If you haven’t noticed, I’ve become a bit obsessed with the prospect of an exiled and extracted Phillips Library; even though I’m living through it, it’s still difficult for me to grasp how this could happen to a city with as rich a heritage as Salem—-to any community really. I just don’t understand how or why the Trustees of the Peabody Essex Museum could acquiesce to such a radical policy, but then again, I don’t have many insights into the role(s) of contemporary trustees: I am governed more by characterizations from the past than present examples. I can suppress thoughts of Salem losing nearly all of its material history for a day or two, but then they come raging back: in dreams (or nightmares), first thoughts upon waking, and last thoughts at the end of the day. Lately I’ve found myself conjuring up people from the past and asking (myself–not them!) what they would think or do in this situation: Dr. Henry Wheatland, who devoted his life to the Essex Institute by all accounts, or James Duncan Phillips, the great Salem historian after which the Library is named. These men would not be happy, and they would make their unhappiness known, no doubt. But I think this particular crisis calls for another Essex Institute trustee from the more recent past: the pioneering preservationist Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958). I just know she would never let this happen.
Louise was a Gilded-Age princess: the heiress to the du Pont industrial fortune, raised at Winterthur, and married to Boston Brahmin (with Salem roots) Francis Boardman Crowninshield in 1900. She mixed in all the right circles but was obviously not content to just play and party: like her brother Henry, she was an energetic student and collector of early American material culture, and this passion brought her into the early preservationist movement. After restoring her family’s original homestead, Eleutherian Mills, she became involved with the rebuilding and restoration of two historic Virginia properties related to George Washington: Wakefield, his birthplace, and Kenmore, the Fredericksburg plantation that was home to his sister and her family. Crowninshield then worked her way up the east coast, participating in a succession of preservation initiatives, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia and several Massachusetts properties: Gore Place in Waltham, the Lee Mansion in Marblehead (where she and her husband summered at a beautiful estate on Peaches Point), the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, the Mission House in Stockbridge, and two Essex Institute houses: Peirce-Nichols and Gardner-Pingree. Her interest and investment in another Salem house, the Derby House, was integral to the establishment of the Salem National Historic Site as the first national historic site in the NPS. She was one of the founding trustees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949 and is the namesake of its most prestigious award.
Louise du Pont Crowninshield was a powerful woman: so powerful that the substantial contributions she made towards the restoration of the Gardner-Pingree house in the 1930s entitled her to dictate (apparently–I’m relying on written hearsay here) that no mention be made of her relative-by-marriage’s key role in the savage murder of Captain Thomas White in the house in 1830 when it was opened for tours a century later, and to place furniture in the Derby House that was perhaps a bit “old” for its period. But her capital and connections were utilized overwhelmingly for the public good rather than vanity or recognition. She was committed: to her belief that Americans will be better for having around them some visible remains of their past, as well as to the importance of place in general and Salem in particular. She served on the boards of both the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum, and as President of the Salem Maritime Trust as well. If Mrs. Crowninshield was alive today I have no doubt that she would spare no expense of her cultural capital (telling her Marblehead neighbors and fellow trustees: we are not going to do this to Salem), and perhaps also her capital, to ensure that the Phillips Library was returned to Salem, adjacent to the buildings in which she invested so much of herself, and which bear her name. We need her now.
Helen Comstock’s influential 1958 coffee-table book 100 Most Beautiful Rooms in America was a veritable memorial to Louise du Pont Crowninshield in the year of her death, with pictures of Winterthur, Kenmore, and (above), a Peirce-Nichols bedroom, the Crowninshield Memorial bedroom in the Gardner-Pingree House, and the Lee Mansion parlor. A true memorial is the Crowninshield-Bentley house, which was removed to the Essex Institute campus from its original location further along Essex Street and restored by subscription in 1959-60 in tribute to Mrs. Crowninshield. (Love these historic house pamphlets published by the Essex Institute in 1976-78—scoop them up if you can find them).
P.S. And of course there are Crowninshield papers in the Phillips Library deposited by Mrs. Crowninshield, as well as other purchased and donated in her memory.