Peirce-Nichols House, Salem, Mass

The house at 80 Federal Street in Salem, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

This house is widely regarded as a masterpiece of early Federal-style architecture, and was among the first works by the prominent Salem architect Samuel McIntire. It was completed around 1782 as the home of Jerathmiel Peirce (1747-1827), a prosperous merchant who was a partner in the firm of Peirce & Waite. He was originally from Charlestown, but came to Salem in 1763 as a teenager, along with his older brother Benjamin. Here he worked as a leather dresser, and in 1772 married his wife, Sarah Ropes (1752-1796). However, Benjamin was killed three years later, in April 19, 1775, while serving as a minuteman in the opening battles of the American Revolution.

Later in the war, in 1778, Peirce went into business with Aaron Waite, as co-owners of the privateer Greyhound. Their partnership subsequently grew into a prosperous shipping firm, and within a few years the former leather dresser had commissioned McIntire to build this mansion. Although there is no surviving documentary evidence from the period that links the famous architect to this house, both family tradition and the visual appearance of the house suggest that it was the work of McIntire, and most historians seem to have accepted this as fact. Among other buildings in Salem, its exterior bears a strong resemblance to the home of Elias Hasket Derby, a merchant who hired McIntire to renovate his Washington Street home around the same time that Peirce’s house was built.

Like so many of the other Salem mansions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it has a rectangular form with three stories, with the third story somewhat shorter than the other two. The exterior is clapboarded, with large pilasters on the corners, and the house is topped by a low hip roof that is partially hidden by a balustrade. A stable, partially visible behind the house in the first photo, was also built around the same time. The backyard was landscaped with a terraced garden, And the property originally extended as far as the North River, where the Peirce & Waite wharf and warehouse were located.

Peirce was about 35 years old when he moved into this house. He and Sarah had three living children at the time: Joseph, Benjamin, and Sarah. However, they had previously had two other sons, both named Benjamin, who had died young. After moving into this house, they would have three more daughters, all named Elizabeth, and a son, Henry. The first two Elizabeths both died when they were only a few months old, but the third Elizabeth and Henry both survived into adulthood. They would lose one more child in 1793, though, when Joseph died at the age of 18, and Jerathmiel was widowed three years later, when Sarah died in 1796 at the age of 44.

The interior of the house was remodeled in 1801, with McIntire evidently performing this work as well, and the fence in front of the house was also added during this time. These renovations coincided with the marriage of Jerathmiel’s oldest daughter, Sarah (1780-1835), to her first cousin, George Nichols (1778-1865), who was a ship captain and merchant. They were married in the drawing room here in this house, in a small ceremony that the groom described in his memoirs many years later:

The ceremony took place on the 22nd of November, 1801, on Sunday evening. We were married by Rev. Dr. Hopkins, in my Father Pierce’s great eastern room, which was finished and furnished only a short time before. Aunt Adams [Jerathmiel’s older sister Rebecca] was buried from the same room, only three days before. My wife wanted only a day or two of being twenty-one years old, and I have often laughed and told her she was never free. No one was present at the wedding but the two families. Betsey and Charlotte [Sarah and George’s sisters, respectively] were the bridesmaids, or at least considered themselves so. Sally’s dress was a beautiful striped muslin, very delicate, made in Bombay for some distinguished person. I purchased it of Nasser Vanji, at five dollars per yard. . . . This muslin Sally wore over white silk. Her headdress was a white lace veil, put on turban fashion. Her cake, of which she had a large quantity, was made in a great bread tray by Nellie Masury, a sister of the late Deacon Punchard. She was quite a celebrated cook.

Following their marriage, George and Sarah Nichols moved into a house at the corner of Washington and Federal Streets. In the meantime, though, Jerathmiel continued to live here in this house. In 1803, his son Benjamin (1778-1831) married George Nichols’ sister, Lydia Ropes Nichols (1781-1868). Benjamin and George subsequently went into business together, running a prosperous shipping firm in the years leading up to the War of 1812. Benjamin also had a successful political career during this time, including serving as a state representative for several years, and as a state senator in 1811. However, the war took a heavy toll on Peirce, Nichols, and many other Salem merchants, with Nichols later writing:

We were generally prospered in business and when the war broke out in 1812 I was quite a rich man for those times, being worth at least $40,000. This was a very disastrous war to me. I lost in it nearly one-half of all my property, notwithstanding I had a great deal of insurance. Every vessel in which I was concerned was captured. Among them was the “Rambler,” a beautiful vessel, owned by my brother Peirce and myself. She was making a fine voyage, but she was taken by the British, off the Cape of Good Hope. Privateering was very common in that war, as in all wars, but I could not feel it to be right and therefore did not engage in it. At the close of the war in 1815, I engaged again in commerce with Benjamin Peirce and others, and for several years affairs went along somewhat prosperously. Then came on a long series of disasters, ruinous voyages were made, the effect of bad management, and in 1826 I found myself bankrupt, as were also my father Peirce and his two sons.

As a result of this change of fortune, George Nichols had to sell much of his property in order to pay off his creditors. Benjamin Peirce left the shipping business altogether and moved to Cambridge, where he worked as the librarian of Harvard College until his death in 1831. His son, also named Benjamin Peirce (1809-1880), went on to become a prominent mathematician, and was the father of philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and diplomat Herbert H. D. Peirce (1849-1916). In the meantime, Jerathmiel Peirce was also hit hard by these financial troubles, and in 1827 he was forced to sell this mansion in order to pay his creditors. He subsequently moved in with George and Sarah, but only lived in their house for a short time before his death on August 20, at the age of 80.

The property here on Federal Streeet was purchased by George Johonnot, an elderly friend of the Peirce family. He lived here until his death in 1839, and his wife Martha died the following year, leaving the house to George Nichols, who moved into the house in August 1840. By this point his wife Sarah had died, and in 1836 he had remarried to her younger sister, Elizabeth Peirce (1787-1864). George and Elizabeth died a year apart in the 1860s, but the house remained in the Nichols family for another half century until 1917, when it was sold to the Essex Institute.

The first photo was taken around the time that the Essex Institute acquired the property. Over the following decades, this museum would continue to add historic Salem houses to its properties. These would all become part of the Peabody Essex Museum following a 1992 merger between the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem.  Because of its architectural significance, the Peirce-Nichols was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968, and it is also a contributing property in the Chestnut Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the house has seen few exterior changes since the first photo was taken, although the house is now partially hidden by trees from this angle.

First Baptist Church, Salem, Mass

The First Baptist Church, at 54 Federal Street in Salem, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The site of the church in 2017:

The first Baptist minister in Salem was none other than Roger Williams, who briefly served as pastor of the First Church in the 1630s, immediately prior to his famous banishment in modern-day Rhode Island. However, it would be some 170 years before a Baptist church was formally established here in Salem, when 24 parishioners formed the First Baptist Church in 1804. The following year the church installed its first pastor, 25-year-old Brown graduate Lucius Bolles, and around the same time construction began on a permanent church building here on Federal Street, just east of North Street.

The diary of William Bentley, the prominent Unitarian minister of the East Church in Salem, provides an interesting perspective on the early history of this church. At the time, Baptists were a religious minority in Massachusetts, where nearly all churches were Congregational Bentley’s diary reveals hostility toward the Baptists. For example, on January 9, 1805, the day when Reverend Bolles was ordained, Bentley wrote:

A very rainy day & the day designated for the public ordination of a Baptist Minister in Salem. It was a dark day, because we were afraid of the uncharitableness of this Sect which has been the most illiterate in New England. All the ministers were invited. The Tabernacle was opened for the services. I did not attend. No Congregational minister of the Town was present. Dr. Stillman of Boston preached.

A month later, there was a tone of sarcasm when he wrote that “It is said that Mr. L. Bolles does not incline to dip [baptize] in the very cold weather as it too much endangers the health of the Spectators. The public owes him many thanks.” Then, on April 14, following the baptism of 10 more new members, Bentley complained of the Baptists luring members away from the established Congregational churches, writing:

It is said that the Clergy of the Town are about to print a refutation of the Baptists as the Baptists consider as free plunder all the members of their churches & rebaptise all who have been sprinkled at any age or baptised in any form in infancy. This superstition has all its fury at present in this place. Its violence must burst. Still like a storm, it may be short & leave many a wreck on the shore especially when many are too nigh to escape. I cannot think our Clergy equal to the controversy.

The brick, Federal-style Baptist church was completed later in 1805, and was dedicated on January 1, 1806. On that day, Bentley wrote, “This day was appointed to dedicate the New Baptist Brick Meeting House in Salem & to ordain Charles Lowell in the West Church in Boston. I preferred to employ the fine weather in a visit to Boston.” However, later in the same entry he gave some begrudging praise to Bolles:

In Salem, Mr. Bolles preached at the dedication & as usual in such occasions gave the concourse some history of his newly gathered Church. Its rapid progress in fifteen months since his first mission to Salem, is an honour to his perseverance & an example to his Superiors.

Notwithstanding Reverend Bentley’s scorn, the Baptists grew at a rapid pace upon completion of this church building. The congregation more than doubled in size in 1806, and by 1813 it had over 300 members. The church evidently welcomed all races, with Bentley noting in one 1810 entry that “8 young females & one Negro man” were baptized here. Earlier in 1810, he had also commented on how Thomas Paul, the pastor of the First African Baptist Church in Boston, had previously preached here at the church. He was apparently well-received at the church, but was ridiculed by some townspeople and was denied a seat inside the stagecoach:

[I]n the past actually the Negro Minister Paul preached repeatedly in the Close Baptist Meeting House accompanied & assisted by their Pastor. In consequence one family only discovered displeasure, but the wags of the town put a paper of dogrel rhymes in print & distributed them through the town. The Stage refused the Negro Minister a passage in the Stage within, but offered him a seat with the driver, which he angrily refused.

Over the next few years, the church did experience some fluctuations in its size, as many of the members left to form Baptist congregations in the neighboring towns. However, the church remained strong, and during its first 20 years it added 512 members. Reverend Bolles remained in the pulpit until 1826, when he resigned because of poor health and his new responsibilities as corresponding secretary of the Foreign Mission Board in Boston.

The first major changes to the church building came a year later in 1827, when it was expanded and a tower was added above the front entrance, as seen in the first photo. Further changes occurred around 1850, when the original Federal-style design was given Italianate details, such as the quoins on the corners and the arches above the windows. It was remodeled again in the late 1868, was damaged by a fire on October 31, 1877, and then repaired the following year. Although undated, the first photo was probably taken before the fire, and perhaps even before the 1868 renovations.

Much of the tower is cut off in the first photo, but by the turn of the 20th century it consisted of three stages, topped by an almost absurdly oversized illuminated clock. However, the tower was ultimately removed in 1926 due to the cost of maintenance, dramatically altering the exterior appearance of the building. It continued to be the home of the First Baptist Church throughout the 20th century, though, and despite the many changes it still retained significant historic value as the oldest surviving church building in the city.

Today, the historic church building is still standing, although no longer in its original location. The site was needed in order to build the new Essex County courthouse, so the congregation sold the property and relocated to a different church building on Lafayette Street in 2007. The following year, in December 2008, the 1,100-ton brick church was moved a couple hundred feet to the west, to the corner of Federal and North Streets. The exterior was restored and repointed, and the interior was converted into a law library for the new courthouse, which opened in 2012 as the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center. The photo below shows the church at its current location, a little to the left of where it had once stood.

First Church, Salem, Mass

The First Church at the southeast corner of Washington and Essex Streets in Salem, around 1865-1874. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The building in 2017:

This location, at the southeast corner of Essex and Washington Streets, was the site of the First Church of Salem for nearly three centuries. The congregation worshipped in four successive buildings here, beginning with the completion of the first meeting house in 1634. The pastor at the time was Roger Williams, who would preach here for less than two years before his banishment and subsequent founding of Providence. This building was used until the 1670s, when it was replaced by a new meeting house that, in 1692, was the site of some of the examinations during the Salem Witch Trials.

The fourth church on this site was built in 1826, with a Federal-style design that was the work of noted Boston architects Solomon Willard and Peter Banner. The church itself was located on the second floor, while the ground floor was rented out to retail tenants on Essex Street side, providing the church with about $1,000 in revenue per year at the time of its completion. The first photo was taken around 40 years later, and shows the church in its original exterior appearance, with a granite first floor, brick upper section, and Ionic pilasters on the Essex Street facade.

However, around 1874 the exterior of the church was heavily remodeled to give it a High Victorian Gothic-style appearance. The granite first floor was rebuilt, creating a new storefront with large windows on the Essex Street side, and the Washington Street side was expanded to add towers on either side of the building, which were originally topped with pyramidal roofs. Also on the Essex Street side, the pilasters were removed and the rounded arches of the old windows were given pointed stone trim, matching the arches of the new third-floor windows on the addition.

When these renovations were completed, the new ground-floor tenant was Daniel Low & Company. Established in 1874, this store sold jewelry, watches, and silverware, and was a longtime fixture here in downtown Salem. The store would remain here until it finally closed in 1995, although the signs still hang above the first-floor windows in the present-day scene. In the meantime, the First Church continued to worship in the remodeled building until 1923, when the congregation merged with the North Church and relocated to its 1836 Gothic Revival-style church at 316 Essex Street.

Today, the building bears little resemblance to the church from the first photo, aside from the large pediment and the windows on the Essex Street side. However, aside from the missing tops of the towers, the exterior has remained well-preserved since the 1870s renovations. The former Daniel Low storefront is now the Rockafellas restaurant, and the building is now a contributing property in the Downtown Salem Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Gardner-Pingree House, Salem, Mass

The house at 128 Essex Street in Salem, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2017:

The peak of Salem’s prosperity as a seaport came at the turn of the 19th century, a period that coincided with the height of Federal-style architecture. As a result, the town saw the construction of a number of elegant Federal homes and public buildings, many of which still stand today. Among the finest of these is Gardner-Pingree House, which was built in 1804-1805 at 128 Essex Street. It is believed to have been the work of prolific Salem architect Samuel McIntire, and today it is widely regarded as an architectural masterpiece of this era. Like many of McIntire’s other homes, it has three stories, with a rectangular front facade, a hip roof with balustrade, and a small portico at the front door. The house is built of brick, but it also includes marble lintels above the windows and marble trim above the first and second floors.

The original owner of this house was John Gardner (1771-1847), a merchant who owned a number of ships and operated a wholesale business on Union Wharf. According to a 1907 Gardner family genealogy, his business included importing commodities such as “sugar, coffee, cocoa, dyewood, mahogany, broadcloth, Peruvian bark, indigo, spices, etc., etc.” He purchased this land from his father, and moved into this house upon its completion in 1805, along with his wife Sarah and their young children. However, he would go on to suffer significant financial losses in the years before and during the War of 1812, when the British preyed on American shipping. As a result, in 1811 he sold the house to Sarah’s brother, Nathaniel West, for $13,333.33, although the Gardners continued to live here until 1814, when West sold it to wealthy ship captain and merchant Joseph White.

White was in his late 60s and retired when he purchased the house, and he lived here for the next 16 years. His wife Elizabeth died in 1822, and the couple had no children, although he did live here with his niece, Mary Beckford, and her daughter, who was also named Mary. This younger Mary was 17 when she became engaged to Joseph Knapp, Jr., a young mariner who had been captain of one of White’s ships. White was opposed to the match, viewing Knapp as a gold digger, and had threatened to disinherit her if she married him. She married Knapp anyway, in the fall of 1827, and the newlyweds then moved to the nearby town of Wenham.

Less than three years later, on April 7, 1830, Joseph White was brutally murdered here in this house. He was struck in the head with a club while he slept in his bed, and was then stabbed 13 times. By the time his body was discovered three or four hours later, the killer was long gone, but the murder quickly became a major news story. A committee was formed to investigate it, and in a little over a week the evidence pointed to two brothers, Richard and George Crowninshield. It was later discovered that the pair had been hired by Joseph Knapp, who paid them $1,000 to carry out the murder.

According to Knapp’s subsequent confession, he had entered White’s room a few days before the murder, and had stolen what he believed was White’s will. He also left a window unlocked, enabling Richard Crowninshield to access the house while White slept. His reasoning behind the crime was that, with the will missing, the courts would divide White’s large estate equally among all heirs, including Knapp’s disinherited wife. However, as it turned out, Knapp had stolen the wrong will. The actual will had been stored in the office of White’s lawyer, and after his murder the bulk of his estate went to his nephew, the prominent merchant Stephen White.

The resulting trial became a legal spectacle on a scale not seen in Salem since the witch trials of 1692. Determined to avenge the death of his uncle, Stephen White hired his close friend, Senator Daniel Webster, to lead the prosecution, with a symbolic fee of $1,000 – the same amount that Knapp had paid for the murder. Richard Crowninshield committed suicide while in prison awaiting trial, but the other three defendants included George Crowninshield, Joseph Knapp, and Joseph’s brother Frank.

Both of the Knapp brothers were subsequently found guilty, and were hanged in the fall and winter of 1830-1831. Mary also attempted suicide twice during the trials, although she survived and was never charged in the murder. Of the conspirators, only George Crowninshield managed to avoid the hangman’s noose. He had evidently been visiting a local brothel on the night of the murder, and the madam provided an alibi during his trial.

Both the murder and the trials were extensively reported by journalists, and may have even had an influence on some of the most famous works of 19th century American literature. Daniel Webster’s speech to the jury provided a detailed account of how the murder would have taken place, with descriptions such as:

The deed was executed with a degree of self-possession and steadiness equal to the wickedness with which it was planned. The circumstances now clearly in evidence spread out the whole scene before us. Deep sleep had fallen on the destined victim, and on all beneath his roof. A healthful old man, to whom sleep was sweet, the first sound slumbers of the night held him in their soft but strong embrace. The assassin enters, through the window already prepared, into an unoccupied apartment. With noiseless foot he paces the lonely hall, half lighted by the moon; he winds up the ascent of the stairs, and reaches the door of the chamber. Of this, he moves the lock, by soft and continued pressure, till it turns on its hinges without noise; and he enters, and beholds his victim before him. 

Webster went on to describe mindset of the murderer after committing the crime, beginning with the initial satisfaction of getting away with it, before the consuming feelings of guilt that inevitably follow.

The secret which the murderer possesses soon comes to possess him; and, like the evil spirits of which we read, it overcomes him, and leads him whithersoever it will. He feels it beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes, and almost hears its workings in the very silence of his thoughts. It has become his master. It betrays his discretion, it breaks down his courage, it conquers his prudence. When suspicions from without begin to embarrass him, and the net of circumstances to entangle him, the fatal secret struggles with still greater violence to burst forth. It must be confessed, it will be confessed; there is no refuge from confession but suicide, and suicide is confession.

Based on this, many have surmised that the murder – and particularly Webster’s speech – provided inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s famous 1843 short story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In this story, the narrator murders an old man while he sleeps, and then carefully dismembers the body and hides it under the floorboards. At first, he feels pride in having committed such a perfectly-planned crime, but is ultimately driven to confess his guilt after hearing what he believes to be the incessant beating of the dead man’s heart. Many of the detailed descriptions in the story closely echo Webster’s speech, including the end of the story, where the narrator’s guilt steadily consumes him until he finally tells the police “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

Along with Poe, the murder likely had an effect on Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was living in Salem at the time. Although they would not be written for another two decades, both The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter appear to incorporate elements of the crime and the trial. In the former, the elderly and wealthy Jaffrey Pyncheon is apparently murdered by a relative for his money. In the latter, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale experiences intense guilt regarding his secret affair with Hester Prynne, and the novel traces his mental and physical decline until, after many years, he finally makes a public confession and then dies in the arms of Hester.

In the meantime, Stephen White inherited this house after his uncle’s murder, and in 1834 he sold it to David Pingree (1795-1863), who was yet another prominent Salem merchant. Pingree was born in 1795 in Georgetown, Massachusetts, but spent much of his childhood in Bridgton, Maine. When he turned 18, he returned to Essex County, and began working for his uncle, Thomas Perkins, who owned a merchant business here in Salem. He inherited a substantial fortune after his uncle’s death in 1830, and continued to prosper as a merchant over the next few decades, with a fleet of ships that imported goods from ports throughout Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and the East Indies.

Pingree became known as the “Merchant Prince of Salem,” but by this point the city’s once-prosperous shipping industry was in decline. He evidently saw this coming, and began diversifying his investments before ultimately retiring from the mercantile business altogether in 1848. He was a founder and president of the Naumkeag Bank, as well as the president of the Naumkeag Cotton Company, but much of his wealth ended up in the wilderness of Maine, where he purchased vast tracts of timberland as an investment. During this time, he also played a role in local politics, serving as a presidential elector for Zachary Taylor in 1848 and as mayor of Salem for a single one-year term from March 1851 to March 1852.

Pingree died in 1863, but his widow Ann continued to live here for another 30 years until her death in 1893. Their son David (1841-1932) inherited the house, and also carried on his father’s business interests. Like his father, he served as president of both the bank and the cotton company, and also continued to expand the family’s land holdings in northern Maine. He was a lifelong bachelor, and he evidently resided here alone after the death of his mother, although census records from the early 20th century show that he regularly employed two to three live-in servants.

In 1933, a year after Pingree’s death at the age of 91, his family donated the house to the nearby Essex Institute. It was opened to the public as a museum, and it is now one of the many historic homes that are owned by the Peabody Essex Museum, which was formed in 1992 when the Essex merged with the Peabody Museum of Salem. Today, the front facade of the house is mostly hidden by two trees, but its exterior has not seen any notable changes since the first photo was taken, and it still stands as one of the finest examples of Federal-style architecture in the country.

Custom House, Salem, Mass

The Custom House at the corner of Orange and Derby Streets in Salem, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

In a city with countless historic buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, one of the landmarks is the Salem Custom House, which was built in 1819 at the corner of Orange and Derby Streets. At the time, Salem was one of the busiest seaports in the country, with ships arriving with a wide range of cargoes from around the world, and the Custom House was located directly across the street from Derby Wharf, the largest of the many wharves in the harbor. It was also situated in the midst of many fine mansions, including the home of shipbuilder Benjamin Hawkes, which can be seen on the right side of both photos.

The imposing design of brick Custom House represented the presence of the United States government here in the port. Long before income tax and other direct taxes, the vast majority of the federal revenue came from duties on imported goods, so this building had an important role in the nation’s finances. For example, in 1819, the year that this building was completed, the customs duties across the country amounted to over $20 million, which comprised more than 80 percent of the total federal revenue of $24.6 million. By 1832, this had risen to nearly 90 percent, and included some $543,000 in revenue that was collected here in Salem. Although only a tenth of the revenue that was collected in Boston during that year, it was enough to rank Salem sixth among all customs districts in the country.

Today, despite its architectural value and its importance to Salem’s maritime history, the Custom House is probably best known for its association with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who immortalized the building in the introduction to his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. A native of Salem, Hawthorne returned to his hometown in 1846 when he was appointed Surveyor of the Port of Salem, with an office here in the Custom House and a salary of $1,200 per year. By this point, the 41-year-old Hawthorne had achieved only moderate success as a writer, and this job provided some much-needed financial stability for him and his growing family.

Hawthorne had managed to obtain the position thanks to his close friendships with leading members of the Democratic Party, including future president Franklin Pierce. However, the job – which involved weighing and measuring incoming cargoes – interfered with his literary career, and he did very little writing during his time as surveyor. The position proved short-lived, though, thanks to the Democratic loss in the 1848 presidential election. The victorious Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, took office on March 4, 1849, and just three months later Hawthorne was dismissed from the Custom House.

Embittered by this dismissal, and with plenty of spare time on his hands, Hawthorne poured his emotions into his writing. From the late summer of 1849, until February 1850, he wrote The Scarlet Letter in the third-floor study of his home on Mall Street. This novel proved to be his literary breakthrough, and helped to establish him as one of the leading American authors of the era. The dark themes and bleak ending of the novel likely reflected his mood during this period of his life, but he was also more explicit in showing his anger. The novel begins with a lengthy introduction, titled “The Custom-House.” It takes up nearly 20 percent of the entire novel, and yet has very little to do with the actual plot of the story, aside from explaining how the present-day narrator discovered the 17th century story of Hester Prynne and the scarlet letter here in the Custom House.

However, this explanation comes as almost an afterthought at the end of the introduction, which is otherwise a long, semi-autobiographical polemic against both the Custom House and the city of Salem as a whole. By the time Hawthorne had taken his position here at the Custom House, Salem had seen a significant decline in its shipping industry. It had peaked in prosperity during the first few decades of the 19th century, around the time that this building was opened, but by mid-century the waterfront area featured rotting wharves and a Custom House building that was far too large for the modest amount of commerce in the city. In his introduction, Hawthorne described the area surrounding the Custom House, writing:

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf—but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig, half-way down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood—at the head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass—here, with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious edifice of brick.

He went on to describe the exterior appearance of the building, giving particular attention to the carved eagle above the main entrance:

Its front is ornamented with a portico of half-a-dozen wooden pillars, supporting a balcony, beneath which a flight of wide granite steps descends towards the street. Over the entrance hovers an enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw. With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears by the fierceness of her beak and eye, and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community; and especially to warn all citizens careful of their safety against intruding on the premises which she overshadows with her wings.

Later in the introduction, he described the interior, noting that “The edifice—originally projected on a scale adapted to the old commercial enterprise of the port, and with an idea of subsequent prosperity destined never to be realized—contains far more space than its occupants know what to do with.” It is in one such space – a large, unfinished room on the second floor – that the narrator of The Scarlet Letter discovers the story of Hester, along with the old scarlet letter that she once wore. These had once belonged to the fictional Surveyor Pue, who had preceded the narrator in his position at the Custom House, and were said to have provided the inspiration for the novel.

Neither Surveyor Pue, nor Hester or her scarlet letter, actually existed, but otherwise the introduction provides a fairly accurate – if rather jaded – view of Salem and the Custom House in the middle of the 19th century. The building did see some renovations only a few years later, from 1853 to 1854, and included finishing the rooms on the second floor that Hawthorne had described, along with adding a cupola to the roof. However, the decline of the city’s shipping industry continued over the next few decades, until overseas trade had effectively ceased by the 1870s.

When the first photo was taken around 1906, the building was still in use as a custom house. It had been painted yellow a few years earlier in 1901, but otherwise looked much the same as it had in Hawthorne’s day, aside from the cupola. Even the carved eagle, which had been installed in 1826, was still perched atop the building, and would remain there until it was removed in 2004 and replaced with a fiberglass replica. However, by this point the number appointed officials here in Salem had steadily dwindled. The position of naval officer was abolished here in 1865, followed by that of the surveyor a decade later. Finally, in 1913, Salem’s customs district was absorbed into Boston’s district.

Although no longer in a separate district, the old Custom House continued to be used by the Customs Service until 1936. It was then transferred to the National Park Service, becoming the centerpiece of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. This park, which was formally established in 1938, was the first National Historic Site in the country, and today includes a number of historic structures along the Salem waterfront. The old Custom House has seen few changes during this time, and still looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken, aside from the removal of the yellow exterior paint. The building is now open to the public, featuring a restored interior along with exhibits on the Customs Service, including the original eagle from the roof.

Benjamin Hawkes House, Salem, Mass

The house at 4 Custom House Court, just off Derby Street in Salem, on June 27, 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The house in 2017:

This house was originally intended as the home of Elias Hasket Derby, a prominent merchant who was among the wealthiest men in the country during the late 18th century. He had previously lived in the brick house on the right side of the photo, which his father Richard Derby had built for him in the early 1760s, but he had moved out of the house by the late 1770s. In 1780, he began construction on this large, wood-frame house, hiring noted Salem architect Samuel McIntire to design it.

However, the house was only partially completed by 1782, when Derby changed his plans and purchased the former home of merchant Benjamin Pickman on Washington Street. Derby hired Mcintire again, this time to make alterations to the Pickman House, and this half-finished house sat vacant for nearly two decades. In 1800, a year after Derby’s death, local pastor and diarist William Bentley described the house in his September 23 diary entry, noting that,

On this Land in 1780 Mr. Derby raised a Great House which he never finished. The third story was as high as the first & higher than the second. The pediment was lost in the roof & the Cupola which was finished was without any good effect. The back part was finished but the front only covered with boards & was very rotten. It was sold this day to the Carpenters for 600 Dollars. A more uncomely mass was never piled up for a building. The Lot under it sold for above 2,000 D. It has now stood 20 years as a monument of folly.

The “monument of folly” was ultimately sold to shipbuilder Benjamin Hawkes in 1801, who had the house completed later that year. The original design was altered somewhat, including the removal of the cupola that Reverend Bentley had described, and the interior of the massive house was converted into a two-family home. It seems unclear exactly how much of McIntire’s original design was retained for the completed house, and whether the architect was involved in its completion, but either way the house became a good example of the Federal style that was common in Salem around the turn of the 19th century.

The house is located directly across the street from Derby Wharf, the longest wharf in the city. Because of this, it was right at the center of Salem’s busy port, where fleets of early 19th century sailing vessels arrived with valuable cargoes from around the world. Benjamin Hawkes’s shipyard was just a short walk from his house, at the site of present-day Kosciusko Street, and in 1819 the Salem Custom House was built directly adjacent to the house, just out of view on the left side of this scene.

Benjamin Hawkes lived here during the peak of Salem’s prosperity as a seaport, but by the middle of the 19th century the city’s shipping industry was in decline. However, many of the elegant mansions from this golden age are still standing today, including the Benjamin Hawkes House. After years of being used as a duplex, it was acquired by the National Park Service in the late 1930s, becoming part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Established in 1938, this was the first National Historic Site in the country, and the first photo shows the house as it appeared just two years later. Very little has changed in this scene since then, and the house is now used as administrative offices for the park.