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, Early New England Interiors (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.
Colonel Benjamin Pickman of Salem, 1708-73.