During my years living in Salem, I’ve noted that houses painted black here often date back to the 17th century. It just seems to be the way — with the Witch House on Essex Street, another oldie in my Derby Street neighborhood and true, also, of the John Ward House on PEM’s campus.
What I didn’t know was that hidden within the walls of our Ward House, which dates back to 1684, might just be the clues to help make it one of the most accurately restored 17th century houses in America. The home originally stood on a one-acre plot with a kitchen garden, an outhouse, and a well — opposite the jail used during the witchcraft trials. This style is often called First Period or Post-Medieval — characterized by elements like the extremely steep pitch of the gables and the diamond-paned leaded casement windows. One of the earliest buildings to be relocated and restored for historic interpretation in the U.S., the house is a National Historic Landmark. During my time here at PEM, I’ve escorted a top notch TV production crew through the house as they scouted locations for an upcoming series. Now, the top notch crew scouring the house are from Groundroot Preservation Group, a historic preservation firm out of Maine.
This exciting news about the home’s possible significance came from a survey of all of PEM’s major historic structures. The survey was conducted so that museum staff can develop an integrated interpretive and stewardship strategy for all 24 of the museum’s historic properties, which span three centuries and are located throughout downtown Salem. This summer, the ongoing investigation at the Ward House will unfold like any good mystery, with results projected for the fall. To get nerdy historic house specific, the house could become the most authentically restored 17th century house in Anglo America, once it’s restored back to its original condition.
Most restoration projects of 17th century properties “say more about the restorers’ frames of mind than the actual situations of 17th century New Englanders,” says Scott Stevens, CEO of Groundroot, who is working alongside architectural conservator Steven Mallory. This is because most buildings of this vintage have been restored before today’s improved techniques became available. “Investigators overlooked much evidence, and inadvertently destroyed other evidence,” says Stevens. “They recreated their best guesses or their romantic conceptions of early dwellings.”
According to Groundroot, there isn’t a place a museum visitor can go to experience the 17th century according to current scholarship, conservation and restoration techniques. Until now. The history of the house gives us glimpses into its unique level of preservation. The John Ward House was moved and restored once, in 1910. While restoring the home, George Francis Dow removed many of its 18th and 19th century features. In their next phase of study, Groundroot will carefully remove small areas of interior and exterior finishes to reveal hidden evidence. They can then establish the correct location and nature of such important elements as windows, the front door, the kitchen fireplace and the gable end roof treatments. Early paint colors on the interior will likely be visible. Together, these could contribute to the most complete and accurate experience of a 17th century New England house ever offered to the public.
The John Ward House reflects the English colonial region. There are older buildings in former Spanish colonies. In Salem, a different type of 17th century architecture exists than you see in most of Essex County and out into Massachusetts Bay. The dual transfer summer beams, for example, are only found in the Salem area and are a west of London framing tradition, Groundroot has informed us.
The gathering of more evidence and studying of findings will last several months, with results most likely available this fall. According to Bob Monk, Director of Facilities and Security at PEM, visitors will be able to observe various finishes, mostly the exterior being carefully removed in order to expose underlying nail patterns and things like mortises (cut outs) for previous stud and timber connections.
“All hopefully small chapters that will form a compelling story,” he says.
Below are some edited answers from questions I posed to Groundroot:
Q: Can you briefly describe your excitement about going after a discovery like this?
A: Building investigation is a form of detective work: noticing, gathering, and interpreting evidence to reach the soundest conclusion. When one discovers evidence overlooked before, or makes connections not previously thought of to gain new understanding of a structure, it is very rewarding. You’ve rescued something lost in time. The 17th century is distant in time and understanding; there is much less material from which to learn about life that time than there is from later periods. There is a limited set of 17th century buildings. Each discovery is thus more exciting.
Q: In what ways do you envision the house accurately connecting visitors to the period?
A: An authentic depiction of the John Ward House in, say 1699, will confront the visitor with what may be a medieval-looking structure, with design treatments that might look odd to the modern eye.
A restored Ward House can connect to visitors in ways no other example can, because it can offer a sensory experience impossible with other examples, where hand-split clapboards, forged nails, clay plasters and hand-ground paints transport the visitor to a time when the house was new. The use of light, color and texture are critical. This can only be successful if each of these things is done to the highest standards possible. While places like Plimoth Plantation make a similar attempt, none of those buildings are genuine historic artifacts.
Q: In what ways do other New England properties touch on this period, but fail to capture it? And why do they fail?
A: It is hard to capture the period with a building that mixes real and speculated features, or a building layers of history that may obscure the the earliest character.
Also, budgetary constraints often hamper authenticity. Even where knowledge exists, few places can afford to do every detail perfectly and often make compromises that have a cascading negative effect on the experience of the whole. Corners are cut with substitutions like machine-made clapboards and hardware. Very few institutions can afford to reproduce hand-ground paints, but their texture, subtleties in color and light reflection add up to big differences in overall effect. Also, many institutions frown on hand-riven clapboards, for instance, believing that modern repairs should read as part of their own time. This is valid philosophy but it does not help transport the visitor.
Q: How was restorer George Francis Dow acting progressively by storing 19th century furnishings in the Ward House attic?
A: Many restorations in his day and since have begun with tearing out materials that do not date from the period to which the house was being restored. These were often discarded and not documented. With them went important history. Dow anticipated current standards by saving such elements as windows and fireplace mantels, storing them in the attic.
Q: Why do you think certain historic places — with their craftsmanship and authentic materials — better convey a sense of history?
A: The extent to which settings from the past survive intact, or can be accurately recreated, determines how much they can convey to us. While some basic human experiences remain the same over the centuries, life in other times was profoundly different than it is today. People lived differently from moment to moment; they used, organized and decorated their living spaces differently; they saw the world through different eyes. What remains from those times can give us more or less a taste or feel of the past and enrich our understanding and experience of the present.
Editor’s Note: Tours of PEM’s historic houses are offered daily. This summer, PEM has initiated a social media campaign called #HistoricHouseCrush. Look for the hashtag and related content on our Instagram, Twitter (@peabodyessex) and Facebook accounts, as well as on this blog, Connected and the museum’s podcast, the PEMcast.