Published: August 12, 2008
Throughout the Twentieth Century, generations of Massachusetts schoolchildren were hauled regularly through a gloomy mansion on Salem Harbor. That it was old, everyone knew. That it was dark, creaky and downright spooky, they soon found out.
Most interesting of all was its secret staircase that set the fecund imaginations of most fourth graders racing toward the realm of witches, ghosts and evil spirits.
Such was the reputation of The House of the Seven Gables. Its importance today is as a compelling and living document of history, preservation and the social and economic history of Salem over three and a half centuries.
In acknowledgment of its unique history and character, the house, and its cluster of adjacent properties, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Its significance lies in the 1909 restoration, which made it one of the earliest houses in the United States to be restored to its Seventeenth Century state, and which also drew on details from Hawthorne’s novel of the same name. The restoration was additionally the inspiration of other such projects around the country.
Built in 1668 for exceptionally prosperous Salem merchant mariner and trader Captain John Turner, the First Period house was particularly grand for the era; Salem had only been settled in 1626. Its original construction was that of a two-and-a-half-story dwelling with a steep roof and cross gables, with two rooms downstairs and upstairs, an attic and a massive central chimney.
A few years later a kitchen shed was added. The house was expanded again when Turner extended the front. This provided him with a generous parlor and a large and handsome bed chamber above, and another chimney. He gave the addition higher ceilings, double casement windows, an overhang with carved pendills and a three-gabled garret.
Turner’s son John II advanced the family fortunes and made another addition, a kitchen ell on the back of the house and the aforementioned narrow twisting secret stairway inside the rebuilt main chimney. A small brewing room was added in 1692. He modernized the house around 1710 with the Georgian wood paneling and double sash windows that were the latest styles from England. By the time the additions and improvements were complete, the house had 17 rooms and more than 8,000 square feet, and the original part of the house had become its middle.
The house remained in the Turner family until the 1780s when grandson John Turner III seems to have overextended himself in real estate and lost the family fortune. While his father’s probate inventory numbered nearly 15 pages and was valued at 11,000 pounds, his own took up not quite three-quarters of a page and was valued at less than 60 pounds. The house then sold to another Salem seafaring family, the Ingersolls.
Under the ownership of the Ingersolls, the house was reduced in size: four gables were removed and it was refashioned in the Federal style. The most important impact of the Ingersoll tenure was the visits of family cousin Nathaniel Hawthorne who memorialized the house in his 1851 The House of the Seven Gables.
The house gained wide recognition after the novel was published. The tale of curses and retribution retains a universal appeal. At the time of Hawthorne’s visits, the house had only four or five gables. His cousin Susannah Ingersoll, who was his frequent hostess there, recounted the history of the house and showed him the beams and mortises of the former gables in the attic. The house regained its gables in fiction sooner than in fact.
The House of the Seven Gables appeared in other fiction down the years, including the second issue of Wonder Woman in 1941 in which the heroine drove off Nazis from the house where they were planning to sabotage an aircraft carrier docked there.
Salem philanthropist Caroline Osgood Emmerton, descendent of another Salem seafaring family, purchased the Turner-Ingersoll House, known as The House of the Seven Gables, from Henry O. and Elizabeth Upton for $1 in 1908, and set about its restoration. She planned to open it for tours, the proceeds of which would fund the programs of the House of Seven Gables Settlement Association that she established to serve the new immigrant community in the neighborhood.
Emmerton engaged Boston preservation architect, landscape architect and antiquarian Joseph Everett Chandler, a proponent of the Colonial Revival movement. They spent two years restoring the house, including its seven gables. Historical accuracy played second fiddle to the attracting of tourists who expected to find the same house that Hawthorne described. A “cent shop” was added similar to the one in the novel and Colonial Revival gardens in the Jacobean manner were planted. The House of the Seven Gables opened for business in 1910.
The restoration of the House of the Seven Gables was just the beginning for Emmerton. The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, founded in 1910 and now known as Historic New England, requested her help in rescuing the 1682 Hooper Hathaway House. Threatened with demolition, the house was moved to the Seven Gables property. It was restored in the Colonial Revival style, with diamond pane windows, but retains some early Jacobean detail. Some beams in the house may have been salvaged from Governor Endicott’s home, which would suggest that they may date to the 1620s.
Emmerton acquired the 1655 Retire Becket House, the oldest house on the property, and moved it to the site in 1924. The house was built for ship builder John Beckett, but is named for his descendent, Retire Beckett, who built the yacht Cleopatra’s Barge and other Salem vessels that were considered masterpieces of the time. It served initially as a tea house and antiques shop and today houses the museum shop.
The 1750 Georgian house that was the Salem birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne was moved from a few blocks away in 1958 under the direction of architectural historian Abbot Lowell Cummings. Hawthorne, who was born Hathorne in 1804, added a “w” to his name to differentiate himself and his descendants from his infamous great-great-grandfather, the “Hanging Judge” John Hathorne who presided over the Salem witch trials.
A compact house built about 1830 is considerably later than the other buildings on the property, but it is a fine example of a Salem counting house. It is not known when it was moved to the site or for whom it was built. It was renovated over the summer of 2007 with a floor chart illustrating some of the Salem mariners’ trade routes.
Conservation, preservation, restoration and research are ongoing processes at the House of the Seven Gables, bringing to light more and more of the history of the site and the city of Salem, and expanding knowledge of the social and cultural history of the inhabitants. Original features that remain in the House of the Seven Gables include a rare example of nogging, which in 1668 was the very latest method of insulating using bricks and mortar between the studs. Nogging failed because soft bricks crumbled from the freezing and thawing of New England winters.
The original batten front door was made with a diamond pattern of nail heads. When it deteriorated, it was used as a patch on the house: a large remnant remains. The Georgian paneling installed around 1710 remains in place in the expansive parlor. It was painted in the latest fashion of the time: verdigris walls, with Prussian blue and gilt detail inside a shell carved china closet. It appears that Miss Emmerton and Joseph Everett Chandler recycled the original parlor paneling to other parts of the house where it was used as insulation.
None of the antique furnishings are original to the house; most have been acquired since the 1908‱910 restoration. As recordkeeping was a little sketchy until the latter part of the Twentieth Century, many are labeled simply, “Found in Collection.” Emmerton acquired some objects and donated others; others with relevance to the house or the period have been added through generous donations and bequests from Salem householders.
Now nearly a century after the 1909 preservation, modern technology is allowing enabled museum staff to reexamine the unanswered questions about the origins of many of the 2,000 objects in the collection.
A sewing room filled with japanned furniture, once all the rage in Salem, includes a China Trade soft wood sewing table with black lacquer and gilt decoration. A New England William and Mary highboy was later japanned and is also on view. It and a number of other japanned pieces were bequeathed by Judith Felton of Salem.
A Queen Anne maple desk on frame that dates from about 1750 is thought to be a New Hampshire piece. Its upper section was made with a flat dovetailed top and a hinged slant lid fitted with an iron lock. The interior has eight pigeon holes above four drawers. Located in the accounting room, its origins are unknown.
Documentation attests to the existence of 25 Turkey-work chairs in the original parlor, an exceptional sign of affluence in the late Seventeenth Century. The whereabouts of the chairs, or even their survival, is not known, although two replicas have been created and are on view. Susannah Ingersoll’s six transitional New England Chippendale birch side chairs from about 1760 have somehow found their way back into the collection.
Although the dock where John Turner tied up his ships is gone, the property does retain the Eighteenth Century granite seawall and two seaside gardens laid out in the Colonial Revival manner by Joseph Everett Chandler in 1909. The gardens were patterned after Jacobean examples and represent four centuries of historic plantings. Pleasingly colorful and fragrant, the beds are planted with all manner of herbs, a wisteria arbor, roses and lilacs.
Emmerton’s legacy continues not just in the ongoing study of the house and its collections, but also in the community service programs that she established. Today’s programs provide children and families and seniors educational, social and recreational services.
The House of the Seven Gables is at 115 Derby Street. For more information, www.7gables.org or 978-744-0991.
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