Tag Archives: Portsmouth

What might have been: a Salem Tragedy

Things become crystal clear when you find yourself in a parallel universe and are able to discern what your universe lacks. Almost exactly a year ago, the Peabody Essex Museum notified researchers that the temporary Phillips Library location in Peabody would close for several months in order to move to a “new” location: this was confusing to many, as the Phillips had been relocated for the renovation of its historical buildings in Salem with PEM promises to return. But now this venerable library, constituting Salem’s major archive, was to move somewhere entirely new! Where? When? We didn’t know, but they of course did, and in December the admission finally came: the Phillips Library would be consolidated within a massive “Collection Center” in a former toy factory in Rowley, about a half hour to the north. Almost-unbelievable tone deafness on the part of the PEM leadership accompanied this………….removal every step of the way: here you can read the tale of the big move by a member of the Museum’s Collection Management Department who admits that for well over a year before it began, it took over her daily life. She knew, I guess everyone in the Museum knew, but no one bothered to tell the people of Salem.

PEM Collection Center Great HallThe “Great Hall” of the PEM Collection Center in Rowley.

So that leaves Salem archive-less, with no professional, nonprofit museum dedicated to collecting and interpreting its history, and a main street that is increasingly subdivided between the imposing architecture of PEM (yes, more space is needed for all those visiting exhibitions—that’s why Salem stuff must be dispensed to the north) and monster/vampire/witch wares. It’s kind of an odd juxtaposition really, made more apparent to me when I was home (in York Harbor) on vacation a few weeks ago. I’m not really a beach person, so I spent most of my time prowling around nearby Portsmouth, and one morning, my father and I were treated to a basement-to-attic tour of the Portsmouth Athenaeum by the Keeper of its collections, Tom Hardiman.

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Athenaeums are essentially private membership libraries which circulate books old and new among their members and highlight their collections through exhibitions and programs: the Salem Athenaeum certainly plays a central role in the cultural life of the North Shore doing just that. But over its long history, the Portsmouth Athenaeum evolved into something much more: its active collection policy transformed it into an historical society which serves not only its membership but also its community. It’s an archive, a research center, a library and a museum, all at the same time. Keeper Hardiman assured me that the Athenaeum collects the history of the region (except for materials related to communities like York, which have active historical societies) and consequently space is in short supply and a satellite location might be necessary at some point, but of course the Athenaeum will remain right where it has always been: in Market Square, in the center of Portsmouth. He showed me the Athenaeum’s very first book, and its most valuable, along with charters, newspapers, photographs and objects (including the the axe wielded by Louis Wagner in the terrible 1873 Smuttynose murders, which is kept in a closed cabinet), as well as all sorts of places–public and private—that revealed its inner historical-society workings. Throughout, in both words and places, I discerned respect and even reverence for the resolve of its donors and benefactors.

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Portsmouth Ath 8 Bookplates and books, newspapers, cyclists, and a working bulletin board at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

It was a wonderful tour which I enjoyed immensely but I came away feeling sad, as I realized that so many of the corresponding items that the Athenaeum was holding for Portsmouth were lost to Salem. Certainly the book collection of the Salem Athenaeum is impressive but it is not, and has never been, a historical society: it didn’t have to be. That’s what the Essex Institute, one of the predecessors of the PEM, was: for well over a century. This is a role that is denied steadfastly by the leadership of the PEM but decades of library acquisitions reports and articles in the Bulletins and Historical Collections of the Essex Institute contradict this opinion. The case is moot, however, as these collections, in the form of the Phillips Library, have been removed from Salem and I’m sure that the PEM is in the midst of purchasing stacks of non-Salem, non-historical titles so to obliterate the foundational nature of the Library forever. I could go on and on for quite some time about the tragic nature of this obliteration, but I’ve already done that for a year: what we need at this time is a constructive takeaway. I began this post with a discussion of disclosure because my time in Portsmouth highlighted the importance of planning and coordination for me, and the trigger effect that one institution’s actions can have on others. In the mitigation following the PEM’s disclosure that the Phillips Library would not be returning to Salem, it was revealed that, contrary to city regulations, the Museum had not submitted a Master Plan. This is an institution that withdrew from its commitment to the Salem Armory Headhouse in the 1990s, ultimately determining its demolition, and swallowed a city street whole in the next decade: didn’t we need to know what it was going to do next? Don’t we need to know what it is going to do next? Salem trembles with the PEM’s every move, and Salem’s institutions could have compensated for its historical withdrawal if they knew it was coming: but they did not. Imagine a real historical museum in Salem just like that projected in the Salem Maritime National Historic Site’s Site Plan and Environment Assessment published in 1991, the year before the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum into the Peabody Essex Museum. Though just one of several alternative proposals for the site, I’m sure that this “Derby Wharf Museum” failed to get much support because everyone thought Salem already has a maritime museum, but now that museum is gone—and so much more.

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Salem Willows Portsmouth AthenaeumSalem Maritime’s proposed “Derby Wharf Museum” in its 1991 Site Plan, one of several proposed alternatives for the Site which you can see here; there are even a few Salem items among the digitized photographs in the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s collection.


A Turnkey Homestead

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.

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Rundlett May 18The 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.

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Rundlett May 9First-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!

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Ralph MaySecond 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).

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Georgian Grandeur in Portsmouth

Portsmouth always struck me as a Georgian town, even from a young age, when I first developed an appreciation for historic houses at Strawbery Banke and first spotted what is still one of my very favorite houses nearby. There are Federal houses too, but it doesn’t feel as Federal as its sister seaports to the south, Newburyport and Salem. There is a range of Georgian houses in Portsmouth, from relatively simple to absolutely grand: on this past weekend I revisited three of the latter varieties: the Warner House (1716) the Moffatt-Ladd House (1763),  and the Governor John Langdon House (1784). Each house has a different owner, and a different………style, but all are exquisite representations of their era. The combination of the entirety of their construction with all the crafted details within—including the wonderful Portsmouth furniture in each house—is hard to capture: you’ll just have to visit each one yourself.

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Georgian Langdon HouseThe Warner House, owned and operated by the Warner House Association from the early 1930s, The MoffattLadd House, owned and operated by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire, and the Governor Langdon House, a property of Historic New England.

I loved the colors of the Warner House: rich jewel tones throughout. It’s not too pristine: you do get the feeling that you are imposing on the past (although there is quite a lot of plastic fruit). Those wild murals! The textures are wonderful too—especially of the smalted rooms upstairs. This is the oldest urban brick house in North America and it feels that way: both old and urban. You look out its windows and see a bustling city—this would not have been the case in the 1930s when it was rescued or even later: the Warner guide, like all the Portsmouth guides I encountered last weekend, stressed the fact that the city’s current vibrance contrasts with its more depreciated state in the 1970s—and I remember that to be the case.

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Warner 3collageParlors and bedrooms at the Warner House, a scary squirrel, and always the threat of fire (the tool is to take apart your very valuable bed).

The Moffatt-Ladd House has been very much in the thick of things from its construction; once it faced the wharves of prosperous Portsmouth, but now the horse chestnut tree planted in 1776 by General William Whipple upon his return from signing the Declaration of Independence still stands guard at the entrance to its courtyard. It’s a very airy house inside due to its elevated situation as well as its large entrance parlor—and its beautiful rear parlor, now in the midst of restoration, runs parallel to the wonderful terraced garden outside.

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Georgian Portsmouth 13Moffatt-Ladd parlors and stairs, front parlor original wallpaper and the parlor-in-process with its amazing mantle and Chinese Chippendale chairs; I always brake for fire buckets! The amazing garden.

I think Georgian houses have to be pre-revolutionary, but I’m the only one who thinks that, so I am including the Governor Langdon House, which was built the year after the American Revolution concluded. The scale is even larger here than Moffatt-Ladd, and the house reflects the passage of time, with Greek and Colonial Revival rooms as well as a dining room designed by Stanford White. It seems both national in inspiration but also very much a crafted Portsmouth house, as illustrated by those distinctive staircase balusters, contrasted below with those of Moffatt-Ladd (on the left).

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Langdon Hallway

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Georgian Portsmouth 2Those Rococo mantles! And all that beautiful Portsmouth furniture. As you move back through the house, you move up in time, into Greek and Colonial Revival rooms.

While I was looking around for images of the houses in their earlier situations, I came across the works of two women artists among the digital collections of the Portsmouth Public Library: Sarah Haven Foster (1827-1900) and Helen Pearson (1870-1949). Both Portsmouth women clearly loved the architecture of their native city, and rendered it in series of charming vignettes, which were incorporated in their successive guidebooks. Wonderful discoveries: Foster’s naivete and Pearson’s detail both capture Portsmouth’s charm, past and (fortunately) present.

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Langdon DoorVignettes by Sarah Haven Foster (the Warner House) and Helen Pearson (Warner, Moffatt-Ladd garden, Langdon doorway), Portsmouth Public Library Digitized Collections.


Escape from Salem, part II: Portsmouth Parallel

I was up in my hometown (York, Maine) this past weekend, and spent Saturday morning in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a favorite old and perennial haunt. One of the reasons I moved to Salem long ago is that it reminded me of Portsmouth: both are historic port towns with vibrant downtowns (now, not always), well-preserved historic districts, and a wealth of cultural institutions. Salem has many advantages that Portsmouth does not have: a major museum (the Peabody Essex), a university (well, you could make an argument that Salem State is either an advantage or a disadvantage I suppose; oddly Portsmouth feels more like a “college town” than Salem to me), proximity to Boston, a National Park, a Common! Portsmouth has at least one distinct advantage over Salem: it has retained its status as a “market town” over the centuries as it hasn’t faced the commercial competition that has challenged Salem’s commercial center (and pushed it towards becoming “Witch City”). Portsmouth has always worked towards the development of a stable, year-round commercial economy rather than a seasonal one, and it shows: it is a city that is oriented towards residents more than tourists. Portsmouth has also experienced the same building boom as Salem over the past decade or so, but they have handled it much better in my opinion: with the exception of a few big boxy buildings past and present have been merged more harmoniously in its center. Salem has a larger, more densely-settled population than Portsmouth and much more intensive traffic as it is situated at a crossroads, whereas Portsmouth is a destination unto itself: this makes Salem a noticeably busier place, exponentially so in October. So it was nice to drive easily into Portsmouth on Saturday morning and walk around the very clean (another big difference) city: the shops and restaurants were full of people even though it was not Halloween-central, imagine!

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portsmouth-collage Above: Past and Present  on Portsmouth streets; below–alleys and secondary roads were transformed into pedestrian malls in Portsmouth, not a main street like Salem’s Essex Street. Portsmouth has no Common, but it has some great, well-kept parks—Aldrich Park is below. LOVE the signage, especially the inclusion of former buildings on the site along with biographical information.

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There are so many great houses in Portsmouth: below are just a few, downtown and skirting Strawbery Banke. I didn’t even make it over to the South End. Fewer “Salem Federals” than in Salem of course, but there are some…this first house below, which looks like it is a private residence now, was a restaurant called Strawberry Court when I was high school, and this is where we went to dinner before my junior prom!

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I had family responsibilities, so I didn’t have much time for shopping or a stop at the Book & Bar (can you imagine a better place?), but I did get waylaid by the amazing African Burying Ground Memorial.

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I had seen the Memorial, In Honor of those Forgotten, before, very briefly, but I spent more time immersed in it Saturday morning: immersed is the word, as it does not consist of merely a few statues, but an entire installation, woven together by the words of the 1779 “Petition for Freedom” sent to the New Hampshire legislature by Portsmouth slaves and figures representing both those same slaves and the atoning Portsmouth community, today. Very powerful.

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A Bigger Picture for Bridge Street

I have been watching and listening to the public hearings over the proposed redevelopment of the former Universal Steel and Trading Corporation site on Bridge Street with great interest and concern. The site is located adjacent to a distinctive late nineteenth-century factory building owned by the F.W. Webb Company, a large distributor of plumbing supplies, which seeks to abandon this same building and build a new (far less distinctive) showroom and sales facility next door. Objections to the proposed building could be based on its rendering alone–it’s the typical glass and faux-brick generic building that we’re seeing everywhere and anywhere–but there are several other key factors which make this project troubling and controversial. The site is also located adjacent to the northern boundaries of the McIntire Historic District, in close proximity to the well-preserved colonial and Federal houses of Federal and River Streets. The owners of these houses do not want a large commercial building (the actual elevation of the proposed structure is a matter of debate) casting a shadow over their streets, and the intensity of their opposition has been fueled by the fact that they believed that the long planning process resulting in the creation of the “North River Canal Corridor” a decade ago ensured that more creative uses for this area would be pursued. The second factor is the contamination of the site and the costs and consequences of cleaning it up. The property was transferred to the city of Salem after Universal Steel ceased operations, and the city requested aid from both the EPA and the Massachusetts DEP to conduct a partial clean-up, which involved the removal of over 4,000 tons of contaminated soil. After this process, the city paved over the site to create a temporary parking lot while the new MBTA garage was being built. Once that project was completed the city sought a more profitable use for this parcel–and F.W. Webb put forward the only proposal. The new construction will require a more comprehensive clean-up, and the costs and potential health threats of such an invasive process are a matter of concern to everybody, but especially those in the adjacent neighborhood. A third major factor is the transfer of an “ancient way” from public ownership and use to Webb: Beckford Way, in existence from the seventeenth century, which will be transformed from public pedestrian path to private truck access and loading dock. Opponents of the Webb proposal ask (quite logically I think): if the Company is going to abandon its present building altogether, why doesn’t it relocate to a section of Salem that is dedicated exclusively to commercial uses and leave our neighborhood–and our way–intact?

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Aerial view of the site of the proposed new F.W. Webb building, marked by the X; the initial clean-up in 2012, with River Street houses in the background, EPA; these same houses last month (before our recent snow) looking over the temporary parking lot and reflected in the North River; Beckford Way.

You can read a more detailed summary of the project here, and also peruse project documents. The narrative presents a decidedly pro perspective, but you can easily discern the debate in the FAQ section. We’re in the midst of the process: already the City Council has held two public hearings on the project and there are more to come. As I intimated above, I’m very sympathetic to the concerns of my McIntire District neighbors (and believe the present Webb building would make fabulous housing given its proximity to the train station) but am also striving to widen–or elevate–my perspective, inspired by both a phrase I heard repeatedly at the first public meeting—“spot zoning”—as well as one of the more thoughtful observations of the night, expressed by an earnest River Street resident: Salem’s fabulous history and outstanding architecture is constantly at risk from unsound planning. These words resonated with me immediately as I feel that way all the time: our city’s piecemeal planning has led to undistinguished architecture, unlimited accommodations, and unceasing divisiveness, and it will continue to do so until we can all look at a bigger picture. Salem is hardly the only historic city facing myriad redevelopment challenges and opportunities at the moment: why can’t have a more comprehensive and proactive plan rather just reacting, reacting, reacting? Look at the example of our neighboring seaport to the north, Portsmouth, NH, which is pursuing “character-based zoning” (which must surely be the antithesis of “spot zoning”) by plotting out its development goals and proposals in “textured” 3D models that are available to the public on a web portal, so that everyone can see what proposed buildings will look like, in context and as part of a whole. We don’t even seem to know the actual height of the proposed Webb building on Bridge Street, much less how it will look in relation to its neighboring buildings (but I’m thinking, not good).

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Plan Portsmouth 3D Model/Developed by Tangram 3DS;  our only view of the proposed Webb building.

My Favorite Portsmouth House

I was running early for Easter dinner in York Harbor, and by myself because of a sick husband, so I decided to take a detour off 95 into Portsmouth to take a look at my very favorite house. As I grew up just over the bridge and down the road apiece in southern Maine, Portsmouth was our go-to town for pretty much everything, and its downtown became my ideal setting: small New England seaport with plenty of historic housing. There’s no question I settled in Salem in large part because Portsmouth was just too far away from Boston. There are several Portsmouth streets to which I return to time and time again, but only one favorite house:  the Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street, which to my untrained eye looks like the purest of Georgian structures. I think I first saw it when I was maybe 16, and it’s been part of my life ever since.

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The Lear House, built in 1740, was home to several generations of a Portsmouth family including Tobias Lear, one of George Washington’s personal secretaries. After it passed out of the family in the later nineteenth century it descended into multi-family tenement status (along with much of Portsmouth’s South End), only to be rescued by Wallace Nutting, who purchased the Lear and neighboring Wentworth-Gardner House in 1917. Both properties were eventually transferred to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA–the forerunner of Historic New England) and then to the newly-formed Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear Houses Association in 1940, in whose possession they remain. It seems to me that the Lear House has always been overshadowed by the High-Georgian Wentworth-Gardner, which Nutting restored in the Colonial Revival style he preferred for his ghostly photographs. Here is the sentiment of the SPNEA directors in 1919 that captures this “underappreciation” perfectly: the Society was urged to buy this house, which came on the market in 1917 for $1500, a price considerably higher for which it eventually sold. While considerably out of repair, it was a house but little altered since the days when Tobias Lear, private secretary to Washington, was its owner. Although a house we would have gladly preserved, it lacked the distinction worthy of a campaign for its purchase. It was bought by Mr. Wallace Nutting, whose famous Wentworth-Gardner house adjoins it. [Old-Time New England, 1919] It appears that the present-day restoration of the Lear House will have to wait, once again, until the Wentworth-Gardner houses is put to rights; nevertheless, when President Washington visited Portsmouth in 1789 (just a few days after he left Salem and this house), it was the “best parlor” of the Tobias Lear House to which he came.

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The Tobias Lear House on Hunking Street in 1917 and today, and adjacent Wentworth-Gardner House on Mechanic Street.


Occupational Art

I’m looking forward to the Valentine’s Day opening of the exhibit “Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850” at the Portsmouth Athenaeum: it is co-curated by my friend Kimberly Alexander and strikes me as the perfect afternoon activity for that particular day (of course I am female). You can read much more about the exhibit on Kimberly’s blog: SilkDamask. I want to see amazing shoes and support my friend, but she had me as soon as I saw the invitation, which features one of my favorite early modern genres, which I will call “occupational art”. The image is by Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756), an entrepreneurial artist and publisher from Augsburg who produced  170 “Mr. and Mrs.” engravings for his series Artists, Craftsmen, and Professionals (circa 1730). On the invitation, appropriately, we see the wife of a shoe peddler, and while I haven’t been able to source her partner in peddling, I did find another very striking couple, the porcelain maker and his wife, at the Winterthur Museum.

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This genre seems to have two categories: the fantastic–even grotesque–and the realistic. Engelbrecht’s images fall squarely in the former, and while he appears to have been an innovator in many aspects of his business, these creative composites were nothing new. The depiction of people as assemblages of objects goes back to the Renaissance, and his near contemporaries Nicolas de Larmessin and Gerard Valck produced even more fantastic occupational images decades before him. Engelbrecht’s women are unique though: he even includes a lady cartographer and prosecutor! Images of real workers are going to have to wait for the nineteenth century for the most part, but in keeping with the shoe theme here are Valk’s and Larmessin’s leather workers, in all of their glory.

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Gerard Valck’s Habit de Cordonnier (c. 1700) from the invitation to the Bata Shoe Museum’s 2012 exhibition, Art in Shoes~Shoes in Art; Nicolas II de Larmessin’s Habit de Cordonnier and Habit de Sauetier from his Les costumes Grotesques: Habits des métiers et professions, c. 1695, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Bibliothèque nationale de France; Gerard Valck print of Habit de Ceinturier after Nicolas de Larmessin, c. 1695-1720, British Museum.


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