The Merchant - A Marvelous New Boutique Hotel with Awesome Old History in Salem, Massachusetts
Not too long ago I had the pleasure of wandering up to Salem, Massachusetts to check out a new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum and the timing was such that during my trip, I was also able to take advantage of a Travelzoo offer and spend a night at one of Salem's newest lodging offerings - The Merchant. An upscale boutique hotel located in one of Salem's historic grand former homes, the mansion has had prior incarnations as the upscale Washington Hotel in the early 19th century, the home of the Higginson Book Company a tavern and offices of the Carlson Realty Company in the 21st century, as well as being a stop on a few of the very popular Salem Ghost Walks - one of which I was on myself back in October of 2008 and the closest I had ever gotten to the house prior to my stay.
In a city that never seems to have enough accommodations come October when everyone hops on their broomsticks to fly up to Witch City for a month full of Haunted Happenings. I've got no doubt that this very swank, very cozy, very historic venue is going to be a real addition to the list of choices that visitors have when it comes to choosing a place to stay. I wouldn't wait until October to book a visit though as Salem is a great place to visit anytime of the year with some fantastic non-witch-related offerings like the Salem National Maritime Historic Site which features 12 historic structures including the U.S. Customs House that disgruntled hometown boy and popular American author Nathaniel Hawthorne worked at while penning "The Scarlet Letter" along with the replica of the three-masted East Indiaman trading ship The Friendship docked at Derby Wharf. There's also The House of the Seven Gables which is one of my personal favorites, Ye Old Pepper Candy Companie which is America's oldest candy company and well worth a visit from anywhere, and of course, the world-class Peabody-Essex Museum which alone is worth a trip to the North Shore. The PEM got its start in 1824 when wealthy ship captains built the East India Marine Hall where they exhibited some of the curiosities and treasures that they had brought back from their trade travels. Today, though greatly expanded, the museum still exhibits some of those items in their permanent collections as well as offering terrific new exhibits that are constantly changing to offer visitors a wide variety of art, history, and more. The Philips Library with its collection of rare books and special collections is part of the museum and the PEM also has a collection of historic houses throughout the city - several that are open to the public.
The Joshua Ward House's design and interior woodwork was created by Salem's own Samuel McIntire, a woodcarver by trade who grew into the field of architecture and became one of the earliest and most influential architects in the United States. Very popular among the elite citizens of Salem who had money to spend (in the early 1800s Salem was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States), McIntire is best known for his classic examples of Federal style architecture located on Salem's Chestnut Street and throughout the McIntire Historic District which contains one of the greatest concentrations of notable pre-1900 domestic structures still in existence in the United States. Totaling 407 homes and buildings. the District includes Hamilton Hall which was constructed as a meeting place for Salem's Federalists in 1805 and is still in use well over 200 years later as an assembly hall for cultural and social events.
I'm thinking that the straw boater on the bust of George Washington above doesn't have anything to do with the Old China Trade but it certainly adds a nice bit of whimsy to the space and as you'll read further on, there's a good reason that Washington's bust is hanging around the house.
At the other end of the guest lounge is the second fireplace complete with a plate at the back of the firebox crafted by Paul Revere of "one if by night, two if by sea" fame. Unfortunately there's a large crack in the plate which might indicate that Paul was a better midnight rider than he was craftsman but it's still a pretty neat piece of history!
On April 12, 1696 the reportedly overzealous and sadistic sheriff died of a sudden heart attack - at the even-then young age of 31 - but his burial was delayed when Phillip English, one of those who had been accused of witchcraft and whose property valued at approximately 1500 pounds was confiscated by the sheriff (even though he and his wife weren't executed) put a lien against Corwin's corpse. The body was deposited on Corwin's front lawn until his executors paid Phillip English 60 pounds and 3 shillings - almost all that was left of Corwin's estate at the time of his death - but even then his remains still weren't buried in the family plot at the Broad Street Cemetery but were instead interned in a grave in the cellar as he was so reviled that his family feared his body might be seized by others seeking revenge or reimbursement.
All ghostly guests aside and continuing around The Merchant, in the back of the house where the reception desk is located there's a nice little hospitality area where guests can brew themselves a hot cup of coffee or tea (for there or even to go!), grab a cold beverage from the well-stocked refrigerator, or maybe even snag a snack to tide you over until you can get to one of Salem's many wonderful restaurants.
Back towards the front of the house, time to take a climb up that gorgeous McIntire staircase which is actually a very nice staircase to ascend as it's not too steep and the stair steps are a nice width that your feet fit quite nicely on (even if you have slightly larger feet like my daughter does!) Rather than head directly up to the third floor where our room was located, I'm first going to take a slight detour to a room with a very awesome history on the second floor - sorry, no ghost stories here either!
At the top of the first set of stairs, a left takes you up another small flight of stairs then another left will find you at the door to Room #5. By the by, if you stand in front of the door and turn to look back the way you came, the photo on the right above is what it looks like heading back down the stairs and through the doorway to with its wonderful pediment that leads to the rest of the second floor.
While on a fall tour of New England (leaf peeping perhaps?) our #1 President stopped by Salem after spending four days in Boston before taking a day trip to visit the North Shore. While in Salem he was lavishly honored and entertained at Salem's Cotting-Smith Assembly House that was commissioned to be built in 1782 by Salem's Federalist-leaning merchants and shipbuilders to house social gatherings and artistic performances. Certainly having the newly-reelected and highly popular President visit was a social gathering of major proportions! FYI - the Assembly House is one of the many historic properties owned by the Peabody-Essex Museum and can be rented out for small gatherings or intimate wedding ceremonies should you be looking for a lovely historic venue.
Following his evening of dining and dancing at the Assembly House, President Washington spent the night at the home of Joshua Ward in the second-floor northeast bedchamber - the same room that these photos are from - though I suspect the decor was nowhere near as nice! It's been reported that Washington specifically requested that he stay at the Ward House which is most likely due to the fact that at the time of his visit, the mansion was undoubtedly the finest residence in town. Though he does mention his stay in his diary, Washington refers to the house merely as his "lodgings" but well ... he was a farmer, not an architect and probably not the type to gush about a building (no doubt Jefferson would have had a lot more to say had he stayed there!) but regardless, it's pretty cool to be able to stay in a place where Washington once did. Even though we didn't stay in this particular suite, my not-a-history-buff daughter still thought it was a pretty cool thing while I thought it was pretty darned sweet that I was even still standing in the same room where Washington once did also.
As for the decor of the room, I must say that I quite like the star-spangled ceiling and the large eagle above the fireplace and I bet if George ever came back he would too - though I guess that would really amp up the reported historic hauntings at the house! By the by, if you're interested in reading a bit more about Washington's visit to the Joshua Ward House, I highly recommend you pop over to Streets of Salem and read this post from 2012 - George Washington Slept Here - which has some great photos of Salem from days gone by and additional history on the house.
There were lots of neat merchant ship prints on the walls (what else would one expect at a place called The Merchant?) as well as a nice little bench in front of a window with a view up Front Street that once upon a time in Salem actually was in front of the water and docks. Today - not so much.
As seems to happen so often when I stay at someplace nice - and The Merchant was really, really nice! - I found myself wishing that I could fit the bathroom into my suitcase to sneak home with me at the end of my stay. I especially wanted to take this particular bathroom home because it had a real treat that I've only had the joy of experiencing in one place before - radiant heat floors! If you've never experienced this particular pleasure, it's an amenity that I think every bathroom in New England should be required to have as it's just that nice - especially on cold New England mornings! Honestly, f I could figure out how to have them in my own home, they'd be there.
Stepping out of the bathroom and back into our comfortably luxurious room itself, Amanda totally loved the Tivoli Audio Bluetooth radio on the nightstand while I thought the Chinese Foo Dog lamps added the perfect Oriental touch to the beside tables. To be honest, we didn't even think to turn on the 40" flat-screen TV on the wall but I bet it would have had an awesome picture if we had.
Back down to the third floor you can access the second floor via another stairway that leads downstairs towards the back of the house. When you get right down to it there a lot of different stairways in the house but they make for pretty awesome photos and none of them are the type that you'd need to stop for a few minutes to catch your breath after climbing - always a plus especially if you're carrying luggage up and down!
This seems like as good a point as any in this narrative to mention that The Merchant is one of the properties of Lark Hotels who specialize in unique boutique hotels that "embrace the locations they are in - in playful, unexpected ways." Lark got its start back in 2012 when Dawn Hagin, the company's Chief Inspiration Officer, awoke with the word 'lark' in her head and thought it sounded like a good brand name as, according to a 2015 Forbes article, "it’s the name of the bird that welcomes each day with a beautiful song, the name of a Studebaker model that was positioned as a weekend getaway car, and a word that encapsulates that enticing idea of doing something just for the sheer joy of it." In other words, it's a great name for a hotel group that specializes in design-driven, historic-yet-contemporary boutique hotels. There are currently 17 Lark Hotels in operation with another 3 on the way as of this writing; most are located in New England though there are two in California and another slated to open in Nashville, Tennessee soon. I've not had the chance to stay in any of the other Lark properties - yet - but should the opportunity arise, I'd certainly like to amend that oversight as I have to admit that I was really impressed with not just the design of The Merchant but with all of the other little touches that made for a really wonderful stay even though it was only for one short night. Gee, I have been wanting to go to Nantucket for a long time ...!
Finally, in wrapping this up, I took a few photos after Amanda and I returned from our engagement at the Peabody Essex Museum and a wonderful dinner at The Naumkeag Ordinary which is just down the block from the Merchant and has some very tasty offerings. After a dismalish day, it was a dark and stormy night (though not too stormy) which made the house look a little intimidating sitting there on the bluff overlooking Washington Street but the candles in the windows were welcoming and there didn't appear to be any sort of ghosts or ghouls hanging around the place, peeking out the windows, or chilling in the guest lounge either. As we stayed on a night where there were only a few other guests - that we never even saw come to think of it - it almost felt like we had the whole house to ourselves.
One other thing I should point out - parking at The Merchant itself is very limited with only six spots available on a first-come, first-service basis and requiring an extra fee but there is complimentary parking available at nearby Riley Plaza. Before parking, drive up to the back of the house, drop off your luggage and pick up a complimentary parking pass to the public lot a block away in front of the Salem Post Office. It's an easy walk from the house and is perfectly safe to leave your car in so no worries there! If it's your first visit to Salem you'll find that parking can be a bit tricky at times and if it's not your first visit, you'll already know that so you'll appreciate the parking arrangements!