Tag Archives: Portsmouth

The Wentworth-Gardner House

We were in York Harbor all last week with family and friends, several of whom had never been to this region of New England before. So I was a bit of a tour guide, in my fashion. On a morning tour of Portsmouth, we passed by my favorite house in town, the Tobias Lear House, as well as its more famous neighbor, the Wentworth-Gardner House, one of the most famous Georgian structures in the country. I’m very familiar with this house, but for some reason I’ve never been inside, and the door was open with a flag out front, so in I went, forgetting all about my companions. They followed me, but I really gave them no choice in the matter! We had a lovely tour with a very knowledgeable guide, and the house was ever more stunning than I imagined. I’m kind of glad that I had never been in before, as this house is probably the best example of the entrepreneurial antiquarian Wallace Nutting’s material and cultural impact in New England and I’ve come to appreciate him only recently. Nutting purchased the house in 1915 and added it to his collection of “Colonial Pictorial Houses” after his restoration, and thus it became one of the more influential representatives of the “olden time” in his time and the Colonial Revival in ours. Images of Nutting’s wispy colonial ladies in its midst are scattered throughout and a room is devoted entirely to his work.

The Wentworth-Gardner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire: present and before Wallace Nutting’s purchase in 1915; the amazing center hall with a stairway re-installed by Nutting, and one of his colonial ladies descending (from a large collection of Nutting images at Historic New England).

The houses was built by Mark Hunking and Elizabeth Rindge Wentworth in 1760 as a wedding gift for their son Thomas, who lived in it until his death in 1768. It was owned and occupied by Major William Gardner from 1793 to 1833, and thereafter by his widow. In the later nineteenth century the grand mansion became a rooming house as its South End neighborhood declined, and then Nutting came to its rescue! As you can see, his most extensive restoration was to its exterior, but the reinstallation of the stairway was a major undertaking as well. I know that the pineapple was a customary colonial symbol of hospitality, but I can’t help but wonder if Nutting was inspired by Salem’s “Pineapple House.”

Nutting’s restored doorway (Historic New England) and Salem doorheads from the 1895 Visitors’ Guide.

Nutting sold the house to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just after the close of World War I, initiating the threat of removal to New York City that was itself removed by the onset of the Depression. After a brief stint of stewardship by the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the Wentworth-Gardner (and adjoining Lear house) House was acquired by a group of local preservationists who eventually became known as the Wentworth-Gardner Historic House Associates in 1940. It’s just a great place to visit: so many wonderful structural and decorative details, including the wonderfully carved mantel in the front left parlor (another one of Nutting’s reinstallations), the newly-installed reproduction eighteenth-century flocked wallpaper, the very Colonial Revival kitchen with its steep steps leading to upstairs, several great bedchambers (I couldn’t call them simply bedrooms), the Wallace Nutting room, and a very nice exhibition on historic preservation in Portsmouth. I remain so impressed by this small city with all of its historic houses, in wonderful condition and all open to the public. It’s a great example of community commitment to material heritage and the importance of having several institutional stewards thereof, rather than just one or two.

Georgian and Colonial Revival styles/worlds merge in the Wentworth-Gardner House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


Lilac Days

Lilacs are so ubiquitous in New England in May that you tend to overlook them, but over the past pleasant days I have been seeking them out in some of my favorite spots. I’m always so conflicted during this month, as my academic responsiblities conflict with my desire to immerse myself in all things horticultural. Over the last few weeks, I missed both Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum, as well as the peak spring blooming at the Stevens-Coolidge garden in North Andover. But I finished my grading over the weekend, and found myself going to and from my family’s house in York Harbor, Maine on my own wayward routes, chasing lilacs along the way. I saw lilacs by the sea, lilacs in town, lilacs in the country, lilacs by front doors, back doors, bulkheads, gates, and many many fences.

Starting out in York Harbor yesterday (where it seems to me that there were many more lilacs in the past; I guess childhood memories are always like that!), then on to Portsmouth, where lilacs peaking through garden gates and alongside foundations lured me into Strawberry Banke. I really loved the garden at the Nutter House, the boyhood home of author Thomas Bailey Aldrich–this last lilac bush is in the garden his wife designed for him later and it is at least a century old. More on this garden later in the summer!

From Portsmouth, I drove to North Andover, as I decided to visit the Stevens-Coolidge garden even though I knew the tulips would be a bit past their peak: it’s still a lovely garden! Not many lilacs though: just a couple of tall hedges, which were waving constantly on this very breezy day. North Andover is an old town, so I knew I’d find some lilacs peaking out from any number of places, and I was not disappointed: they enclose several venerable house lots, the Parson Barnard House included.

From North Andover I headed home on the old Salem Road that takes you through Middleton and Danvers: bound for the beautiful Glen Magna garden in the latter town. I ended the day in a purple haze, but also with lots of gratitude and appreciation for the North Andover, Topsfield and Danvers Historical Societies, which maintain all these properties in such beautiful condition. From my jaded Salem perspective, the absence of cash-cow commodification of heritage sites is so welcome and refreshing. I visit the Glen Magna garden all summer long, and view it much in the same way that its founder and his successors, the Salem merchant Joseph Peabody and several generations of the Endicott family, must have: as a retreat from bustling Salem. Of course I can’t set myself up in the house like they did, but I’m very grateful for the open garden! The last Endicott to summer at Glen Magna, William Crowninshield Endicott, Jr., brought the 1794 summer house designed by Samuel McIntire for the Derby farm on Lowell Street in Peabody to Glen Magna in 1901. This amazing structure is worth a visit at any time of the year—it looks just as strking in the midst of winter as it does in the midst of all this green, and purple.

Lilacs against the Parson Capen House’s barn, and the gardens at Glen Magna.


What About Fort Pickering?

I love commemorations: I have posted about them often here, particularly at the beginning of a new year like 2020, during which the long-planned commemorations (of the achievement of women’s suffrage, the Mayflower voyage, and the bicentennial of the state of Maine) didn’t quite go off as planned, obviously. As I spend much of my time thinking about the past, I relish any moment in which a more collective present is so engaged. In four years’ time, Salem is going to be thrust into a big commemorative year, even bigger than 2020 and hopefully more celebratory and reflective: 2026 will mark the 250th Anniversary of the beginning of the American Revolution and the 400th anniversary of the first European settlement in Salem. Revolution 250 has been planning the regional observance of the Revolutionary anniversary for quite some time in a collaborative and dynamic manner, because “commemorations bring people together.” I think there is some Salem participation in this effort, but I’m really not sure. I’m even less sure about what is being planned for Salem’s 400th anniversary: when I look at the organizing that has been going on in two other cities facing big anniversaries, Portsmouth and Gloucester, I see much more organization than is in evidence here in Salem, but then again these cities’ 400th anniversaries are next year so they better have their acts together! Salem certainly has time, but from what foundation and inspiration will it proceed? Who is in charge and who is involved? What will “Salem 400” entail and hope to achieve? I google that term from time to time but all I get is this. Without a professional historical society or heritage commission to shepherd such an initiative, there is no doubt that the 400th anniversary of Salem’s founding will be a much more “top-down” initiative than that of its sister cities, or even its own Tercentenary, which inspired a multi-layered calendar of commemorative events and expressions, including a parade of 10,000 participants, pageants and performances, musters and medals, open houses, bonfires, and headlines in national newspapers.

Official Tercentenary Program, 1926: you can see some great photographs of the events here.

I can’t imagine 10,000 people turning out for a Quadricentennial parade in 2026! The past century has transformed history into a product in Salem, something to be exploited rather than contemplated or celebrated. A singular focus on 1692 seems to have deadened the city’s interest in nearly everything else, save for the occasional nod to the military or the marginalized. I’m not sure how anyone can engage in history in Salem, save for nostalgic facebook postings. The few references to plans and goals for 2026 seem to acknowledge this by emphasizing places over people, and the present over the past: foremost among them is Mayor Kimberley Driscoll’s “Signature Parks Initiative,” which is “focused on planning and carrying out improvements and preservation work in six of Salem’s busiest and most beloved public parks and open spaces, ensuring that they will remain available and enjoyable for future generations to come: Forest River Park, Palmer Cover Park, Pioneer Village, Salem Common, Salem Willows and Winter Island.” Certainly this initiative is welcome, and will be beneficial to Salem’s residents (as will more trees, also a part of “quadricentennial planning”) but is it commemorative? Is it engaging, inspiring, and challenging the public, as opposed to simply providing for them? Maybe it is for some, or even many, but not for me: I want more history—and more humanity—in my quadricentenary. Compare Mayor Driscoll’s Signature Parks Initiative with the centerpiece of the Gloucester 400 commemoration: the 400 Stories Project, “a citywide undertaking whose goal is to collect, preserve, and share 400 stories of Gloucester and its people” from 1623 until 2023. The Project’s administrators invite Gloucester residents to “help us make history” by sharing their stories. This is a pretty sharp commemorative contrast between these two old Essex County settlements.

“Our People, Our Stories”: I wonder what the tagline of Salem’s Quadricentenary will be?

So far the most conspicuous work of the Signature Park Initiative in Salem has been in evidence at Forest River Park in South Salem: one end of the park now features new public pools and trails along with an enlarged and renovated bathhouse while the other is slated for a dramatic alteration revolving around the exchange of the Colonial Revival reproduction “Pioneer Village” currently situated there with the YMCA camp formerly located at Camp Naumkeag in Salem Willows. The writing has been on the wall for Pioneer Village, built for the Massachusetts Tercentenary of 1630, for quite some time as the City has neglected its buildings and landscape for decades and expanded the adjacent baseball field more recently. However, the exchange plan has hit a snag recently, as the City had to apply for a waiver of its own demolition delay ordinance before its own Historical Commission in order to remove the buildings at Camp Naumkeag, which was first established as a tuberculosis camp over a century ago. So far this waiver has not been granted, and a notable resistance to both the destruction of Camp Naumkeag and the relocation of Pioneer Village has emerged. I wrote about Pioneer Village at length last summer, and I have been rather ambivalent up until last month, when several admissions shifted me into the wary and possibly-even-opposed zone: I’m still thinking about it as I find it a particularly vexing public history problem! This is an ambitious plan: Pioneer Village is not simply going to be relocated but rebuilt and re-interpreted with the addition of a visitors’ center and a new focus on the relationship between the European settlers and the indigenous population of pre-Salem Naumkeag. This is an admirable goal for sure, but to my ears, the new interpretive plans sound vague, simplistic and ever-shifting, and above all, lacking in context. They are supposedly the work of the numerous consultants who have worked on the project, paid and unpaid and including several people whom I admire, so it might just be a matter of presentation, but there are several statements that I find concerning. In the first Historical Commission hearing, one consultant responded to the argument that Camp Naumkeag was itself an important historical site because of its role in public health history with an assertion that that role would enhance the new Pioneer Village’s focus on the virgin soil epidemic which devastated the indigenous population even before settlement, as if infectious diseases were interchangeable and detached from time and place! [“Pioneer Village Complicated by History,” Salem News, September 16, 2021] Several months later, the City posted its plans on its website, with this all-encompassing but yet incomprehensible statement of goals: increased access and visibility to the breadth of Salem’s history as represented by the breadth of the site’s history, including Salem Sound’s natural history, the original inhabitants, Fort Lee and the Revolutionary War, the Willows, Camp Naumkeag, and the Pioneer Village. So now it seems as if the newly-situated Pioneer Village will be utilized to interpret almost the entirety, or breadth, of Salem’s history, and in a space which the accompanying plan revealed will have parking for only ten cars. In terms of both interpretation and logistics, this is a flawed plan as presented: its reliance on the seasonal trolley for access is confirmation of its orientation to tourists over residents as well as its seasonal status, in contradiction to the breadth of its stated goals and costs.

The current Plan for the new Pioneer Village on Fort Avenue, on the site of the present-day Camp Naumkeag.

While at face value the inclusion of yet another long-neglected Salem historical resource, Fort Lee, looks like a good thing, I find it concerning. Why should Fort Lee be included in the interpretation of the faux Pioneer Village and not its very authentic (and far more important) neighboring fort on Winter Island, Fort Pickering? This is the guiding principle of the the 2003 study commissioned by the City and the Massachusetts Historic Commission, the Fort Lee and Fort Pickering Conditions Assessment, Cultural Resources Survey, and Maintenance and Restoration Plan: that the forts should be “restored, maintained and interpreted together [emphasis mine] as part of the Salem Neck and Winter Island landscape for enhanced public access.” To its credit, the City has begun a phased rehabilitation of Fort Pickering, but I see much less energy and far fewer resources committed to it than to the Pioneer Village project, which is perplexing given its authenticity and historical importance. Winter Island has served successively as a fishing village, a shipbuilding site, and in continuous military capacities from the very beginning of Salem’s settlement by Europeans to the mid-twentieth century.  The storied fortification which became known as Fort Pickering in 1799 was built on the foundation of the British Fort William, part of a massive effort by the new American government to fortify its eastern coastline beginning in 1794 under the direction of French emigré engineer Stephen Rochefontaine. Fort Pickering was manned, and rebuilt, on the occasions of every nineteenth-century conflict, and was especially busy during the Civil War. Another regional Rochefontaine fort, Fort Sewall in Marblehead, shines under the respectful stewardship of that town. Salem is so fortunate to have so much built history:  why can’t we focus our energies and resources on preserving and re-engaging with authentic sites, rather than creating new ones? (And could someone please find our SIX Massachusetts Tercentenary markers? Every other town in Massachusetts seems to have held on to theirs).

Talk about a site that can illustrate the BREADTH of Salem history: Winter Island was an early site for fishing and fish flakes (and even more substantial “warehouse” structures) as well as the location of Salem’s first fort William/Pickering. The Salem Frigate Essex (depicted by Joseph Howard) was built adjacent to the Fort in 1799, and Winter Island also served as the site of Salem’s “Execution Hill” in the later eighteenth and nineteenth century and of a Coast Guard air station from 1935-70. Members of the US Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, or SPARS, were stationed on the island during World War II. Rochefontaine’s 1794 plan and block house sketches and Frank Cousins’ photographs of the island and fort in the 1890s, Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum. Marblehead’s Fort Sewall on the last day of December, 2021.


Camouflage or Color Pop?

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.

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20200201_144330We 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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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A February Saturday in Portsmouth…….


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.


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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Moffatt-Ladd Stairs

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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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Langdon Mantle

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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.