"From Shelter to Showpiece": A Tour of Three of the Salem Peabody Essex Museum's Historic Houses

The exterior of the PEMI hope the folks in Salem, Massachusetts know just how lucky they are! Not only do they have some of the coolest history in America right in their own backyards but they are also blessed to have been the place where in 1799 the East India Marine Society was formed - an organization whose charter included a provision for the establishment of a “cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities”  which was made up of a diverse collection of objects that society members, as captains and supercargoes of ships which had sailed beyond either the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn, brought back with them to Salem.

Those "natural and artificial curiosities” came from all sorts of points around the globe including Asia, Africa, India, Oceania, and the northwest coast of America and were the beginning of what is known today as the Peabody Essex Museum - one of the oldest continuously operating museums in the United States with holdings of about 1.3 million pieces as well as twenty-four historic buildings and gardens. How many other non-Metropolitan cities can claim that? Probably not many!

I have had the pleasure of visiting the PEM on several occasions and viewing some of their wonderful past exhibits including Freeport [No. 001]: Charles Sandison; Golden: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Ejik van Otterloo Collection; The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City; Eye Spy, Playing with Perception; as well as one of their current exhibits that shouldn't be missed - Unbound: Highlights from the Phillips Library at PEM.  If you'd like you can see more of the Peabody Essex Museum and some of those fantastic exhibits on previous posts here as well as here.

Not only does the PEM have some marvelous exhibits for visitors to enjoy in their main gallery but they also possess a large and unique collection of buildings, gardens, and "architectural fragments" that span three centuries and showcase some of Salem's extremely varied architectural history. With more than twenty pre-Civil War buildings, including four National Historic Landmarks (The Peirce-Nichols House, The John Ward House, The East India Marine Hall, and The Gardner-Pingree House) and many more properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places, visitors to the PEM can encounter every major American architectural style running the gamut from First Period or Post-Medieval architecture, the earliest style found in New England, to townhouses designed in the Italianate style calling to mind images of the farmhouses of northern Italy.

The PEM's historic houses are located on the museum's three city-block main campus as well as in other parts of Salem including the McIntire Historic District which is located a short walk from the museum’s main campus, and the Phillips Library Neighborhood which is an even shorter walk. Time and time again when visiting Salem I had walked past the historic houses in the Phillips Library Neighborhood and always thought to myself, "I really want to see the inside of those houses!" but it wasn't until this past summer that I stopped just thinking about it and took some action.

On a visit to Salem in July with my cousin Amy, we made arrangements to meet up with my friend Juli from the Hawthorne Hotel and visit three of the very distinctly different houses that are available to be seen via a guided tour which is included with admission to the PEM . A variety of tours are offered with an array of different topics and times to choose from so if you ever find yourself fortunate enough to be at the PEM, be sure to check with the Admissions or Information Desks to see what might be available during your visit.

On the day that myself, Amy, and Juli took our tour - "From Shelter to Showpiece: Three Centuries of Salem" - we set out from the main gallery of the PEM with a group of other visitors towards the Phillips Library Neighborhood where we would be touring the John Ward House, the Crowninshield-Bentley House, and a house I had been wanting to get inside since 2008, the Gardner-Pingree House.

John Ward House (Federal Garden area), c. 1864, is one of the finest surviving seventeenth-century buildings in New England.Our first stop was at the John Ward House, one of the finest surviving seventeenth-century buildings in New England. The house is built in the First Period or Post-Medieval style which is generally characterized by an asymmetrical façade, a steeply pitched roof and gables with very little overhang and plain undecorated cornices, a large chimney stack sometimes with a decorative top which was often placed in the center of the building, a door of batten or vertical board construction, and small diamond-paned leaded casement windows.

The second floor has a slight overhang to the first floor forming a sort of jetty that protected the first floor from the elements as well as providing a smaller building footprint - defined as the entire area of ground covered by the structure. At the time of its original construction, dwellings were taxed based on their footprints so they were generally built with a smaller first floor to save the homeowner money on taxes and then, as the family needs grew and/or their wealth increased, they added a larger second floor which gave the homeowner more space without increasing the government's cut.

In 1684, John Ward (c. 1653-1732), a currier by trade who was thought to have come over from England about 1660 in an attempt to flee the plague, purchased an acre of land on Prison Lane (now St. Peter’s Street), opposite from the jail that would end up being used during the witchcraft trials, and began building his home shortly thereafter. Originally built as simply one room over another single room, the home was built in stages as was typical for the time until upon final completion it was a two-over-two home with a lean-to, a modest kitchen garden, an outhouse, and a well.

In 1910 the house was split in two and moved on logs drawn by oxen to its current location in the Federal Garden area of the Peabody Essex Museum campus where it was extensively restored to its First Period origins under the direction of preservationist and American antiquarian George Francis Dow. In 1911 the house opened to the public as the first outdoor museum of architecture in the country giving visitors a glimpse into Salem and America's past. As one of the earliest buildings to be relocated and restored for historic interpretation in the United States, the house was designated a National Historic Landmark on November 24th, 1968.

The interior of the house that visitors can tour consists of two rooms on the first floor, one room is considered the Parlor or Great Room while the other is called the Hall and doubles as a kitchen. The first floor rooms are furnished with 17th century antiques which give visitors a look into what life was like during this time period; the second floor rooms are not open to visitors.

As you can see from the above pictures, the furnishings of the home were simple and the fireplaces were quite large in order to provide heat to the two rooms.  What you can't see is that the ceilings in the rooms are very low (as seen here) in order to try to keep them better heated but even with the large fireplaces, small windows, and low ceilings, the homes were quite drafty and cold.

Leaving the simplicity of the John Ward House, our tour group walked through the Federal Garden area in the direction of the next house on the tour. En route we passed by the back of the Andrew-Safford House which was designed in the Federal style in 1818 by an unknown architect for John Andrew, a wealthy merchant of Russian furs. Regarded as one of New England’s greatest Federal-era houses, the dwelling is reputed to have been the most costly house erected in the United States to that date. The Late Federal period mansion with its attached carriage house, stable, and enclosing brick wall was owned by the Smith and Creamer families in the 1860s until it was purchased by John Osborne Safford, a leather merchant, in 1871. Safford's family donated the house to the Essex Institute - now the Peabody Essex Museum - in 1947.

The home's massive vertical façade with its beautiful Federal semicircular portico below Palladium windows and the four large columns rising from the ground to the third story on the south side make this one of the most impressive houses in Salem. With its location almost directly across from the Hawthorne Hotel, it's a house that I'm always trying to take a decent picture of but it's tricky as there are usually school buses or tour buses parked in front of it but I finally got lucky with the picture above on one of my recent trips north! Unfortunately the Andrew-Safford House is not one that the PEM currently gives tours of but I've got my fingers crossed that they will someday as I can only imagine how beautiful it must be inside.

The home on the next stop of our tour was instead another house located across from the Hawthorne Hotel on Washington Square, the Crowninshield-Bentley House. Originally located at 108 Essex Street, the house was moved to its present location at 126 Essex Street from the current parking lot of the Hawthorne Hotel who bought the house in 1940 and then gifted it to the Essex Institute in 1959.

Built in 1727 for fish merchant and ship captain John Crowninshield, four generations of Crowninshields lived in the Georgian Colonial style house until 1832. It is believed that the home may have begun simply as a half-house (the east half of the house) which was enlarged in 1761 when Captain Crowninshield died and his widow Hannah and eldest son Benjamin inherited and then divided the property. Benjamin built an addition on his western half of the house in 1794 to accommodate his wife and children and acquired some finer furnishings and decorations from his travels as a merchant while Hannah, Crowninshield's widow, rented rooms to boarders to generate income on her eastern half of the house.

One of those boarders was the Reverend William Bentley, a Unitarian minister, scholar, columnist, and diarist, who boarded at the house from 1791 to 1819 while he was pastor of the Second Congregational (East) Church in Salem (now the home of the Salem Witch Museum). Reverend Bentley twice declined Thomas Jefferson's offers of prominent positions, first as chaplain of the United States Congress and then again as first president of the University of Virginia, choosing instead to stay in Salem and write columns twice weekly for the Salem Gazette and Salem Register discussing American and foreign news and politics on current topics of the time which included the French Revolution, slavery, and the China trade. In 1819, Reverend Bentley died suddenly at the age of 60 from a heart attack while still residing at the home of Hannah Crowninshield.

An example of a classic Georgian-style wood-frame house with a symmetrical façade and fluted columns flanking the doorway that inside retains its original staircase, turnings and cornice mouldings, the Crowninshield-Bentley House was closed to the public in 2006 as the Peabody Essex Museum undertook a 4-year restoration project under the curatorial leadership of Dean Lahikainen, the museum's Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Arts, to remake the house to reflect how it would have looked from 1794 to 1810 when Reverend Bentley boarded there.

The house, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, reopened in the summer of 2010 with walls repainted to their original color of a soft, almost mint green based on scientific paint analysis and rooms that were completely refurbished with period furniture and decor using many items from the museum's collection. Restoration continues as the goal is to eventually include Bentley's library/study and bedroom but in the meantime, visitors can tour the first floor of the house that was home to members of a family that went on to become one of Salem's wealthiest.

On the eastern side of the house, the side where the Reverend Bentley would have resided, the furnishings are simpler as would have befitted Hannah's status and financial position. 

On Benjamin's more affluent western side of the house, the Parlor contains shield-back chairs with Samuel McIntire carvings, a Samuel Mulliken grandfather clock, a Chinese export tea service and reproduction French wallpaper while English Staffordshire figures of the seasons adorn the mantel.

Following our tour of the Crowninshield-Bentley House, we moved on to the final house on our tour which was the one that I had been really wanting to see the inside of for several years - the Gardner-Pingree House. That curiosity didn't stem so much from a love of Federal-style houses - though I do love them! - but more from the story of the notorious 1830 murder of Captain Joseph White, whose death inside the house prompted a famous trial prosecuted by Daniel Webster which inspired writings by both Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. You can read more about the murder on a post I wrote in October of 2010 if you're as curious as I was but for this post, I shall stick to the historic aspects of the house as related to architecture and not murder and mayhem.

To borrow from my own post, allow me to tell you a bit about the architecture of the Gardner-Pingree House ... Built for John Gardner Jr., a wealthy Salem merchant who was a member of one of Massachusetts' first families, and his wife Sarah in 1804, the home was designed by Samuel McIntire who was one of the earliest architects in the United States. Born in Salem in 1757, McIntire was a woodcarver by trade but went on to become one of the most celebrated architects of his time. He specialized in the Federal style of architecture which got its name from the Federalist Era - a time period in American history from roughly 1789 to 1801 when the Federalist Party was dominant in American politics. The Federalist Party, aka our Founding Fathers, chose to associate the nation with the ancient democracies of Greece and the republican values of Rome and consquently the architectural style - balanced and symmetrical - followed suit.

Samuel McIntire had an innate sense of proportion and attention to decorative detail which can be seen to this day by visitors to the house which now belongs to the Peabody Essex Museum. In addition to the Corinthian columns on the semicircular portico there are neoclassical ornaments on the mantels and the door-frames as well as the furniture in the double parlor. The Gardner-Pingree House is said to be the finest surviving example of the many Adamesque Federal style houses built in Salem between 1793 and 1825.

Financial problems caused John Gardner to sell the house to Nathaniel West in 1811 who, just a few short years later in 1814, sold the house to the wealthy and yet fated Captain Joseph White whose violent demise, masterminded by his greedy nephews, led to the above-mentioned trial. In 1834 the house was once again sold, this time to David Pingree, a member of another old Massachusetts family and a man who was once considered to be a "merchant prince of Salem". The Pingree family owned the house for the next century with the house being inherited by David Pingree, Jr. following his father's death in 1863. When David Jr. died in 1932 as one of the 20 richest men in Massachusetts, he and his heirs willed the homestead to the Essex Institute (which merged with the Peabody Museum in 1992 to become the Peabody Essex Museum) where it is now a National Historic Landmark and one of Samuel McIntire’s finest and best-preserved designs.

After starting out in the rather humble John Ward House, it was pretty easy to see how our tour had gone from "Shelter to Showpiece" as soon as we walked in the massive front door of the Gardner-Pingree Mansion and into the first room of the double parlor - the first room an elegant place for the ladies to relax in and the second room a retreat for the men to retire to after dinner for perhaps cigars, drinks, and cards.

The window treatments and crown mouldings in the front parlor were "classic" McIntire and certainly denoted the wealth of the homeowners and attention to detail of the architect.

The rear parlor may not have necessarily looked like a "man's" room with its goldenrod-colored paint and floral-patterned carpet but it most definitely was and there were apparently plenty of times the pocket doors were closed so as not to offend the ladies in the other room!

The rose-colored kitchen was said to be one of the most modern and well-equipped in Salem as the house's first mistress, Mrs. Gardner, loved to cook and could often be found helping out the servant's in her "state of the art" kitchen. 

According to our tour guide, the kitchen boasted the very latest in equipment for baking as well as for providing water for cooking and cleaning. It certainly looked well-equipped!

In the china closet was quite the assortment of dishes, glasses, teapots, mugs, and other period pieces that helped to make the house a home. 

In the hallway outside of the kitchen hanging near the rear stairway was the latest in fire-fighting equipment - two water buckets for dosing the flames!  Our tour guide explained that almost every home in Salem had two buckets so that if shouts of "Fire!" went out, they could be grabbed as men ran to help fight the flames. I do believe I saw two of the very same items at my tour of the House of the Seven Gables and now that I think about it I've just realized how "bucket brigades" were formed and where the buckets they used actually came from! Took awhile for that light bulb to come on!

The dining room was quite large and very bright and cheery as opposed to the two previous houses with smaller windows. The room boasted more Samuel McIntire touches and period pieces of furniture which were simpler and lighter in style and more refined than the heavier Georgian style of furnishings.

The central hallway of the house boasted a very beautiful sweeping stairway with elaborately carved rungs that flowed towards the upper floors past walls that were painted a beautiful mint green. Green was the paint chosen by the wealthiest of homeowners as it was the most expensive paint you could buy during this period. Made from Verdigris dust scraped off of copper, it was definitely the status symbol that you wanted guests to first see upon entering your home!

If memory serves that odd-looking object above was some sort of an exercise machine for legs (someone please correct me if I'm wrong!) while the pictures below were taken in the office/study of the house which included bookcases in the closets as well as other objects that depicted the tools of the trade of wealthy merchants in Salem including a chart to help calculate interest.

The guest bedroom at the front of the house was painted in a beautiful robin's egg blue and featured a Federal style bed that was designed by the famed cabinetmaker, Thomas Seymour of Boston, who, along with his father John, created some of the finest examples of American Federal decor ever made and set the standard for American furniture for generations. The beautiful half circle Federal commode that can be seen in the left corner is also a Seymour piece.

Across the hall from the guest bedroom and also at the front of the house is the master bedroom with its luxurious Federal-style furnishings - site of the notorious 1830 murder of Captain Joseph White. If you look to the right of the fireplace, behind the beautiful gold-leafed and cream-colored Massachusetts-made Federal period fancy chair and below the mirror, is a piece of furniture called a "wish stand" on which stands a pitcher and basin and that contains a hidden chamber pot.

The dressing table above showcases a Chinese export style dressing mirror on a stand while the white and gold-leaf trimmed bed was made by Samuel McIntire. The golden shafts of wheat at the top of the canopy that you can see better if you enlarge the picture, were one of McIntire's trademark designs.

Heading back downstairs and completing our tour of all three historical houses, we were shown back out the massive front door under the large semi-circular fanlight with its flanking sidelights by a very friendly security officer for the PEM who follows along on the tours to lock up after visitors and makes sure that people behave themselves while touring the historic houses. It's his job to ensure that visitors stay within the confines of the areas that are roped off, only take photos as long flash isn't used, and don't try to linger behind to see if there are any ghostly presences of Captain White or his murdering nephews lingering on the stairway ... not that myself or any other visitors would surely ever do such a thing!

I hope you've enjoyed this virtual tour of three of the Peabody Essex's Museum wonderfully restored and preserved historic houses and that you'll get the chance to visit them in person some day as the pictures here really don't do them justice. Additional photos can be found at Historic Houses of the Peabody Essex Museum in my SmugMug Gallery but I highly suggest that if you're planning a trip to the Salem area that you include a trip to the highly-acclaimed Peabody Essex Museum, a very large crown in the jewel of Salem, and be sure to include one of their Historic House Tours!


  1. Wonderful virtual tour of Salem's best, Linda--the photos are amazing! You did a great job of capturing all the grandeur of the rooms along with the beautiful details. Makes me want to go!

  2. Me, too! These are so beautiful. I really like the staircase photos. You can just imagine the ladies coming down in all of their finery. Interesting about the green paint! Cobalt is very expensive to buy now, but I haven't bought any in years...maybe green has surpased it since the price of copper is now sky high!
    I'd love to see that collection of Dutch and Flemish art. One of my favorite periods.
    Well, I'll finish with my run-out-of-adjective words - Wow!


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