as opposed to the New England Pirate Museum, just across Derby Street) has opened up adjacent to the park, with a broad walkway carved out of the park and an entryway into and out of the park. This new business advertises its location as “on Charlotte Forten Park” and paintings of pirates embellish its walls, thus framing the park. Charlotte Forten Park appears to have been transformed into Real Pirates Park. And so I guess the answer to my opening question what do place names mean is “not much” in reference to this poor park, even nothing. Perhaps it could be relocated to a more meaningful space with room for remembrance and reflection: that section of Mack Park across from Harmony Grove Cemetery?
Charlotte Forten Park (or Real Pirates Plaza?): April 10, 2022.
With warmer weather and the completion of my manuscript, I’ve been out on the Salem streets more, but every time I’m on a lovely walk I see some horrible structure that makes me run home: it’s not just the new big buildings but also the small old ones, purchased by developers so they can “save” them from rot and decay by gutting their interiors and blowing them out in every possible direction so they can shove five or six or more units into their then-unrecognizable structures, thus solving our housing crisis at the same time! Maybe we might be left with some semblance of a “historical” facade but that’s about it. I’m sure you can tell I’m not happy, but it’s a lovely spring Saturday and I’d like to focus on more pleasant and interesting things, like a really cool preservation/education project at an 18th century plantation ruin in Virginia. But beware: monster preservation (or lack thereof) post coming up: I’m gathering steam and data!
But for today: Menokin, the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It is a beautiful ruin in the Northern Neck of Virginia, once the center of prosperous Tidewater plantation. Despite its ruined status, Menokin is one of the best documented Georgian houses in America: the original plans exist, and a comprehensive inventory was created by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1940. It was left to decay for most of the twentieth century, and then a tree fell on it in the 1960s, nearly reducing it to rubble. Now it is under cover, and its owners, the Menokin Foundation, are in the process of “restoring” it in an innovative and transparent way—literally. Those portions of the house which are intact will be preserved and stabilized, while missing walls, floors, and sections will be replaced with glass, thus revealing its fabric and construction over time. The phrase dynamic preservation is used by those who envisioned the project: their goal is tell the story of Menokin through the process of reconstruction, “not as a snapshot in time but as a continuing narrative.” The “Glass House Project,” designed by architect MachadoSilvetti in collaboration with glass engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan and landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand, began last summer and is scheduled to be completed in 2023. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Neither Ruin nor Relic,” Michael J. Lewis called the Menokin Glass House Project “the first postmodern restoration” and a “cannonball flung between the feet of the historic preservation community.”
Menokin in 1940 (HABS, Library of Congress), after the destructive tree fall, at present and envisioned.
A cannonball indeed! It will be interesting to see what the professional historic preservation community thinks of this project. I’m no professional, and I’m torn, but the educator in me is impressed by the Menokin Foundation’s obvious commitment to transforming the house and its surrounding 500 acres into a teaching tool. The Foundation’s interpretive arm, Menokin: ReimaginingaRuin, is very active, with a series of presentations on both material and human history. The complex topic of slavery is the focus of ongoing initiatives and discussions centered on its Remembrance Structure, built with historical techniques above the archaeological remains of one of the dwellings where the plantation’s enslaved laborers lived. The Foundation clearly has no interest in reconstructing the house according to the constraints of one moment in its history, and dressing up guides in pre-revolutionary or antebellum costumes to give tours to visitors about what once was. Its focus on evolving construction will facilitate more substantive discussions about how and why rather than just when.
Remembrance Structure at night; interior rendering.
Salem’s newest public space was recently unveiled, situated in the former gas station/carnival lot at 289 Derby Street along the South River. The reaction has been a bit mixed, I would say. I think some people were expecting more of a green space, but it is not really that kind of park; it’s more of a concrete (plaza? court? square?) built for activity rather than rest and contemplation. Some people are critical of its cost, particularly of the land. It’s also been identified as a homeless magnet, which strikes me as an unjustified criticism as it is a public space after all. I first went down to see it on a bright sunny day and it did seem a bit inhospitable as it is primarily a bright swath of concrete, but I returned at night and found it much more inviting. I’ve decided that I like it: the swings, the topographical “maps”, and particularly the lighting around the perimeter.
As you can see, it’s built for movement (and sound), to be a happening place rather than a tranquil one, so when things start happening we will see how the space works. We have been invited to name the new park but restricted in our choices: South River Park, Charlotte Forten Park, Nathaniel Bowditch Park, 289 Derby, Naumkeag Park. While I’d love to see something in Salem named after Charlotte Forten, the first African-American teacher in the Salem Public Schools and a graduate of Salem State, this is not the place: I can’t see how it has anything to do with her, spatially, thematically, or aesthetically. Same with Bowditch; the other names are bland and generic. Because this is a playful place, I propose moving the dreadful Samantha statue from Town House Square (where she does not belong) to this new park and naming it Bewitched Park. People seems to think that a few days of shooting that show on location here in 1970 somehow saved Salem by enabling it to realize its full potential as Witch City, so naming rights seem in order.
Nestled between busy Boston, Quincy, and Route 128, the town of Milton, Massachusetts still wears signs of its pastoral past. It’s an original streetcar suburb, but the Blue Hills drew prosperous Brahmins south to build country estates, and several are still standing, even thriving. Everywhere I go in the vicinity of Boston: north, west, south: I continue to be amazed at the legacy of nineteenth-century fortunes—and taste. Now it seems as if we still live amidst great wealth, but not so much taste. I drove down to Milton last week to see Historic New England’s latest acquisition, the Eustis Estate, where I spent all of my allotted time, but I could have also visited the Forbes House Museum or the Wakefield Estate. I did drive down Adams Street for a fleeting sight of the birthplace of President George H.W. Bush, but I was pretty focused on my singular destination: an amazing 1878 structure designed by the “Father of the Shingle Style”, William Ralph Emerson, set amidst subtly-shaped grounds designed by Ernest W. Bowditch.
Historic New England has spared no expense or consideration in its restoration and interpretation of the Eustis Estate, which it acquired in 2012, after three generations of the family owned and inhabited the house. You can access their tour here–and you should if you really want a curatorial interpretation of the house because I’m just going to give you an impression: never have I been more conscious of my architectural naiveté as when I stepped foot into this house! My first–and strongest—impression is oddly one of contradiction: of the solidness of the exterior masonry and interior woodwork with the overall airiness of the house, accentuated by the three-story Grand Hall and all those windows framing outside views. You can see the frame of the house, and the house also serves as a frame for the landscape in which it sits. Inside, everything is a juxtaposition of dark and light, the light coming from outside but also from the burnished details within.
As an Aesthetic structure, no surface is unembellished, and the architectural detail is almost overwhelming: I’m sure I overlooked many things and will have to return many times! The house’s many mantels are obvious focal points: the grand fireplace in the first-floor “living hall”, terra cotta masquerading as wood, is a symbolic tour-stopper. But everywhere there is detail to be considered: floor to ceiling and everywhere in between. I loved the coffered ceiling, the interior window shutters, the little “telephone cabinet”, the inter-connected pantries, the inter-connected bathroom, and the nursery rhyme tiles surrounding the nursery mantle. Just to mention a few details.
Wherever and whenever a considerable amount of money is spent in nineteenth-century Massachusetts, there is always a Salem connection, and that is the case with the Eustis Estate, which was built for young marrieds W.E.C. Eustis and Edith Hemenway Eustis on land given to them by Edith’s mother, Mary Tiletson Hemenway. Mrs. Hemenway was an energetic philanthropist whose activities were financed in great part by the wealth of her husband and Edith’s father, Salem-born Edward Augustus Holyoke Hemenway (1805-76). Mary herself had Salem roots, and the Hemenway Family Papers were deposited in the Phillips Library in Salem, which is of course now displaced to Rowley. The Hemenways’ stories are other stories, but also in part Salem stories. The estate’s landscape architect, Ernest Bowditch, represents another Salem connection as he was the grandson of the great Salem navigator Nathaniel Bowditch: and yes, the Bowditch Family Papers are also in the Phillips Library.
For another Emerson house: see this post. These photographs by Steve Rosenthal are all we have left of the Loring House, which was demolished in 2015.
It seems to me that there has always been a correlation between dissatisfaction with the Federal (or central) government, in general or focused on a particular branch, and action, manifested not only by large protest marches with lots of speeches but also by intensifying local engagement and activity: the latter does not loom as large on the radar screen as the former but is just as important, if not more so. It is these smaller, community initiatives that make me feel hopeful just now, although Salem has been a rather engaging and engaged place for as long as I’ve lived here. The city government is progressive and multi-layered, with the usual planning boards supplemented by committees made of citizens striving to make Salem beautiful, “no place for hate”, bicycle-friendly, and greener. There are venerable philanthropic organizations–mostly initiated and administered by women–that are still alive and well today in Salem, more than a century after their inception. Every cultural and/or historic organization has its dedicated band of volunteers. And then there are the newer, very focused initiatives, oriented for the most part on the livability of the city. Even though Salem is a small city, it’s still a city with visible urban problems, including most prominently litter, traffic, and crumbling hardscape. Even though I’d love to see its historic downtown cemeteries roped off altogether, I still applaud the efforts of the newly-formed Friends of Salem’s Historic Downtown Cemeteries , whose mission is to advocate “for the protection and preservation of the Old Burying Point, Howard St and Broad St Cemeteries”. The city of Salem has a Cemetery Commission but it’s not enough; these well-trodden downtown cemeteries need more. Our other public spaces need advocates too, which is why I also applaud the Salem Public Space Project, a “collective effort to engage residents in understanding and reimagining local public spaces”, and the CollinsSociety, which focuses on highlighting and preserving the work of Philadelphia landscape architect John F. Collins, who took over after urban renewal was abandoned in Salem in the early 1970s. The Society maintains a lovely website with some great images, and seeks to improve and preserve the urban streetscape (including fountains, plazas, planters and cobblestone paths) of downtown Salem, for “landscape architecture…should be preserved with the same dedicated passion as architecture”. Last but certainly not least, I really applaud the daily efforts of FireballsofSalem to cleanse the city of its constant supply of nip bottles and other annoying forms of litter. Valiant, hopeful initiatives all.
The Old Burying Point on Charter Street and and Lafayette Park, a public space that needs some attention and will be getting it in 2017; The plazas and pathways of John F. Collins in central Salem:whyare cars parkingonthosecobblestones ontheleftwhichareclearlynotparkingspaces?Fireballs are the preferred “fleur de Salem” of the Fireballs initiative but I’ve been finding more of these little green Dr.McGillicuddy bottles recently: I think they were specially priced for the holidays.
Waltham, Massachusetts is a bustling little city just west of Boston that manages to be urban, suburban, and rural all at the same time, depending on what sector you find yourself in. There’s a lot there: an impressive industrial heritage, two universities, Bentley and Brandeis (where I got my Ph.D.), a pretty vibrant downtown, lots of corporations along the Route 128 beltway, and three historic “country” estates preserved as house museums: the Lyman Estate (also known as “The Vale”, built in 1793 and owned and operated by Historic New England), Gore Place (built in 1806 and saved in the 1930s by the Gore Place Society), and Stonehurst (completed by 1886 and owned and operated by the City of Waltham since 1974). Because of my predilection for early American architecture, I have visited the older houses many times: Samuel McIntire designed the foundation structure of The Vale and Gore Place is just about the most elegant Federal house anywhere (outside of Salem, of course). But despite the fact that it is the product of a collaboration between two giants of late nineteeth-century design, architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886) and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), I have to admit I have dissed Stonehurst: I saw it long ago and never returned. The other day I was driving home along Route 128 at just the wrong time on a beautiful day: it was rush hour(s) and the northern lanes were jam-packed. I just had to get out of the car, and as I happened to be in Waltham, I thought I’d go look at the Lyman Estate for a bit and wait out the traffic. After I turned off the highway, however, I saw the sign for Stonehurst and remembered that it is situated on far more land: 109 acres of Olmsted-designed walking trails, to be precise–and I needed some exercise. So there I went, but got slightly distracted by the house, which is a bit……………intimidating? perplexing? provocative?
Stonehurst is really a combination of two houses built for Robert Treat Paine, a Boston lawyer, philanthropist, and advocate for workers’ housing (scion of a real Brahmin family: his namesake grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Massachusetts’ first Attorney General) and his wife Lydia Lyman Paine: her father had financed the Second Empire house that constitutes the western end of the structure, which was later deemed too small for their large family. So Paine (who served on the building committee which oversaw Richardson’s masterpiece, Trinity Church in Boston) commissioned the architect to relocate the house and integrate it with a structure of his own design. The exterior (again, to my untrained eye!) is therefore quite an amalgamation: of the pre-existing Second Empire house, combined with Richardson’s more organic “Richardsonian Romanesque” and Shingle styles. I found the interior far more integrated, with large rooms that related to one another (and the outdoors) in a very pleasing way, and lots of crafted built-in features: window seats, benches, bookcases, mantles, staircases, mouldings: a warm and inviting Arts and Crafts house encased in a somewhat more imposing envelope.
Interior of Stonehurst and a trail not taken; the line inscribed on the second-floor landing mantle, “Build Thee More Stately Mansions, O My Soul” is from the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem, The Chambered Nautilus.
I drove into one of the most distressed small cities in America this past Monday, and was both assaulted and astonished by: rows and rows of brick townhouses from the nineteenth century and before, many gone to rot, manifest poverty, amazing elevated Hudson River views, a historic district of restored Gilded Age mansions saved from a sweeping program of urban renewal and by their courageous owners, and a fisher cat. Perhaps I would not have ventured into Newburgh if I had known that it was “The MurderCapital of New York“, but then I would not have seen the deterioration or the restoration (or the fisher cat, which is not a cat at all but a rare weasel-like creature–it fled into an abandoned wooded lot before I could turn on my camera, but I knew immediately that that’s what it was). I went to Newburgh to see Washington’s Headquarters, but came away seeing a whole lot more. I’m going to refrain from including images of Newburgh’s distress–but let me assure you that its surviving restored structures are all the more picturesque because of the contrast.
Along Montgomery Street in Newburgh, New York; villas and a foundation garden. The influence of Calvert Vaux (1824-95) and Andrew Jackson Downing is very apparent. There is a park named after Downing in Newburgh, and this last house is clearly based on “Design no. 14” in Vaux’s Villas and cottages. A series of designs prepared for execution in the United States.
The Hudson River Valley is, of course, picturesque in both natural and man-made ways: and when they come together they really grab hold of you! The whole region is dotted with romantic structures, large and small, alone and in assemblages like Montgomery Street. On the other side of the river, I captured a few more romantic structures, and, for contrast, the USSSlater (the last World War II destroyer afloat) on its way up the river to Albany.
On the other side of the river: houses (actually I don’t think this first structure is a house–some sort of chapel?) in Cold Spring and Rhinecliff; the USS Slater on the Hudson.