PEM’s Gardner-Pingree House is currently filled with holiday decorations, even though in 1804, when the house was built, some Puritan leaders still banned the celebration of Christmas. The holiday was only quietly recognized in New England amid outcry by those such as the dogmatic minister Cotton Mather who thundered from his pulpit:
“Can you in your Conscious think, that our Holy Savior is honoured, by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn or a Bacchus?”
The elegant Federal-style house, at 128 Essex St., is a National Historic Landmark, as well as one of celebrated architect Samuel McIntire’s finest and best-preserved designs. It’s part of the 34th Annual Christmas in Salem House Tour, presented by Historic Salem Inc. (HSI) this weekend, December 7 and 8, featuring a grouping of nine historic homes under the theme Ports Of Call. The GP House — as we call it — holds the secrets and spirits of three fascinating Salem families who led storied lives, dominated by trade.
John Gardner was a wealthy Salem merchant and nephew of Elias Hasket “King” Derby, mentioned in the preface to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. In 1804, he chose to use the money made on successful trade voyages to build and furnish a home on land that his family had owned since the 17th century. The Gardner family was one of the oldest and most respected families in Salem. The historian James Duncan Phillips wrote of them:
“Had the Gardners been inclined to talk as much about their accomplishments as the Crowninshields, they would have occupied a larger place in the town’s history.”
In 1830, the second owner of the house, Joseph White, was brutally murdered while asleep in his bed. At the trial of the accused murderers, Joseph and Francis Knapp (Daniel Webster was the prosecuting attorney) both were convicted and hanged at the old Salem jail. The gruesome murder is the climax of the storied rise and fall of Salem in the age of sail and is well documented in Robert Booth’s book Death of an Empire: The Rise and Murderous Fall of Salem, America’s Richest City. In more recent years, the house has become a favorite of tour guides as they share their own versions to bricked sidewalks filled with wide-eyed ghost hunters.
David Pingree was the last owner of the house. He was the largest landowner in New England, managing some 700,000 acres in Maine. A lifelong bachelor, he enjoyed playing billiards, reading books and horticulture. Following his death in 1932 at the age of 91, his descendants gave the house to the former Essex Institute.
The tour of the Gardner-Pingree House, led by PEM’s docents, will feature architectural details, stories of the home’s inhabitants, musical trios and quartets, as well as classic holiday decor.
More information about the tour and tickets can be found at christmasinsalem.org, at retail locations around Salem and by calling 978-745-0799.