Tag Archives: Preservation

PEM: Praise and Public History

Ever since that fateful night in early December 2017 when a representative of the Peabody Essex Museum disclosed that the vast majority of the collections in its Phillips Library, the major repository for Salem’s history, would be moved to a storage facility in Rowley, I’ve been both very critical of this decision and very focused on the institutional leadership which made it. This admission is no surprise to regular (likely suffering in silence) readers: much more so will be the praise that I’m actually going to heap on the PEM in this post! Just this past week the museum announced two new positions: a manager of historic structures and landscapes for its historic houses in Salem and a head librarian for the Phillips Library. From my perspective, both positions signal a renewed commitment to the Salem resources which the PEM inherited from its founding institutions, particularly the Essex Institute. I’ve never questioned the PEM’s stewardship of its assets: my major concern has been mothballing, so investment in these important areas is very welcome. The architectural position seems focused on preservation issues, but the new librarian will be charged with some big organizational and outreach responsibilities, including increasing the Library’s responsiveness to the needs of local, regional, national and international researchers, integrating it more fully into the Museum, and transforming the Phillips into an innovative and active intellectual hub supporting the overall mission and global scope of the PEM. All this and the long-awaited digitization plan! This is a very responsible position and the PEM should be commended for seeking to fill it.

Librarian collage

Librarian Library of Congress 1966Challenges & Opportunities:  The Head Librarian in Sam Walter Foss’s Song of the Library Staff (1906); “To the rescue. Many librarians believe computers are the only means to effectively cope with their bulging bookshelves” (1966). New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress. 

That said, I’m just not sure how the PEM is going to create the “innovative and active intellectual hub” it is referencing in this job description in a storage facility off Route One in Rowley, much less foster the community engagement that is referenced continually in all of its messaging. My continuing preoccupation with the relocation of the Phillips Library stems from outrage at the removal of Salem’s historical archives, but also confusion about how such a move aligns with the PEM’s own goals. I understand the PEM’s arguments about the logistics of conservation and digitization, but what about integration? How can the Library be integrated more fully with the Museum when the Library is in Rowley and the curators of the Museum—as well as the physical Museum itself—are in Salem? Perhaps the goal is a virtual/digital integration, but we all know that that’s a long way off for the PEM. Discussion of LAM (Libraries, Archives & Museums) integration has been evolving for over a decade, and the Head Librarian job description indicates awareness of this dialogue, but the PEM seems oddly out of touch with other cultural trends, namely the evolution (and rejuvenation in many cases) of libraries as places not only of collections but also myriad connections and the growth of a dynamic field and practice of public history which emphasizes a wider and more multi-faceted engagement with the past. The PEM is investing a lot of money in the restoration of the physical buildings which constitute the (former?) Phillips Library in Salem but what purposes—and who— will this space serve once it is finished?

AAR collagePast & Present: the Library of the American Academy in Rome in 1933 and today, “a perfect blend of the past with the contemporary demands of modern scholarship.”

I understand that the h-word is anathema in the upper realms of the PEM but why ignore the demands of its host community, the interests of hundreds of thousands of visitors to Salem each year, as well as the strengths of its collections and its stated goals of “community engagement” by abandoning history? The answer can only lie in a very simplistic (and musty) understanding of what historical interpretation in the public realm constitutes these days: Colonial Williamsburg blinders if you will. Many of the PEM/PM Third Thursday events (now defunct), had historical aspects, as exemplified in its (also now defunct?) Phillips Library blog, Conversant. “History” is not all about the War of 1812 or even the Salem Witch Trials (I swear): it’s also about fashion, food, play, cross-cultural encounters, and golden ages, all of which the Peabody Essex Museum clearly embraces. History is about home, and housing: just imagine a PEM-initiated public history project about housing in Salem past, present and future similar to the 2016 symposium organized by the Cambridge Historical Society entitled “Housing for All?”. I can’t imagine anything more relevant, more engaging, and more reflective of the Museum + Library’s integrated resources.

Before_the_Fire__Salem_Neighborhood_North_Side_of_Broad_Street

Redevelopment__Completed_Reconstruction_The_PointBefore & After the Great Salem Fire of 1914: Housing on the northern side of Broad Street before the Fire and Mill Hill after, Phillips Library Digital Collections.


In Praise of Townhouses (and Small City Living)

This weekend will bring the (38th) annual Christmas in Salem house tour, centered on the “City Sidewalks” of downtown Salem, with decorated homes on Central, Crombie and Chestnut Streets open, along with a house on Hamilton Street. I love this tour: for me it highlights Salem at its best, showcasing the creative continuity of the city rather than exploiting one dark time, in stark contrast to that other big Salem event (yes, I’m referencing Haunted Happening, which I still can’t get out of my system). I’m not exactly sure what the “City Sidewalks” theme means, but for me it conjures up a streetscape of diverse buildings—large and small, residential, commercial and institutional–closely aligned together so to form a community characterized by the integration of all the activities of daily life: a city, and to be more precise, a small historic city like Salem. Maintaining the balance between all of these diverse structures is challenging: the materials, scale, and infrastructure of modern construction can be a constant threat. Consequently preservation and planning advocacy is absolutely paramount, and the proceeds from the annual Christmas in Salem tour go towards these efforts on the part of Historic Salem, Incorporated.

Townhouses Central

Townhouses Crombie

Townhouses Chestnut2Central, Crombie & Chestnut Streets, Salem

I am certain that the tour committee also wanted to emphasize the diversity of residential structures in downtown Salem, as everything from an above-the-shop flat (in a Bulfinch building no less) to a sea captain’s mansion (designed by McIntire of course) will be on view. They are all townhouses in the general sense of the word, but the more specific designation—a multi-level, semi-detached structure–will be represented on the tour as well. The two 1906 covers of The House Beautiful below illustrate my vision of winter/Christmas in an urban village of townhouses–and the one on the right features the Chestnut Street mansion of Pickering Dodge, who commenced the construction of one of the tour’s featured townhouses–just next door– for his daughter and son-in-law in 1828. Since I acquired my own townhouse, which was built just the year before on the same street, I’ve bookmarked images of townhouses—semi-detached and freestanding, exteriors and interiors—that have enhanced my appreciation of their functionality and design: first and foremost the two “party” paintings of Boston artist Henry Sargent in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. The Dinner Party (1821) and The Tea Party (1824). It might not be Christmastime, but it feels like it in these festive parlors. Another great townhouse interior painting is Robert Scott Tait’s A Chelsea Interior (1857-58) featuring the author Thomas Carlyle, along with his wife and dog in the parlor of their London townhouse:  again, likely not Christmastime, but the “shotgun” perspective is classic townhouse. The taller townhouses of the 1850s are featured in the wintry Street in Winter: Evening by an anonymous artist, who casts light on the city sidewalks from a shop window: in the next century all of those windows will be lit up, especially at Christmas time.

Townhouse collage2

Townhouse Dinner Party Sargent

Townhouse Tea Party Sargent

Townhouse Chelsea

Townhouses New England Street

Townhouse paperHenry Sargent, The Dinner Party & The Tea Party, 1820s, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Robert Scott Tait, A Chelsea Interior, collections of the National Trust; A Street in Winter: Evening, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; I am very enamored of this townhouse wallpaper from the new Hearth & Hand/Magnolia collection at Target.

Christmas in Salem “City Sidewalks” Tour, December 1,2 & 3, 2017—more information and additional events here: http://salem.org/event/37th-annual-christmas-salem-house-tour-2/2017-12-02/.


The Eagle has Flown

I woke up Tuesday morning to a cherry picker just outside my bedroom window. This is nothing new–I live right next door to Hamilton Hall, which is regularly the site of either events or renovations which might require such equipment. This particular cherry picker was there for a very special reason, however: to facilitate the removal of the wooden eagle affixed to the hall’s facade which is attributed to Samuel McIntire, Salem’s renown Federal-era architect and woodcutter. The Hamilton Hall eagle is–or was– in fact the only in situ exterior McIntire carving, and therefore one incredibly valuable bird. But it has been exposed to the elements for two centuries now, and requires restoration and preservation, which can only happen off the wall. (A replica will eventually be installed in its place). So that’s what the men in the cherry picker were doing, very carefully. I had to run to class, so I wasn’t able to capture the exact moment when the eagle was “liberated”, but from the vantage point of my third-floor guest bedroom I did manage to get some good befores-and when I returned later that afternoon I got the after: bricks that haven’t seen the light of day in several centuries!

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Eagle 027

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Eagle 051

Eagle 101

A few more McIntire eagles, (obviously) detached from their original perches and consequently preserved for posterity: the (first) Custom House eagle, now at the Peabody Essex Museum, a beautiful eagle that was made for the cupola of the Pickman-Derby-Brookhouse house on Washington Street by McIntire between 1786 and 1799 and removed prior to that structure’s demolition in 1915 (now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and an eagle carved by McIntire for the cupola of the Lynn Academy in Lynn Massachusetts, circa 1804.

Eagle PEM

Eagle MFA

Eagle from the cupola of Lynn Academy, 1804

 

Sign for U.S. Custom House, 1805. Carved by Samuel McIntire, painted and gilded pine. Peabody Essex Museum, 100754, gift of Joseph F. Tucker, 1907. Photograph by Dennis Helmar; Gilt white pine eagle, Museum purchase with funds donated by a Friends of the Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, The Estate of Gilbert L. Steward, Sr., Mrs. Ichabod F. Atwood and Mrs. Elaine Wilde,  The French Foundation in memory of Edward V. French, The Seminarians, and an anonymous donor, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;  Eagle from the cupola of Lynn Academy, 1804, Carved by Samuel McIntire, Lynn, Massachusetts, painted pine, Courtesy of Lynn Museum and Historical Society.


 


Sanctuary from Salem,1693

On Monday, yet another sparkling summer day, I drove over to Framingham to look at an old house which has a direct connection to Salem, having been built by refugees from the Witch Trials of 1692. The Peter and Sarah Clayes House, appropriately situated on Salem End Road, has been in a state of decline for quite some time, and there is an ongoing and apparently intensifying effort to save it and attain placement on the National Register of Historic Places. Both of my parents grew up in Framingham, my father very close to the Clayes house, but I don’t remember ever visiting it or even hearing about it when I went to visit my grandparents: it was only later–after I moved to Salem and became curious about all things Salem–that I first became aware of it. And when I first saw it a few decades ago it looked a lot better than it does now.

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Clayes House 005

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Clayes House 018

Even in its present dilapidated state, the house doesn’t look very First Period: it has been extensively remodeled in several phases over its 300 year history (oddly there is no HABS report at the Library of Congress, but there is an inventory at MACRIS). As originally built by the Clayes after they fled Salem, it was a much smaller saltbox–and the center of a community of Salem exiles that came to include some 15 families in what was first known as “Salem Plain” and later as “Salem End”. For reasons that are a bit murky, Sarah Towne Bridges Clayes (or Cloyce, as she was known in Salem) managed to escape the fates of her sisters Rebecca Nurse and Mary Easty, who were among the 19 “witches” hanged on Gallows Hill in 1692. She too was arrested and imprisoned (in Ipswich, rather than Salem) but ultimately liberated through the combined efforts of her husband Peter and Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, who had served as a magistrate in the early phase of the trials but apparently had serious regrets afterwards. Danforth had acquired large grants of land in the region west of Boston over the years, comprising what came to be known first as “Danforth’s  Farm” and later as Framingham, and presumably he offered the Clayes and their fellow refugees sanctuary from Salem. So even before the official pardons, public apologies, and the legislative restitution that were decreed in the aftermath of 1692, the Clayes House stands as physical symbol of all of the above–and hopefully will for quite some time.

The Sarah and Peter Clayes House Preservation Project

 


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