Let me be very clear: Salem is NOT a Gilded Age town. In reference to the new series from Julian Fellowes, Salem is the two Old Money sisters in the stuffy house, not the nouveau riche couple across the street in the bright and shiny Beaux-Arts building. In fact, there are no Beaux-Arts buildings in Salem, which was so Old Money that its dominant Gilded Age style was Colonial Revival, expressed characteristically through renovation rather than new construction. But I wanted to produce a Gilded Age post for Salem for two reasons: 1) despite the mixed reviews, I really like the new HBO series (though I think it should have a more nuanced title than The Gilded Age) and; 2) this time period (I’m going with 1870-1900, though I made one exception) provides me with an opportunity to address a big myth about Salem history, chiefly that it was all over for the city’s economy by 1820 or so. That’s just not true: I see a lot of prosperity and vitality in Salem’s economy in the later nineteenth century, and I think the buildings I have chosen to illustrate its own spin on the Gilded Age prove it. My choices were inspired by shots from the series premiere, although I must say that some of the cgi exterior views (in which everything is so CLEAN) contrasted sharply with those of more textured interiors). But before I get to the new, let me reassert and illustrate my claim that (re-) gilding the lily that was the Federal style was the Salem Gilded style, as we can see so clearly in architect Arthur Little’s 1885 plans for the George Emmerton House on Essex Street.
Arthur Little and Herbert W.C. Browne architectural collection, Historic New England
Along Essex Street, which is undoubtedly Salem’s most dynamic street, there are also several prominent later-nineteenth-buildings that testify to the vibrancy of that age, but I want to start with a very showy building on parallel Chestnut Street which I think might be Salem’s ultimate Gilded Age construction: the Wheatland-Phillips House, built in 1896 for Mrs. Stephen G. Wheatland following the design of architect John B. Benson. At a glance, this imposing house fits right in with its Federal neighbors, but there is no restraint of scale or detail: it seems very “gilded” to me! Now on to Essex: even though it was built prior to the Civil War and Gilded Age, I’m still including the Bertram Mansion, built in 1855 for philanthropist John Bertram and donated by his family to the City for use as the Salem Public Library in 1887. This building really impressed contemporaries when it was built: I am always looking for signs of a nascent historical preservationist consciousness in the nineteenth century, and I found absolutely no trace of that sentiment in contemporary newspaper accounts of its construction, despite that fact that several “ancient” houses were swept away to make way for this “ornament” to the City of Salem. There are other candidates for such novel ornamentation on Essex Street, but none more than the Putnam-Balch House built in 1872, which once served as the headquarters for the American Legion in Salem.
I have no doubt that Salem had some really grand Gilded Age mansions on Lafayette Street, which was very much the new street of that era. But these structures were swept away by the Great Salem Fire of 1914. I don’t have photographs of all of them, but the Cassino Mansion at 192-194 Lafayette had to be among the most impressive, and it was gone in a day, an afternoon (A Cassino descendant gave me the photograph below, which I cherish!) Probably the grandest survivor on Lafayette is the Gove House built in 1888, the home of patent-medicine millionairess Lydia Pinkham’s very philanthropic daughter, Aroline Gove. The Pinkham story/connection is perfectly gilded.
Back in the center of town and heading north, I think I’m going to add the George C. Shreve House at 95 Federal Street and the James Dugan House on Dearborn Street, both built in 1872, to my list, as Italianate is as close as we’re going to get to Beaux-Arts in Salem. I love the situation of the Dugan House: it’s very grand.
Salem probably has more commercial or institutional architecture that approaches a Gilded Age style than residential: there are blocks on Essex and Washington streets downtown that evoke that era, still and fortunately, even though uninspired contemporary buildings are encroaching. The Superior Court Building on Federal Street (shown from Bridge, below) is an incredible structure inside and out, positively soaring and charming at the same time. It represents an era of unlimited opportunity and decoration quite well, but in typical Salem style, is an extensive 1887-91 renovation of an earlier Renaissance Revival building.