Tag Archives: Winter

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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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.


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.

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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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Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem I: Winter

Two notable architectural photographers of the twentieth century turned their lenses on Salem again and again: Frank Cousins (1851-1925) and Samuel Chamberlain (1895-1975). These men represent a continuum for me: Chamberlain picked up where Cousins left off: with a gap of about ten or fifteen years while the former was more focused on the Old World than the New, and on etching rather than photography. It’s a very interesting exercise to consider their views of the same structure side by side: this is one way that I’ve been teaching myself about photography. Chamberlain has much more of a trained eye–having studied both architecture at MIT and etching in France–but both seem as concerned with documentation as illustration to me. I’m impressed with the range of activities and entrepreneurship of both men–although clearly Chamberlain was more worldly, by choice and circumstance. Born in Iowa and raised in Washington State, Chamberlain’s time at MIT was interrupted by World War I and service as an ambulance driver in France, where he became entranced with the buildings around him and “decided he would prefer to record the picturesque rather than design it” according to 1975 obituary in The New York Times. He recorded picturesque architecture in France, England and America with his etchings, prints and photographs in over 40 published books and countless magazine pieces, as well as the first-ever engagement calendars featuring New England scenes.

Chamberlain collage Two perspectives on the Peirce-Nichols House:  Cousins and Chamberlain.

I grew up with Samuel Chamberlain books and when I moved to Salem I bought more: his vista included all of New England (and beyond) but as he lived in nearby Marblehead, he had ample opportunity to photograph Salem over a 30+ year period from the 1930s through the 1960s. Like Cousins before him, Chamberlain resolutely avoided all the “dull” parts of the city (anything industrial or utilitarian, Victorian or 20th century), and stuck to the historic districts for the most part, where he photographed both interiors and exteriors. I can’t get enough of the first of his three Salem-specific titles, Historic Salem in Four Seasons: A Camera Impression (1938), Salem Interiors: Two Centuries of New England Taste and Decoration (1950), and A Stroll through Historic Salem (1969) because of its rich rotogravure reproductions, which render pre-war Salem in very rich hues. I’m going to offer up some seasonal highlights of Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem this year, starting with winter, which he believed was the time of “Salem’s most beautiful moments…when few visitors see it”.

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Chamberlain 4Essex Street, Church Street, the rear of the Andrew Safford House, the Retire Becket House, the Derby House, Federal and Chestnut Streets from Samuel Chamberlain’s Historic Salem in Four Seasons (1938). Both Chamberlain and Cousins deposited materials in the Phillips Library, which has been removed from Salem by the Peabody Essex Museum. 


Ice Melt

Yesterday was one of those wonderful winter days when it wasn’t too cold, all of the old dirty snow was coated with a fresh dusting of new, and the sun occasionally peeked out of the light gray sky to transform the trees into glistening statues. Against the light-gray and white backdrop, contrasts were everywhere: I love the contrast of warm brick and cool snow/ice especially, and that can be found anywhere and everywhere in Salem. That dark, gothic, “colonial brown/black” and white looks pretty cool too. The light was so changeable: a bright vignette one moment could be a stark one in the next.

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In the middle of the afternoon, you could see and hear ice melting everywhere, including the ice sculptures assembled for the annual “Salem’s So Sweet ” chocolate and ice sculpture festival last weekend–a record 25 this year. Winnie the Pooh looked so woeful, melted and forlorn in front of the Museum Place Mall, that I couldn’t even take his photograph (you can see a portfolio of all the ice sculptures, in the day and night, here). Some of the hardier statues were still holding their shape, but alas, not poor Pooh.

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A February Day in Salem, 2017.


Winter Dress

Another distraction; it happens to me every time I venture into a digital archive. This time I was looking for Lutheran “cartoons” from the early sixteenth century, and somehow I ended up fixated on a critical caricature of women’s winter dress from a century later: Wie sich ein All’ modo Monsieur im Winter kleiden solle (1629). I’m not sure of the exact translation—how the German gentleman should dress in the winter? (help!)—but I can tell it is a comical critique, as the three women on the right are portrayed as dressing a bit too mannishly (the one in the middle is even wearing pants under her skirt!) and badly-behaving animals are never a good sign. Even though the men look like dashing cavaliers, there is something “off” about them too; I’ve got to dig in and try to translate the accompanying text. Clearly something is rotten in the state of Germany, and it’s not just the Thirty Years’ War. Women are an easy target in early modern print culture because of their dress, in all seasons really, but winter is even easier: one of the more effective satires of flimsy Regency dress is titled Parisian Ladies in their Winter Dress for 1800, reprinted countless times over the next decade.

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winter-dress-1800 Wie sich ein All’ modo Monsieur im Winter kleiden solle (1629), and Parisian Ladies in their Winter Dress for 1800, collection of the British Museum.

The fashion plate dates from the eighteenth century and really thrives in the nineteenth; in these idealistic advertisements there is no judgemental “tone” even though some of the clothing appears almost as impractical as the garb above: light coats or little “mantlets” worn over the dresses of the day. Muffs can never be too big in the eighteenth century, or bustles in the later nineteenth.

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Fashion Plates from 1799 & 1888 in the collection of Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

The dashing, sporty but at the same time elegant “Winter Girl” emerges in the very last decade of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth: cover girls on an array of contemporary magazines and cards. Just as idealistic as fashion plates, really, but more artistic.Two sides of this coin are below: a sporty girl from around 1906 and a very elegant Puck cover from 1911, along with “a slip of girl” cigarette card from 1901, because mockery is always in season.

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Cover and cards, 1901-1911, New York Public Library Digital Collections.


Trudging Along

Yesterday was a beautiful winter day with everyone out and about cleaning up after the Saturday snowstorm, which was not as bad north of Boston as it was to the south.The streets of Salem were clear by mid-morning, if not before (I was sleeping in), and people were engaged in their regular Sunday activities. There were Sunday street-hockey players out my front windows, and hungry birds out back.

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I suddenly became curious about snow removal in the past–mostly because I didn’t want to go out and engage in my own snow removal in the present. I have–and have seen–quite a few historic photographs of winter scenes in Salem in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but none of them feature snow carts, snow plows, or snow removal. Salem has always been quite urban, and people needed to get around, how did they manage? What was the system then that so preoccupies us now? Both the New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library have quite a few photographs of various methods of snow removal in their collections, from simple shovel brigades to “snow rollers”–I’ve never seen anything like that for Salem: anyone out there have anything?

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Chestnut and Lafayette Streets in the 1870s in stereoviews by Charles G. Fogg. Carriages on the snow—not even sleighs! But it’s not too deep here.

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Chestnut Street in the 1890s, deeper snow, no signs of plowing–but these carriages do look like they are on blades. I’ve shown these before; they are from a family archive in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard.

My problem is that I don’t have any winter scenes of Washington or Essex Streets with tracks that needed to be cleared: Chestnut was and remains strictly residential. I still think people trudged around a lot more than we do now, however. Look at these two wonderful photographs of students from the Horace Mann “Training School” associated with the Salem State Normal School (now Salem State University, where I teach) and their teacher, visiting historic sites downtown in the snow.Look at her skirt: she’s not troubled by a little snow.

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E.G. Merrill photographs of Horace Mann students, 1904, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections

Like everything else, our toleration for snow in the streets changed with the automobile: we won’t settle for anything less than black the day after a snowstorm now. The wonderful book by Marblehead artist, photographer, and author Samuel ChamberlainSalem in Four Seasons (1938) shows winter streets cleared for cars and pedestrians. And he agrees with me: some of Salem’s most beautiful moments are in winter, when few visitors see it (though a lot more now, fortunately).

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Plowing Chestnut Street in the 1930s, from Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem in Four Seasons (1938).


Snowy Salem Saturday

A welcome snow day today, imposing calm on everyone–or at least me! I’ve always enjoyed winter, but the SuperWinter of two years ago, in which something like 11 feet of snow was dumped on us in February, tempered my appreciation for this particular season considerably. The snow was all around the house, the snow was in the house, and I plodded to work every day in tunnels of yellow snow. I felt a little vulnerable, especially when I woke up in the morning to see the latest damage inflicted on my plaster ceilings by ice dams. But all of that is fixed now, and we spent last year, with its relatively light winter, rebuilding our chimneys, sealing our windows, and putting on a new roof. Now I feel impenetrable, at least for this first snow storm. I’m sure hardly anyone agrees with me, but I think winter is Salem’s best season actually–I like to see the city return to a car-less state: it’s as close as you can come to seeing it in its glorious past. There’s a timeless quality to a snowy day, and the contrast of nature and structure is never more apparent. Here’s a few photographs I took as I walked around a very calm city this afternoon.

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Chestnut Street, Essex Street, and the Common.

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Two notable Salem houses in varying stages of restoration.

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Gambrel roofs embellished by snow.

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Some contrast; Trinity does not really care for snow.


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