Wicked Good Architecture
The Historic Homes Of Salem, Massachusetts
By Todd R. Sciore
When most people think of Salem, Massachusetts, the first thing that immediately comes to mind is the infamous 17th century witch trials that took place in the area during a short but chaotic period from February of 1692 to May of 1693. The writing of author Nathaniel Hawthorne runs a respectable second place. While the religious fervor caused centuries ago by delusional accusers and overzealous prosecutors coupled with Hawthorne’s acclaimed brand of “dark romanticism” have spawned an omnipresent marketing campaign, for discerning visitors looking for something less touristy, Salem also boasts a picturesque architectural charm – along what some refer to as one of the most beautiful streets in America. This display harkens back to when, as author Robert Booth notes in Death of an Empire, “The world’s wealth, channeled into the streets and countinghouses, raised up all classes in Salem…several mansions went up on Chestnut Street, the new boulevard for rich Federalists…”
Deriving its name from one of Salem’s most notable citizens, the district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 when two prior historic areas (the Chestnut Street Historic District and the Federal Street Area Historic District) were combined with other structures on nearby side streets to form the largest district in the city. This district contains over 400 buildings, however, it is Chestnut Street’s concentration of lovingly preserved Federal Period residences that is clearly the crown jewel as architect John Willand eloquently states on his blog “…Salem’s Chestnut Street is undeniably a special place – gracious, refined, imposing, and yes, certainly beautiful. The street is historically as well as aesthetically significant…superlatives aside, the street merits all the attention it gets.” While the Federal design period (1780-1820) is predominantly represented, other classic styles including Italian and Greek Revival also sporadically dot the streetscape, however, to the casual eye, there is a seamless continuity amongst the structures and as Willand indicates, “The street’s boulevard-like width, towering street trees, ornate fencing, period street lamps, and brick sidewalks…complement the architecture and underpin the pleasing impression”. Willand is spot on in his description and for this writer, no sooner did I turn the corner onto Chestnut Street when the subconscious desire to live there took hold.
Samuel McIntire (1757-1811) was a native son to Salem and was initially an ornamental woodcarver by trade with a sheaf of wheat being one of his favored design elements as it best represented the then prosperity of Salem and its successful merchant tradesmen. McIntire was a self-taught architect who eventually set up shop at 31 Summer Street (near the intersection of Summer and Chestnut streets) in 1786. However, it was circa 1780 when he began to make a name for himself as the preeminent designer amongst Salem’s elite maritime merchant class which included none other than Elias Hasket Derby, who in his day was the wealthiest businessman in Salem due to his success in trading with China. Obviously, work performed for Derby and his extended family propelled McIntire’s career, however, he chose to work primarily in the New England area where Samuel often oversaw the ornamentation at the shop while his brothers Joseph and Angier McIntire were at the job sites. In addition to the aforementioned Derby residence, other notable examples of his designs throughout Salem are the Pierce-Nichols and Benjamin Hawkes residences, the Ropes Mansion, along with public buildings such as the renowned Hamilton Hall facility.
Despite his notoriety for home design, after 1790 he focused his abilities on wood carving “to complement the architecture” as noted in Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style by Dean T. Lahikainen. His talents also transcended to sculpture, carving figureheads for some of Salem’s sailing vessels and furniture making. So much so that examples of furniture whose woodwork is attributed to McIntire are firmly ensconced in museums, and private collections and pieces can command attention grabbing prices when they occasionally come to auction (at a Christie’s auction in 2011, a mahogany side chair with hand carving attributed to McIntire and formerly owned by Elias Hasket Derby hammered down for $662,500.00 setting a then world record for Federal period furniture).
If you are like me with an appreciation for early American architecture, and would prefer a colonial era home accented with authentic period furniture over new construction, take a leisurely stroll down Chestnut Street and some of its nearby thoroughfares. The collective streetscapes superbly capture the grand essence of Salem’s early seafaring heyday, when trading merchants were the business elite – long before shipping gave way to all things dark and witchy.