SALEM — Call it the house that divorce built.
He was a dashing and adulterous sea captain; she was the headstrong daughter of America’s first millionaire. Their bitter 1806 divorce stunned staid Salem. Elizabeth West got the family mansion in Danvers and willed it to their three daughters, just to make sure her ex-husband, Nathaniel West, would never get it.
Strange how things work out. Elizabeth and one of the daughters died before Nathaniel West, the daughter’s share in the house reverting to him. Claiming his property, in 1821 West literally cut four rooms (his one third of the estate) off the house, put them on sleds, and moved them to Chestnut Street in Salem.
Sort of “Hell hath no fury” versus “He who laughs last.”
Those four rooms form the core of the Stephen Phillips House, a lovely three-story Colonial Revival mansion with elements of federal style, offering visitors an intimate view of domestic life, not from Salem’s heyday as a great port, but as the home of a wealthy, early-20th-century family.
My wife and I visited recently during a return to Salem, my old hometown. And even when I was a kid, Chestnut Street was a world apart, a bastion of wealth and privilege, almost unimaginable to the kids whose fathers worked in the leather factories of Salem. I often wondered what was behind those doors.
Stephen W. Phillips, a prominent Salem investment attorney, and his wife, Anna Wheatland Phillips, a wealthy heiress, bought the house on Chestnut Street in 1911. After an extensive modernization of the house, the couple and their son Stephen (Stevie) settled into years of domestic tranquillity, the antithesis of the riotous marriage of the house’s original owner.
Anna and Stephen W. were world travelers and avid collectors, using their house to showcase their eclectic collections: Anna’s paintings, porcelains, and glassware, and Stephen’s family heirlooms, including an impressive display of artifacts from the South Pacific.
“They were pack rats,” said Tom Miller, our guide. Virtually everything in the house today is from their collections, ranging from priceless artifacts to everyday products. The house is furnished as it would have been in 1919.
Miller handed out booties to cover our shoes as we started our tour in Stephen W. Phillips’s stunning library of more than 6,000 volumes dominated by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on one wall. His humidor is on a table. A war club from the South Seas rests on his desk and several more lie in front of the fireplace.
Our guide took a moment to outline the Phillips family lineage: sea captains, politicians, and lawyers, even the attorney general of Hawaiian King Kamehameha V. A portrait of Stephen W.’s grandfather, Stephen C. Phillips, hangs on the library wall. He was a Salem politician and civic leader, and the namesake of my old grammar school. None of these forebears lived in the house, but many of their personal belongings are there.
We moved on to the parlor, Anna’s lair. A Persian carpet on the floor depicts garden scenes and Farsi script. Anna’s Victrola, which still works, and her piano are here, as well as her collection of 150 opera and classical recordings.
In the dining room, the table is set for six as it was on the night of July 30, 1919. On the menu: boiled cod, braised beef, Frenched greenbeans, and orange fairy fluff. A button under the dining table allowed Stephen W. to let the cook know that it was time to serve dinner. Several sets of china also are on display here.
Anna’s sitting room is upstairs. Here she met daily with the cook, Bridget Durgin, to plan the day’s meals. On her desk is a rare Chinese jade good luck scepter. A James Whistler etching and a painting by post-impressionist Maurice Prendergast adorn the walls.
Son Stevie’s room contains his four-poster bed. On the mantel we see several mechanical trick banks. He would put a coin in one and a dog jumps through a hoop; in another a trapeze artist spins. His chess set is in front of the fireplace.
Revealing glimpses into the family’s everyday life pop up everywhere. In a closet upstairs we see toiletries from the early 20th century: a bottle of Sloane’s liniment, Statler flat toilet tissue, oil for sprains and convulsions. Another closet reveals a vacuum cleaner with a hand pump, and a box of Dazzle liquid stove polish. Miller opens a book in the master bedroom showing the pages cut away forming a hidden nook for cigarettes.
I was curious about the lives of the family’s servants. There were three live-in female staff members in 1919, all Irish Catholic immigrants. They each had their own bedroom on the third floor. We entered Bridget Durgin’s simple but comfortable room, furnished with a single bed and dresser. The staff worked hard, and was given Thursday and Sunday afternoons and evenings off.
“This was a really good job,” said Miller. “But the catch was if they got married they lost their position.”
The male servants lived in town and were allowed to marry and have families.
We descended two fights of stairs to the kitchen, the same path Bridget Durgin would walk every morning at 5. She would fix the staff’s breakfast at the huge coal stove that is still there in pristine condition. A waffle iron and fish boiler sit on the stovetop.
In the back yard, a carriage house contains the various family vehicles. Several horse-drawn carriages and a one-horse sleigh are on display. Several automobiles are here, including a rare 1936 Pierce Arrow Model 1603 limousine.
Stevie’s 1915 letter to Santa and a pony cart are also here. Like lots of kids, he asked for a cart and pony. In his case, though, he actually got it.
Now that wouldn’t have happened on the other side of town.
STEPHEN PHILLIPS HOUSE 34 Chestnut St., Salem, 978-744-0440, www.historicnewengland.org. Open June 1- Oct. 30 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours every half hour. Last tour at 4. Closed most Mondays. Also closed most major holidays. Open weekends only Nov. 5-May 28 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Adults $8; seniors $7; students $4. Free for historic New England members and Salem residents. The carriage house is open for self-guided tours late April through mid-November.James F. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.