SALEM — The most famous house in town is probably the so-called “House of the Seven Gables” immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel. Built in 1668 for Captain John Turner, it is “considered by many to be the oldest wood-frame mansion in the United States,” according to tour guide David Moffat. If you’re looking for a winter diversion where you spend more time indoors than out, the manse makes a good place to start visiting some of Salem’s domestic gems.
This historic port town became wealthy in the cod trade, then fabulously wealthy in international shipping. Its merchants were not shy about puffing their chests and even in the 17th century, nothing said “wealth” like a trophy house. Not that everyone was rich: “The majority of houses in Salem wouldn’t have been bigger than this kitchen,” Moffat said as we stood in the low-ceilinged cooking room, its massive fireplace hung with iron pots.
The fireplace and chimney were constructed first in early Colonial houses, and the rooms built around them. The original downstairs parlor of the Seven Gables eventually became the dining room, and John Turner II had it grandly remodeled, making it one of the earliest Georgian interiors in the country. The formal wooden paneling remains and the room features the hallmarks of the Salem merchant class: blue and white china from Canton (now Guangzhou) and paintings of Chinese harbor scenes.
The “new” parlor, in the 1676 addition, reflects the Federal period, when the Ingersoll family remade the home to suit their taste. Susanna Ingersoll, one of the most powerful businesswomen of 19th-century Salem, would have entertained her cousin Nathaniel in this spacious room with bold floral wallpaper and verdigris-green trim. The stories that passed between them over afternoon tea or evening brandy (from the hidden liquor cabinet) remain sealed, but she may have persuaded him to set his new novel in the venerable manse.
Rare for early Colonial houses, the Seven Gables remains on its original site, where the merchant owners could watch over their wharf and ships. Other houses have been moved to the property, including the 1750 red Georgian structure where Hawthorne was born in 1804. Among the displays is the Chippendale-style fall-top desk where the author wrote.
A few blocks west on Derby Street, the Elias Hasket Derby House, owned by the National Park Service, is the oldest surviving brick house in Salem. When Derby married Elizabeth Crowninshield in 1762, his father gave him the home as a wedding gift. Derby repaid the generosity by parlaying the family fortune from the sugar trade into the first great China Trade wealth. During the American Revolution his privateers preyed on British shipping. “It was a way to make a lot of money really fast,” said Park Service ranger Martin Fucio . “Derby was the richest man in Salem after the Revolution,” and one of the country’s first millionaires.
Although the Park Service isn’t sure how the Derbys furnished their home, the period pieces reflect the taste and style of upper-class Salem circa 1790. The kitchen even has an Indonesian tin spice cabinet emblematic of the lucrative peppercorn trade. Like other Salem manses, the house is replete with tales as dramatic as the plot twists in Hawthorne’s fiction. The old-money Derbys looked down on the upstart Crowninshields, who were moving from cod-fishing into the more lucrative mercantile trade. The two clans met at least once in court, and when Elizabeth died in 1799, her Crowninshield relatives refused to attend her funeral.
Elizabeth was born in the Georgian home that her father, Captain John Crowninshield, had built in 1727. Now known as the Crowninshield-Bentley House, it’s owned by the Peabody Essex Museum. When John died without a will, the home was divided between his widow (who also inherited his debts) and children. Our tour group was appalled at the differences in their circumstances. A son lived in fine style on one side of the house, while his mother lived more modestly on the other. “No rugs,” we all muttered. “No wallpaper.” The widow’s side became a boarding house; its most famous tenant was William Bentley, a brilliant polymath and Salem minister. His study overlooked Salem Common, and his observations of the conduct of Salem townsfolk often provided fodder for his sermons. Privacy was apparently an issue even in the early decades of the republic.
Steps away on the Peabody Essex Museum campus, the Gardner-Pingree House was built in 1804-05 for merchant John Gardner, a nephew of Elias Hasket Derby. Designed by noted Salem architect Samuel McIntire, it represents the apogee of Federal style in Salem. This is Salem at its wealthiest — right down to the stunning Salem-crafted furniture, the pink kitchen with its new-fangled Rumford oven, and the luxuriously canopied bedsteads. For sophisticated entertaining, two parlors were separated by pocket doors. The women would converse and sew in one, while the men drank and smoked in the other.
The good times didn’t last. Gardner went bankrupt near the end of the War of 1812. The house changed hands several times and was the site of a famous 1830 murder for which prosecutor Daniel Webster managed with impassioned rhetoric to win convictions. In 1834 the house was purchased by the Pingree family, who inhabited it without apparent drama for 99 years, when they donated it to the forerunner of the Peabody Essex.
The war that ruined Gardner also spelled the end of Salem’s mercantile dominance. Yet during the shipping heyday, Salem vessels were such a presence in the ports of Canton and Macau that some Chinese thought that Salem was an independent country.
Salem’s trading activities gave the city a broad worldview, and the Peabody Essex has carried on that legacy with the acquisition of the Yin Yu Tang House, which evokes the life of the Huang family of wealthy Chinese merchants. The wooden house was built about the same time as the Gardner-Pingree house, yet literally on the far side of the globe. Eight successive generations of Huangs occupied the 16-bedroom village home until the 1980s. Recorded recollections of family members, included on the audiotour, seem to fill the empty house with the bustle of daily life.
Salem merchants were lords of their community, but Confucian teaching accorded their Chinese counterparts a much lower rung on the social ladder — below government officials, peasants, and artisans. Yet the house presents a picture of domestic harmony and relative prosperity. Up to three generations of the family lived at Yin Tu Tang at a time, making it truly the ancestral home. Yin Yu Tang has no exterior windows. All rooms turn toward the central courtyard, or “sky well,” where carved lattice screens let light into the bedrooms and, at the ground level, bright koi swim in the pool-like cisterns.
Yin Yu Tang may not have been as outwardly grand as the mansions of Salem’s merchant princes, but it looked inward to family, not outward to the world.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.