Tuesday, September 29, 2009

5: Salem: Hawthorne, houses and histories

Before he moved to Concord to join Emerson’s enclave Nathaniel Hawthorne called Salem, Massachusetts home. It’s not hard to discover this fact on a visit to Salem—seemingly half the city is named after him. (The other half of the city, as a friend pointed out, is named after Nathaniel Bowditch, the founder of modern sea navigation, who deserves as much praise—in my opinion—for teaching himself calculus.)

This visit encompassed multiple histories for. There’s the Hawthorne history, obviously, and there’s the broader Salem history (which we sampled on a visit to the Peabody Essex Museum).  There’s also personal history: I used to live in Salem years ago, and my companion for the day was a friend from even more years ago.

Chuck and I started our tour with lunch at In a Pig’s Eye.  Despite being right in the path of the historical walking trail, the pub feels like a neighborhood hangout rather than a tourist destination. I used to live right around the corner, so it used to be my neighborhood hangout. The waitress teased most everyone in a friendly way and let us know her favorites among the specials. There’s nothing wild and crazy—sandwiches, seafood and a smattering of Mexican dishes—but it’s all good. In a break from my usual foodie behavior, I didn’t really concentrate on what I was eating; Chuck and I hadn’t seen each other for perhaps ten years, so there was a lot of catching up to do, and we all know it’s rude to talk with your mouth full.

But there was a lot of history in front of us too, so off we went to The House of the Seven Gables. This First-Period mansion is best known to most people as the setting (and title) of one of Hawthorne’s most famous novels. It was also known to me as a place I drove by every day on my way to work as I navigated the maze of one-way streets in this part of town. It is a beautiful house, and the well-tended gardens overlooking the harbor show it off at its best. It looks a much happier place than the house depicted in Hawthorne’s book.

This is actually a departure from the pattern of my other visits so far. Hawthorne never lived in the seven-gabled house. It was owned by his cousin, Susannah Ingersoll, and he often visited her, but during the span of time she owned it, the house had only three gables. The house, which dates to 1668, was built—and unbuilt—in sections by three generations of the Turner family and later by the Ingersoll family.

The growth of the mansion reflected the fortunes of whichever John Turner owned it at the time. The first Turner built the house (two rooms on two stories with an attic) in 1668, added a kitchen lean-to a few years later, then added another two-story wing in 1680. This wing, with a parlor on the ground floor and bedchamber above was grander than the original portion with high ceilings and a gabled garret. The second-generation John Turner added a large kitchen ell and rebuilt the main chimney (including the secret stairway) and remodeled to the Georgian style. The third John Turner failed to sustain the family tradition—and the family fortune—and was forced to sell the house. By the time Hawthorne knew the house, remodeling had removed several of the gables, but his cousin told him the story of the house’s history and showed him evidence of the physical changes that had taken place.

Touring the house today, visitors can see evidence of the house’s evolution. We saw original floorboards and horsehair plaster in the attic—after we made our way up the narrow, zigzag staircase hidden behind a wood closet next to the main chimney.

Restoration to its former grandeur began in the early 1900s when Caroline Emmerton, a philanthropist and historical preservationist, purchased the house. She had dual aims: to preserve the home and educate visitors about its significance and to use the proceeds from the visits to help fund The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association, an organization she founded to aid recent immigrants to the city.

The campus where the mansion sits has expanded over time much the same way the house did. Several other historic buildings have been moved to the property, including the house where Hawthorne was born. Hawthorne lived in this house for a short four years, up until the time his father, a sea captain, died of yellow fever far off in Surinam. His mother had to move her young family in with her parents, the Mannings.

The Mannings house—dubbed “Castle Dismal” by Hawthorne—was located at 12 Herbert Street according to materials at The House of Seven Gables. So we decided to go find it after we finished our house tour, but first, a different kind of history …

Across the street from The House of Seven Gables sits another important landmark: Ye Olde Pepper Companie, the oldest candy company in the United States. Among the chocolates and truffles and fudge you expect to see at any good candy store, you’ll also find some really old-fashioned candies. Gibraltars, in smooth melt-in-your-mouth lemon or peppermint flavors, were the first candies made and sold by Mrs. Spencer back in 1806. My favorites, black jacks, are so hard that they seem like they may actually have been made in 1806, but that just means the irregular sticks made with black strap molasses last a long time. I wonder if Hawthorne liked these.

The walk up Herbert Street revealed a bit of a mystery. There is no number 12. Oh, there’s a building between numbers 10 and 14, but the number hanging on it is 10½. It is the correct house, looks just like the picture I have. So why was the number changed, and when? As luck would have it, the mail carrier was coming up the street just as we were, so we asked him about it. Yes, he agreed, it was the house where Hawthorne lived, but it had been number 10½ for as long as he could remember.

Hawthorne lived in Salem as a child, again after he graduated from Bowdoin College and again after his three “rent-free” years at The Old Manse in Concord. His return at that time was to take a job as Surveyor in the Salem Custom House (another historic attraction just a short walk down Derby Street from The House of the Seven Gables). This position, gained thanks to the influence of his college buddy Franklin Pierce and other Democratic friends, helped him get on firmer financial ground, but it didn’t last. Since the post was a political appointment, he lost it when the Whigs gained control. His mother died in 1849, and in 1850 he left Salem for good—though it would remain a place he visited frequently in his writing. (For more on Hawthorne’s life, see this online exhibit.)

We went to visit a house of different kind at the Peabody Essex Museum. The museum houses a huge collection related to Salem’s maritime trade, and many of their exhibits tie in to the Asian connection. A highlight of a museum visit is a walk through Yin Yu Tang: A Chinese house. The house, originally located in southeastern China in the Huizhou region, was dismantled, its parts painstakingly labeled and transported to Salem, where it was reassembled here in the museum. An audio tour explains the house’s two hundred years of history—the generations of family, the shifting fortunes, the affects of societal changes. The same elements that characterize the history of The House of the Seven Gables or any other house with a long history. The particulars of the stories may be different, but the major themes are the same.

Something extra: Check with your local library to see if it has museum passes available for patrons. My library is terrific that way. For this visit to Salem I borrowed a pass for The House of the Seven Gables that allowed two admissions for the price of one and a pass for the Peabody Essex Museum good for two adult admissions.

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