“A nice mix of fiction and nonfiction.” That’s how Bill Sjostedt of Mamaroneck, N.Y., described the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Mass., after finishing his tour.
“It’s been a part of the folklore of our country.”
And that needs to be kept in mind when visiting this house made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name: The house is in many ways a reimagining of fact and fiction.
My wife, Carol, and I visited “the Gables” recently as it was celebrating its 350th anniversary. I grew up in Salem, so it was a homecoming of sorts.
The house was built in 1668 on the Salem waterfront by John Turner, a sea captain turned successful merchant, and for more than a century stayed in the Turner family. As their wealth grew, Turner and his son, John Turner II, converted the post-medieval structure into a comfortable, seven-gabled Georgian mansion with elegant paneling, moldings and expensive wallpaper and furniture. Most of the interior today reflects this Georgian style.
Samuel Ingersoll purchased the house in 1782 and continued remodeling, even removing four gables. In 1811, his daughter, Susannah Ingersoll, inherited the property; her second cousin — Hawthorne — was a frequent guest.
By the early 20th century, the house had run through a succession of owners. Wealthy philanthropist Caroline Emmerton purchased the house in 1908, restoring it to its current seven-gable glory.
Emmerton’s intentions for the house were twofold. First, she opened it as a museum, furnishing some of the rooms with Georgian-era antiques to reflect the Turners’ ownership of the house while also arranging other rooms to suggest scenes from Hawthorne’s novel.
Then she used museum admission fees to fund a settlement association — a philanthropy based on the work of social reformer and activist Jane Addams, in this case — to assist the many Polish immigrants in the neighborhood in adapting to an American way of life. They learned handicrafts, dancing, civics, and practical skills. Photos of early settlement work can be seen in the waiting area at the entrance.
Our enthusiastic guide, Lehan Morley, greeted us at the house, leading us into a small dark kitchen with an enormous fireplace, the only room in the house restored to its 17th-century appearance. Our heads practically touched the ceiling.
A chowder pot, tea kettle and frying pan were hanging from hooks in the hearth. The empty pot alone weighed 50 pounds.
Adjacent to the kitchen is the Cent Shop. I recognized this as the purely fictional place where Hawthorne’s Hepzibah Pyncheon opened a store in the opening pages of his novel.
We next emerged into the bright dining room, where large, double-sash windows let in the late morning light to illuminate the painted moldings and fabric wallpaper. This room reflects the style of John Turner II, the wealthiest of the house’s owners. Canton porcelain dishes on the table and paintings of Macao on the walls show the link between Salem and the China trade.
Most of the furniture on display is not original to the occupants, except for a few pieces. I asked how the correct period furniture was acquired. Morley said that Emmerton had access to inventories of the Turners and was able to acquire similar furnishings.
A hidden door in the dining room leads to a narrow staircase that twists and turns up to the second floor. This secret staircase was just wide enough for my shoulders to fit between the brick walls. Carol, much smaller than I, had no problem nimbly climbing the stairs leading to a second-floor garret.
When I was a kid, there were all kinds of stories about why the staircase was there. Was it a refuge for accused witches or a stop on the Underground Railroad? I was disappointed to learn that Emmerton created this space during the reconstruction of the house as an attraction for visitors.
From the garret, we ducked through a Hobbit-sized door and entered the attic.
“This is one of the oldest domestic locations in America,” Morley said. “All the skeletal beams, the majority of the bricks in the chimney and insulation is actually from 350 years ago.”
This attic was once the sleeping place of Joan Sullivan, a Gaelic-speaking indentured servant to the first John Turner. It is unknown how long Sullivan remained in Turner’s service, but most indentured servants signed contracts for five to seven years. An original 18th-century indenture contract hangs on the wall as an example of the one Sullivan probably signed.
Morley then led us downstairs to John Turner II’s accounting room, where he kept his money and paid his crews. Today, it is interpreted as the room where Col. Pyncheon was found dead in Hawthorne’s novel, the victim of a curse.
The Great Chamber bedroom features cushioned window seats, a lovely canopy bed with yellow valances highlighted in red and green, and a wooden highboy. A portrait of John Turner III hangs on the wall, the only known one from the Turner family.
The final room of the house tour is the parlor. Morley pointed out chairs and a table that belonged to Susannah Ingersoll. The green-pigmented verdigris paint and hand-drawn, individually stenciled wallpaper with a flower pattern in pinks, yellows, and blues dates to the Turners. Portraits on the wall are of Susannah Ingersoll in her late 40s and Hawthorne at 36. A pianoforte, mandolin and clarinet, as well as a mah-jongg game, seem to await players.
One of the charms of the House of the Seven Gables is its location at the end of Turner Street (Hawthorne’s Pyncheon Street), overlooking Salem Harbor. This National Historic Landmark district contains several preserved Salem houses, including the Hawthorne birthplace, all moved here by the timely intervention of Emmerton to save them from the wrecking ball. I enjoyed the lovely Seaside Garden amid the lilacs and tulips that were blooming during my visit. The garden’s wisteria arbor, trellises, raised flower boxes and view of the harbor make it an ideal spot to relax.
Sitting there, I thought about Emmerton’s settlement association, today one of about 50 remaining in the country. When I was a child, it provided social services for needy families in the neighborhood.
Thomas Brennan of Robbinston, Maine, who grew up near the Gables in the 1960s, said that he remembers the program, in which he learned woodworking, very well.
“It reinforced good things,” he said. “There was somebody in the community who cared about me.”
The program’s mission has changed over the years, just as the house has changed. Those Polish immigrants have been replaced by many of Hispanic origin.
The Gables Settlement Association, in partnership with other organizations, offers summer enrichment programs, ESL and citizenship classes, and community dialogues. It is still supported by museum admission fees.
“It’s about bridging communities by providing information. Giving incoming immigrants a voice in the community,” said Elsabel Rincón, who manages the Salem settlement programs.
After 350 years of history, literature and social work, there’s a lot to celebrate at the Gables. And while the house is associated with a great work of fiction, that’s a fact.
Lee is a writer based in Virginia Beach. Find him on Twitter: @writer1218.
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