Essex County Registry of Deeds and Probate Court, Salem, Mass

The Essex County Registry of Deeds and Probate Court, on Federal Street in Salem, around 1909-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The courthouse in 2017:

As mentioned in an earlier post, Federal Street is the site of four Essex County courthouse buildings, representing a wide range of architectural styles, from mid-19th century Greek Revival to 21st century Postmodernism. The oldest of these, just out of view on the far right of this scene, was built in 1841, and was followed by a second courthouse in 1862, which can be seen in the distance on the right side of these photos. However, both of these buildings were subsequently dwarfed by the much larger Registry of Deeds and Probate Court building, which was completed in 1909 and is seen here in these two photos.

The Classical Revival-style courthouse was the work of Clarence H. Blackall, a prominent turn-of-the-century architect whose other works included a number of theaters in Boston. This style of architecture was particularly popular for public buildings of the era, and features a granite exterior with a large pediment above the main entrance, supported by six Ionic columns. Other classical elements include the carving above the door, which includes the head of a woman who is wearing a Greek helmet, presumably symbolizing Athena.

Today, this scene looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken a century ago. The building was used by the Registry of Deeds and the Probate Court for many years, and was expanded from 1979 to 1981 with a large addition to the rear. More recently, it was joined by a new county courthouse, which was completed in 2012 and stands just out of view on the left side of the scene. The two 19th century courthouses were subsequently closed, but this courthouse underwent a major renovation that was completed in 2017. This $50 million project included preservation of the original 1909 structure, along with the demolition and reconstruction of the 1979-1981 addition, and the building now houses the Essex County Probate Court and Family Court.

Essex Street from Washington Street, Salem, Mass

Looking east on Essex Street from the corner of Washington Street in Salem, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

This scene shows the commercial center of Salem, with a mix of 19th century buildings that, for the most part, have not seen significant changes since the first photo was taken about a hundred years ago. Starting on the left side, at the northeast corner of Essex and Washington Streets, is the four-story, Classical Revival-style Neal and Newhall Building. It was completed in 1892, and can also be seen from a different angle in this previous post, which shows the Washington Street side of the building. When the first photo was taken, the storefront on the left side was holding an “Auction Sale,” with a sign in the window encouraging customers to “Buy You Holiday Presents Now and Save Money!” The upper floors housed a variety of professional offices, including real estate and insurance agents, and an optician whose second-floor office is marked by two large eyes that are reminiscent of the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg billboard in The Great Gatsby.

Just beyond this building are two smaller commercial blocks. Closer to the foreground is the three-story Browne Block, which was built in 1862 and was occupied by the Hall & Lyon drugstore when the first photo was taken. The shorter building to the right of it, located at 216-218 Essex Street, is even older, dating back to around 1801. It was originally owned by Jacob P. Rust, and in the first photo its tenants included the Palace of Sweets, an ice cream and confectionery shop that was located in the storefront on the left side. At the time it was probably the oldest building in this scene, and today it still stands as the oldest surviving commercial building in the city.

On the right side of the scene, the large building in the foreground is the First Church of Salem, which was built in 1826 and heavily modified in the 1870s. Upon completion, it had a fairly plain Federal-style building, which was work of noted Boston architects Solomon Willard and Peter Banner. It was built as a mixed-use property, featuring storefronts on the ground floor and the church itself on the second floor. The original design lacked towers, but these were added in the mid-1870s, when the exterior of the church was extensively rebuilt with a High Victorian Gothic-style design. By the time the first photo was taken, it was still in use as a church, and the ground floor was occupied by Daniel Low & Company, which sold jewelry, watches, and silverware.

Today, this scene has not had many changes in the century since the first photo was taken. All of the buildings in the foreground are still standing, although some have been altered in one way or another. The Neal and Newhall Building on the left has modern storefronts, and the Browne Block beyond it is nearly unrecognizable, with the top floor gone and a different facade. On the other side of the street, the white building just beyond the church has gained a fifth floor, and the church itself has lost the top of its towers. This building has not been used as a church since 1923, when the First Church merged with the North Church and relocated to their building at 316 Essex Street. The Daniel Low store is also gone, having closed in 1995, and the ground floor now houses the Rockafellas restaurant.

Essex Institute, Salem, Mass

The Essex Institute buildings at 132 and 134 Essex Street in Salem, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

These two historic Italianate-style buildings were built a few years apart, and for different purposes, but later became home of the Essex Institute and were united into a single building. The older of the two sections, on the right side of the scene, was built in 1851-1852 as the home of merchant John Tucker Daland. It was designed by noted Boston architect Gridley J. F. Bryant, who would later go on to design the old Boston City Hall, and was among the finest homes of this period in Salem. Its square, three-story design echoed the style of earlier Salem mansions, such as the Gardner-Pingree House on the far right side of the photo, but featured Italianate details such as quoins on the corners, bracketed eaves, and arched windows on the third floor.

The building on the left side, Plummer Hall, was built only a few years later, in 1856-1857. It was the work of local architect Enoch Fuller, and included many of the same design features as its neighbor to the right. The building was originally owned by the Salem Athenaeum, a private library that was located in the large space on the upper floor. The lower floor was used by the Essex Institute, which had been established less than a decade earlier in 1848 with the merger of Essex Historical Society and the Essex County Natural History Society. The organization later shifted its focus to regional history, and over the years it accumulated a large collection of books, documents, and artwork, while also holding regular events such as lectures, concerts, and art exhibitions here in the building.

John Tucker Daland died in 1858, and two years later his daughter Susan married physician Benjamin Cox, Jr. The couple lived here in this house, and had two children, Benjamin and Sarah. Dr. Cox was evidently a wealthy man, as shown by the family’s 1870 census listing, which values his real estate at $21,000 and his personal estate at $40,000, for a net worth that would be equivalent to about $1.2 million today. However, he died just a year later, at the age of 65, although the family continued to live here until 1885, when the house was transferred to the Essex Institute and converted into library and office space.

The Essex Institute also acquired ownership of Plummer Hall in 1906, when the Athenaeum relocated to a new building. A year later, the two buildings were joined by a small connector section, which can be seen a few years later in the first photo. The facility would be expanded several more times during the 20th century, including the addition of a five-story bookstack in the 1960s, but its exterior appearance from Essex Street has hardly changed since the first photo was taken. The only noticeable differences are the loss of the balustrades on the roof of the Daland House and on the porch of Plummer Hall, and the addition of a third story atop the connecter section.

Today, the property is owned by the Peabody Essex Museum, which was formed in 1992 by the merger of the Essex Institute with the nearby Peabody Museum of Salem. The museum also owns a number of historic houses in the area, including the adjacent Gardner-Pingree House, the John Ward House on the other side of the building, and the Andrew-Safford House around the corner on Washington Square West. All of these buildings are now part of the Essex Institute Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Francis Boardman House, Salem, Mass

The house at 82 Washington Square East in Salem, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2017:

This elegant Federal-style house was built over the course of seven years, between 1782 and 1789. It was the first of many mansions that were built along what would later become the Salem Common, and it is said to have been designed by noted Salem architect Samuel McIntire and his brother Joseph. The large, ornate house reflected the wealth of its owner, Francis Boardman, a ship captain who was in his early 40s when the house was completed. He lived here with his wife Mary and their children, which included daughters Elizabeth, Mary, and Sarah, along with sons Francis and John. John died in 1791, at the age of five, and Captain Boardman died a year later while at Port-au-Prince in Haiti.

Although he died only three years after the house was completed, the house would remain in Francis Boardman’s family for many years. In 1798, his daughter Elizabeth married Nathaniel Bowditch, the famous mathematician who, a few years later, published The American Practical Navigator. They lived here in this house for a short time after their marriage, but Elizabeth died just seven months later, while Bowditch was away at sea. Elizabeth’s sister Mary would also marry a into a prominent Salem family when, in 1804, she married Benjamin W. Crowninshield. He would go on to have a successful career in politics, including serving as Secretary of the Navy from 1815 to 1818, and in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1823 to 1831.

Captain Boardman’s youngest daughter, Sarah, married Zachariah F. Silsbee in 1810. He also came from a notable family, and was the younger brother of Nathaniel Silsbee, a merchant who served in both the U. S. House of Representatives and the U. S. Senate. Zachariah was also a merchant, working with his brother in the firm of Stone, Silsbee, & Pickman. Along with this, he was involved in other business ventures in Salem, including serving as a director for the Merchants Bank and the Newmarket Manufacturing Company, and as the president of the Salem Savings Bank.

Both Zachariah and Sarah lived here in this house after their marriage, and would remain here for the rest of their lives. Sarah died in 1852 at the age of 64, but Zachariah outlived here by more than two decades, before his death in 1873 at the age of 89. The last census before his death, taken in 1870, lists him as a retired merchant, with real estate valued at $10,000 and a personal estate of $17,000. At the time, he was living here with 41-year-old Mary Silsbee, who was presumably his daughter, and they employed three Irish-born servants who lived here in the house.

By the early 1880s, this house was owned by Lucy Bowdoin, the widow of dentist Willard L. Bowdoin. They had been married in 1867, when he was 46 and she was 30. It was the second marriage for both of them, but they were only married for a few years before Willard’s death in 1870. Within a decade, Lucy had moved into this house, along with her mother, Mary Harwood, and her son from her first marriage, Abel Proctor. Lucy was still living here when the first photo was taken during the 1910s, and she would remain here until her death in 1920.

The house was over 120 years old when the first photo was taken, and the exterior was still largely in its original condition at the time. The small porch at the front entrance had been added in the late 19th century, along with the bay window above it, but overall it retained most of its Federal-style decorative elements, such as the quoins on the corners and the balustrade on the roof. These have since been removed, and there is now a rooftop deck on the rear of the house, so it has lost some of its original architecture. However, it still stands as one of the many large mansions that encircle the Salem Common, and it is a contributing property in the Salem Common Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Peter Edgerly House, Salem, Mass

The house at 14 Mall Street in Salem, around 1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2017:

This house is best known as the place where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived from 1847 to 1850, and where he wrote The Scarlet Letter. However, the house predates Hawthorne’s time here by several decades. It was built in 1824, and was originally the home of Peter Edgerly, a teamster who had moved to Salem from his hometown of Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He purchased this house about two years after his marriage to his wife Vesta, and at the time he was involved in running a baggage wagon line in Salem. He and Vesta lived here for a decade, before selling the property in 1834, but he continued to live in Salem until his death in 1848.

Thirteen years after the Edgerlys sold this house, it became the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family. A Salem native, Hawthorne was born in 1804 in a house on Union Street, just a little south of here. He spent much of his childhood in Salem, aside from a few years living with his uncles in Raymond, Maine, and subsequently attended Bowdoin College, where he graduated in 1825. His first novel, Fanshawe, was published anonymously three years later, and over the next decade his literary efforts consisted primarily of short stories that were published in magazines. These stories, which included the future classic “Young Goodman Brown,” gained little recognition at the time, although Hawthorne did enjoy some moderate success when these were republished in book form in 1837 as Twice-Told Tales.

In 1842, Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody, a member of the prominent Peabody family in Salem. After their marriage, they lived in the Old Manse in Concord, and they did not return to Salem until 1846, when Hawthorne was appointed Surveyor of the Port of Salem. This federal appointment earned him a salary of $1,200 per year, equivalent to about $33,000 today, and he found little enjoyment in the job, which distracted him from his writing. At first, he and Sophia rented a small house at 18 Chestnut Street, where they lived with their two young children. However, the house proved too small, and in 1847 they moved into this house at 14 Mall Street, along with Hawthorne’s mother and two sisters.

The cash-strapped Hawthorne had received his appointment to the Custom House thanks to his friendships with politically-prominent Democrats, including college classmate and future U.S. President Franklin Pierce. However, the same spoils system that had secured this position for Hawthorne would later cost him the job, after the Democrats lost the 1848 presidential election to Whig candidate Zachary Taylor. Hawthorne was dismissed from his position on June 8, 1849, just three months after Taylor’s inauguration, although in the long run this ultimately helped to advance his literary career, which had stagnated during his time at the Custom House.

Bitter over losing his job, and mourning the death of his mother in July, Hawthorne channeled his anger into his writing. From late summer of 1849 until February 1850, he wrote The Scarlet Letter here in this house, and it was published later that spring. The dark, bleak novel reflected his mood during this period, and Hawthorne evidently recognized as much. As he described in a February 1850 letter to his friend, Horatio Bridge, the novel “lacks sunshine. To tell you the truth it is . . . positively a h-ll-fired story, into which I found it almost impossible to throw any cheering light.”

The Scarlet Letter included a lengthy introduction, in which Hawthorne openly criticized both the Custom House and the city of Salem itself. This polemic – which addresses everything from the rotting wharves of a once-prosperous seaport, to the excessive eating habits of the Custom House inspector – has only the slightest connection to the plot of the novel, but it served as Hawthorne’s parting shot at his hometown. He also showed this frustration later in his letter to Bridges, writing:

I should like to give up the house which I now occupy, at the beginning of April; and must soon make a decision as to where I shall go. I long to get into the country; for my health, latterly, is not quite what it has been, for many years past. . . . I detest this town so much that I hate to go into the streets, or to have the people see me. Anywhere else, I shall at once be entirely another man.

Hawthorne soon followed through with this plan, and within a few months he and his family had moved across the state to Lenox in the Berkshires. The 1850 census shows him and Sophia living there with their daughter Una and son Julian, and the following year their family grew again with the birth of their youngest child, Rose. Hawthorne wrote two novels, The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, while in Lenox, but the family moved again in the fall of 1851, returning to Concord. Neither he nor Sophia would ever again live in their hometown of Salem, and Hawthorne died in 1864 while on vacation with Franklin Pierce in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

In the meantime, Hawthorne’s former house here on Mall Street has remained standing, nearly 170 years after he and his family moved out. Its historic and literary significance was already recognized by the time the first photo was taken around 1910, when it was photographed by the Detroit Publishing Company as part of their series of postcards showing notable Salem landmarks. Today, the house has seen few changes from this angle, although there are now skylights in the roof and the wing on the right side has been expanded. It is one of many historic homes that still stand on Mall Street and the other surrounding streets, and it is now part of the Salem Common Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Washington Square North and Mall Street, Salem, Mass

The northeast corner of Washington Square North and Mall Street in Salem, around 1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

This scene shows a row of three elegant Federal-style brick homes that were built along the north side of the Salem Common in the early 19th century. The houses were originally owned by three wealthy merchants, each of whom married a daughter from the prominent Story family. Starting in the foreground, at the corner of Mall Street, 29 Washington Square North was built in 1818-19 as the home of John Forrester and his wife, Charlotte Story. Beyond it, house number 31 was built in 1811 for Stephen White and his wife Harriet Story, and furthest in the distance is house number 33, which was also built around 1811 and was the home of Joseph White, Jr. and his wife Eliza Story.

Charlotte, Harriet, and Eliza were all daughters of Dr. Elisha Story, a noted physician who had been a member of the Sons of Liberty and had participated in the Boston Tea Party. He became an army surgeon after the start of the American Revolution, including seeing combat at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and after his service in the Continental Army he practiced medicine for the rest of his life. He had eight children – one of whom died soon after birth – with his first wife Ruth, and eleven with his second wife Mehitable, including the three sisters who lived in these houses. Another child from this second marriage was Joseph Story, a lawyer who went on to serve on the U. S. Supreme Court from 1812 to 1845.

In 1810, Charlotte Story married John Forrester, who was the son of prominent merchant Simon Forrester and the first cousin of author Nathaniel Hawthorne. John received a substantial inheritance after his father’s death in 1817, and he soon began building the house in the foreground of the scene. The old house on this site – itself a fine mansion – was relocated to 91 Federal Street, where it still stands today, and construction of the new house was underway by June 1818. It was nearly finished by September of the following year, when prominent local pastor William Bentley described it in his diary, writing:

Capt. John Forrester is now preparing the front of his house on the north side of the Common, with a southern front. He has the best situation. Everything is well done about this house which will soon be ready for him. It comes nigher in its appearance to our usual style of building in brick, but probably is not behind in any of the materials or workmanship upon the plan he has adopted.

John and Charlotte Forrester moved into the house in December 1819, along with their five children. They would go on to have five more children, and they lived here in this house until 1834. By this point, John had suffered a significant reversal of his fortune, with business failures that forced the family to sell the house and move into decidedly more humble quarters around the corner at 9 Oliver Street. John died three years later, but Charlotte outlived him by 30 years, living in Salem until her death in 1867.

In the meantime, the house just beyond the Forrester house was, for many years, the home of Charlotte’s sister Harriet and her husband Stephen White. They were married in 1808, and moved into this house upon its completion three years later, where they raised their four children. Stephen White was a prominent merchant who was also involved in politics. He held a number of elected offices throughout the 1820s, including serving in the state House of Representatives in 1821 and 1828; the state Senate in 1825, 1826, and 1830; the Governor’s Council in 1824; and as a presidential electors in 1828. He was also a personal friend of Daniel Webster, and his daughter Caroline later married Webster’s son Fletcher. Aside from Webster’s other prominent visitors to this house included President James Monroe, who attended a reception here on July 11, 1817. Reverend Bentley also described this event in his diary, writing:

[I]n the evening [Monroe] was at Capt. Stephen White’s & there was received by a very brilliant assembly of Ladies, who were attended by The gentlemen of the Town. As this would probably be the last interview, it collected more than any former one but with less comfort from over stowing. The President however may have done too much as he hardly had time to breathe. But the question was everywhere, have you seen him? And this eager curiosity it would have been cruel to indulge & even gratify. I presented him the Gold headed walking Cane of the late Gen. Knox, Sec. of War, & the very elegant Tobacco box of Silver, with a wrought China top, received from China.

Stephen White lived in this house on Washington Square North throughout the 1820s. His wife Harriet died in 1827 at the age of 40, and around 1831 he moved to Boston. By this point Salem had already peaked in its prosperity as a major port, and it would continue to decline throughout the 19th century, while Boston enjoyed steadily growing wealth and population. White sold his Salem mansion in 1831 for $7,000 – only about $160,000 in today’s dollars – and lived in Boston until his death a decade later in 1841, at the age of 54.

The house furthest in the distance of both photos, at 33 Washington Square North, was built around 1811, the same year as Stephen White’s house, and was even constructed by the same builder, Joshua Upham. It was originally the home of Stephen White’s older brother, Joseph White Jr., and his wife Eliza Story, who was the older sister of Stephen’s wife Harriet. Joseph was a merchant, and he was named after his uncle, Joseph White, Sr., a wealthy merchant who was the victim of an infamous 1830 murder in Salem. However, the younger Joseph did not live long enough to see this happen; he died in 1816, only a few years after his house was completed, leaving his widow Eliza and three young daughters. She lived here in this house until 1831, when she sold the property and joined her brother-in-law Stephen in moving to Boston.

Overall, despite their wealth and prominence, the Forrester and White families’ ownership of these houses was marked by catastrophic business failure and untimely deaths. However, the houses would continue to be home to some notable Salem residents of the mid and late 19th century, including Colonel George Peabody, who purchased John Forrester’s house in the foreground in 1834. He was about 30 years old at the time, and was the son of wealthy Salem merchant Joseph Peabody. He would go on to have a successful business career as well, including serving as president of the Salem Bank and the Eastern Railroad. Along with this, he was a colonel in the militia, and served several terms as a city alderman. Peabody lived here until his death in 1892, and during this time he had several prominent visitors to the house, including poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, biologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, and Civil War General George McClellan.

By the time the first photo was taken around 1910, the Forrester-Peabody House was used as the home of the Salem Club, a private men’s club. Around the 1920s, it became the Bertram Home for Aged Men, as indicated by the panel that is now located above the second floor window in the present-day scene. The house was renovated in 1990, becoming an assisted living facility, and it is still in use today as the John Bertram House. However, despite these many changes in use, the exterior of the house has remained well-preserved in more than a century since the first photo was taken, and the only notable change is the panel on the front facade.

Just beyond this house, Stephen White’s former house changed hands several times in the mid-19 century. Merchant John W. Rogers lived here from 1831 to 1844, followed by another merchant, Thomas P. Pingree, who lived here from 1844 to 1858 before selling it to attorney Nathaniel Lord. It would remain in his family for the next 90 years, until it was finally sold in 1948. However, like its neighbors, this house is also well-preserved today, with no significant differences between the two photos.

The house of Joseph White, Jr., on the far right of both photos, was owned by the prominent Silsbee family from 1831 until the early 1880s, and its residents included merchant and banker Benjamin H. Silsbee, who was the president of the Merchants’ National Bank in Salem. Later in the 1880s, the house became the parsonage for the Tabernacle Congregational Church. Its pastor at the time was DeWitt S. Clark, a native of Chicopee, Massachusetts who began his ministry at the Salem church in 1878. His father had been the longtime pastor of the First Congregational Church in Chicopee, and DeWitt Clark had a similar tenure here in Salem. He was still serving as pastor when the first photo was taken around 1910, and that year’s census shows him living here with his wife Emma and their four children. Reverend Clark died in 1916, but his family later purchased the house and continued living here for many years, eventually selling the property in 1969.

Today, almost two centuries after William Bentley described the finishing touches on the Forrester House in his diary, this scene has hardly changed. Although no longer inhabited by prosperous merchant families, these three houses are among the many fine early 19th century homes that still stand in Salem,and serve as reminders of the city’s golden age as one of the wealthiest communities in the country. All three houses, along with the rest of the surrounding neighborhood, are now part of the Salem Common Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.