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The Snow Castle

We haven’t had many snowstorms this winter, but two nights ago about a foot of snow dropped onto the streets of Salem. My first thoughts when I woke up were: how much snow did we get (and) should I run down the street and take a picture of the snow house? Classes had been cancelled the night before, so that was no concern of mine. I saw that we had quite a bit of snow, so of course I thought of the Wheatland/Pickering/Phillips house, a Classical Revival confection that I always think of as the “snow house” or the “snow castle” as it looks so beautiful when its exuberant trim is frosted with snow. I adore this house in every season, but especially in the winter. It really is my first thought when I wake up on a snowy morning.

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Snow Castle 2

Snow Castle

It was quite warm yesterday morning, and so the snow had already started to melt by the time I made it down the street (as a snow day meant an extra cup of coffee) so here are some “freshly frosted” views from a few years back, when the blue sky afforded more contrast and shadow.

Snow Castle 2011

WHite Castle 2014

My Snow Castle, which I guess we should call the Wheatland-Phillips House after its original and present owners, was designed by Salem native John Prentiss Benson (1865-1947), a brother of the well-known American Impressionist Frank Benson who became an esteemed artist himself after his retirement from architecture. I don’t possess the architectural vocabulary to describe this house so I’ll use the words of Bryant Tolles from Architecture in Salem: “a spectacular, flamboyant example of the Colonial Revival style……[in which] the architect employed a variety of Colonial Revival idioms, including the ornate cornice (with dentils and pendants in relief), the wide fluted Corinthian pilasters (reminiscent of the work of McIntire, the flat window caps, the second-story Palladian window with miniature pilasters, the broad doorway with semi-elliptical fanlight, and the overly large flat-roofed porch with Corinthian columns” in a “innovative, almost whimsical manner”. Tolles concludes that “the house gives the impression of being an original late 18th century building” even though it is in fact one of the newest houses on Chestnut Street, constructed in 1896 for Ann Maria Wheatland, the widow of Stephen Wheatland, who served as the Mayor of Salem during the Civil War. I’m not sure why Mrs. Wheatland desired such a large house, but she lived in it until her death in 1927. Despite its mass, the house has always seemed whimsical to me, and also timeless, and its allure is no doubt enhanced by its stillness as I don’t think anyone has lived there during the whole time I’ve lived on Chestnut Street. I have to resist trespassing every time I walk by this house, in every season: in summer I see myself having a gin & tonic on its left-side (deck? seems to mundane a word) and I would love to see if there is a veranda out back. I do resist, so I don’t know.

Snow Castle 1940 HABSThe House in 1940; HABS, Library of Congress.

By many accounts, John Prentiss Benson wanted to be an artist from early on, but as that trail was blazed by his brother Frank, he settled for architecture. Nevertheless, he seems to have had a successful career, with a New York City practice and several partnerships. He lived for several years in Plainfield, New Jersey where there are several John P. Benson houses: there was a tour devoted to them in 1997 titled the “Mansions of May”. None of these houses—or that designed for his other brother Henry on Hamilton Street in Salem—seems to bear any resemblance to the Wheatland-Phillips House: it’s as if he just let loose with wild abandon. Perhaps Mrs. Wheatland gave him carte blanche, or very strict instructions. Or maybe he was influenced by memories of the Benson family home on Salem Common: an exuberant Second Empire structure that was situated on what is now the parking lot of the Hawthorne Hotel.

Snow Castle Jersey Houses

Snow Castle Portsmouth Benson Family Home

Snow House WillowbankOther Benson houses, including his own, top right; the Benson family home on Salem Common and Willowbank in Kittery Point, Portsmouth Athenaeum.

After his retirement from architecture in the 1920s, Benson moved to a waterside estate in Kittery Point, Maine named Willowbank and began painting full-time until his death in 1947: he was prolific, and consequently his identity is more that of a maritime artist than an architect at present. The Portsmouth Athenaeum has his papers, and has digitized many photographs of his life and work at Willowbank, which also happens to be the birthplace of the 6th Countess of Carnarvon, Ann Catherine Tredick Wendell, who became mistress of Highclere Castle in 1922. And thus we have a very distant and indirect connection, through John Prentiss Benson, between the Snow Castle and Downton Abbey!

Snow Castle Collage

Benson Galleon Vose Galleries

Galleon, 1923 by John Prentiss Benson @Vose Galleries: I love galleons, and I’m using this one to sign off for a while as I’m off to Portugal on spring break! I’ll be back with many pictures of azulejos, no doubt.


An Eventful 1851 in Salem

The media—exclusively newspapers—looked back at the year’s events at its end in the nineteenth century just as it does today. This accounting was traditionally presented in the first few days of January by the Salem Observer, and it’s interesting to read what was considered “notable” and worthy of inclusion and what was not (although it would take some research to determine what was not and I’m not doing that now—researching “the negative” is incredibly difficult at the local level). The January 3, 1852 report on the “Events in Salem and Vicinity during the year 1851” prepared for the Salem Observer is below, and below that are my observations of what seems particularly notable (or just interesting): so we have two filters of newsworthiness at work here.

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Weather notations are always interesting: sudden changes in January, a “violent” snow storm in March, a big storm, including flooding, in April, hail in July, the first snowfall on October 27, a “great fall of snow” just before Christmas and very cold weather after.

Crime: always achieves notice. A gang of burglars strikes in January! A particularly crime-ridden May, with a strange attack that sounds like 17th century lithobolia on a house in Danvers, some female counterfeiters in Marblehead, and a stabbing in the street in Salem.

Fire: the partner of crime in notoriety. The Atlantic House in Beverly burned down in January and a Marblehead house in February, the same month in which Benjamin Lang’s house on Lafayette Street in Salem was severely damaged by fire. This is a reference to 49 Lafayette Street, the boyhood home of Benjamin Johnson Lang, who was an extremely famous organist and choral conductor in the later nineteenth century. The house was rebuilt, and both Benjamin Lang Sr. and Benjamin Johnson Lang Jr. held music lessons there before the latter’s departure for Boston and greater things in 1855.

Deaths: it is in the reporting of deaths that you can really perceive how restricted “notability” was as obviously many more people died in Salem and its environs in 1851 than are reported here. One does wonder about the “highly esteemed” young Deborah Howard, however, who died as a result of injuries sustained from a tragic carriage accident in July. I can understand why Captain Nathaniel West’s death (at aged 95) was included, as he was one of the great golden age Salem sea captains. He apparently bequeathed Derby Wharf to the Salem Marine Society in his will, and also left funds for the establishment of a school of navigation—I wonder what happened to that?

Lyceum Lectures: lots of lectures at both the Mechanic Lyceum and the Salem Lyceum and other regional venues as this is the heyday of the Lyceum movement. Most of the lectures seem pretty apolitical: the great abolitionist Lucy Stone spoke before the Salem Anti-Slavery Society rather than at either Lyceum. As we know, things will heat up, but in 1851 Lyceum audiences were hearing about “The American Mind”, “Character”, “New England and Her Institutions” and both women and men by both women and men speakers.

Salem Harbor: is dead. Hawthorne’s characterization is certainly confirmed here, as only one Salem ship is referenced, the barque Dragon, and it reports to Boston Harbor rather than Salem! But there was a regatta in July: wish we could resurrect this event.

Appendix: the “Shadrach” riot reference deserves its own post. On February 21, “Colored Barber” Alexander H. Burton of Salem was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the uproar following the arrest of the runaway Virginia slave Shadrach Minkins under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Burton was released because he had an alibi–but I’d like to know more about his arrest and the connections between Salem’s and Boston’s abolitionist movements.


Rocks Village

We have had the longest stretch of horrible humid weather in my memory: it’s been hot too, but it’s the humidity that gets you, of course. The only place I’ve really been comfortable is my car, and so when I drove up to Maine for vacation last week I took a diverted and long route to get there by giving myself a silly challenge: I had to cross the two rivers on my way–the Merrimack and the Piscataqua–on bridges that I had never traversed before. Going out of the way is one of my favorite things to do so this was a characteristic challenge. I can only do it when I’m on my own, as my husband has no patience for meandering, but he and I had conflicting obligations last week so we were in separate cars (the key to a happy marriage for us). My challenge turned a trip that normally takes one hour into a four-hour excursion (with stops along the way) and I was able to arrive in Maine just in time for cocktails on the porch. My route took me slightly west to Haverhill in Massachusetts and then northeast through New Hampshire to Dover: I had crossed the big bridges in both of those cities but not the smaller ones, over the Merrimack from West Newbury to Rocks Village in Haverhill and over the Piscataqua from Dover to South Berwick, Maine. I think I have probably been on both of these bridges but not for quite some time, so they still count! Going further west and north would have been a bit silly, even for me. I braked for darling houses, of course, and found my first cluster right over the bridge in Rocks Village, a colonial village in East Haverhill right on the river. Situated at a nexus of old roads leading to and along the Merrimack, Rocks Village emerged as a center of trade and industry in the eighteenth century but was bypassed as Haverhill became a bustling industrial center in the nineteenth. It has a slightly lost-in-time feeling about it, even though the owners of its charming houses are clearly keeping up appearances.

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Right over the bridge from West Newbury you encounter the old tollbooth and the village Hand Tub House (for which the Rocks Village Memorial Association is raising restoration funds) and then all these wonderful houses. This is not an exhaustive portfolio, but my favorite is the last one above: interesting proportions, though you can’t tell from my photograph that it’s a saltbox. There’s a lot more to see in Haverhill but this village seems like a place apart: indeed, you can’t even find it on any of the maps of the bustling nineteenth-century city, which emphasize factories above all. After some leisurely searching, I finally found it on a map of the Newburys, dating from just about the time of the construction of the Hand Tub House.

Rocks Village Newburys MapRocks Village and Bridge on the 1831 map of the newly-divided Newburys (Newbury, Newburyport & West Newbury), Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.


Green(houses) in Salem

So I can show you the beautiful day after our third big snowstorm of March, and also anticipate St. Patrick’s Day coming up this weekend, I am showcasing a portfolio of some of Salem’s green houses today, many cast in snow. It’s a very popular house color in Salem, so this is just a representative sampling. Green is a color that seems to transcend architectural style: you can easily find colonial, Federal, and all variations of Victorian examples. There are no green houses on Chestnut Street (where yellow is an exotic color) so I trudged over to Essex Street, where I found many—and even more on Federal Street.

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And then I walked towards downtown and the Common past everyone’s favorite Salem green house: a little gambrel-roofed charmer on North Street, which serves as a constant human-scaled welcome structure along this key entrance corridor, in sharp contradistinction to the over-scaled courthouse nearby. If this house was not here, and maintained in such perfect condition, visitors to Salem would have quite a different first impression: the house softens the street and hints at a more historic Salem.

Green Houses 2

And then I was off, seeing green everywhere I went, all day yesterday and into this morning: you will note that the snow has melted off the trees in some of the pictures below, a sure sign of a late-season snowstorm. I tried to represent all shades of green: a very deep forest variety, emerald, and apple and minty greens that seem a bit more spring-like. Almost unbelievably, it will be Spring in Salem next week.

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March On

The first of March: a notable historical day from my own geographical perspective, as it marks the anniversaries of both the incorporation of the first English “city” in North America, my hometown of York, Maine (in 1642), and the commencement of the most dominant event (unfortunately) in the history of my adopted hometown of Salem, Massachusetts: the Witch Trials of 1692. March is also one of my favorite months, so I always wake up happy on its first day. I am sure that this is a minority opinion among my fellow New Englanders, for whom March is generally perceived as the muddiest monthIt certainly can be muddy here, and cold, snowy, rainy, dark, windy, and raw. But it can also be bright (like today) with a brilliant sun that seems to highlight the material world in stark detail. It is the month of all weather, and also a month of transition. That’s what I like about it:  you are heading somewhere in March (towards spring); you are not already there (like winter or summer). I like to be en route, in transition, looking forward, in the process—and March feels like that to me, all month long. If you look at magazine covers from their turn-of-the-last-century Golden Age, advertising artistry rather than celebrity, many seem to convey that movement, if only to depict the wind. At least those that don’t feature rabbits.

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March Harpers 1895

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March Inland Printer 1896

March Black Cat

March 1897

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March Scribners 1905

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March covers from 1895 (2); 1896 (3);1897; 1900; 1905 & 1907; Swann Auction Galleries, Boston Public Library, and Library of Congress.


Snowbomb

A brief intermission from #saveSalemshistory for some snow pictures, because it was a pretty big storm, or “bomb cyclone”! Back to the Phillips in a few days: remember the big PEM forum is on January 11th @ 6 pm in the museum’s Morse Auditorium. 

So we survived the year’s first big snowstorm, officially designated Grayson and categorized as a “bomb cyclone” by meteorologists because of the coincidence of a steep, explosive drop in atmospheric pressure. It snowed all day and gusty winds gave the streets of Salem a blizzard-like appearance at times, but that was not as scary as the flooding that occurred on the coast and in several low-lying areas reclaimed from rivers and ponds. The Willows looked positively apocalyptic at high tide midway during the storm, and the storm surge covered Derby Wharf for a while. The sea captains who built my street 200 years ago clearly chose high ground for a reason (well, multiple reasons really), so it was a much less dramatic scene out my window for most of they day, and in the late afternoon I emerged for a quick walk and a much longer stint of shoveling.

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Snowcylone 8Chestnut and Essex Streets above; below, a panorama of Derby Wharf at high tide which was passed around by a bunch of architects yesterday, but I think can be attributed to ©Kirt Rieder. Beautiful but scary!

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Snow & Inaccessibility

Dear readers: I had a lovely plan for the blog this December, including light, frothy and festive posts about fairies, puddings, and GIN. But then the Peabody Essex Museum was forced to admit that they have no intention of returning the historical collections of the Phillips Library to Salem at a Historic Commission meeting on December 7, a day that shall forever live in infamy in Salem’s history—maybe. So now I am seeing a different kind of red than the holiday kind, and am going to have to process this development for some time, here and elsewhere. I’ve never lived in a time or place when a community’s heritage was so brazenly and cruelly threatened, and it’s pretty much all I can think about. Fair warning. I do feel a bit guilty about this, however, so I am going to intersperse my PEM post today, which addresses the issue of inaccessibility, with photographs of our first snow of the season. This will make for a rather incongruous presentation, but it’s the best I can offer at the moment.

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A few little scenes from Satuday’s public protest against the relocation of the Phillips Library’s collection– essentially Salem’s archives–to a large conservation facility in Rowley.

There are so many issues to address regarding this relocation/removal, primarily because the Museum (and by “Museum”, I am always referring to the Museum leadership; many curators and staff are part of the Salem community while the leadership and vast majority of of trustees live elsewhere, consequently there is a deafness and a disconnect on the part of the latter) is very slippery, and changes its rationales according to necessity–or audience. At the December 7th meeting, Facilities Director Bob Monk seemed to stress the importance of office space, and because that meeting made news, Executive Director Dan Monroe was pressed to come out with a statement, at long last, on the following day, in which he emphasized the inability of the existing Phillips Buildings, Plummer Hall and the Daland House, to accommodate the collection under proper conditions. This inability has presented the museum with a “great” opportunity, according to Mr. Monroe: to unify the Museum’s renowned art and culture collection with the Phillips Library collection at new 112,000-square-foot Collections Center located in Rowley. This new center, which keeps the Library collection accessible in Essex County, will become operational by mid-2018 and will feature highly secure, climate-controlled space for storage for the collections and extremely handsome and functional spaces for a Library reading room, staff offices, conservation, and other operations. The Library will continue to welcome researchers from around the world and PEM’s skilled librarians will continue to assist patrons during the reading room’s public hours. Mr. Monroe addresses accessibility several other times in his statement, and Mr. Monk also referenced accessibility on the 7th: “Our goal here is, really, to make the collections actually more accessible, not less”. Increasing accessibility is probably the one constant claim that the Museum has been making, since it shut down the Phillips Library in 2011 with promises to return in a few years. But they have not, and odds are that they will not.

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A little snow intermission! Now back to work. 

There are three types of accessibility relevant to this discussion: physical, demographic, and digital. Obviously Rowley (which is a lovely town by the way; I have nothing against it, I just don’t want Salem’s history to be located there) is distant from Salem and the PEM’s large warehouse will not be accessible by train or by foot, only by car. Nearly every single major independent research and/or museum library in the United States is located in an urban area reachable by mass transportation: the Phillips will be the first to be transferred in its entirety to a suburban satellite facility. Given its storied history which is so based on place, we can reasonably ask if the Phillips Library will simply cease to exist.

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As to demographic accessibility, who are they going to let into their warehouse, their gated community? Monroe’s statement says “researchers”, which could include anyone and everyone: I guess we’ll find out at the public forum which was also announced in his statement on January 11 @ 6:00 at Morse Auditorium in the museum. The last issue I want to address is digital accessibility, because I think there are many misperceptions about this based on several articles dating from the time of the Phillips’ closure in 2011. Very little of the Phillips Collection has been digitized, surprisingly little for an institution which raised $650 million in its recent Advancement Campaign:  less than 100 of their 2 million manuscript items are accessible online, with an emphasis on the trivial (ocean liner ephemera and vintage valentines). What has been digitized is much of their catalog: we know what treasures are contained in the collection, we just can’t access them.

NEXT UP: DONORS.


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