I’m in the intense period of writing my book with a March 1 deadline looming, so posts are going to be very spotty over the next few weeks, but today, I needed a break from my ploughmen and practitioners. There’s a lost building in Salem with which I remain fascinated, one of several really. If I ever do write my Salem book, which I have titled “Dead History” in my mind, it will have one whole chapter on structures that were stripped of their amazing interior and exterior architectural detail, but remained standing for decades afterwards, often converted into unrecognizable commercial establishments which bore no resemblance to their glorious past. Then they were put out of their misery at some point in the twentieth century, that great century of destruction. Most, but not all, of these structures were on Essex Street, Salem’s main street from the seventeenth century, including the building I am spotlighting today, the Philip Saunders House, built in the mid-eighteenth century and demolished in 1965. Here’s a photograph of it from the early twentieth century—after it had been altered somewhat, with a lot more to come.
Sorry—I can’t attribute this photograph. I bought it on ebay several months ago, an unusual act for me (not buying on ebay, buying Salem photographs on ebay). Generally old Salem photographs for sale are just reprints of those freely available from their repositories, but the minute I saw this photograph I knew I hadn’t seen it before: this is 260 Essex Street, the Philip Saunders House. The two shops on its ground floor, The Salem Trimming Store and Mary E. Hayes, Hairdresser, were located there up until about 1920, and after that, a succession of shops until it was taken down by the City of Salem in 1965. In between, whoever was sourcing antiques for the Kennedy family purchased its spiral staircase and Georgian paneling, and transferred it to the main house of the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port just before the second World War. This happened to Salem houses constantly from about 1890 to 1950. The Saunders House was a unique three-story pre-revolutionary brick building, and there was resistance to its demolition from Historic Salem, Inc. and other organizations and individuals, but not enough, apparently. The preservationists of Salem had been putting our fires for some time in the 1960s, and it was about to get worse with the onslaught of urban renewal. You can almost hear the exhaustion in Elizabeth Reardon’s voice in the newspaper article below, and believe me, she was game.
Both Mrs. Reardon and other preservationists compared the Saunders House in Salem to the Ebenezer Hancock House in Boston, which was also threatened at the time, I think. But it survived: and when you look at it today you can’t help but think of what might have been in Salem.
The Ebenezer Hancock House (1767): in the mid 1970s, from a Boston Landmarks Commission Structures Report, and today.
There is nothing, nothing, that is worse than neglect, of anything that is in your care. I am always material-minded so I’m going straight to architecture: demolition by neglect infuriates me. It’s expensive to own an old house: I have a long list of tasks that my house needs and I wish I could spend the money that I’m going to spend on the house on travel, or a Sheraton sofa, or lustreware from the 1820s, but I can’t: I bought this house and I therefore I must be a responsible steward of it. I work hard to maintain it in the condition that it demands, as does my husband. The down payment for this house came from money I inherited from my grandfather, who also worked long hours to provide for his extended family; his father came over on a boat from southern Italy all alone at age 10 and worked as a tailor to send all four of his American-born children to college (even the girls) and leave them legacies which they passed down to their children. My legacy is my house, and I would never neglect it: it would be an insult to my family as well as my community. So when I see families of much more ancient American lineage, with the possessions to prove it, exhibiting carelessness at best, and neglect at worst, towards their properties, I get mad. Such is the case with a beautiful brick Federal house overlooking the Ropes Garden, left to rot for years by a family that first arrived in Salem in the seventeenth century, and only recently undergoing renovation. This house will be saved, at long last, but its owner has applied for permission to demolish the mansard-roofed carriage house in the rear of the property. The Historical Commission rules through the granting of certificates: non-applicability, appropriateness, hardship. The owner of this carriage houses seeks the latter, but this is clearly a case of willful neglect over many, many years, initiated by a man who is called, incomprehensibly, “an outspoken champion of historic preservation” in his obituary and carried on by his heirs.
As you can see from the photographs (the black-and- white is a Frank Cousins view from the 1890s and the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum), the Victorian carriage-house doesn’t exactly go with the Federal house adjoining it: it was built as an outbuilding of the Italianate George. C. Shreve house fronting Federal Street and only purchased by our “outspoken champion of historic preservation” in the late 1960s, I believe. The Shreve House was converted to condominiums a while ago, and its residents are probably very tired of having this derelict building looming over their parking lot. But what a loss: of a once-elegant structure, of historical texture and fabric, of opportunity. It’s not difficult to find examples of Victorian carriage houses transformed into residences of all kinds, and just when the City of Salem is seeking to expand its inventory of “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) in response to an intensifying housing shortage in our region, the impending demolition of this likely candidate seems even more tragic.
Larry Kupferman, VictorianCarriageHouse, Carnegie Museum of Art; the converted carriage house at A Cambridge House Inn, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
There have been several Salem houses—houses that are no longer standing—that have haunted me; I get almost desperate to find out as much as I possibly can about them and if and when I do I’m done. If they remain inscrutable, they remain with me. There is one house that I’ve been thinking about for years: I’ve learned quite a bit about it but not enough: I’m not sure I’ll ever learn everything I want to know (at least not now, while I can’t get into the Phillips Library!). I’m posting on this house today just so I can stop thinking about it for a while.
The house in question is (was) the Colonel Benjamin Pickman house, built in either 1740 or 1750 or sometime in the decade between depending on the source, right on Essex Street, adjacent to where the Peabody Essex Museum’s East India Marine Hall now stands. Its former site was the Museum’s Japanese garden, recently transformed into a construction site–which is why I’ve been thinking about the Pickman House: have the workers found any material remains? Or does it just survive on paper–and in pieces? This is a house that was famous in its day, and well after. It was designed by an English architect–previously unknown but possibly identified as Peter Harrison, who also possibly designed the Cabot-Low-Endicott House further along Essex Street and the “King” Hooper Mansion in Marblehead. Whoever the architect or builder was, all agree that it was the client, the Colonel himself, who had carved and gilded codfish affixed to every riser of the house’s central stairway in acknowledgement of the source of his wealth and position, thus inspiring that perfect phrase, “Codfish Aristocracy”. Its elegant furnishing were much commented upon by contemporary observers and diarists, as was its rusticated wooden siding, meant to mimic stone. There’s a long list of prominent diners at the house, including Alexander Hamilton: on June 20, 1800. The house was successively celebrated, lithographed, photographed, obscured, picked-apart, measured and drawn, and ultimately demolished in 1940 or 1941.
All representations of the Pickman House are based on the c. 1830 lithograph published by Pendleton’s Lithography which shows the house in its pristine eighteenth-century state (courtesy Boston Athenaeum); an amped-up Pickman codfish from Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: a Biography of the Fish that Changed the World; A Frank Cousins photograph of the enclosed doorway which Samuel McIntire added to the house c. 1800.
We can’t see this famous house for most of its life, which only adds to its air of mystery (and vulnerability). Charles Webber and Winfield Nevins, the authors of Old Naumkeag: An Historical Sketch of the City of Salem and the Towns of Marblehead, Peabody, Beverly, Danvers, Wenham, Manchester, Topsfield and Middleton (1877) inform us that a certain “Mrs. LeMasters” constructed several low shop buildings in front of the house in the 1870s, and so we only see dormer windows peaking out from above in all the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century views of Essex Street and the East India Marine Hall. The Pickman family had moved west–into the residential McIntire District–away from the increasingly-busy downtown. A correspondent from the Philadelphia Inquirer who visited Salem in September of 1918 to see all the old storied mansions noted that the charming old house next to to the Peabody Museum has been all but obliterated by the shop front built out over its first and second stories…the gambrel roof, with its picturesque dormer windows, may still be seen overlooking the horrid shops, but all the inside fixtures have been destroyed. Progress is painful!
You can see the Pickman House dormer windows peaking out from above the storefront on the right of the two postcards and just above the P&Q shop, c. 1920s. These images were sourced for me from the Salem State Archives and Special Collections by Jen Ratliff–thanks! The house is completely invisible in the street- view photograph above from the late 1800s and the Phillips Library–it’s just behind the shops on the left, beginning with the “Importers of Crockery” storefront.
We do get to see the the unobstructed house (or what’s left of it), as a team of architects and photographers from the Historic American Building Survey went in to document it on the eve of its demolition–no doubt inspired by a succession of architects who had made the pilgrimage to Salem to measure and sketch this house, beginning with Arthur Little in 1877. As you can see, the storefronts didn’t just obstruct the house, they cut into it on the first and second stories. From that point on it must have been open season for house parts: an archway and a golden cod went to the Essex Institute, and all the other codfish went to a Pickman descendant’s Newport mansion: I think this one (where there is also a reproduction McIntire summer house) but I’m not certain.
Arthur Little sketch of the Pickman House parlor, EarlyNewEnglandInteriors (1878); William Martin Aiken sketch of Pickman architectural elements, 1883, Lowcountry Digital Archive; HABS MA-332 photographs and drawing, Library of Congress.
I’m not just interested in wood or architecture; I’m also interested in Colonel Pickman–but he remains pretty inscrutable too. Ultimately the only way to get to know him is through material remnants (like the silver he left to the First Church) or his family: his son Benjamin Pickman Jr. (whom I’ve written about here and here), was a Loyalist who left Salem during the Revolution but managed to easily assimilate into its social and political society upon his return–hence the dinner with Hamilton at the house! The more patriotic Colonel had died in 1773, so he doesn’t figure very prominently in the edited volume of his son’s diary and letters published in 1928. There is a beautiful portrait of the elder Benjamin by John Greenwood in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, but I’ve never seen it on display–nor the fluted archway and golden cod that is all that is left in Salem of the beautiful house that was once next door.
I’m always looking for artistic impressions of Salem’s long-lost train depot (1847-1955), so was thrilled to come across a painting by the Philadelphia-born artist Colin Campbell Cooper the other day. Campbell is universally characterized as an Impressionist, but he seems to have been fascinated by structure, as there are many cathedrals, skyscrapers, and train stations (the cathedrals of their day?) among his works: you can see why he was drawn to the Salem station. Here is his impression, from 1910, along with Walker Evans’ photograph from the 1930s and a street-level stereoview published by Charles Beckford: contrasting views of an imposing edifice.
Cooper had a vibrant and varied artistic life. He was born in Philadelphia in 1856, and after his artistic education at the Philadelphia Academy of Arts (with Thomas Eakins) he was off: to New York, to Europe, to Asia, and eventually to California. While in the Netherlands in 1897, he met and married his first wife, Emma Lambert, who was also a promising and increasingly-prominent artist. They traveled extensively together: one dramatic voyage had them assisting in the rescue of Titanic survivors while aboard the RMS Carpathia en route to Gibraltar in the spring of 1912. Prior to this adventure they came to Salem together–perhaps they were visiting Frank Benson, or Philip Little, or maybe Ross Turner? I can’t discern the details, but three paintings bear witness to their time here in 1910-1911: Colin’s Train Roundhouse and Salem Mansion (alternatively titled A Salem Residence), for which he won the Beal Prize in 1911, and Emma’s Fruit Stand, Salem, Massachusetts.
Colin Campbell Cooper, A Salem Mansion, 1910, The International Studio, Volume 45; Emma Lampert Cooper, Fruit Stand Salem Massachusetts, Cottone Auctions.
After Emma’s death in 1920, Cooper relocated to California, where he became Dean of the Santa Barbara School for the Arts, and eventually remarried. He kept his studio in New York City, but California terraces began to replace the skyscrapers….and he became a playwright! He died in 1937, just a few years before the foundation of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, for which he was an energetic advocate. Cooper’s paintings are in many American museums, and Sullivan Goss, the Santa Barbara gallery that represents his estate, is also a great resource for his life and work.
Charles Campbell Cooper, Glass Train Shed, Philadelphia, and Grand Central Station, New York, both1910(thesameyearashisSalempaintings), Metropolitan Museum, New York; Broadway, c. 1909, Biggs Museum of American Art; Beauvais Cathedral, 1926, Sullivan Goss Gallery.