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Pickman House to welcome guests to Salem’s oldest burial ground

The Samuel Pickman House, which is owned by the Peabody Essex Museum, will be used by the city of Salem as a new Charter Street Cemetery Welcome Center.
The Samuel Pickman House, which is owned by the Peabody Essex Museum, will be used by the city of Salem as a new Charter Street Cemetery Welcome Center.Kathy Tarantola/Peabody Essex Museum

As it completes restoration work at the nearly 400-year-old Charter Street Cemetery, Salem is teaming with the Peabody Essex Museum to better educate the public about the city’s oldest burial ground and to help preserve it for future generations.

Under a new partnership, Salem will be using the museum’s adjacent historic Samuel Pickman House as a year-round Charter Street Cemetery Welcome Center starting in late May, when the restoration concludes.

Center visitors will learn from the city’s interpretive staff and exhibits about the cemetery and other structures of historic interest in the immediate area — including the Pickman House and the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.

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“Providing historic information and context adds value to the visitor’s experience. It allows you to develop a sense of place and an understanding of how this became a burial ground and how the neighborhood evolved around it,” said Elizabeth Peterson, director of the city-run Salem Witch House and Pioneer Village sites.

Established in 1637, the cemetery remained in use through the late 1800s. Notable burials included those of Mayflower passenger Richard Moore, Judge John Hathorne — a participant in the 1692 witch trials — Governor Simon Bradstreet, and wood carver and architect Samuel McIntire. It also features well-preserved 17th-century stone carvings.

Officials said the onsite staff also will help protect the cemetery — which has sustained damage from visitors over the years — a particular benefit after Salem’s recent investment in the site.

Supported with a $281,000 state grant, the $690,000 restoration involved creating new stone dust pathways, granite benches, and a handicapped-accessible entrance, and restoring an iron fence and gate.

“This is a unique opportunity to better manage visitation in this sensitive space, interpret the history of the cemetery and surrounding area, and also generate funds to ensure the ongoing care of the cemetery,” Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said in a statement.

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Patti Kelleher, the city’s preservation planner, is hopeful that with the center, the public will be more respectful of the cemetery and its connection to Salem’s past.

“I think a lot of visitors don’t even understand it’s an historic site, or that some of these stones are hundreds of years old,” she said.

Peabody Essex is not charging Salem rent for use of the Pickman House, but the two will evenly split the costs of maintenance and future repairs, according to Dominick Pangallo, Driscoll’s chief of staff.

Center staff will offer a daily walking tour of the cemetery for a yet-to-be-determined fee, operate a gift shop, and provide maps for a suggested $2 donation. The city will use those revenues to operate the center and meet its share of the building maintenance and repair costs, with any leftover funds going toward maintenance and care of the cemetery.

One of Salem’s oldest surviving structures, the Pickman House was built by housewright Nathaniel Pickman in 1672 for his son, Samuel Pickman, according to Steven C. Mallory, Peabody Essex’s manager of historic structures and landscapes. After Samuel Pickman died in 1687, it was owned for many years by a surgeon, became a boarding house, and for about 150 years was an apartment tenement house.

In 1964 the house became the last 17th-century dwelling in Salem to be discovered, according to Mallory, noting that its Victorian alterations had hidden the house’s age. Following that discovery, nonprofit Historic Salem purchased and stabilized the house, saving it from planned demolition.

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A local antique dealer acquired it in 1977 and completed restoration work, before selling it in 1983 to the Peabody Essex Museum, which has used it for office space.

Under the agreement, the museum plans to create a permanent exhibit within the center on the Pickman House’s history.

“We are thrilled to breathe new life into this important historic structure and to do so in such a meaningful, relevant, and impactful way,” Robert Monk, the museum’s acting chief operating officer, said in a statement. “We hope visitors to the Charter Street Cemetery will feel immersed in history and transported by PEM’s 1672 Pickman House.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.