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.
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.
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.
The 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.
Other 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!
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.