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The Colonial Architecture of Salem
By Frank Cousins, Phil M. Riley
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE GABLE AND PEAKED-ROOF HOUSE
IN Salem, as in most other early settled communities of America, some at least of the first houses were probably log cabins; simple, gable-roof structures a single story or at most a story and a half in height. According to tradition the first dwelling erected on the soil of old Naumkeag by the "planters" under the Sheffield patent in 1626 was for their leader, Roger Conant, but its character is not recorded. Little is definitely known about the pioneer architecture of those days, but its primitive character rendered it virtually without interest to the architect or prospective home-builder of the present time.
Such rustic makeshifts were of short duration, however. When Governor John Endecott arrived in 1628, as the representative of the Dorchester Company, he brought with him skilled men of all trades, and the work of the builders among them continued along the general lines of their previous training. It was inevitable that aggressive men of the resolution necessary to venture the dangers and hardships of the new world should soon aspire to replace former comforts in the freer atmosphere of their new surroundings. Being home-loving British people who had emigrated for no lack of love for their native land, but merely to wring a livelihood from New England lands and waters unmolested by the obnoxious acts of the king, it was natural that their early architecture should have been patterned after that of the mother country, for in England more than in any other land have the ideals of what a home and home life implies been realized.
And such was indeed the case, though the translation to wood, the most plentiful and easily obtainable building material, so altered characteristic appearance as almost to conceal the origin and virtually to create new house types. We are thus reminded that as early as the sixteenth century wood ceased to be a building material of moderate cost in England. The more pretentious manor houses, churches and public buildings, were being erected of quarried stone; Flemish brickwork had influenced the last phase of Gothic in England, and most ordinary buildings were still of half- timber work filled in between with rubble masonry or plaster on oak laths.
Salem began its architectural history during the transition period in England from Early to Classic Renaissance, so that two influences were almost simultaneous in American building. That one really preceded the other, however, and was of short duration seems to be proved conclusively by the scarcity of examples extant as compared with the abundance of houses of every later type. The first Salem houses of note, therefore, were patterned after the Elizabethan and Jacobean types developed during the periods 1558-1603 and 1603-1625, when some of the Tudor characteristics of Perpendicular, the last phase of English Gothic, were combined with classic orders and ornament considerably modified and subordinately used. The English classic, or so-called Georgian, was adopted a few years afterward, and, as will appear in later chapters, took unto itself American characteristics no less distinctive than those adapted from earlier sources.
Thus the transplanting of the rambling Elizabethan dwelling and its construction entirely of wood gave us the little less picturesque many-gabled houses of Salem which have been immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne in "The House of the Seven Gables." Many, probably most of these quaint houses were not originally built in their final condition, but like their British prototypes represented the result of successive additions to meet the needs of growing families and other requirements. The beginning was usually a simple gable-roof structure, such as the Robert Prince farmhouse in Danvers, and the Becket cottage in Salem proper, from which wings and second-story gables were thrown out as occasion demanded.
Aside from their historic associations these two houses are in several respects of unique architectural interest. Their roofs may never have been covered with thatch, yet the pitch is sufficiently steep to have made thatch shed water. Although both houses were built during the period when thatch was much used in Salem, many contemporary shingled roofs perpetuated the thatch tradition through equal steepness of pitch. It is a matter of record, however, that until 1660 most Salem dwellings were mere cottages having roofs of thatch, cut on the Beverly shore of the harbor, and catted wooden chimneys composed of sticks with ends laid over one another at right angles and plastered with clay. Fires were the inevitable sequence of the employment of such combustible materials, and in 1631 Governor Dudley wrote the following regarding the formal fire order:
"For the prevention whereof in our new towne, intended this somer to bee builded, wee haue ordered that noe man there shall build his chimney with wood, nor cover his house with thatch, which was readily assented vnto, for that diverse other howses haue beene burned since our arrivall (the fire allwaies begininge in the woodden chimneys) and some wigwams, which haue taken fire in the roofs covered with thatch or boughs."
This scare soon passed, and on December 20, 1636, the governor's order was revoked at the instance of the townspeople. However, it had served in a measure to curb the tendency of the time and to encourage more substantial building, despite the fact that the use of thatch continued for half a century, especially for outbuildings. On the better houses, erected after 1660, shingles were used as a roof covering, and occasionally tiles, which were made in Salem as early as 1629. Bricks began to be used for the chimneys, and sometimes were also laid upon their narrow sides between the timbers and joists, plastered with clay inside and out, and covered externally with clapboards, at first more accurately termed clayboards, since their mission was to protect the clay from being washed away by heavy rains.
The Danvers farmhouse previously referred to was built by Robert Prince about 1656, on what is now Maple Street, about one mile northwest of Danvers Square. As seen at the left, the house formerly had an overhang, but in the course of subsequent repairs this has been nearly obliterated.
After Prince's death his widow, Sarah, continued to live in it, and later married Alexander Osburn. Osburn came from Ireland and was one of the so-called Redemptioners; that is, one who procured his passage to America by selling his services for a stipulated time. It appears that Sarah Prince bought Osburn's time of the man he was serving, hired him to work on her own farm, and eventually married him. In 1692, bedridden and of unbalanced mind, Sarah Prince Osburn was one of the three original victims of the witchcraft delusion, and died in Boston jail while awaiting trial. The house remained in the possession of the descendants of Robert Prince until the opening of the nineteenth century, and is now the farmhouse attached to St. John's Normal College, a Catholic institution.
The house at Number II Becket Street appeals strongly to the imagination as having been for six generations the home of the Beckets, a family of shipwrights who played an important part in the upbuilding of Salem's merchant marine. Among the famous vessels built by Retire Becket, the foremost designer of the family, and who occupied the house for many years, were the merchant ships Active, Recovery, Margaret, Mount Vernon, and the fourth America, the latter being converted into a privateer in 1812; the brigantine Becket and Cleopatra's Barge, Captain George Crowninshield's pleasure yacht.
Architecturally this house interests the student not only because of its steep-pitched roof, suggestive of thatch, but because of the overhang of the second story, a frequent characteristic of Salem's seventeenth-century dwellings. This jutting of the upper story of early Colonial houses a foot or two beyond the lower has sometimes been said to have provided gun apertures, after the manner of a blockhouse, for fighting hostile Indians. It is improbable, however, that this construction was ever so used in Salem, for the Indians of the locality were friendly. The idea is of much earlier origin, and as it was characteristic of the Elizabethan house, its manifestations in America, like the many steep- pitched shingled roofs, were for the most part mere persistence of British traditions. The overhang of some of the fifteenth and sixteenth century houses of England is said to have been sufficient to provide shelter from the rain before the introduction of umbrellas; but this was probably incidental to the more essential protection they afforded against the disintegration of the customary plastered walls of the time. Thus developed the characteristic penthouse roof at the second-floor level of the ledge-stone houses of Germantown and eastern Pennsylvania the walls of which at first were laid up in clay.
Lime for making more permanent mortar was far from plentiful for many years after America was first settled. For a time the rooms were plastered with clay mixed with straw, and no attempt was made to conceal the hewn beams of the ceiling. Later, in more expensive houses, a lime made of shells was used and mixed with cattle hair, sand and chalk. We read that one of the commissions of Thomas Graves, who came to Salem in 1629, consisted in "fynding out sorts of lime stone and materials for building." In 1663, referring to the builders of Salem, John Josselyn wrote of the absence of stone that would "run to lime, of which they have great want." Not many years later, however, an abundant supply was found in Pennsylvania, and supplies were brought to Salem by ship, not only for plastering but for whitewashing the plastered walls occasionally, as was the custom until the advent of wall papers about the middle of the eighteenth century or later. However, the fact that in 1724 it was "ordered that muscles shall not be used for making lime or any thing else, except for food and bait to catch fish" indicates that shell lime was still in use at the time.
According to the records, in April, 1655, John Becket, a shipwright and the head of the family, bought of Samuel Archer, a Salem carpenter, "one dwelling house and three acres of land behind it, be it more or less, for the sum of sixteen pounds." The dwelling referred to may not have been the present Becket house, but that the latter was erected about this time or a few years later is indicated by its seventeenth-century character. A complete model of the house, made by Daniel C. Becket, Retire Becket's nephew, now reposes in the Essex Institute, and indicates to what extent the original structure has been altered.
In the days when this old house commanded a view of the harbor and the distant Marblehead shore, it was nearly double its present length. In 1850, an undivided half of the estate being sold to Stephen C. Phillips, the building was literally cut in half, the front portion remaining on the original site and the rear being converted into a barn which stands somewhat back from its original location. Thus the inclosed entrance porch, formerly at the center of the front, is now at the rear end, while the present large outbuilding is of more recent origin. The huge chimney was removed and a third story provided by raising the roof several feet, but the overhang was retained. In 1857 the front portion of the house also passed out of the Becket family, and in 1916 the house was purchased for preservation by Miss Caroline O. Emmerton, the guiding influence of the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association, and will be completely restored.
Among the earliest seventeenth-century many-gabled structures of which we have any accurate knowledge was the so-called Governor Bradstreet house which, until taken down in 1753, occupied the present site of the museum building of the Essex Institute at Number 136 Essex Street. The house was built by Emanuel Downing the barrister, probably in 1638, the year he settled in Salem, and, as shown by an old painting preserved in the Essex Institute, was a typical Elizabethan house, constructed of wood. One notices at once the characteristic doorway with fanciful, latticed, flanking towers reminiscent of feudal days, the diamond-paned casement windows, and the large ornamental-topped chimney stacks and finials at the peak of each gable.
Emanuel Downing married Governor John Winthrop's daughter, Lucy, and it was for their son, Sir George Downing, the English soldier and diplomatist, that Downing Street, London, now a synonym for the official residence of the Prime Minister, was named. Later, Downing College, Cambridge, England, was named for Sir George's grandson, the third baronet. Emanuel Downing's daughter, Ann, married Captain Joseph Gardner, the "Fighting Joe" of King Philip's War, and it was from this very house that he set forth to the "Great Swamp Fight" in 1675, where he met his death. His widow married Simon Bradstreet, the last Colonial governor of Massachusetts under the first charter, who occupied the house in his old age and died there March 27, 1697, at the age of ninety-four. After her death in 1713 the old mansion was used for a time as a tavern under the "Sign of the Globe", and later it was for several years the home estate of the Bowditch family, of which Nathaniel Bowditch the mathematician was the most eminent member.
On this site, in a handsome three-story square mansion designed by Samuel McIntire in 1790 for Congressman Nathan Read, William Hickling Prescott, the historian known throughout the world for his "Conquest of Mexico", "Conquest of Peru" and other historical works, was born May 4, 1796. In 1799 the house became the residence of Captain Joseph Peabody, a wealthy merchant prominent in the Calcutta trade, and in 1856, after the death of his widow, it was razed to make way the following year for the erection of the building now occupied by the museum of the Essex Institute.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's day several many-gabled houses were still standing, but aside from that immortalized by him in "The House of the Seven Gables" none remains but the remodeled Pickering house. Notable among those that have been taken down were the Deliverance Parkman house, erected about 1673 and razed in 1835, which stood on the northeast corner of Essex and North streets; the Philip English house on the corner of Essex and English streets, erected in 1685 and razed in 1833; and the Lewis Hunt house on the northwest corner of Washington and Lynde streets, erected about 1698 and razed in 1863. The two former are shown by sketches preserved at the Essex Institute, while the latter remained long enough to be permanently recorded by photography.
All were drawn upon largely by Hawthorne in his writings. The Deliverance Parkman house was referred to by him in his "Notes" as the one "wherein one of the ancestors of the present occupants used to practice alchemy", and is brought into the story of "Peter Goldthwaite's Treasure", first published in "The Token" of 1838 and reprinted in "Twice Told Tales." He described it as "one of those rusty, moss-grown, many-peaked wooden houses which are scattered about the streets of our elder towns, with a beetle-browed second story projecting over the foundation, as if it frowned at the novelty around it." The similarity of this story to considerably elaborated portions of "The House of the Seven Gables" is obvious, and indicates that the house of this romantic name was not an existing dwelling accurately described, but represented a composite of several many-gabled houses of Salem together with generous additions from Hawthorne's vivid imagination.
Excerpted from The Colonial Architecture of Salem by Frank Cousins, Phil M. Riley. Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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