Tag Archives: Salem Houses

Domed Doors

Salem is a great city for doors. There are so many exemplary doors in a succession of architectural styles: First Period, Georgian, Federal, Greek and Gothic Revival, all the Victorian varieties. There are simple plank doors, multi-paned doors, louvred doors, double doors, carved doors, doors with elaborate surrounds and vestibules, and doors of many colors (these have really multiplied over the last decade or so). There are Instagram accounts and hashtags for Salem doors. But one type of door is not very common in Salem: the rounded or arched door. I was looking through the remarkable memory album of G. Albert Lewis at The Library Company of Philadelphia, a volume with incredible illustrations of interiors and exteriors, when I became fixated on the arched entryways of his Philadelphia townhouses. I wondered if Salem had any rounded doors, did a quick Google image search (it was about 11:00 at night, otherwise I would have ran around town), and came up with multiple images of the doors of my own house! I never realized they were so conspicuous; rather I found them incongruous with the attached house next door, with its straightforward Federal entryway. See what I mean?

The second photo above is from the Instagram Account @doorsofsalem where you can see lots more Salem doors.

The double doors, and the entire entrance with bay window above, along with considerable interior alterations and a major addition, are the very tangible results of a considerable investment in the property made by its owner from c. 1860-1890, Willard Peele Phillips. Mr. Phillips was a lawyer, a state representative, and an aficionado of curves: he didn’t just bend the entrance of my house to his will: the parlor pocket doors, the china cabinets in his brand new dining-room, and all the first-floor entryways were rounded as well. He ripped out the elegant slim banister that ascended three stories and replaced it with a mahogany one that is much more bulky but also curvy. The second and third floors were left alone; I guess it was about keeping up appearances. It’s really interesting to compare the pristine house next door to my palimpsest one: 1827 versus 1877. Yesterday I went out in search of more rounded doors and did not find many, but it was fun to snap some beautiful square ones along the way. I’ve been taking photographs of Salem houses for over a decade just for this blog, but there is always a new door to discover.

As you can see, there is a rounded element in several of these Salem doorways in the form of the archways and fanlights, but the actual doors are still standard square (or rather rectangular). Besides my doors, I found arched doors on a famous McIntire summer house on the grounds of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Essex Street campus and its twin across town, constructed by a friend of mine just a few years ago, on Winter and Lafayette Street buildings, and what’s left of the Salem Armory. There are a few Salem churches which also have domed doors, but that’s about it.

But the Federal style which so defines Salem (for now, but maybe not much longer) emphasized light and decoration for its entryways, and so often there is an impression of roundness even if the door is more straightforward. A great example is the doorway of arguably the most beautiful house in Salem, the PEM’s Gardner-Pingree House: its portico and fanlight state (shout) round quite emphatically albeit elegantly. And look at the entrance to my neighbor’s beautiful Italianate house: all you see is curves but the door inside that fabulous vestibule is harmoniously straight.

So then I went back to my inspiration, the Lewis Memory Album at the Library Company, and looked at his doors, and was surprised to find they were not rounded at all—only their surrounds, and dormers! And therein is the magic of architectural texture, evident even on paper.

Illustrations from The old houses and stores with memorabilia relating to them and my father and grandfather / By G. Albert Lewis. The Library Company of Philadelphia.


Sidney Perley’s Houses

Sidney Perley (1858-1928) exemplified that exhausting mix of endeavors—historical, genealogical, archaeological, architectural, legal, literary—which in his time was represented by the occupational identity of an “antiquarian.” It was a title he proudly bore, and one which had primarily positive associations a century ago. Now it is itself an antiquated term and I don’t know any historian who would refer to themselves as such. I’ve read pretty much everything Perley wrote about Salem, including the multi-volume History of Salem he published just before he died, and while I wish his work had a bit more context and interpretation, I still value it and think of him as a historian, primarily because he was so very focused on making early public documents public. His meticulous research and publication of probate records, deeds, and town documents was service-oriented; he was very much a public historian in his own time. And more than that: there is a famous dual characterization/division of historians by the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who observed that they fell into one of two camps, either that of truffle hunters, “their noses buried in the details,” or of “parachutists, hanging high in the air and looking for general patterns in the countryside far below them.” Perley was the ultimate truffle hunter, and I’m grateful for all of the detailed information he dug out for me. Because he was trained as a lawyer, Perley’s publications on local history are overwhelmingly based on deed research, and this focus made him somewhat of an architectural historian as well: he sought to portray the built environment, not just land grants and transfers. His wonderful little series of “Parts of Salem in 1700” (and other Essex County towns too), first published in the periodical Essex Antiquarian and/or the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute and later incorporated in the the History of Salem, always included charming illustrations of houses, both on his hand-drawn maps and in the text. Now while I trust Sidney Perley completely in his dates for the construction, transfer, and demolition of these houses, sometimes I think he displays a little artistic license in their depiction. But maybe not: I’m just not sure.

The Essex Antiquarian Volume III (1899).

I’m not sure because sometimes he is a bit vague about the sources for his house illustrations. I would say that I have complete confidence in the depictions of about three-quarters of his illustrations: they were still standing in his time, or had been recently demolished, or had been sketched or photographed before demolition. But with some houses, he is relying on the memory of an anonymous elderly gentleman who gazed at the house early in his life, or on an undated sketch by an anonymous artist found in the depths of the Essex Institute. I’m always interested in the early days of historic preservation, or the first stirrings of some kind of preservation consciousness, so the depictions of these first period houses by Perley and his fellow antiquarians are just fascinating to me: their visions created houses that are still showcased in Salem, most notably the House of the Seven Gables and the Witch (Jonathan Corwin) House. Their visions shaped our visions of the seventeenth century. I like to imagine Perley’s houses still standing, and the best way to do that is to map them: my progress in the acquisition of digital mapping skills stopped as soon as I got my book contract in the summer of 2020, and as I am now working on another book it will stay stalled for a while, but I can cut and paste with the best of them! I am using Jonathan Saunder’s 1820 map of Salem from the Boston Public Library as the background for an evolving Perley map here, but later maps, with more crowded streets, really make these structures stand out too: they must have been so very conspicuous in Perley’s time. I find it interesting that in Europe, very old and very modern structures can coexist, side by side, but we seldom see that in America.

Jonathan P[eele?] Saunders / Engraved by Annin & Smith, Plan of the TOWN OF SALEM IN THE Commonwealth of Massachusetts from actual Surveys made in the years 1796 & 1804; with the improvements and alterations since that period as Surveyed by Jonathan P. Saunders. Boston, 1820. Proceeding clockwise rather haphazardly from the Epes House, on the corner of the present-day Church and Washington Streets, to the Lewis Hunt House, which was photographed before its demolition.

 

The MacCarter and Bishop Houses: the latter burned down in the 1860s but was fortunately sketched a few years before.

 

Some survivors in this bunch! The John Day House survived until Frank Cousins could photograph it in the 1890s (Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum), I’m not sure if Perley’s “John Beckett” house on Becket Court is the “Retire Becket” House on the House of the Seven Gables’ campus? Half of the Christopher Babbidge house survives to this day, though it moved to the parking lot of the 20th century building which replaced it.


Salem in (water)color, 1939

Salem set the style standard in the first half of the century when Colonial Revival ruled, ruled, and continued to rule: right up to World War II and then beyond, according to the dictates of shelter magazines. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, you can find photos of Salem houses and house parts in issues of The House Beautiful and House & Garden from nearly every year: after that Salem is not quite as “present” but still around. Much of the attention shed on Salem is a result of two people I’ve written about here time and time again, Mary Harrod Northend and Frank Cousins, and after their deaths in the mid-1920s a Salem publicist-successor did not appear, yet “Old Salem” (rather than the “Witch City”) endured as the quintessential New England seaport. I’ve shared every Salem feature in these two particular periodicals from the teens and twenties in past posts, but not too many from the 1930s. A few weeks ago I came across some Salem images from a 1939 issue of House & Garden which were so striking that I knew I had to track down the original copy rather than rely on a digital version, and when it arrived I was not disappointed. This was an issue devoted to New England in all its glory, and Salem plays a central role. There is an interesting architectural introduction by Frank Chouteau Brown, some charming infographics that indicate that the Federal style had not yet been identified (???) but was rather referred to as the “Late Georgian,” and then some lovely watercolor vignettes of the interiors of several Chestnut Street Houses, the Gardner Pingree House, and the House of the Salem Gables by students at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, which is now the Parsons School of Design.

Cover and illustrations from the June 1939 special New England issue of House & Garden. No Federal?

 

The Barstow West and Pickering Dodge Shreve Houses on Chestnut Street.

 

Parlors and Bedrooms of the Gardner-Pingree House of the Peabody Essex Museum.

 

Parlor and Dining Room of the House of the Seven Gables.

 

These rooms look so lively in these images: the interpretations really emphasize color and texture over pristine period perfection. There are some black and white photographs in the issue as well, like the one of the John Ward house below, but I don’t think they can compete with color. The magazine also aims to be a resource, so there’s a listing of all the historic houses in Salem and their hours of operation, which were far more extensive than today. You could go into the Peirce-Nichols House every afternoon from Wednesday to Saturday all year long, and the Gardner-Pingree and Derby houses every day!

The Ward House and notice for the Second Chestnut Street Day, 1939.


Change in the Weather

The weather actually did change very perceptibly here, at about 9:30 or 10:00 yesterday morning, from muggy late summer into breezy crisp fall. In about a half hour: I felt it, and everyone I ran into yesterday felt it too. But I still have weather history on the brain, so my title is referring to a volume by the amazing antiquarian of a century ago, Sidney Perley: Historic storms of New England : its gales, hurricanes, tornadoes, showers with thunder and lightning, great snow storms, rains, freshets, floods, droughts, cold winters, hot summers, avalanches, earthquakes, dark days, comets, aurora-borealis, phenomena in the heavens, wrecks along the coast, with incidents and anecdotes, amusing and pathetic (1891). What a title! And it does not disappoint.

Weather Historic Storms of NE

I have written about Sidney Perley many, many times here before as his works are the starting place for anyone interested in Salem history and culture—and often the culmination of inquiries as well: that’s how good he was. Perley (1858-1928) was lawyer by profession but an historian by passion—I’ve met many people like this over my career but Perley managed to somehow excel at both pursuits simultaneously, publishing a steady stream of books (History of Boxford, 1880, Poets of Essex County, 1889, History of Salem, 1924, and all those invaluable articles in his Essex Antiquarian along with many texts on probate law) over the course of his career. Quite logically he was an expert in utilizing the will and the deed as a historical source, but he clearly mined any and every source he could find for essential “anecdotes”. When I begin to delve into the history of a Salem house I always start with Perley, a practice that began long ago when I first moved here and started researching house histories for Historic Salem, Incorporated. He remains an essential guide to the history of Salem for me, and I thought about him a lot last summer, when Proctor’s Ledge was formally recognized and memorialized as the execution site of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials—culminating a process that began in the 1920s with his advocacy for this site. With the inaccessibility and closure of the Phillips Library it is apparent to me that his works are probably our best connection to Salem’s early history. The other day I found an old copy of his Historic Storms on my bookshelf, opened it up, and just like that, several hours went by in what seemed like a minute. It’s one of those books that is quite easily read intermittently but I had lots of other less interesting stuff to avoid so I just settled in and read about the weather.

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Because the book is focused on weather events, you come away with a perception of very dramatic weather, and maybe it is just because the crisp coming-of-October breeze was coming through the windows of my study while I was reading, but it seemed to me, anecdotally, that October had the most changeable weather of all: severe drought and rain, snow, thunder, lightning, shipwrecks, earthquakes, Indian Summers, and above all, excessive winds. The first of the famous “Dark Days” (of 1716 and 1780, now attributed to forest fires in the north, then very mysterious and perhaps the wrath of God), occurred in October, the second in May, another very changeable month. During the “great” Dark Day of 1780 in Salem, the Reverend Nathaniel Whittaker’s congregation heard that the gloom was divine judgement of their cumulative sin, while out in the streets, [drunken?] sailors paraded about, “crying out to ladies who passed them by, ‘now you may off your rolls and high caps'”. A bit over a century later, Perley serves as his own source in his account of the less famous “Yellow Day” of September 6, 1881: On the morning of “the yellow day” there was no apparent gathering of clouds, such as occurred on the dark day 0f 1780 but early in the morning the sun and sky appeared red, and towards noon every part of the sky assumed a yellow cast, which tinged everything, buildings, ground, foliage and verdure, with its peculiar novel shade. All things were beautiful, strange and weird, and it seemed as if nature was passing into an enchanted state. It was at first intensely interesting, but as the hours dragged on, and but slight change occurred the sight became oppressive. The wonderful spectacle will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Love that line, all things were beautiful, strange and weird. Perley was also, it should be acknowledged, a very good writer.

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Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel 1875 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

Scenes from the first crisp Autumn day of 2017 in Salem cast in darker, yellowish hues—as preparations for our annual neighborhood party were ongoing across the street in the Chestnut Street park + James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel (1875, Tate Museum), just because.


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