Tag Archives: Massachusetts

Streets of North Adams

I found myself in the western Massachusetts city of North Adams on this past Saturday morning, having driven across the state to sit on a panel for an honors thesis defense at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts the day before. I love the Berkshires, but I must admit that if I’m driving out on Route 2 I generally drive right through North Adams to reach more pastoral destinations except for a few visits to Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, splendidly housed in an old textile/electrical factory in the city center. But as I woke up in North Adams (in a beautiful bedroom at Porches, quite literally in the shadow of Mass MoCA), I was determined to stay there and explore for a bit. So I set off on foot, armed only with my phone, which was loaded with a walking-tour app provided by Historic North Adams, a collaboration between MCLA’s History Department, the North Adams Public Library, and the North Adams Historical Society. After I got the downtown down, I headed up one of the city’s several hills to discover its houses.

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Judging from the simple house plaques that adorn many of North Adams’ eclectic Victorians, North Adams became a boomtown in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, with the Arnold Print Works (1862-1942) turning out textiles for a global market from its complex of mill buildings along the Hoosac River—later the home of Sprague Electric, and now Mass MoCa. The Hoosac Tunnel was completed in 1875 (at great cost of treasure and lives—its workers named it the “Bloody Pit”) making North Adams a railway gateway to the west. Walking the streets of the city, you can feel and see the expansion of that era through the architecture: every single structure seems to date from the 1870s and 1880s with nary a Colonial in sight. The sound of hammers must have been constant in this period, along with the smell of smoke. There were several larger Victorians in divided and dilapidated states, but it was also clear that preservation was at work in North Adams, and as our entire region was plunged into a prolonged period of gloomy rain last week, it was nice to be among more colorful houses. This is just a small sampling: I’ll need to go back!

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20190504_090957Some of the larger Victorians on Church Street (just above) need some help, but just up the hill is a lovely neighborhood of mostly-restored structures. Below: the Arnold Print Works produced a full line of textiles over their long history, but one of their popular products in the 1890s were these stuffed animal templates (examples below from the collections of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum & Cooper Hewitt): the finished products are very collectible and you can buy reproductions too (here are some Etsy examples). 

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North Adams Arnold Print Work Owl Cooper Hewitt

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A Cabinetmaker is Captured

Even though a Salem company of militia men did not make it to Lexington and Concord in time to participate in the battles that commenced the Revolutionary War (I still can’t figure out what Timothy Pickering was doing on that day), there are still some important connections and contributions to note on this Patriots Day, including the publication of one of its most essential primary sources, the coffin-embellished broadside Bloody Butchery of the British Troops: or, The Runaway Fight of the Regulars, by Salem printer Ezekiel Russell. Russell documents the death of Salem’s one casualty of the day, Benjamin Pierce, but a source from years later established another important connection: Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington, on the Morning of the 19th of April, 1775, published for the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the battles in 1825. Phinney took oral histories from participants who were still alive, published in the form of sworn affidavits in the book’s appendix, and the very first account was that of Elijah Sanderson, who was at the end of a long career as one of Salem’s most successful cabinetmakers. Sanderson’s testimony was given just weeks before his death in early 1825, and published not only in Phinney’s account but also in the regional newspapers that year, when historical consciousness of the importance of the Battles of Lexington and Concord seems quite well-developed.

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Sanderson Essex Register Essex Register

Elijah Sanderson and his younger brother Jacob were among the most prolific and consequential cabinetmakers of Salem, who spread the city’s craftsmanship and style far beyond New England through an expansive export trade in alliance with their partner Josiah Austin and several prominent merchants and shipowners.  Through their collaborative business, and with half-shares in several Salem ships themselves, they sent cargoes of furniture to the Southern seaports, the West Indies, Africa, and India in a series of voyages that are well-documented in the Phillips Library and have been analyzed by scholars Mabel M. Swan, Thomas Hamilton Ornsbee, and more recently, Dean Lahikainen. Their success was clearly tied to Salem, but in 1775 the Sanderson brothers were living in Lexington, in the home of their elder brother Samuel, when Elijah found himself swept up in the events of April 18 and 19, for a time even finding himself in the captive company of Paul Revere! I love his testimony because it rings true in its lack of heroism and drama: it must be true because it is recounted in such a detailed yet mundane manner! The Sanderson house was on the main road from Boston, and relatively late on the evening of the 18th Elijah noted the passing of a party of British officers “all dressed in blue wrappers”. He decided to discern what was up, so made his way to John Buckman’s tavern where an older gentleman encouraged him to “ascertain the object” of these officers, so he did so, on a borrowed horse in the company of two other comrades. There was general concern that the British were after John Hancock and John Adams, who had been “boarding some time at Parson Clark’s”. Elijah’s party was stopped by nine British officers a few miles down the road in Lincoln, and they were detained and examined, along with two other “prisoners”, a one-handed pedlar named Allen and Col. Paul Revere. After “as many question as a Yankee could” ask, the entire party mounted and made their way to Lexington, where the British officer named Loring observed “The bell’s a ringing, and the town’s alarmed, and you’re all dead men” but let them go, after cutting the bridle and girth of Elijah’s horse. We hear no more of Revere, but Elijah made his way to the tavern in Lexington and there promptly fell asleep! Yes, he fell asleep in the middle of the opening act of the American Revolution.

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Sanderson Lexington The taproom of the Buckman Tavern, where Elijah Sanderson fell asleep by the fire; early 19th century view of the Battle of Lexington, New York Public Library Digital  Collections.

Well not for long: Elijah awoke to the sound of drums and ran out to Lexington Common where he fell in, without a gun, but then stepped out “reflecting I was of no use” to become the perfect eyewitness bystander of the Battle of Lexington. He heard the British commander say “Fire” and then all was smoke and fire. After the British left for Concord, Elijah ran home to get his gun,, but it was gone (his brother took it) and so he returned to the center of town to “see to the dead”. A few hours later he witnessed the retreat of the British from Concord, firing houses as they made their way back to Boston. He ends his testimony with two statements that he clearly wanted to get on the record: 1) he spoke with one casualty of the day several days prior: a certain Jonas Parker who “expressed his determination never to run from before the British troops” and; 2) his wayward musket was still in his possession, and his brother “told me he fired at the British with it” on that fateful day. What a life this man led: his experience in Lexington, combined with his brilliant Salem career, could provide the basis for an absolutely amazing book. Reading between the lines of the Sanderson scholars, I’m guessing it was the younger brother, Jacob, who was the better craftsman and workshop manager, while Elijah was the traveling dealer and supercargo, with the responsibility of selling their wares up and down several coasts. Jacob died in 1810, and Elijah carried on through a series of less profitable (or at less amenable if the legal notices are any indication) partnerships. Lexington pops up in each and every obituary notice of this memorable man.

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Sanderson Salem Observer Feb 19 1825

“E & J Sanderson” label on a Salem-made pembroke table, Winterthur collections; Sanderson pieces from the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Christie’s Auctions, and the State Department; The Elijah & Jacob Sanderson House on Federal Street, 1783 (a very rare— I think—back-to-back double house which received Historic Salem Inc.’s first plaque!); just one Sanderson obituary.


Codfish Aristocracy

Growing up in York, Maine, my focus was increasingly over the river and out of state once I hit my teens, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a larger town with a mall, movie theaters, downtown shops, and lots and lots of restaurants. As I’ve said before, I think I ended up in Salem in large part because of its similarity to Portsmouth, and its greater proximity to Boston (now Salem surely has more restaurants, but fewer shops). For some reason which I can’t remember, my favorite restaurant in Portsmouth has always been The Oar House, which still exists, but a close second was The Codfish Aristocracy, which is long gone. I had very little historical curiosity then, as well as very little regard for American history, so I never questioned the name; only later did I delve into the origins of this interesting idiom. Since I have cod on the brain this week, I decided to delve into it a bit more, and of course, in this year of discovering all sorts of legacies of slavery, here is another one. I think there are several connections, actually. As a general reference to the New England aristocracy of families whose “new” wealth was based on the Atlantic fisheries and trade to both the West Indies and Europe, the term predates the nineteenth century; after all the original “sacred cod” was placed in the old Colonial State House in the early eighteenth century and the present one dates from 1798. Salem even has a claim for the origins of the term, based on the cod embellishment on the stairs in Colonel Benjamin Pickman’s beautiful Georgian mansion on Essex Street, built in 1756. A lithograph of this house was included in the materials chosen by a special Essex Institute committee to represent Salem at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, when it was “still standing though defaced by shops in front. It is said that the term “Codfish Aristocracy” arose from the fact that the end of each stair in the hall of this was house was ornamented with gilded codfish, Colonel Pickman’s fortune being derived from the fisheries”.

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Pendleton PickmanArthur Griffin photograph of the Sacred Cod in the State House, 1950s; The Pickman House by Pendleton’s Lithography, Digital Commonwealth & Boston Athenaeum.

New England cod fed both enslaved Africans and free Europeans and thus created great wealth in New England, but the derisive use of the term “Codfish Aristocracy”, in reference to the ostentatious and vulgar display of that wealth, comes later, in the 1840s and 1850s, and most prominently in the debate over slavery. He was not the originator of the phrase, but when Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina remarked that We should regard it somewhat strange if we should require a codfish aristocracy to keep us in order in the midst of a speech on the floor of the Senate in the summer of 1850, it seemed to hit a chord. As a leading pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist voice, Butler drew heated criticism from Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who indicted Butler as both “the Don Quixote of slavery,” and an admirer of “the harlot, Slavery” in his own Senate speech in May of 1856: in retaliation Butler’s cousin Preston S. Brooks responded by caning Sumner on the Senate floor days later, instigating his three-year incapacitation. In the following year, after Senator Clement Claiborne Clay introduced a bill repealing all laws allowing bounties to vessels employed in the fisheries under the rationale that 25 states were made to pay tribute to the Codfish Aristocracy of a mere six, papers in Massachusetts opined that “southern hatred of New England” was his true motivation.

Somewhere between the absolute disdain conveyed by the southern use of the term and the occasional pride displayed in the North was the New York attitude: more mockery than condemnation. There are three caricatures of the Codfish Aristocracy that represent this perspective well in the collection of the Library Collection of Philadelphia: literal representations are always an effective form of censure!

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Codfish Aristocracy LC 3Three Codfish Aristocrats: McAllister Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia, c. 1840-1880.


Blank Buildings

Periods and events of the past are generally identified after they are over: history is about remembrance, and imposing order and meaning on what has happened. There’s no better way to convey this essential point than to reference wars: obviously people in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Seven Years’ War had no sense that these were the historic events in which they were participating or enduring! Often historical and cultural eras overlap, and that means that styles are identified well after their expression: medieval, colonial, Victorian. But there are also cultural descriptions detached from precise historical periods: Gothic and Palladian come to mind but I suppose any “revival” style could fall into this category. This long preamble is just my mind wondering how people of the future will categorize Salem’s current architectural style: in a city long identified by its architecture, how will the buildings of the early 21st century be branded? I think we are turning a corner with the latest downtown building slated for construction—a condominium development on the site of the District Courthouse on Washington Street–but I’m not sure where this turn will take us.

Blank Architecture 1 Coming Soon on Washington Street via Building Salem.

The style–or perhaps I should say form–of this rendering is familiar: similar buildings have been built in the last decade on Federal and Lafayette Streets. But what is it? I am architecturally naive, but it looks like a Prairie-esque type design on steroids, shorn of craftsmanship and charm. I’ve often heard Frank Lloyd Wright characterized as the most influential architect of the last century, both for better and for worse. All I see when I look at these buildings are the shallow or flat roofs with their overhanging eaves, sometimes slanted and sometimes straight, and their bulk. They look vaguely Italianate, vaguely “Mediterranean”, vaguely Prairie, and like they could belong anywhere and everywhere, and as more of them are built in Salem, Salem becomes less and less Salem-esque.

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Blank Architecture 5Ten Federal and 135 Lafayette; I think this “style” started with the Ruane Judicial Center nearly a decade ago, on the far right: it is very bulky with a conspicuous overhang. The panorama of courthouses on Federal Street makes quite a statement!

My title is a double entendre: I really don’t know what this architectural style is called or what architectural era we are in so I am inviting readers to fill in the blank______, but I also think that this architecture is blank: empty, soulless, devoid of any connection to its surroundings. We could do so much better; inspiration is all around us. A building in Lynn caught my eye just as I was driving back from the airport this morning: it features some of the very details that characterize these stark buildings in Salem but is clearly a composition rather than just a composite. It has texture, ornamentation, depth, craftsmanship: its builders were obviously proud to cast their mark on it, and mark its time, as it was built to last.

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Blank Architecture 8The Loraine Apartment Building in Lynn’s Diamond District, designed by architect Samuel Rogers.


The Older Andover

About forty minutes inland from Salem to the northwest are the towns of Andover and North Andover, both early settlements and bustling towns today. Due to the anniversary of the last executions of the Salem Witch Trials on Friday, I had Samuel Wardwell—who hailed from Andover, along with several other victims—on my mind, so I decided to drive there and see if I could find the location of his farm, which is always referred to as lying in the “southern” part of what was then one big Andover. That was my goal, but I got waylaid and distracted by the other Andover, the North Parish, which became North Andover in 1855. I hadn’t realized that North Andover was actually the first settlement: whenever I see North or South or East or West I assume that that designated location was settled after the adjoining town without the geographical adjective (is there are word for that?) But in the case of the Andovers, this assumption is incorrect. And because I assumed North Andover was later, I had always given it short shrift and driven through or around or by it—but this Saturday, the weather was fine and I had time so I drove into it, and spent a considerable amount of time in the vicinity of its perfectly pristine center village, in which a striking Gothic Revival Church overlooks one of the prettiest commons I have ever seen. It was the first day of Fall, and the North Andover Fall Festival was in full swing, so I parked the car and walked all around the old town center.

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All of the houses above surround the large Common, and bordering it is the little building built for the North Andover Hay Scales Company, established in 1819, which Walter Muir Whitehill refers to as “a rustic corporation of twenty-five proprietors who not only missioned a public utility but had a good sociable time doing so”. (Old-Time New England, October 1948). And down the road apiece is the Trustees of Reservations’ Stevens-Coolidge estate, with its extensive gardens, and this intriguing brick double house.

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On the other side of the Common, I walked past the North Andover Historical Society, a rather stately Greek Revival house and two “Salem Federals”, which really do have the air of displaced Salem houses, especially the Kittredge Mansion (1784), which looks just like the Peirce-Nichols House! Apparently its design is attributed to Samuel McIntire, which is complete news to me—must find out much more about this house.

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Kittredge House 2The Kittredge Mansion & gate in HABS photographs from 1940-41, Library of Congress.

Finally I came to the beautiful Parson Barnard House (1715), which was long believed to be the home of Simon and Anne Bradstreet and has been owned and maintained by the North Andover Historical Society since 1950. It is perfectly situated and colored for early fall reveries, and I could have sat there looking at it for quite some time, but Wardwell business was pressing, so I retrieved my car, drove over the other Andover, and took a really cool virtual tour of its downtown courtesy of the Andover Center for History and Culture.

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At the Eustis Estate

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Wordy Fourths

In recent years, Salem has put on an amazing fireworks display for the Fourth, before that it was BIG blazing bonfires, and before that it was LONG orations–sometime competing long orations. These speeches were always given by “notable” men, sometimes from Salem, and always from Massachusetts. I went through a succession of these speeches–which used to run to an hour and more by all accounts–to try to pick out some themes beyond a general patriotism. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, it’s all about competing visions for the country by the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Federalists, a more unified message emerges with the onset of war with Britain in the next decade, and then gradually we move towards abolitionism and nativism: sometimes together. We get occasional glimpses of other aspects of celebration/commemoration in the first half of the nineteenth century (see 1808 below), but mostly what is recorded are WORDS.

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_Fourth 1812 collagePrinted Independence Day Orations from Salem, and the arrangements for the Federalists’ holiday in 1808, with dinner at the “new” Assembly House: Hamilton Hall. I am wondering if the Benjamin Peirce of 1812 is the Benjamin Peirce of 1775–he would have been 74 years old.

Fourth of July 1826 I found it surprising that there was STILL animosity towards Britain more than a decade after the War of 1812 was over–this must be a reflection of the damage the war caused to Salem’s trade and position. The Reverend Henry Colman tried to smooth feathers in his 1826 oration: I am aware of the extreme and bitter diversity of opinion which prevailed among her best citizens in regard to the recent war. But at this distance of time we can view the subject calmly and weigh its merits with justice, candid minds, whatever may be their views of its expedience or management, will find it difficult to doubt that the motives in which it originated with were patriotic…..And unsuccessful as it may be deemed by any in the attainment of its avowed objects, the country came out of it, bringing new trophies of an illustrious heroism, and of a devotion to what many might reasonably deem the cause of liberty and right, worthy of those who hold alliance to the heroes of the revolution”.

Nearly twenty years later—-looking backward from my privileged perspective— it looks like we are gearing up for yet another war with Anson Burlingame’s 1854 Salem oration. Burlingame was a Massachusetts politician who was fiercely patriotic, abolitionist, and anti-Catholic all at the same time. A few years after he gave this Salem speech, he called South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks “the vilest sort of coward” for his brutal assault on Senator Charles Sumner, after which Brooks challenged him to duel to which he himself failed to appear, thus proving Burlingame correct! His Fourth of July speech seems to be more passionately Nativist than Abolitionist, and it inspired an amazing satire, also published in 1854: Corporal Pitman’s Great Oration, Pronounced on Salem Common July 4, 1854, a speech that was never given.

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July 4 1854Anson Burlingame’s Salem speech, 1854, and his defense of Sumner and Massachusetts on the floor of the House of Representatives, 1856; a satire of the former by “Corporal Pitman”, which reads like it would be quite a performance.

I think the truly celebratory Fourth that we enjoy today is rooted in that of the Centennial–in which the whole city was festooned: speeches were certainly made, but the emphasis was more on actions: particularly a city-wide procession.

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Effusive Fourth1876 and this morning: when it was so hot we could barely stand to stay outside for the 7 (???) minutes or so it took to listen to the reading of the Declaration of Independence. I like how everyone is lining up in the shade, like soldiers.


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