A walking tour of PEM’s historic houses

I’m not an architecture enthusiast or an expert at historic house conservation. I’m also not from the area, so I don’t have a deep contextual understanding of Salem’s historic houses in time. I’ve only learned about PEM’s collection of historic structures when I joined the PR team as a Native American Fellow this summer.  However,  in my exploration, the historic houses have taught me that the true beauty of Salem does not lie in the theatrical tourism that lurks on every downtown corner, but in the old buildings that live on, echoing stories, and stimulating the imagination of the onlooker.


A Piece of one of PEM’s historic houses. Can you find it? Photo by Tosa Two Heart

I took the liberty of walking to each of the historic houses. I can honestly say I fell in love with three.


Ropes Mansion from a garden view. Photo by Tosa Two Heart


The Ropes Mansion is hard to miss. Its elegant, white exterior outshines the buildings and street around it. Once you walk through the archway you are transported into a tranquil, stunning garden. There are plenty of secluded benches that give this public space a sense of intimacy with one’s thoughts while being there. I like to walk toward the shaded area on the other side of the mansion and look at the ancient tree that stands next to the mansion, like a life-long companion to the house. The atmosphere is very calming and nurturing.


The secret of the Peirce-Nichols House. Photo by Tosa Two Heart


A pleasant place to be. Photo by Tosa Two Heart

Peirce-Nichols House

The Peirce-Nichols House is far from the crowds of Essex St. It’s quiet, mysterious and alluring. The side gates are open for you to walk around the house into the back. Another archway takes you into a transformative space. It seems you are on a hill or type of natural amphitheater. The main attraction is your imagination. I could sit here and write poetry all day based on the whispers of emotion that fill that space. It’s a great place to watch the clouds and the day pass by.


Four pillars touch the sky. Photo by Tosa Two Heart


The wooden gazebo in the yard between the Andrew-Stafford House and the Crowninshield-Bentley House. Photo by Tosa Two Heart

Stafford House

The Andrew- Stafford House is majestic, with its huge white pillars that reach out to the heavens. They contrast against the red brick aesthetic which is a staple of Salem’s common architecture. The patio and yard present an opportunity to take in this beautiful side of the house. You can hide away in the wooden gazebo or have a seat on the patio and enjoy a moment of relaxation, perhaps pretending to be an occupant of such an admirable dwelling.

Everyone falls in love with spaces for different reasons. I like places where I can feel at leisure and feel transported, free from the modern city. For me, The Ropes Mansion, Peirce-Nichols House and Andrew Stafford House provide this, with a unique atmosphere to each.

PEM offers tours to many of its historic houses. However, if you want to visit PEM’s historic houses at your own pace, I have a suggested route.


Yin Yu Tang from the outside. Photo by Tosa Two Heart

Start in front of PEM, and go down Essex Street until you get to the Ropes Mansion. After visiting the Ropes Mansion, continue on Essex St. and take a right on Monroe, and then a left on Federal St. There you will find the Cotting-Smith Assembly House. Turn around and follow Federal St. until you arrive at the Peirce-Nichols House. After the Pierce-Nichols house, walk down Summer St. and get back on Essex going towards the museum. When you reach the CVS, go down Derby Square. You will see Old Town Hall, which you can walk by or walk through to get to Front St.

On Front Street, take a left and enjoy the paper pinwheels decorating the sky as you walk up on to Charter Street with its nice view of the Samuel Pickman House, and the old summer school building. You also get to walk by the back side, for a stunning view of PEM’s Yin Yu Tang Chinese house.  Continue on to Charter, as you walk by Vilate Young (Kinsman) House and Gilbert Chadwick House. Then go left on Hawthorne Blvd. to walk up to the Crowninshield-Bentley House, and enjoy Stickwork by Patrick Dougherty on its lawn. At this point you are in the middle of a historic house wonderland! Sneak behind Crowninshield-Bentley to explore the group of PEM’s historic houses that fill the block. This includes the Gardner-Pingree House, Andrew-Stafford House (great place to take a break and relax in the patio), Daniel Bray House, Derby-Beebe Summer House, John Ward House, Quaker Meeting House and the Lye-Tapley Shoe Shop.


Tosa’s walking trail map of the historic house locations.

If you want to see the inside of some of these houses, it is suggested to take the Ropes Mansion and Garden Tour offered on the weekends, or join one of PEM’s special tours. These buildings are wonderful to see, and give a great incentive to get out for some fresh air. Visit PEM’s website for more information about PEM’s historic houses.  If you are inspired to take photos of your adventure, please share them using #HistoricHouseCrush!

Take a listen to what PEM’s podcast producers and co-hosts Chip and Dinah have been up to at the PEMcast. The first two episodes of a series on Historic House Crush can be found HERE and HERE.


TosaAs part of PEM’s 2016 summer Native American Fellow program, Tosa Two Heart worked in the Public Relations department. She is also a 2017 Bentley University MBA candidate. Tosa grew up near Kyle, South Dakota and is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Tosa considers herself a student of life. Follow her on Instagram @tosatwoheart. 

One Comment

  1. Gail says:

    Loved reading this! What a wonderful tribute to some of Salem’s old homes! Thank you for doing this! I am going to take that walk myself and look at these wonderful structures again with new eyes!

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