Interior of The Cliffs, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The living room inside The Cliffs in Philadelphia, in March 1932. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The previous post shows the exterior view of The Cliffs, before and after it was destroyed by a fire in 1986, and these two photos here show the interior of the now-gutted building. As explained in more detail in that post, The Cliffs was built in 1753 as the summer home of merchant Joshua Fisher. At the time, the present-day site of Fairmount Park was still sparsely settled, and several miles distant from the city center, making it an ideal place for Philadelphia’s wealthy families to escape to during the summer months. The Cliffs was one of many such homes built here during this time, although it was comparatively modest, with only two rooms on each floor and a simple design with minimal ornamentation on the interior and exterior.

The first floor of The Cliffs had a hall-and-parlor layout, which was typical for homes of this period. The hall, shown here in the first photo, was the largest room in the house, and it was where guests would be greeted, as both the front and back doors opened into it. It occupied slightly more than half of the space on the first floor, and it was located on the north side of the house. The adjoining room, the parlor, occupied the south side of the first floor. Like the hall, it had a fireplace, and it also had stairs connecting it to the kitchen in the basement and to the bedrooms on the second floor. By the time the first photo was taken in the 1930s, the hall and parlor had taken on more modern roles, as the living room and dining room, respectively.

The Cliffs was owned by the Fisher family for more than a century, although during part of the American Revolution it was rented to Benjamin Franklin’s daughter, Sarah “Sally” Franklin Bache. She was part of a women’s sewing group that would occasionally meet in the house—perhaps even here in this room—to sew clothes and bandages for Continental soldiers. Her time here may have coincided with the two years that Joshua Fisher’s son Samuel was imprisoned by colonial authorities because of suspected Loyalist beliefs.

Joshua Fisher died in 1783, the same year that the war ended, and after the war Samuel carried on the family business. He and his family continued to spend summers here at The Cliffs, including his daughter Deborah Fisher Wharton, who achieved prominence as a Quaker minister. She was active in the abolitionist movement, in addition to advocating for Native American rights and women’s suffrage. One of her children was Joseph Wharton, a wealthy 19th century industrialist and philanthropist who spent some of his childhood here at The Cliffs. He was one of the founders of Bethlehem Steel, and in 1881 he donated $100,000 to establish a school of business at the University of Pennsylvania, which became known as the Wharton School in his honor.

Starting in the mid-1800s, the city of Philadelphia began purchasing the old estates here along the Schuylkill River, in order to protect the drinking water supply from the encroaching development of the growing city. The city purchased The Cliffs in 1868, and it became part of Fairmount Park, which would eventually grow to encompass over two thousand acres on both sides of the river. The historic homes were generally preserved, and some, including The Cliffs, became housing for park employees.

The house was still occupied by park employees when the first photo was taken in 1932, and it remained in use until 1970. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places two years later, and photos from the nomination form show the house boarded up and tagged with graffiti. It would remain vacant for the next 14 years, before eventually being destroyed by an arsonist on February 22, 1986. The fire destroyed the entire house, leaving only the exterior masonry walls and chimneys still standing.

More than 30 years after the fire, the present-day photo is a haunting contrast to the first photo. The house was never rebuilt, and the ruins remain here, partially hidden by trees and weeds in a remote section of Fairmount Park. The interior and exterior walls are now covered in graffiti, with empty cans of spray paint littering the basement. Here on the north wall of what used to be the largest room in the house, the empty windows and damaged chimney give the north wall of the house an almost skull-like appearance, providing only a hint of what the house once looked like.

The Cliffs, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Cliffs in Fairmount Park, in March 1931. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The scene in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post, the present-day site of Fairmount Park was once a fashionable place for affluent Philadelphia residents to have country estates. These homes stood atop the banks overlooking the Schuylkill River, and they served as summer residences, enabling their owners to escape the heat, crowds, and disease of central Philadelphia. Most of these homes were built in the 18th or early 19th centuries, and many are still standing today, having been incorporated into Fairmount Park. However, this house, known as The Cliffs, is one of the exceptions, surviving only as a masonry shell after being gutted by a fire in 1986.

The Cliffs was built in 1753 by Joshua Fisher, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant. Perhaps because of his Quaker beliefs, the house was fairly modest, especially when compared its much larger, more elaborate neighbors. Its walls were made of rubble masonry, with very little exterior ornamentation. The interior was similarly plain, and featured just two rooms on each floor. On the first floor, the front door opened into the hall, the largest room in the house. It occupied slightly more than half of the first floor, and it was located on the right side of the house from this perspective. On the other side of the house was the parlor, which had a staircase connecting it to the kitchen in the basement and the bedrooms on the second floor.

The Revolutionary War was a difficult time for the Fisher family, as the war hurt their shipping business while also challenging their nonviolent Quaker beliefs. Joshua Fisher’s son Samuel was imprisoned for two years during the war because of suspected Loyalists beliefs, and for part of this time The Cliffs was rented to Sarah “Sally” Franklin Bache, the daughter of Benjamin Franklin. While here, she was involved in a sewing group consisting of other local women who made clothes and bandages for soldiers in the Continental Army.

After the war, Samuel Fisher continued to use The Cliffs as a summer residence. His father died in 1783, but Samuel carried on the family mercantile business, which thrived in the late 18th century. He remained a bachelor for much of his life, but he ultimately married in 1793 at the age of 48, to 29-year-old Hannah Rodman of Newport, Rhode Island. They had three children who survived infancy, and probably the most notable was Deborah Fisher, who became a Quaker minister and civil rights activist, supporting causes such as abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and Native American rights. She married William Wharton, and among their children was Joseph Wharton, who was born in 1826. As a child he spent time here at The Cliffs, and he subsequently went on to become a successful industrialist. He was one of the founders of Bethlehem Steel, and he was also the founder and namesake of the Wharton School, the business school at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the meantime, the Cliffs was owned by the Fisher family until 1868, when the property was purchased by the city and incorporated into Fairmount Park. By this point, Philadelphia had grown considerably since the 18th century, and this area along the Schuylkill River was no longer as remote as it had once been. No longer as desirable of a location for summer retreats, the riverbanks instead attracted the attention of the city, which wanted to protect its public water supply. This had the side effect of creating a large, scenic urban park, and by the late 19th century the city had acquired many historic homes here.

For the next century, The Cliffs served as a residence for park employees. The first photo was taken during this time, in 1931, showing the east side of the house. Just beyond the house is the river, and in the distance is the west side of Fairmount Park, including the Letitia Street House, which is barely visible to the left of the tree on the left side of the scene. Although not as grand as many of the other historic homes in Fairmount Park, it was nonetheless a good example of Georgian architecture, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, two years after it was vacated by the city.

The house sat empty for many years, and it suffered from vandalism. It was ultimately destroyed by arson on February 22, 1986, leaving only the empty stone shell still standing. It was never rebuilt, and the ruins are still standing here today. Now overgrown with weeds and trees and covered in graffiti, the house bears little resemblance to its appearance in the first photo. As such, it provides a significant contrast to the other historic homes in Fairmount Park, which have been much better preserved over the years.

Mount Pleasant, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Mount Pleasant mansion in Fairmount Park, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2019:

Fairmount Park is located along the banks of the Schuylkill River, several miles to the northwest of downtown Philadelphia. During the colonial era, this area of the city was still sparsely-settled, and the bluffs overlooking the river were desirable locations for the country estates of some of Philadelphia’s affluent families. These mansions were generally used as summer homes, allowing these families to escape the heat and diseases of the densely-populated city center. Most of the homes were built in the 18th or early 19th centuries, and 16 are still standing today as part of Fairmount Park, the largest park in Philadelphia. Of these, perhaps the finest mansion is Mount Pleasant, which was built here in the early 1760s on the east bank of the Schuylkill River.

Mount Pleasant was designed by Thomas Nevell, and it is an excellent example of colonial Georgian-style architecture. As was typical for Georgian houses of the period, its design is symmetrical, and it makes use of decorative elements such as quoins on the corners, a pedimented doorway, a Palladian window, and a hip roof with dormers. The main house is flanked by two smaller buildings with matching exteriors. The one on the north side—which is just out of view on the right side of this scene—was the office, and the one on the south side, in the foreground of these photos, was the summer kitchen.

The original owner of this house was John MacPherson, a sea captain who became wealthy as a privateer during the French and Indian War. In command of the 20-gun ship Britannia, MacPherson captured several dozen French vessels throughout the war, in the process hurting the French war effort while simultaneously enriching himself. His exploits cost him his right arm, which he lost to a French cannonball in the midst of a battle, but upon returning to Philadelphia he used his new wealth to build his country estate here in Philadelphia. He originally named it Clunie, after his family’s ancestral home in Scotland, but subsequently changed it to Mount Pleasant. The size of the property also changed during MacPherson’s ownership; he started with about 31 acres, but the estate eventually grew to 120 acres.

MacPherson was a patriot during the American Revolution, and he even made an ultimately unsuccessful bid to become commander of the newly-established Continental Navy. His two sons, William and John, served in the Continental Army during the war. William resigned his commission as a British lieutenant in order to join the Continental Army, and he eventually became a brevet major and served on the staff of the Marquis de Lafayette. His brother John was also a staff officer during the war, serving as aide-de-camp to General Richard Montgomery, but both he and Montgomery were killed in the Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775.

In the meantime, the elder John MacPherson interacted with high-ranking members of the Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall throughout the war. On at least one occasion, on September 25, 1775, Massachusetts delegate John Adams visited him here at Mount Pleasant for dinner. The future president subsequently wrote about it in his diary, commenting on the house, his family, and MacPherson’s naval ambitions:

Rode out of town, and dined with Mr. McPherson. He has the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania, a clever Scotch wife, and two pretty daughters. His seat is on the banks of the Schuylkill. He has been nine times wounded in battle; an old sea commander; made a fortune by privateering; an arm twice shot off, shot through the leg, &c. He renews his proposals of taking or burning ships.

Despite living in “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania,” MacPherson eventually decided to move out of the house and offer it for sale. He had no immediate buyers, but in the meantime he leased the house to Juan de Miralles, Spain’s unofficial envoy to the United States. Although Spain was officially neutral at this point in the war, Miralles established connections with many American leaders in Philadelphia, including by hosting lavish balls here at Mount Pleasant.

Then, in 1779 General Benedict Arnold purchased Mount Pleasant from John MacPherson. At the time, Arnold was still an ostensibly loyal officer in the Continental Army. He had been a hero at the Battle of Saratoga, but in the process he suffered a leg injury. During his recovery he was unable to fight on the front lines, so Washington appointed him military governor of Philadelphia in 1778. However, Arnold’s volatile personality made him ill-suited for a position that required tact and subtlety in dealing with local leaders, and he also faced accusations that he was using his position to enrich himself. It was also during his time in Philadelphia that Arnold met and fell in love with 18-year-old Peggy Shippen, whose wealthy family had Loyalist sympathies. Despite being twice her age and from a very different social background, Arnold began courting her later in 1778, and they were married on April 8, 1779.

At the time, Arnold’s financial situation was somewhat strained, and he was under suspicion for misusing his authority for personal gain. However, he purchased Mount Pleasant as a wedding gift for Peggy, giving the impression that he was wealthier than he really was. In reality, he was hampered by debt, which would only worsen after he and Peggy moved in here and began living a lavish lifestyle. This, combined with Arnold’s belief that patriot leaders were not grateful for his actions and sacrifices that he made on the battlefield, ultimately helped lead him to famously betray the Continental Army in 1780. Peggy likely played a role in this decision as well, as she had Loyalist connections and may have helped initiate contact between Arnold and his British handler, Major John André.

As it turned out, the Arnolds’ stay here at Mount Pleasant was short. His treason was discovered after André was captured on September 23, 1780, and Arnold himself only narrowly escaped capture. Mount Pleasant was subsequently confiscated, and it changed hands several times before being purchased by Peggy’s father, Edward Shippen, in 1784. Despite his Loyalist connections during the war, and the infamy of his son-in-law, Shippen remained a respected member of Philadelphia society, eventually becoming chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. He owned Mount Pleasant until 1792, when he sold it to Jonathan Williams.

Originally from Boston, Williams spent much of the Revolutionary period in France, first as a secretary to his great uncle, Benjamin Franklin, and then as a commercial agent of the United States. He later became an Army officer upon returning to the United States, and he held the position of Chief of Engineers for the Army Corps of Engineers from 1802 to 1803, and 1805 to 1812. During this time, he also became the first superintendent of West Point, serving from 1801 to 1803, and 1805 to 1812. In 1814 Williams was elected to the House of Representatives, but he died just two months into his term in 1815, without ever having attended a session of Congress.

After his death, his son Henry J. Williams inherited Mount Pleasant, and the house remained in the Williams family until 1853. By this point, the banks of the Schuylkill River were no longer as desirable a location for country estates as they had been a century earlier, in part because the city’s growth was encroaching on the area. Starting in the mid-19th century, the city of Philadelphia began purchasing estates along the river, in order to better protect the public water supply. These acquisitions became Fairmount Park, and in 1868 the city purchased Mount Pleasant and added it to the parkland.

The first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, and it shows the exterior in a somewhat deteriorated condition, with plenty of peeling paint on both the main house and the kitchen building. However, in 1927 Mount Pleasant was restored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has administered the house ever since. It underwent another major restoration in the early 2000s, and today its exterior looks far better than it did when the first photo was taken 120 years ago. Adams’s description of it as being “the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania” is as true now as it was in 1775, and in 1974 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark because of its historic and architectural significance.

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.

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.

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.