Globe Local

Seven gables, 350 years, and a story that’s still being written

Salem, MA - 6/02/2018 - The House of Seven Gables is celebrating its 350th anniversary. - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Regional/All Zones, Reporter: James Sullivan, Topic: 24zogables, LOID: 8.4.2123146174.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
The House of the Seven Gables looms over garden paths. More than 100,000 visit each year.

SALEM — The carpenter had all his handmade tools laid out on the lawn by the seaside. Dressed in breeches, buckle shoes, and a canvas apron, a long braided ponytail dangling from beneath his wool cap, he explained the process of building these old houses to a group of Saturday afternoon visitors.

When a brief demonstration went awry, the carpenter apologized profusely. “I beg your forgiveness,” he said. “I’m a smart Yankee carpenter. Oh, Fudgsicle!”

We’re pretty sure the Fudgsicle had not yet been invented when the House of the Seven Gables was built in 1668. Much like the reenactor, Salem’s most famous home is not strictly historically accurate. But more than a century after it opened as one of Massachusetts’ most popular attractions, it remains an impressive glimpse into life during Colonial times, and the 1851 Nathaniel Hawthorne novel that the house inspired.

Salem, MA - 6/02/2018 - Mike Welch, a woodworker and historical reenactor from West Newbury gives a demonstration of colonial carpentry. The House of Seven Gables is celebrating its 350th anniversary. - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Regional/All Zones, Reporter: James Sullivan, Topic: 24zogables, LOID: 8.4.2123146174.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Mike Welch, a woodworker and historical reenactor, gives a demonstration of Colonial carpentry.

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This year marks the 350th anniversary of the grand old home, and the nonprofit association behind the timber-framed mansion’s upkeep is celebrating with a yearlong series of special events, performances, and “17th Century Saturdays.” On July 21, the Witch City Writers lead “Hawthorne 101,” an introduction to the classic book, followed by a photo hunt for some of the details described in his novel. On Aug. 4, during Salem Heritage Days, the house will host Gables Fest, a party and commemoration featuring 350 years of music and dance from around the globe.

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On a recent day, the sun shone gloriously as clusters of visitors quietly meandered the gravel garden paths.

“I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place to work,” said Ben Lithgow, an assistant manager.

Known to generations of schoolchildren who have visited on field trips, the House of the Seven Gables and its surrounding buildings also appeal to history buffs, readers of great literature, and lovers of old homes. According to management, more than 100,000 people visited the site in 2016. It’s long been part of an unofficial network of historic homes in Massachusetts, from Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord to Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, home of two US presidents.

Standing in a bedroom on the second floor of Hawthorne’s birth home — another of the attractions on the Seven Gables campus that was moved from its original location about five blocks away in 1958 — Doug Kokanovich noted the fine detail of the 1750 Georgian-style building.

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“I’m always looking for new ideas,” said Kokanovich, who owns a construction company near Buffalo, N.Y. He encourages his clients to install “teak or mahogany floors — not plywood, not particle board,” he said. “It actually adds to the structure of the house.”

Kokanovich and his wife, Laura, were visiting their daughter, a Boston University graduate who lives in Arlington.

“She was the one who told us to come up here,” said Kokanovich. The couple were staying in a bed-and-breakfast in nearby Essex that was built in 1695.

The carpentry reenactor was a West Newbury retiree named Mike Welch, who grew up on the South Shore at the knee of his father, a handyman.

“He built just about everything in our house,” Welch said during a break from greeting visitors.

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It was that upbringing and a long-ago meal at Sudbury’s Wayside Inn that made him the historic hobbyist he is today, he said. At that lunch, he bumped into a boss from Raytheon, who, as it happened, was joining his colleagues in a militia reenactment.

“Before you knew it, I had a musket in my hand,” Welch recalled.

For the upcoming Heritage Days, “I’ll come back as a mariner,” he said. “There’s a whole hobby world unto itself.”

For its first 200 years or so, the House of the Seven Gables was no museum, but a working home to a succession of prominent Salem families.

Salem, MA - 6/02/2018 - Shelby Bailey of Bay City Michigan enters an upstairs room from a passageway leading from the dining room a floor below. The House of Seven Gables is celebrating its 350th anniversary. - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Regional/All Zones, Reporter: James Sullivan, Topic: 24zogables, LOID: 8.4.2123146174.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Shelby Bailey came all the way from Michigan to explore an upstairs room from a passageway leading from the dining room a floor below.

Built by Captain John Turner, a successful Salem merchant, the house passed through two generations of his family before it was acquired by Captain Samuel Ingersoll. The new owner removed four of the famous seven gables that the Turners had added, preferring a boxy house in the newer Federal style.

Ingersoll’s daughter Susanna inherited the house in 1804. She was a second cousin to Hawthorne, who often visited socially in the coming decades. Her tales of the home’s long history inspired him to write his mysterious Gothic novel, which featured the house as its central character.

“It was itself like a great human heart,” he wrote, “with a life of its own.”

Members of the Upton family, who took over the house after a latter-day Ingersoll lost it to foreclosure, were the first to offer tours.

When local philanthropist Caroline Emmerton bought the house in 1908, she envisioned it as a fund-raiser for the Settlement Association, a community organization she started for the integration of recent immigrants to Salem. Emmerton hired the renowned architect Joseph Everett Chandler, who had restored the 1680 Paul Revere House in Boston, to recreate the original Seven Gables.

“Hawthorne never saw the home when it had seven gables,” said Alexandra “Alex” Berube, a 19-year-old tour guide, inside the house.

The Settlement Association still exists today. That’s what it says on her paycheck, Berube noted.

Having grown up in Lexington, she is now a history major at Salem State University.

“I’ve just always loved visiting museums,” she said.

Over the past few years, Berube told her group, the association has added new features to the house, unveiling previously private “secret rooms” and a treacherously narrow winding wooden staircase accessed through a false wall in a wood closet.

In the newly renovated Accounting Room, Berube told her guests about its connection to Hawthorne’s novel. It’s the room, she said, where Colonel Pyncheon was discovered dead. Readers — and visitors — are left to wonder whether the house is cursed.

“If you want to find out if the curse is broken,” she said, “you’re just going to have to read the novel.”

Salem, MA - 6/02/2018 - 3 year old Theodore Hoffman, of Salem plays with a ships wheel display on the grounds of the museum. The House of Seven Gables is celebrating its 350th anniversary. - (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section: Regional/All Zones, Reporter: James Sullivan, Topic: 24zogables, LOID: 8.4.2123146174.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Theodore Hoffman, 3, of Salem plays with a ship’s wheel display on the grounds of the museum.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail
.com
. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.