Last week I spent a day in Kennebunkport, a town long associated with the Bush family because of Walker’s Point, which was purchased by President H.W. Bush’s maternal great- and grandfather after the turn of the last century. The usual congregation of onlookers was there, looking down on the Point compound: summer white house towns seem to have lasting appeal and Kennebunkport is a summer white house town x two. I was thrilled because the gate to St. Ann’s-by-the-Sea, a bit further down the coast, was open and so too was the church itself: I had never been inside and this was my chance! It did not disappoint: what a lovely seaside chapel that actually accentuates its setting, a great achievement as its setting is magnificent.
On the road that connects Kennebunkport harbor and downtown to the coast is a small park owned and maintained by the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust named River Green which is the site of a lovely little garden dedicated to former First Lady Barbara Pierce Bush. “Ganny’sGarden,” referring to the name she was called by her 17 grandchildren, was laid out in 2011 and became a memorial garden after Mrs. Bush’s death in 2018. It is completely charming, and also provides a good lesson about what one can do in a relatively small space. It is packed with plants, including some unusual ones (I was struck by the liberal use of mustard) but also personality and presence: bronze “statues” of Mrs. Bush’s gardening shoes and hat lie adjacent to that of an open book (her favorite Pride and Prejudice) as if she had just been there—or was still there.
The garden is overlooked by another statue dedicated to the seafaring forebears of Kennebunkport: Frank Handlen’s Our Forebears of the Coast, which was commissioned in 1994. Its presence made me wonder, in my compare-everything-to-Salem habit which I am trying to kick this summer: why no monument to Salem seafarers? If ever a settlement was made by the sea, it’s this one!
I love September: the cooler days and nights, the colors of late-summer flowers, the light, which can be both hazy and very, very clear. And then there’s that back-to-school feeling which I have experienced every year of my life with the exception of a few years ago, when I took a fall sabbatical. It’s a bit different this year, of course, with all of my classes online, but I still got that anxious/excited feeling on the first day of classes this week. Online teaching cannot compete with face-to-face instruction in my opinion, but it can “personal”, in the sense that you are staring right into the close faces (and homes) of your students; pre-packaged presentations can be more thematic and thoughtful than those which are delivered in person, especially with my conversational style. I put a lot of effort into structuring my online courses this summer to compensate for the slapdash efforts of last semester when we had to make rather quick transitions, so I think that my students will be getting a good mix of lecture, discussion, and writing. Still, with all of that said, I miss going back to school in person. But our home is a lot calmer now with the big kitchen renovation completed (big reveal next week: it’s still a bit of a mess), and it’s a good place to teach and write: I am very fortunate. I worked pretty steadily all summer, so I treated myself to a FOUR-day Labor Day Weekend, and the weather was GLORIOUS, as you can really see (I think) in these photos of New Hampshire, Maine, and Salem.
My long Labor Day Weekend: at the Wentworth Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth on Saturday; York’s McIntire Garrison (+my Dad) and Jefferds Tavern and some Cape Neddick and Ogunquit Houses on Sunday, on the When and If, the 1939 yacht of General Patton, on Tuesday night: it sails out of Salem in the summer and Key West in the winter.
We drove up to Portsmouth to have lunch with my parents and afterwards took a long walk around the old town, as the restaurant I chose was definitely in the new! Portsmouth is experiencing a building boom like Salem, but better. We walked past Market Square in the center of downtown Portsmouth (where there was one lone sign holder—-everyone else was in Iowa, I presume) past the skaters in Strawbery Banke to the South End, and then back again in a big circle. Everything seemed gray-brown in the chilly damp air, except for the old houses, or should I say some of the old houses, painted in shades of gold and pumpkin, green and red. There seems to be a custom of leaving clapboards unpainted in Portsmouth, however, so some of these weathered houses faded right into the streetscape, like camouflage. Lots of contrast on the streets of Portsmouth—and texture.
We caught the owner of this amazing 1766 house coming out, and he told us all about his restoration process—he replaced all those clapboards himself.
Since I was in the neighborhood, I really wanted to check out my favorite house in Portsmouth, the Tobias Lear House, named for George Washington’s secretary. I have adored this house since my teens, and it is likely the source of my admiration for all historic houses, or at least Georgian ones. The last time I checked in, it was in rough shape, so I was a bit nervous when we turned the corner on Hunking Street, but yay: preservation in action!
Then we walked by the famous Wentworth-Gardner House (once owned by Wallace Nutting!) and turned a corner and then: the ultimate unpainted house: so stark and stately, with pops of green potted plants in every window. I don’t remember ever noticing this house before, even though I grew up right over the bridge from Portsmouth. Wow!
Circling back by the skaters in Strawbery Banke, and the lone sign holder in Market Square (it was the weekend before Iowa—this weekend will be very different!), with brief stops at shops (there really can never be enough plaid for Portsmouth), and along the Harbor, where a big ship was delivering sand for this so-far snowless winter.
For the last month, it seems like whenever I engaged in any form of social media I found myself looking at a primitive painting of a burning church. This image, by the nineteenth-century British expat artist John Hilling (1822-1894), who worked in Massachusetts and Maine, was chosen to illustrate a Smithsonian Magazine piece on David Vermette’s book A Distinct Alien Race: the Untold Story of Franco-Americans. It appeared on my feeds again and again as I’m often researching Franco-American communities in New England: it’s a favorite topic of students in the research seminar I teach, as Salem had a large and influential community of resident French Canadians in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, just one labor force for the city’s then- bustling textile mills. This community still has representatives in Salem today, though it was profoundly impacted by the Great Salem Fire of June 1914 which struck right in the heart of its neighborhood. So obviously, research topics abound, and apart from those inquiries, there’s something about a church in flames, whether by accident or intent, that always captures one’s attention.
So here’s the image which has followed me online for last month or so: John Hilling’s Burning of the Old South Church, Bath, Maine, 1854 from the collection of the National Gallery of Art. There are several very interesting things about this painting: it is not signed by Hilling, but only referred to as his work in contemporary records–as well as his obituary; Hilling was documenting an event, so it is part of a sequential series which he created in several sets–indicating demand for such images; and even though this inflamed church looks like the perfect New England Congregational house of worship, it is being attacked for its recent alien occupation by a Catholic parish by a Nativist mob of Know-Nothings, in that contentious summer of 1854. Hilling created a before scene in which this mob appears to be looting the Church, and then an after in which it is in flames, and while browsing through the lots of an upcoming Doyle auction this weekend I found another stage of this scene by Hilling: a peaceful scene of the Church pristine.
Doyle Auctions; Gibbes Museum of Art; Jeffrey Tillou Antiques; Sotheby’s Auctions.
We know that besides Bath, Hilling lived in Charlestown, Massachusetts, so I can’t help but wonder if his Church scenes were inspired by another notorious expression of anti-Catholicism twenty years before: the burning of the Ursuline Convent on St. Benedict (now in Somerville; then in Charlestown) in 1834. The “memory” of this epic event seems to have had a fast hold on all who witnessed or even heard of it, and I bet Hilling was no exception, even though he was only a boy and likely not even in this country when it happened.
Harry Hazel, The nun of St. Ursula, or, The burning of the convent. A romance of Mount Benedict (1845).
I was up in New Hampshire this past weekend for a spectacular summer wedding on Dublin Lake, and of course I made time for side trips; the Granite State continues to be a place of perpetual discovery for me after a lifetime of merely driving around or through it, to and from a succession of homes in Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts. On the day before the wedding, some friends and I drove north to see TheFells, the Lake Sunapee home of John Milton Hay (1838-1905), who served in the administrations of Presidents Lincoln, McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. Hay is the perfect example of a dedicated public servant and statesman, attending to President Lincoln as his private secretary until the very end, at his deathbed, and dying in office (at The Fells) while serving as President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. He was also a distinguished diplomat, poet, and a key biographer of Lincoln. Fulfilling the conservation mission that was a key part of his purchase and development of the lakeside property, Hay’s descendants donated the extended acreage surrounding the house to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1960s, and it eventually became the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge. Hay’s daughter-in-law Alice Hay maintained the house as her summer residence until her death in 1987, after which it was established as a non-profit organization, open for visitors from Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekends.
When it comes to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century country or summer residences in New England which are now open to the public, it seems to me there are three essential types: those of very rich people (think Newport), those of statesmen (The Fells; Hildene in Manchester, Vermont; Naumkeag in Stockbridge), and those of creative people (The Mount in Lenox; Beauport; Aspet, Augustus Saint-Gauden’s summer home and studio in Cornish, New Hampshire). The last category is my favorite by far, but there’s always lots to learn by visiting the houses of the rich and the connected, and John Milton Hay was as connected as they come. I was a bit underwhelmed by the house, which is a Colonial Revival amalgamation of two earlier structures, until I got to its second floor, which has lovely views of the lake and surrounding acreage plus a distinct family feel created by smaller interconnected bedrooms opening up into a long central hall. The airiness of the first floor felt a bit institutional, but this was an estate built for a very public man, after all. For the Hays, I think it was all about the relation of the house to its setting, rather than the house itself.
The gardens surrounding the house also seemed a bit sparse although it was a hot day in late July and we might be between blooms; certainly the foundations and structures are there, especially in the rock garden that leads down to the lake. This was the passion of Hay’s youngest son, Clarence, who established the garden in 1920 and worked on it throughout his life. After his death in 1969, the garden was lost to forest, but it was reestablished by the efforts of the Friends of the Hay Wildlife Refuge and the Garden Conservancy. When you’re standing in the rock garden looking up at the house, or in the second floor of the house looking down at the rock garden and the lake beyond, you can understand why the well-connected and well-traveled John Milton Hay proclaimed that “nowhere have I found a more beautiful spot” in 1890.
This is generally a beautiful time of year to take photographs around Salem but it’s been rather cold and dreary for the past few weeks, with the exception of a few isolated days. I’m sure that when everything dries out we will be living in a lush and green world, but for right now I’m more predisposed to take out a book than go outside. So after I finished my grading (always a celebratory moment), I curled up with some old architecture and photography books and soon realized that one “Salem artist” whom I have never featured is Philip Kappel (1901-1981), an etcher and book illustrator who spent several years working with Philip Little and in his waterfront studio off Derby Street. Kappel was not really a Salem artist: he was born in Connecticut, educated in New York City, and as he was employed by several steamship lines over his career, he traveled the world six times over, gathering materials for his etchings everywhere he went. But he did publish a lovely book in 1966 titled New England Gallery with several Salem images inside, as well as some interesting commentary on his time here.
See what I mean about the weather? But Kappel’s Ropes Mansion and Witch House hint at brighter and warmer days, even with no color!
The Custom House (which is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year) Derby Wharf Lighthouse, The Little Studio (just above the compass star)–where both Philip Little and Philip Kappel worked, in different seasons—and the House of the Seven Gables.
Kappel relates the standard histories of most of the Salem structures presented in New England Gallery but is more effusive about Chestnut Street because that is where his friend and mentor, Philip Little, lived. Little summered on MacMahan Island off Boothbay Harbor every year, and during a visit to the mainland he chanced upon a small exhibition of Kappel’s drawings and sought the young artist out. Kappel was teaching art in Boothbay, but Little thought he should and could do better, and offered him his Salem studio on Daniels Street Court, “hard by Salem Harbor, in the heart of the area which made Salem a great seaport in its heyday.” There, Kappel reveals, “inspired by its moods and reveling in its historic past, I never worked harder or produced more work. Every summer passed too quickly.” Kappel’s depiction of the Little house at 10 Chestnut Street includes the entrance pillars of Hamilton Hall, which gives him an opportunity to pass along a charming little anecdote: Many years ago Philip Little took me on a tour through Hamilton Hall. As we were descending the long flight of stairs that led to the second floor from the first, I notices a series of large white circles painted on the top step, and a similar treatment accorded the last step. (I have since learned that the circles have been removed.) When I asked the purpose of this unusual feature, Philip Little forthrightly informed me that the circles served as warning signals for those who might have “sipped too long and too much at the punchbowl,” alerting them to the impending dangers of a fall when taking the first step into the space, the circles on the last step indicating that all was well; a successful landing had been effected. There is carpet on those stairs now, but having been to one or two enthusiastic events at Hamilton Hall over the years, I’m wondering if we should put those circles back!
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”.
Arthur 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!
Three Codfish Aristocrats: McAllister Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia, c. 1840-1880.
I’ve long admired the prints of Bohemian-born Rudolph Ruzicka (1883–1978), both pictures and fonts—both are characterized by the “optical ease” which he sought for all of his work. Ruzicka migrated to the United States as a child, and received his art training in Chicago and New York City before launching his career as an engraver and designer: he operated his own shop but also worked for the Mergenthaler Linotype Company for his entire professional life, as well as for Merrymount Press in Boston. His body of work includes several portfolios of prints of New York City, Newark and Boston, at least four typefaces (including the classic Fairfield which I use a lot), and a beautiful book of calligraphic fonts titled Studies in Typeface Design (1968). Ruzicka’s pictorial work looks to my untrained eye like the perfect combination of early to mid-twentieth-century central European and American aesthetics (they have that WPA look before the WPA!), and I love that he obviously loved New England: he moved to Massachusetts in 1948 and then to a farm in Brattleboro, Vermont. While he portrays an obvious appreciation for the “pictorial aspects” of New York (and Newark as well) his scenes of greater Boston are beautiful. And as a bonus, the series of greeting cards designed by Ruzicka and produced by the Merrymount Press from 1911-1941 include several prints of notable Salem landmarks, which you can see below.
Ruzicka’s views of Boston (including the old Cornhill and swimming in Frog Pond) above, and of greater Boston (including Peacefields in Quincy, Walden Pond in Concord, McIntire’s Gore Place in Waltham and Derby summer house in Danvers, and the House of the Seven Gables and Old Town Hall in Salem) below.
All images from the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art; the Harvard Museums also have a large collection of Ruzicka prints.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving was a very different holiday in some ways, but familiar in others. It did not become a national holiday until 1863: before that the Salem papers (I’m using the Salem Register in this post) note with each passing year how many governors have issued proclamations adopting the “joyous festival, so long the ‘peculiar institution’ of New England”. How jarring to see this phrase applied to Thanksgiving—when I thought it was an exclusive reference to slavery! I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with the phrase “Universal Yankee Nation” in this 1847 article either.
Apart from the provincial pride, Thanksgiving was also a busy public holiday, rather than merely a family gathering. It was both sacred and secular, and everyone was out and about in the morning (for church services) and the evening (for concerts and dances). I assume they ate their Thanksgiving dinners in between, as there were lots of advertisements for various foodstuffs in the weeks before the big day, which was always in November in Massachusetts despite some December dates chosen by other states. Provisioning and preparations were very important: not just for family meals, but also for the meals that were prepared by different civic groups for orphans, prisoners, “inmates of the Alms House”, and (during the Civil War) soldiers.
These advertisements from the Salem Register (from 1847-75) give some semblance of what Thanksgiving festivities were all about in mid-nineteenth-century Salem but are an under-representation: people really wanted to give thanks in as many ways as possible, especially during the Civil War. But they also wanted to celebrate: Thanksgiving is always referred to as a “festival”. Turkey–and other fowl– was definitely on the menu as you can see from the “warning” to Salem’s resident birds, and cranberries as well. I remain extremely impressed by the entrepreneurialism of Mr. John Remond, an African-American man who served as the resident manager and caterer of (a very busy) Hamilton Hall while also running several provisioning businesses downtown: he arrived in Salem from the West Indies in 1798, all alone and only ten years old, and seems to have transformed himself into one of the city’s major players by the 1820s. He and his wife Nancy (who also had her own business–and they had eight children) were also active abolitionists and do not seem to have suffered the handicaps faced by most African-Americans in the nineteenth century, but then again, advertisements only reflect one small sliver of their lives. But they can tell us that year after year in Salem, oysters, whether individually or in pies, were much in demand for Thanksgiving.
I’m using the expression “turnkey” in typical contrary fashion here: it’s a real estate term which generally means a house that requires no repairs or refurbishment, just turn the key and you are home in your new purchase. The Rundlet-May house in Portsmouth struck me as a turnkey house in another sense: Ralph May, the fourth of his generation to live in the house, donated it to Historic New England (then the Society for the Preservation for New England Antiquities) in 1971 and now when you enter the house (or turn the key, in a sense) it seems as if you are within a space that he just left. This is an imposing Federal, made less so by the lived-in ambiance of a home to four generations of the same family.
The Rundlet-May House (1807) and views out back from its second and third floors.
Even though the house itself is an extravagant construction on large urban acreage, everything about its interior speaks to Yankee thrift: from the original peach damask wallpaper in one of the front parlors to the original Edison light bulb in a fixture on the second-floor landing–which is turned on once a year. It’s the perfect old-money house. John Rundlet, the self-made man who built (and apparently designed?) the house purchased and commissioned the best of everything (including a Rumford Roaster and a Rumford Range) and his descendants seem to have changed very little other than altering the use of its rooms to suit their activities and professions.
First-floor parlors, hall and kitchen (with Rumford Roaster) and fire buckets, of course. I found several early 20th-century postcards of the house which referred to Samuel McIntire as the carver of the right parlor’s mantle (above), but I think this is just an illustration of the Salem architect and woodcarver’s fame in the midst of the Colonial Revival era.
There’s probably too much furniture–beautiful as it all is—in the house: tables and dressers and painted chairs. Should a beautiful card table be situated just inches away facing an even more beautiful Portsmouth bureau in a narrow window nook of an upstairs bedroom? No necessarily, but this placement allows us to see both of these pieces. There’s also a lot of stuff. But it’s their stuff and their home, and we are all privileged to be able to enter within!
Second and Third Floors, including Ralph May’s 3rd floor study, with all of his stuff. Below: this “musical” decorative motif ran through the house—it caught my eye because the same motif is on one of my Fancy chairs. (the last photograph).