I have been thinking about Salem during the American Revolution quite a bit over the past few months. It’s yet another era in Salem’s history which is tragically under-represented, and we’re going to try to correct that with our forthcoming book. We have one whole chapter on the Revolution, and a shorter piece on privateers, but Salem really deserves an entire book on its revolutionary role. And why our city has a “real pirates” of Cape Cod museum and no exhibition on privateers when Salem supplied more sailors and ships than any other American port remains inexplicable to me. In any case, our chapter on the Revolution, written by Hans Schwartz, is really interesting: his thesis is that the Revolution was revolutionary for Salem, which sounds simplistic but is not. He examines the social changes in Salem during and after the Revolution, using houses and neighborhoods as one way to illustrate transitions. I didn’t agree with all of his analysis (which is presumptuous of me since he knows far more about this era than I do, but I guess editors need to be presumptuous), but it certainly got me thinking about houses built in Salem in the Revolutionary era. I decided to take a little tour of before, during and after. Federal Street seemed the best place to start.
The first three houses illustrate a pre-revolutionary style: two-story boxes, square or rectangular. They get additions and embellishments later on, but they are stalwart, well-built houses from the pre-Revolutionary era. They make me wonder: what were their builders thinking? Oh, this will all blow over? Obviously building a house is an expression of hope and confidence, or maybe I’m just projecting too much of a modern mindset. And when the war is not quite over, we start to see the Salem Federals built: larger three-story buildings that just exude confidence—we’re winning (lots of houses built in 1782, including the Peirce-Nichols House below) or we’ve won.
Does style follow politics? I’m just not certain: I think fashion might, but architecture? Most of the characteristic Federals for which Salem is famous were built at the beginning of the nineteenth century, not the tail end of the eighteenth. And if you widen your search for Revolutionary-era houses to all of downtown Salem, an architectural conservatism is immediately apparent: the first house below, on Turner Street, was built in 1771, but it’s similiar to the two yellow houses off the Common and Derby Street built ten and twenty years later. And before the Revolution, before the laying out of Chestnut Street in 1805 really, there is no housing segregation, so we are left with an interesting mix of architectural styles: so very evident along Essex and Derby Streets.
I’m off to Scotland on Friday so no posts for a few weeks: “see” you after Thanksgiving! In the meantime, if you’re interested in Salem architecture, tickets for Historic Salem’s Christmas in Salem tour on December 2-3, featuring houses in the Salem Common neighborhood, are available here.