At home on Chestnut Street
Historic New England has acquired a major new property, the Stephen Phillips House in Salem, Massachusetts. Asexplains, from the outside it appears to be a classic Federal-period mansion, but its history is as intricate and unexpected as the many layers of its 200-year-old family collections. Photographs by David Bohl.
Sunday, 1st October 2006
For the past two decades in the United States, historic buildings, particularly historic interiors, have been threatened by the new common sense that it is cheaper and more predictable to replace with new than to repair the old. Consequently, the country’s domestic architecture is rapidly becoming monochromatic, with houses that reflect only one moment in time – the present. Happily, there are still survivors from earlier eras to bring colour to our lives and imaginations, and even more happily there are still vigilant guardians of this legacy.
Historic New England is one such guardian. Founded in 1910 as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, this regional museum already protects more than 100 historic properties and has just accepted a new charge – the Stephen Phillips House on Chestnut Street in Salem, Massachusetts. It contains more than 11,000 objects from at least five generations of a Salem family that sailed to the far corners of the earth as merchants in the late 18th century and returned again in the late 19th as inquisitive travellers.
Built at the height of Salem’s international trade, Chestnut Street and its Federal mansions express the highest architectural aspirations of coastal merchants in the heyday of New England’s maritime trade between 1790 and the 1820s. Three storeys high, cube-like in form with their low hipped roofs and set uniformly back from the broad street, the Phillips House and its neighbours create a powerful geometry and sense of order (Fig. 1). On first glance, the Phillips House’s open portico, arched entryway, Palladian window and delicately decorated window caps appear to be all of a piece, but closer examination reveals a more complicated tale preserved in the building’s fabric and collections, a tale that Historic New England will now begin to unravel and interpret to the public.
The house’s past began at least 20 years before it arrived on its present site in 1820. The story starts with Salem’s most famous merchant prince, Elias Hasket Derby (1739-99). An acute businessman, Derby took full advantage of the American Revolution by outfitting 158 privateers, which in turn captured 145 British vessels. After the war’s end, Derby sent trading ships to corners of the earth – India, China, Sumatra, the Baltic, Mauritius – and became America’s first millionaire from the profits. He fathered a family of eight children who shared their father’s lack of the quiet modesty that New England values. Describing the Derbys as ‘a very haughty family’, the Reverend William Bentley, Salem’s diarist at the turn of 18th century, noted multiple instances of the family’s petulance and pride, concluding that they were an ‘example of riches without honor’.
Still, as Salem’s most prominent citizen, Derby had a powerful impact upon the town commercially and artistically through the series of houses he and his children commissioned from Samuel McIntire (1757-1811), Salem’s well-known woodcarver and architect. In his last grand gesture, Derby commissioned McIntire in 1795 to build him a large mansion in the centre of town. Completed only a year or two before Derby’s death, the new house was intended to overawe, and it did. One traveller from Baltimore described it as being ‘more like a palace than the dwelling of an American merchant’, and in 1798, when the federal government assessed the value of all houses in the country, Derby’s new mansion was one of the two most valuable, at $30,000. With Derby’s death in 1799, the house became obsolete, as none of his children was willing to occupy the great three-storey pile. Consequently, in 1815 the mansion was dismantled and its parts sold publicly. Derby family tradition reports – and architectural evidence supports the claim – that some of this salvage eventually found its way to the Phillips House.
The direct beginnings of the house spring from Derby’s first-born child, Elizabeth, and her husband, Captain Nathaniel West. According to Bentley, when the two met, Elizabeth Derby ‘fell in love with this man wonderfully’. A respectable seaman of Salem family with business ties to Elias Hasket Derby, West seems to have fallen short of the Derbys’ social ambitions, and Bentley reports that ‘contrary to the will of her father and friends [Elizabeth] persisted in marrying West’ in 1783. For 20 years the couple lived a peaceful enough married life in Salem with six children. In 1799, Elizabeth Derby West inherited her father’s country seat at Danvers, several miles distant from Salem. Known as ‘the farm’, this property became known as ‘Oak Hill’ following the Wests’ construction of a lavish country seat designed by McIntire in 1799. Three rooms from this house were installed as period rooms at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the 1920s and continue to provide a view of the opulent household at its height.
In 1803, the couple separated and embarked on a contentious divorce that became the talk of Salem. By 1806, Bentley recorded that the battle had turned to ‘desperate attempts to ruin the reputation of Mr West’. When the divorce came to trial Salem turned out en masse to watch as Elizabeth Derby West ‘displayed in open court, to prove the incontinency of Capt. W[est], all the sweepings of the Brothels of Boston, & all the vile wretches of Salem, Marblehead, Cape Ann, &c, & c.’. Although public sympathy went to West, she was successful in obtaining a divorce, and in a final act of vengeance instructed her heirs in her will in 1814: ‘it is my express will that in no case they transfer the sd. [said] estate to their Father Capt. Nath.l West or to any person he may employ to purchase the same.’ Despite this proscription, the death of the Wests’ daughter Sarah in 1819 conferred upon her father a one-third interest in Oak Hill; eventually, he would acquire it in its entirety.
West soon obtained estimates from Jeremiah Batchelder to move a building from Oak Hill several miles to Salem.Dated September 1820, the estimate proposed ‘to Move a Bilding from the farm at Danvers to Chestnut St in Salem, the Length 68 ft the Width 22 ft., and fix it in form of an Ell House, the front 49 ft. the Ell 42 ft…And one End Where the Bilding is Cut off and joine the same together, and put Another Storey on the Bilding…’. Subsequent bills for labour record that the move began in 1820 and was completed in 1821. The earliest photographs of the house, taken around 1870 (Fig. 2), show it matching Batchelder’s description and retaining its original roof balustrade as well as its original Palladian window. The only significant exterior change during the house’s first 50 years was the enclosure of its entry portico and the replacement of its original flanking entry stairs with a single granite stoop, perhaps as a concession to New England’s icy winters.
As originally built, the interior of the house’s main block was one room deep with single rooms flanking a central stairhall at each floor. At the first storey, the west parlor, now the library (Fig. 4), was finished with simple moulded architraves, a dentil cornice and a fine mantelpiece decorated with baskets of flowers, cornucopia, reeded pilasters and rope mouldings. A mantelpiece of similar scale but more severely architectural with engaged half-round columns and panelled frieze was installed at the east parlor, from which it was moved to the second storey in the 1880s (Fig. 9).
Mantelpieces in the second-storey chambers had characteristic Federal proportions, with slender columns supporting wide friezes and deep mantel shelves; however the friezes of both mantels were decorated with uncharacteristically florid patterns of meandering vines, fruit and cornucopia, perhaps a legacy from Elias Hasket Derby’s extravagant mansion (Figs. 5 and 8). Both chambers were also finished with chair-rails decorated with intricate fretwork and running-dog patterns that appear to have been pieced together with the more elaborate pieces used at the window embrasures. Woodwork in the house has been attributed to McIntire, based upon West’s and Derby’s patronage of him, but its exact origin cannot be documented as it is unclear which building was moved from Oak Hill.
In its first form, the house was created by West for his son, Nathaniel, Jr., who occupied it for only a few years. After a succession of different tenants, the house was leased in 1838 by Mrs Tabitha Ward, who eventually acquired it in 1868. By the 1830s Salem had lost its mercantile swagger, but streets such as Chestnut Street retained a quiet gentility. Under Mrs Ward’s management, the Phillips House became a boarding house for single men of good background and a school for the daughters of Salem’s wealthy families until 1874.
Shortly after its acquisition by William Webb in 1875, the house was enlarged to its present size with a mixture of new Victorian finishes and the repair of its Federal-style features. The original rear ell (wing) was extended to contain a new dining room and library or billiard room. Another range of rooms containing the new main staircase, kitchen and bedroom was built at the northeast corner of the house. The façade was updated by the replacement of its original 12-pane sash windows with four-pane ones and the removal of its original front door and the Palladian window to make way for a Victorian- style entry porch and oriel. On the house’s east elevation, facing the garden, Webb constructed new bay windows together with a small verandah. Despite being out of fashion by Victorian standards, the original doorway with its elliptical fanlight and the Palladian window were not discarded, but rather re-installed as a side entry to provide access from the new stairhall to the carriageway (Fig 3). Elsewhere on the interior, the main staircase was removed from the central hall, and the original fireplaces were blocked down to receive shallow coal grates. Although the new rooms were thoroughly Victorian in their details, Webb seems to have seen no need to replace the original Federal woodwork.
The purchase of the property in 1911 by Stephen Willard Phillips (1873-1955) and Anna Pingree Wheatland (1870-1938) marks the last phase of the house’s history. Married in 1899, the couple had strong family ties to Chestnut Street, he through his great-grandfather Captain Stephen Phillips, a shipmaster who built his house at no. 17 in 1805, and she through her family’s ownership of the adjoining property. By 1911, the couple had one child, Stephen (1907-1971), but the impetus to purchase the house seems have come from the death of Anna Phillips’s maternal aunt, Anna Peabody, in 1911. As the principal beneficiary of Peabody’s estate, Anna Phillips inherited substantial capital as well as extensive furnishings, works of art and heirlooms, presumably beyond the capacity of their previous home. Soon after the purchase, the couple selected William Rantoul, a Salem architect, to work closely with Stephen Willard Phillips in planning the house’s restoration.
Rantoul’s early visits produced a number of sketches and proposals that record the features he found and the options he offered his clients.At the exterior, Phillips and Rantoul sought to restore the Federal-period design of the building’s street front. Surprisingly, this restoration did not include returning the original doorway and Palladian window from the side elevation, but rather fabricating an entirely new doorway and portico that resemble, but do not exactly match, the originals. In the same spirit, Rantoul designed a new Palladian window for the second storey, but with a higher sill and blind arch, unlike the original. The Victorian four-pane sashes were replaced by 12-pane windows.
Throughout the interior, Rantoul noted in detail the materials, their condition and the treatment they should receive – ‘clean out and repair old fireplaces’, ‘piece out old cornice’, ‘remove paper [from walls] and patch plaster’. At what would become the library on the first floor, the original fireplace was re-opened and trimmed with ‘Italian Dove marble facings’, as were others in the original portions of the house. Antique argand lamps that would originally have been placed on a mantelshelf were used as models for electric wall sconces installed throughout the first storey (see Fig. 6, for example). The library’s existing dentilled cornice was retained and new mahogany bookcases with lancet arches in the style of the early 19th century were built to house Stephen Willard Phillips’s books. Family memorabilia was displayed throughout the room, including a portrait of his great-grandfather, Captain Stephen Phillips (1764-1838) together with furnishings from his house including a Simon Willard Patent clock of about 1805 (Fig. 6) and an Arcadian scene by Salem painter George Ropes (1788-1819), who had been trained by Michel Felice Corne (c. 1752-1845). The library also housed some of the growing collection of Oceanic artifacts – Fijian throwing clubs, bark-beaters and carvings – that Phillips collected after 1912. In 1920 and again in 1922, he joined his mother during a prolonged visit to Hawaii, where his father had served as Attorney General to the kingdom of Hawaii (1866-1872) and where he had been born.
Despite the Phillips’ formal way of life, with a resident staff of three servants in addition to a chauffeur and coachman, the parlor has an informal quality, with an eclectic mixture of furnishings that reflect a room furnished for use rather than display. Above the mantelpiece hangs one of the family’s finest paintings, Gondola Landing in Venice by Hermann Dudley Murphy (1867-1945), one of many American Impressionist paintings that came to the house through Anna Peabody’s bequest (Fig. 5).She developed her collection through regular purchases at shows of contemporary artists (Fig. 10). Inventory lists of the collection annotated in Stephen W. Phillips’s handwriting record the care with which he considered the placement of each of the paintings in the family’s new house.
Rantoul and the Phillips made their most significant changes at the back of the house, where the Victorian dining room and rear staircase were removed to make way for a large Colonial-Revival-style dining room (Fig. 7) with a deep fireplace alcove and glazed china cupboards to display family china that came from Anna Phillips and the armorial china that Stephen W. Phillips collected.
The care and selectivity used in the public rooms of the house was equally applied to the more private spaces and service areas. At the second storey of the main block, the east chamber was converted into a sitting room for Anna Phillips, where mementos of her many trips to Europe and North Africa are displayed next to original neo-classical woodwork and paintings from her aunt’s collection (Fig. 8). Across the hall, the east chamber was renovated and redecorated as a bedroom for young Stephen Phillips (Fig. 9) with a mixture of antique and contemporary pieces. It includes the last painting added to the collection, a historical narrative entitled The Hardships & Self-Sacrifices – Massey’s Cove – Salem, 1626 – The First Winter, painted in about 1926 by John Orne Johnson Frost (1852-1928). His primitive style (which recalls the tradition of Grandma Moses) earned him scorn and neglect until his works were rediscovered locally in the mid-20th century.
The Phillips’s interest in efficient domestic management and up-to-date technology (Fig. 12) is reflected in the enlarged kitchen and extensive china pantries on the first storey, although Yankee frugality led them to keep the existing, and still serviceable, iron cooking range from the house’s previous renovation. A similarly practical outlook prevailed outside, where the carriageway and kitchen yard were paved with asphalt to provide a smooth, practical surface. The Federal-style brick carriage house (Fig. 11) sat idle during most of the 20th century, as the Phillips kept a separate stable several blocks away from the house. In addition, the family always housed their Pierce-Arrow cars at rented spaces in a nearby automotive garage until the 1970s, when they were brought to the carriage house for display as part of the museum’s collections.
The orderly life created by the Phillips continued after the death in 1938 of Anna Phillips until the death of Stephen Willard Phillips in 1955. From 1955 until 1973, the house slumbered, maintained by the Phillips’ son, Stephen, and his wife, Bessie. In preparing his first will after inheriting his mother’s estate, he made provisions in 1940 for leaving the house to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities as a museum of the generations of his family and a way of life. This provision was removed from subsequent wills, but following his death in 1971, his widow honoured the wish and opened the house as a private museum.
In the 20 years that the house was closed it had faded to a degree than seemed improper to show to the public. Bessie Phillips set about the task of improving the house while trying to intrude as little as possible on the setting created by her parents-in-law. In the 1970s, when paint analysis was in its infancy, and restoration textiles, wallpapers and carpets were not available in the profusion that exists today, such efforts could seek only to approximate the visual remnants from the past. Exercising her best judgment, Mrs Phillips removed tattered wallpapers and replaced them with paint matching their background colours or with modern approximations, such as a damask-style wallpaper in the parlor. She removed velvet draperies that had deteriorated beyond recognition and replaced them with textiles that matched their faded colours.
Outside, she removed the 1911 asphalt on the carriageway and replaced it with the red-brick pavers that became a hallmark of New England’s restored historic districts in the 1970s. The former kitchen yard lost its utilitarian character with the removal of clothes lines, fences and sheds, and came to be more ornamental with the planting of a cut-leaf beech tree. After freshening the house, Mrs Phillips operated the museum until her death in 1996, when the responsibility was transferred to a family foundation whose primary mission is to provide academic scholarships. Recognising that the business of managing a museum house is a very different business from granting scholarships, the foundation has given the property to Historic New England.
Although the evolution of the Phillips House as a family home has ended, its many layers of history are secured for the future. Historic New England now faces the challenge of decoding those layers and understanding their significance. In the process, it will face the very thorny question of whether to protect faithfully the exact conditions that existed at the moment it took ownership, or whether the hands of time should be nudged ever-so-slightly back to a period when the life of the house was at its height. Much ink and perhaps even a little blood will flow in the curatorial debates that will follow, but whatever interpretative path Historic New England takes, one can feel confident that the complexity of this landmark will be protected and continue to be a source of pleasure well into the future.
Brian Pfeiffer is an independent architectural historian who advises individuals and museums on building conservation and restoration throughout New England. He is also an instructor at Boston Architectural College.
For information about visiting the Stephen Phillips House, tel. +1 978 744 0440, or visit www.historicnewengland.org
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