Tag Archives: Walking Tours

Skirting Witches and Pirates in Salem

Walking is my preferred form of transportation in Salem, but I tread carefully: I want my path to be lined with beautiful old houses, colorful shops and lovely green (or white) spaces. Attractions exploiting the terrible tragedy of 1692 and out-of-town-yet-territorial pirates cloud my view and dampen my day. I’m happy to meet real witches and pirates on my walkabouts, but kitschy parodies annoy me. If you are of like mind, there are many routes you can take in Salem on which you will not cross paths with anything remotely touristy, but if you are venturing downtown you must tread carefully too. Avoid the red line at all costs and follow my route below, which I have superimposed on an old map of the so-called “Heritage Trail”: I’m starting at my house on lower Chestnut Street and making a witch-less circle.

Across from my house is Chestnut Street Park: this is not a public park but a private space, owned by all the homeowners of Chestnut Street. It was once the site of two churches in succession: a majestic Samuel McIntire creation which lasted for almost exactly a century and was destroyed by fire in 1903 and a stone replacement which was rather less majestic and lasted about half as long. The gate is usually open to everyone, but not for reseeding time as you can see by the sign. I walk down Cambridge Street by the park and across Essex into the Ropes Mansion Garden, not looking great now but an amazing high summer garden. Then I walk down Federal Court and across Federal Street to the Peirce-Nichols House which is owned, like the Ropes Mansion, by the Peabody Essex Museum. Unlike the Ropes, I can’t remember when the Peirce-Nichols was last opened to the public: it’s been decades. It has a lovely garden in back which was always open, and my favorite place to go at this time of year because of its preponderance of Bleeding Hearts. The gate to the back of the house has been closed for a couple of years now, but it is latched and not locked, so I entered and went into the rear courtyard, passing the memorial stone dedicated to the memory of Anne Farnam, the last director of the Essex Institute before it was absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum on my right. I never knew Anne but I’ve learned a lot from her articles in the Essex Institute Historical Collections so I always pay tribute. The gate to the garden in back was latched and locked, so I presume the museum does not want us to venture in there. I hope it was ok to go that far! While I am grateful for these pem.org/walks recordings I’m always wondering why these houses are never open.

Continue down Federal Street past the courthouses: you must avoid Lynde Street and Essex Street where witch “attractions” abound. I take a left after Washington street onto a street that no longer exists: Rust Street. I like the juxtaposition of the newish condominiums and the old Church and Bessie Monroe’s brick house on Ash Street on the right: a symbol of the opposition to urban renewal in Salem. Then it’s on to St. Peter Street, past the Old Jail and the Jailkeepers’s House (below), right on Bridge, and then right again, onto Winter Street.

Winter Street

As you approach Salem Common, you must bear left and head for the east side, as the west side is the territory of the Salem Witch “Museum.” There are some side streets with wonderful houses between the Common and Bridge Street which might be a bit more pleasant to traverse than the latter but you will be cutting close to the “Museum”: that’s why I always go with Winter. Once there, go straight by the Common on Washington Square East : you will pass the newly-renovated Silsbee Mansion, which long served as the party palace Knights of Columbus and has been converted into residential units with a substantive addtion and exterior restoration, and one of my favorite houses on the Common, the Baldwin Lyman House.

On Washington Square East.

Washington Square East will take you right to Essex Street: cross and go down the walkway adjacent to the first-period Narbonne House into the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. No witches or pirates here: you’re safe! I love the garden behind the Derby House: I think it is probably at its best in June when the peonies are popping but it’s a great place to go all spring and summer and even in the fall. On Derby Street, you can turn left and go down to the House of the Seven Gables or go straight down Derby Wharf: I went to the end of the wharf on this particular walk. The Salem Arts Association is right here too, but beware: there is a particularly ugly witch on its right so shade your view lest your zen walk be disturbed.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Salem Arts Association.

Back on Derby. Adjacent to the Custom House is a wonderful institution: the Brookhouse Home for Women, established in 1861! The Home is located in the former Benjamin Crowninshield Mansion, and it is very generous with its lovely grounds, which provide my favorite view of Derby Wharf. I always stop in here, and then I work my way back up to Essex Street on one side street or another. Essex Street east and west are wonderful places to walk, but the pedestrian-mall center is witch-central: a particularly dangerous corner is Essex and Hawthorne Boulevard, where the Peabody Essex’s historic houses face some of the ugliest signs in town. It’s a real aesthetic clash: gaze at the beautiful Gardner-Pingree House, but don’t turn around! If you want to go to the main PEM buildings or the Visitors’ Center further down Essex, approach from Charter Street north on another “street” that no longer exists: Liberty Street.

From the Brookhouse Home to the PEM’s row of historic houses on Essex Street. Memorial stone in the Brookwood garden: Miss Amy Nurse, RN, an Army Nurse (1916-2013).

Charter Street is the location of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point, recently restored and equipped with an orientation center located in the first-period Pickman House, which overlooks the Witch Trials Memorial. So this is a wonderful, meaningful place to visit, but beware: just beyond is the “Haunted Neighborhood” or “Haunted Witch Village” (whatever it is called)  situated on the southern end of the former Liberty Street, abutting the cemetery. This is a cruel juxtaposition during Haunted Happenings, when you literally have a party right next to sacred places, but not too noticeable during the rest of the year, because for the most part witchcraft “attractions” create dead zones. But the tacky signage can still spoil your walk so avert your gaze as much as possible. Charter Street feeds into Front Street, Salem’s main shopping street, and from there you can find the path of least (traffic) resistance back to the McIntire Historic District, which is very safe territory. Broad, Chestnut, upper Essex and Federal Streets are lined with beautiful buildings, as are their connecting side streets, so take your pick. I usually just walk around until I get in my 10,000 steps: on this particular walk I ended up on Essex.

Charter, Front & upper Essex Streets.


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.


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