Maclean House, Princeton, New Jersey

Maclean House on the campus of Princeton University, around 1894. Image from Views of Princeton University (1894).

The house in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post on Nassau Hall, Princeton University was established in 1746 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, as the College of New Jersey. The school moved to Newark a year later, and then to Princeton in 1756, upon completion of Nassau Hall. At the time, Nassau Hall encompassed all of the school’s amenities under one roof, including classrooms, dormitory rooms, offices, a dining room, and a meeting hall. However, the school did have a separate building for the college president, who lived here in this brick two-story house, located immediately to the northwest of Nassau Hall, fronting Nassau Street. Like its neighbor, the house was completed in 1756, and it was likewise designed by Philadelphia architect Robert Smith. Its first occupant was Aaron Burr Sr., who had served as Princeton’s president since 1748.

Burr died only a year after moving into this house, in the fall of 1757, leaving his widow Esther with two young children, including future vice president Aaron Burr, who was just a year and a half old at the time. Burr’s replacement as president was Esther’s father, Jonathan Edwards, the famous pastor and theologian. Edwards had begun his ministry career in Northampton, Massachusetts, where his preaching had helped to spark the Great Awakening. However, after many years in Northampton he was dismissed by the congregation in 1750, and he subsequently moved to the remote western Massachusetts town of Stockbridge. There, he served as a missionary to Native Americans until the College of New Jersey invited him to be its next president.

Edwards arrived here in Princeton in the midst of a smallpox epidemic, and one of his first priorities was to encourage students to receive a smallpox inoculation. Leading by example, he was inoculated on February 23, 1758. However, what was supposed to be just a mild case of smallpox progressively worsened over the next few weeks, and he died here at this house in Princeton on March 22, barely a month after becoming president of the college. He was buried in nearby Princeton Cemetery, alongside his predecessor and son-in-law, in a plot that later became known as Presidents’ Row because of the many college presidents interred there.

After Edwards’s death, this house was subsequently occupied by the next eight college presidents: Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, John Witherspoon, Samuel Stanhope Smith, Ashbel Green, James Carnahan, John Maclean, and James McCosh. Of these, Witherspoon was probably the most notable. In addition to serving as president for more than 25 years, Witherspoon was also involved in politics during the Revolutionary War era. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress, and in that capacity he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, becoming the only active clergyman to sign the document.

Aside from being the residence of many Princeton presidents, this house was also home to a number of slaves over the years. Most of the early presidents were slaveowners, and New Jersey was among the last of the northern states to abolish slavery. The state enacted a gradual emancipation plan starting in 1804, but slavery in New Jersey was not fully eliminated until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. The last Princeton president to have slaves here in the house was Ashbel Green, who was president from 1812 to 1822. He had at least three slaves here during this time, including Betsey Stockton, whom he freed in 1817 when she was about 19 years old. She remained here as a paid servant for the next five years, and during this time she also received an education. Then, in 1822 she traveled to Hawaii as a Christian missionary, and upon returning to America she became an educator, eventually teaching for many years at an African-American school here in Princeton.

The last college president to occupy this house was James McCosh, who moved into the newly-acquired Prospect House in 1878. The house was then used as the residence of the dean of faculty, and seven different deans lived here between 1883 and 1967. The first photo was taken during this period, no later than 1894, and it shows the northern side of the house, from Nassau Street. This photo also shows two large sycamore trees standing in front of the house. These trees had been planted in 1765, less than a decade after the house was built, and by the time the photo was taken they were already nearly 130 years old.

Today, more than 125 years after the first photo was taken, very little has changed here in this scene. The house is now occupied by the Alumni Association of Princeton University, and it is named the Maclean House in honor of John Maclean, who lived here during his presidency and served as honorary president of the Alumni Association. Despite these changes in use, though, its exterior has remained well-preserved, and along with Nassau Hall it stands as the oldest building on the Princeton campus. Perhaps even more remarkable, though, is that the two sycamore trees are also still standing. Now more than 250 years old, they are nearly twice as old as they were in the first photo, and in the summer their leaves partially hide the view of the house from the street, as shown in the present-day photo.

Nassau Hall, Princeton, New Jersey

Nassau Hall at Princeton University, around 1903. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2019:

Nassau Hall, which opened in 1756, is the oldest building on the Princeton campus, and among the oldest college buildings in the United States. The College of New Jersey, as it was known at the time, was established in 1746, and it was originally located in Elizabeth before moving to Newark in 1747. Then, in 1753 Nathaniel FitzRandolph donated a plot of land here in Princeton to the school, and a year later the cornerstone was laid for this building. The building was nearly named for Governor Jonathan Belcher, but he demurred out of modesty, instead suggesting it be named Nassau Hall in honor of William III, who was from the House of Nassau.

Upon completion, Nassau Hall was one of the largest buildings in the English colonies, and the largest in New Jersey. It was the only building on campus at the time, so it was home to all of the school’s amenities, including a meeting hall, a dining room, offices, classrooms, and dormitory rooms. There were 70 students enrolled when the school moved here to Princeton, and its faculty consisted of the president, at the time Aaron Burr Sr., and two tutors. It was designed by Philadelphia architect Robert Smith, and one of the earliest descriptions of the building appeared in 1760 in the New American Magazine, which emphasized its rather spartan design:

There are three flat-arched doors on the north side giving access by a flight of steps to the three separate entries. At the center is a projecting section of five bays surmounted by a pediment with circular windows, and other decorations. The only ornamental feature above the cornice, is the cupola, standing somewhat higher than the twelve fireplace chimneys. Beyond these there are no features of distinction.

The simple interior design is shown in the plan, where a central corridor provided communication with the students’ chambers and recitation rooms, the entrances, and the common prayer hall; and on the second floor, with the library over the central north entrance. The prayer hall was two stories high, measured 32 by 40 feet, and had a balcony at the north end which could be reached from the second-story entry. Partially below ground level, though dimly lighted by windows, was the cellar, which served as kitchen, dining area (beneath the prayer hall), and storeroom. In all there were probably forty rooms for the students, not including those added later in the cellar when a moat was dug to allow additional light and air into that dungeon.

As was the case with most of the colonial-era colleges in the United States, the primary objective at the College of New Jersey was to prepare men to enter the ministry. However, while most were affiliated with either Puritanism or Anglicanism, this school was Presbyterian in its theology. Up until Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century, all of its college presidents were ministers, and during the colonial era this included Great Awakening leader Jonathan Edwards and Declaration of Independence signer John Witherspoon.

Edwards arrived here in 1758, only two years after Nassau Hall was completed, but he died just a month later, after receiving a smallpox inoculation. The next two presidents also died relatively young, but John Witherspoon became president in 1768, and remained here until his death in 1794. During this time, he was also involved in politics, including serving on the Continental Congress, and he was the only clergyman among those who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Aside from these two presidents, the school also had a number of prominent students throughout the 18th century. Future president James Madison graduated from here in 1771, and one of his classmates was future vice president Aaron Burr, grandson of Jonathan Edwards, who graduated a year later. Others included Joseph Hewes, Benjamin Rush, and Richard Stockton, all of whom signed the Declaration of Independence along with Witherspoon.

After the end of the Revolution, ten Princetonians participated in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and five of them signed the Constitution: Gunning Bedford, David Brearley, Jonathan Dayton, James Madison, and William Paterson. Many other former Princeton students held other positions at the state and national level in the years during and immediately after the American Revolution. These included General Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, who served as a cavalry officer in the Revolution and later as governor of Virginia, and Oliver Ellsworth, who served as the second Chief Justice of the United States.

However, it was not only Princeton’s students who played a role in the American Revolution; the school itself became a battleground during the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. Prior to the battle, about 1,400 British soldiers were stationed in Princeton, and Nassau Hall was converted into barracks. During this time, the interior of the building was vandalized by the occupying army, and it was damaged even further during the battle itself. When Washington’s army advanced on Princeton, about 200 British soldiers took a defensive position inside of Nassau Hall, protected by the stone walls. However, the Continental Army opened fire on the building with cannons, and at least two cannonballs hit it before the British surrendered, effectively ending the battle.

Overall, the Battle of Princeton was a relatively small battle, but it helped to provide a much-needed morale boost for the Continental Army. Throughout the summer and fall of 1776, Washington had suffered a series of defeats as his army steadily retreated from New York City and across New Jersey. Thomas Paine famously described the situation as “the times that try men’s souls,” since many soldiers were deserting or not planning on re-enlisting after their enlistments expired on January 1, 1777. However, Washington’s surprise victory at Trenton on December 26, followed by Princeton a week later, helped to motivate soldiers to re-enlist and even inspired new recruits to join the army. Two years later, the Battle of Princeton was memorialized in Charles Willson Peale’s famous Washington at Princeton painting, depicting the commander in chief leaning against a cannon on the battlefield, with Nassau Hall visible in the distance on the left side of the painting.

Following the battle, Nassau Hall was occupied by the Continental Army throughout much of 1777, first as barracks and then as a hospital. This caused further damage to the interior, but at the end of the war the building took on a very different role when it temporarily became the capitol of the United States. Since 1775, Independence Hall in Philadelphia had been the meeting place of the Continental Congress. However, in 1783 a group of about 400 soldiers from the Continental Army marched on Independence Hall, demanding payment for their wartime service. Despite Congress’s requests, the Pennsylvania state government declined to use the militia to protect the building, so the Continental Congress left Philadelphia on June 21, and reconvened nine days later here at Princeton, in the second floor library of Nassau Hall.

Nassau Hall served as the capitol building for the next four months. During this time, on October 31, 1783, Congress was notified that British and American diplomats had signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the American Revolution. That same day, Congress also held a ceremony for diplomat Peter John van Berckel, who presented his credentials to Congress as the first Dutch ambassador to the United States. Van Berckel was apparently offended that his formal reception occurred in a small New Jersey town, rather than in Philadelphia as he had expected. However, he subsequently served as ambassador until 1788, and following the end of his term he continued to live in the United States for the rest of his life.

In any case, Congress did not remain in Princeton for much longer. It met here for the last time on November 4, 1783, and subsequently departed for Annapolis, where the Maryland State House functioned as the temporary national capitol. Congress would later return to the Princeton area, meeting in nearby Trenton for a little less than two months in late 1784 before moving to New York City in 1785. The capital city would then shift back to Philadelphia in 1790, before permanently moving to the newly-established city of Washington D.C. in 1800.

In the meantime, Nassau Hall continued to function as the home of the College of New Jersey throughout this time. However, on March 6, 1802 the building was completely gutted by a fire, leaving only the stone exterior walls still standing. The school soon began raising funds for its reconstruction, and among the donors were the citizens of Princeton, who feared that the school would use the opportunity to move out of the small town. For the work of rebuilding Nassau Hall, the school hired architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who is best known for having designed the United States Capitol in Washington. His plans for Nassau Hall were largely faithful to Robert Smith’s original design, and consisted of mostly minor stylistic changes. Perhaps the greatest difference was the roof, which was raised two feet higher than the original.

Thus restored, Nassau Hall would continue to be occupied by the school for the next half century, until another disastrous fire gutted it on March 10, 1855. This time, architect John Notman was responsible for the renovations, in the process making more drastic changes than Latrobe had. Inspired by Italianate-style architecture, which was popular at the time, Notman’s plans gave Nassau Hall more of a Renaissance appearance. Here on this side of the building, his design included a new arched doorway at the main entrance, and an arched window and balcony above it. Notman’s most significant alteration, though, was the addition of two Italianate towers, with one at each end of the building. The tower on the east side of the building is hidden behind the trees in the first photo, but the western tower is partially visible on the far right side of the scene.

The first photo was taken around 1903, and just two years later the tops of these towers were removed. Otherwise, though, the exterior of the building has not changed much since the 1855 reconstruction. However, the school’s use of Nassau Hall has evolved during this time. As Princeton added new buildings to its campus, Nassau Hall no longer needed to serve as an all-in-one building for dormitory rooms, classrooms, and offices. By 1924, the building was being used exclusively for administrative offices, including the offices of the university president, and it has been used for this purpose ever since.

Today, after surviving a Revolutionary War battle and two major fires, Nassau Hall still stands as an important part of the Princeton campus. It has been heavily altered, especially after the two fires, and the only original materials left in the building are the stone walls. Regardless, though, it remains one of the oldest college buildings in the country, and it is also important for its role in the Battle of Princeton and as the temporary capitol of the United States. Because of this, Nassau Hall was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

Old Dutch Church, Sleepy Hollow, New York

The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, around 1903. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The church in 2019:

This church was made famous by Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” but the building predates the story by more than a century, and it stands as the second-oldest existing church building in the state of New York. It was built in the late 1690s by Frederick Philipse I, a wealthy Dutch settler who owned a large tract of land along the Hudson River in Westchester County.

Philipse immigrated to New York in the 1650s, about a decade before England gained control of the colony from the Dutch. However, the Dutch landowners here were allowed to retain their property, and by the 1670s he had acquired a significant amount of land, including the modern-day municipalities of Yonkers, Greenburgh, and Mount Pleasant. At the time, there was a small community here in North Tarrytown, including a graveyard here on the left side of this scene. However, the people lacked a permanent church building, so in the late 1690s Philipse had this stone, Dutch Colonial-style church constructed at the southern end of the graveyard for his tenant farmers. By some accounts, Philipse designed the church himself, and he also may have personally assisted with the construction work, including carving the pulpit.

The church is located on the west side of the Albany Post Road, modern-day US Route 9, on a hillside about a hundred yards north of where the road crosses the Pocantico River. During the American Revolution, this area around Sleepy Hollow was a sort of neutral zone, located between British-occupied New York City and the areas to the north, which were controlled by the Continental Army.

One of the most important wartime incidents here occurred in 1780, when Major John André was captured by American forces less than a mile south of the church. He had been returning south after a secret meeting with Benedict Arnold, and upon searching him the Americans discovered documents that incriminated Arnold in a plot to surrender West Point to the British. Arnold was able to evade capture after the plot was exposed, but West Point remained secure and André was subsequently executed as a spy, since he had been behind enemy lines in civilian clothing.

Another significant local event in the war was the Battle of White Plains, which was fought a few miles to the southeast of here in 1776. During the battle, a Hessian soldier was decapitated by an American cannonball, and this is said to have been the inspiration for the Headless Horseman of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In the story, the narrator describes how, according to legend, the ghostly apparition had lost his head in “some nameless battle” during the war. He was buried here in the graveyard next to this church in Sleepy Hollow, but he would leave every night and travel to the battlefield in search of his head, although he always needed to return to the graveyard by dawn.

By the time Washington Irving published his story in 1820, this church was already over 120 years old. In the story, he emphasized the eerie, isolated location of the church, particularly in this passage:

The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. It stands on a knoll, surrounded by locust-trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent, whitewashed walls shine modestly forth, like Christian purity beaming through the shades of retirement. A gentle slope descends from it to a silver sheet of water, bordered by high trees, between which, peeps may be caught at the blue hills of the Hudson. To look upon its grass-grown yard, where the sunbeams seem to sleep so quietly, one would think that there at least the dead might rest in peace. On one side of the church extends a wide woody dell, along which raves a large brook among broken rocks and trunks of fallen trees.

The first photo shows the church as it appeared nearly a century later, around 1903. By this point, both the church and its surroundings had undergone changes. The church was damaged by a fire after a lightning strike in 1837, and the repairs included alterations to the building. It was partially restored to its original appearance in the late 19th century, but by then it was no longer in regular use. The congregation had moved to a new building in Tarrytown during the mid-19th century, and the old one here in Sleepy Hollow was subsequently used only for special events.

Also during this period, the land around the church became a new cemetery. Originally named the Tarrytown Cemetery, it was later renamed Sleepy Hollow Cemetery at the request of Washington Irving, who was interred here after his death in 1859. Unlike the much older graveyard next to the church, this new cemetery reflected the mid-19th century trend of rural cemeteries. These were typically well-landscaped, with plenty of trees and winding footpaths that followed the contours of the ground, making cemeteries feel more like a park. Aside from Irving, many other prominent people have been buried here in Sleepy Hollow, including industrialist Andrew Carnegie after his death in 1919.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, the 320-year-old church is still standing here alongside US Route 9. Remarkably little has changed in the scene during this time, and the building is still owned by the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns, which continues to hold events and services here on occasion. Because of its historical significance, along with its literary associations with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the church was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1961.

John Hodges House, Salem, Mass

The house at 81 Essex Street, at the corner of Orange Street in Salem, around 1890-1914. Image courtesy of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives.

The house in 2019:

The second half of the 18th century was a time of great prosperity for Salem because of its thriving maritime trade, and many of the town’s wealthy captains and merchants built fine houses such as this one. This house was built around 1750 by John Hodges, a ship captain who was about 26 years old at the time. Hodges had purchased this property a year earlier, the same year that he married Mary Manning. The couple subsequently raised eleven children here, four of whom died young. Of the surviving sons, five went on to become captains themselves, although two of them died at sea.

Their third child, Benjamin, became one of Salem’s leading captains in the late 18th century. He was a cousin of Elias Hasket Derby, one of the richest merchants in New England, and he frequently commanded Derby’s ships, including the Grand Turk and the Astrea, which were among the first American ships to trade with the far east. Later in his career, Benjamin Hodges was involved in the construction of the frigate USS Essex, the largest ship—and only warship—ever built in Salem. It was funded by subscription from residents of Salem, including Hodges, who also served on the building committee, and it was presented to the United States Navy in 1799. Also in 1799, Hodges was one of the founders of the East India Marine Society, which has since become the Peabody Essex Museum. He then became the organization’s first president, serving until his death in 1806.

Benjamin Hodges acquired this house from his father in 1788, and he lived here with his wife Hannah and their large family. Tragically, though, most of their children died young from tuberculosis, starting with an infant daughter in 1783. Their oldest child, Hannah, died of it in 1792 at the age of 13, followed by ten-year-old John in 1797, 12-year-old Margaret in 1803, 19-year-old Benjamin in 1804, and 14-year-old Sarah in 1812. Both parents also succumbed to the disease, with Benjamin dying in 1806 at the age of 52, and Hannah in 1814 at the age of 59. Only three of their children lived relatively long lives, and only one, Mary, married and had children.

Mary Hodges married William Silsbee in 1808, and the couple lived here in this house, possibly with Mary’s unmarried sisters Hannah and Elizabeth. Like Mary, William was also from a prominent Salem family. His older brother Nathaniel was a ship captain and merchant who later went on to have a successful political career, serving four years in the U. S. House of Representatives and nine years in the Senate. William was likewise a merchant, with ownership interests in a number of vessels. He and Mary had seven children, and he lived in Salem until his death in 1833 at the age of 53. Four years later, Mary and her sisters sold this house, and she died in 1851 at the age of 62.

The house was subsequently owned by Stephen Webb, the cashier of the Mercantile Bank in Salem. He is not to be confused with his contemporary, Stephen Palfrey Webb, whose unusual political career involved serving as mayor of Salem from 1842 to 1845, mayor of San Francisco from 1854 to 1855, and then mayor of Salem again from 1860 to 1862. The Stephen Webb who lived here was about 34 years old when he purchased the house in 1837, and he was still living here during the 1850 census, along with his wife Martha, their five children, and two Irish-born servants. The same census valued his real estate—which may have included more than just this house—at $8,100, equivalent to about $250,000 today.

Stephen Webb had apparently died by 1870, because that year Martha—who was identified on the deed as a widow—sold the house for $3,750 to Sarah Maria Benson, the widow of Captain Samuel Benson. She died two years later, and the 1872 city directory shows her son, George Wiggin Benson, living here. At the time, his household included his ten-year-old son Frank Weston Benson, who later went on to become a prominent Impressionist painter. The future artist would live in Salem for much of his life, but was apparently only in this house for a short time, because by the 1874 city directory his father had moved to a house on Forrester Street.

During the late 19th century the house was owned by Henry Meek, who served as city clerk and later owned a publishing company. He was 54 years old in the 1900 census, and he lived here with his wife Annie, his daughter Alice, and a servant. This was apparently Henry’s second marriage, since Annie was only five years older than his 24-year-old daughter. He died later in 1900, and in 1906 Annie and Alice sold this house to Emma J. Brady.

The first photo was likely taken at some point during or shortly after the Meek family’s ownership. It was taken by Frank Cousins, a Salem native and noted photographer who used his camera to document hundreds of historic buildings in Salem and elsewhere in the northeast. The exterior of the house appears to have been well-preserved at the time, and it would have provided Cousins with a good example of colonial-era Georgian architecture.

Unlike the previous owners, Emma Brady does not appear to have lived here in this house, and instead used it as a rental property. The 1910 census shows that, at the time, it was being rented by Charles M. Proctor, a 44-year-old meat salesman who lived here with his wife Mary, their children Harrison, Charles, Arthur, Clifford, Mildred, and Gladys, and Harrison’s wife Nina. Like his father, Harrison worked as a meat salesman, while Charles was a winder at an electric works and Arthur was a farm laborer.

By the 1920 census the house had changed hands again, and at this point it was being used as a four-family home. There were a total of 11 people listed here that year, four of whom were immigrants, with three from Quebec and one from Greece. Aside from two children, all of the residents were employed, including three leather workers, two cotton mill workers, two machinists, a cook, and a rooming house keeper.

Overall, this house saw a steady decline in the prosperity of its residents, as shown by the fact that the former home of one of Salem’s most prominent captains had become a four-family apartment building. This was a common occurrence throughout Salem during this period; it had peaked in its importance as a seaport at the turn of the 19th century, when it ranked among the top ten most populous cities and towns in the country. However, Salem’s shipping industry was badly hurt by both the Embargo Act of 1807 and the War of 1812, and its merchants never fully recovered. This led to a long period of economic stagnation, and the city saw only moderate population growth during the second half of the 19th century.

From a historic preservation standpoint, though, this was not entirely a bad thing. The lack of economic or population growth led to little demand for new construction, resulting in the survival of many historic buildings. Today, one of Salem’s most visible assets is its large number of well-preserved late 18th and early 19th century homes, including the John Hodges House here on Essex Street. Although it has undergone many changes in ownership and use over the past quarter of a millennium, it stands as a reminder of the city’s historic maritime past, with few significant differences from its appearance more than a century ago when the first photo was taken. It is now one of the contributing properties in the Salem Common Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Benjamin Daland House, Salem, Mass

The house at 23 Summer Street in Salem, around 1891. Image courtesy of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives.

The house in 2019:

This house was built sometime between 1756 and 1760 by Benjamin Daland. He does not appear to have lived here for very long, though, because in 1760 he sold the property to Samuel Calley, who in turn sold it in 1762 to Captain George Dodge, a mariner from nearby Beverly. He was 35 years old at the time, and he and his wife Lydia and their seven children. They subsequently had two more children over the next new years, and Dodge owned the house until 1782. By this point Dodge was referred to in historical records as a merchant rather than a mariner, suggesting that he took the career path of many retired sea captains in Salem and went into business for himself as a merchant. Like many other Salem merchants, he was also involved in privateering during the American Revolution, owning several privateer ships that preyed on British shipping.

The next owner of the house was William Orne, who purchased it from Dodge in 1782 for 1,100 pounds. The historical records indicate that he was also a ship captain and later a merchant, but there appears to have been several William Ornes living in Salem during this period, so it seems difficult to determine which one owned this house. However, it may have been the same William Orne who was captured by the British during the War of 1812 and was being held prisoner aboard the HMS Guerriere during its famous battle with the USS Constitution.

Another area of uncertainty in tracing the history of this house is that, while Orne owned the house, it does not necessarily mean that he—or the other early owners of the house—personally lived here. In any case, though, Orne owned the house until 1807, when he sold it for $4,600 to Thorndike Deland, who then sold it for $4,500 in 1812 to his sister Eliza Osborn. Eliza was a wealthy widow whose husband, Captain George Osborn, had been swept overboard at sea in 1800. A year after acquiring this house she remarried to Abner Kneeland, a Unitarian theologian who would become a notable and controversial religious figure over the next few decades.

As with the previous owners, it does not seem clear how long Eliza actually lived here, because she and Abner only lived in Salem for a couple years after their marriage. However, the house would remain in her family for many years. It was owned jointly by George Osborn and Eliza Archer, her children from her first marriage, until 1863, when George became the sole owner. Neither sibling appears to have lived in the house, though, because city directories of the period list several other residents here, including grocer John Chamberlain, who was living in the house as early as 1846.

After George Osborn’s death in 1882, his daughter Eliza D. Shepard inherited the property. The first photo was taken about a decade later by Frank Cousins, a prominent photographer who documented historic buildings in Salem and other places in the northeast around the turn of the 20th century. Cousin’s caption identifies it as the “Doctor T.O. Shepard house,” indicating that Eliza Shepard’s son Thomas was living here at the time.

Thomas and his sister Sarah eventually acquired the house, and unlike some of the previous generations they definitely lived here on Summer Street. The 1910 census shows them living here together, unmarried and in their 40s. Thomas, who was an 1892 graduate of Harvard Medical School, was an oculist, and he had his practice here in the house. The Shepards also employed two live-in servants at the time, one of whom was listed as a cook in the census.

Thomas continued to live here until his death in 1935, and Sarah remained here for at least a few more years, but by the 1940 census she was living elsewhere. Then, in 1941 she sold this house on Summer Street to Marie Anne Cadorette. This marked the end of 135 years of ownership by the same family, which had spanned four different generations of Osborns and Shepards.

Today, well over a century after the first photo was taken, the house is still standing. It has seen some changes, including the loss of the shutters and the front entryway, and the outbuilding in the back of the lot is gone, but overall it survives as one of the many well-preserved historic 18th century homes in Salem. The neighboring John P. Peabody House, built in 1868 on the far left side of the scene, is also still standing, although the house on the far right side of the first photo has since been demolished.

Derby House, Salem, Mass

The Derby House on Derby Street in Salem, around 1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2019:

Salem was at the peak of its prosperity as a seaport during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and perhaps no family better exemplified this golden age than the Derby family. The family patriarch was Richard Derby, a ship captain who lived most of his adult life in a house nearby at the corner of Derby and Herbert Streets. Derby eventually retired from sailing in 1757, and he spent the next few decades as a merchant here in Salem. He owned a fleet of ships, and in 1762 he began construction of Derby Wharf, which would eventually become the largest wharf in the port.

Richard and his wife Mary had three sons and three daughters. Two of their sons became ship captains, and the other son, Elias, joined his father in the merchant business. In 1761, at the age of 21, Elias married Elizabeth Crowninshield, and that same year his father began constructing this house for the newlyweds. The house was completed a year later, and it features a brick exterior with Georgian-style details, including a gambrel roof, which was typical for homes of this era. The architect and builder is unknown, although Joseph McIntire—father of the famous Salem architect Samuel McIntire—was apparently involved in the construction, because in 1762 Richard Derby paid him 40 shillings for unspecified work.

The house is situated on the north side of Derby Street, opposite Derby Wharf, where it overlooks the harbor. From here, Elias could keep a close eye on the activity at the wharf, which included the arrival of merchant ships and, during the American Revolution, privateers. He owned or held shares in about half of all the Salem privateers that preyed on British shipping during the war, and he made a significant profit from their success, while simultaneously benefitting the American war effort. Then, at the end of the war, these privateering ships were well-suited for conversion to merchant ships. This put Elias in a good position to expand foreign trade networks, and he became one of the first Americans to trade with China and other ports in southeast Asia.

By the late 18th century, Salem was the seventh-largest city or town in the country, along with being the richest on a per-capita basis. Elias Hasket Derby played a significant role in this prosperity, and he was regarded as one of the wealthiest merchants in New England at the time. Many years later, Nathaniel Hawthorne would famously give him the moniker “King Derby” in his prologue to The Scarlet Letter, in which Hawthorne recounted the glory days of Salem and contrasted them with the mid-19th century decline of the port city.

However, Elias and his wife Elizabeth did not live here in this house for his entire merchant career. They lived here through at least the early years of the Revolution, and raised their seven children here, but they appear to have moved elsewhere by around 1778. They were definitely gone by 1782, when they moved into a house closer to the center of Salem, at what is now the corner of Washington and Lynde Streets. Then, in 1799 they moved again, this time to a newly-built house designed by Charles Bulfinch. However, both Elias and Elizabeth died that same year, and that house was ultimately demolished in 1815 to build a new town hall.

In the meantime, the Derby family continued to own this house here on Derby Street for most of the late 18th century, before ultimately selling it to Henry Prince in 1796. Price, who apparently had begun renting the house from the Derbys as early as 1784, was a successful sea captain who sailed for some of Salem’s leading merchants, including Derby. He also played a role in the career of famed navigator and mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch; Prince was the captain on Bowditch’s first voyage, departing Salem in 1795 aboard the Derby-owned Henry.

Like many prosperous captains, Prince subsequently became a merchant, and by the early 19th century he had ownership interests in a number of vessels, including the appropriately-named 219-ton ship Golden Age. However, by this point the golden age of Salem was already nearing its end. Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 severely damaged the American economy in general, but it was particularly devastating for Salem, which was dependent upon foreign trade. The War of 1812 caused further disruption to trade, and these financial hardships eventually forced Prince to sell both this house and his warehouse.

Various sources give somewhat different information as to when Prince lost his house, but in any case it was ultimately acquired by Henry Ropes, who married Henry Prince’s daughter Mary in 1821. Born in Salem in 1791, Ropes was the son of Captain George Ropes, who died at sea in 1807, and the brother of George Ropes Jr., a noted artist who specialized in maritime themes. Henry Ropes likewise became a ship captain, and made a number of voyages to India before retiring from the sea. He subsequently became involved in banking here in Salem, including serving for many years as the treasurer of the Salem Savings Bank.

Henry and Mary had nine children, three of whom died in infancy. Of their six children who survived to adulthood, most of them still died relatively young, with only two living past the age of 43. Henry died in 1861, but Mary continued to live her in her father’s old house until her own death in 1873. The 1870 census shows here with several generations of her family, including her only two living children, Joseph and Benjamin, who were both in their 30s and unmarried. She also shared the house with Priscilla, the widow of her oldest son George. Priscilla was 44 years old at the time, and she lived here with her daughters Priscilla and Mary, who appear to have been the only grandchildren of Henry and Mary Ropes who survived infancy.

Mary Ropes died in February 1873, and by late May the property, which was described in the Salem Register as consisting of a “two-story brick dwelling and other buildings and 22,000 square feet of land,” had been sold to Daniel Leahy for $6,700, or about $145,000 today. Leahy was an Irish immigrant who was about 26 years old at the time, and he moved in here with his wife Mary and their infant daughter Johanna. Just a few years earlier, during the 1870 census, the couple had been living in Peabody. According to the census, he worked as a laborer, had a personal estate of $150, and was unable to read or write.

The historical record does not seem to indicate how an illiterate immigrant laborer with $150 to his name in 1870 was able to, within three years, purchase a house that had once belonged to one of the wealthiest merchants in New England. However, this example serves to illustrate just how far Salem had fallen in prosperity since the days of “King Derby.” Nathaniel Hawthorne was no longer alive at this point, but if he had been he likely would have seen this as further proof of what he discussed in the prologue to The Scarlet Letter.

In any case, by the 1880 census Daniel and Mary were living here with a number of other family members. In addition to eight-year-old Johanna, they had a four-year-old son Thomas, and they also lived here with Daniel’s mother Johanna, his siblings Bartholomew, Michael, Mary, Catherine, and Margaret, and Bartholomew’s wife Catherine and infant son Patrick. Daniel and his two brothers all worked as stevedores, perhaps on the same wharves that Elias Hasket Derby had once built, and the three sisters worked in cotton mills. The family also had three young Irish women living here as boarders, all of whom also worked in cotton mills.

The Leahy family lived in this house until around the turn of the 20th century, but they continued to own the property for many years. The first photo was taken sometime around 1910, and that year’s census indicates that it was rented by two different families. In one unit was William and Annie Doyle, middle-aged Irish immigrants who lived here with their 11-year-old adopted daughter Agnes. In the other unit was John and Julia Szezechowicz, their four children, and John’s brother Bradislaw. They were all immigrants from Poland, arriving in the United States only three years earlier.

Over the years, the condition of the house steadily deteriorated, but it was ultimately acquired by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in 1927. Now known as Historic New England, this organization restored the house to its original appearance, and then in 1937 transferred it to the National Park Service. A year later, the house became part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, which was established that year as the first national historic site in the country.

Today, the Derby House is still part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. It is partially hidden behind the trees in the present-day view, but it stands as one of the many well-preserved historic 18th and early 19th century homes in Salem. In the rear of the house, the property also includes a formal garden, which is a recreation of the gardens that were typical for Salem merchants of this period. Just to the left of the house, outside of view in this scene, is the Benjamin Hawkes House, and beyond it is the Salem Custom House, both of which have likewise been restored as part of the national historic site.