OVER A CENTURY OF STUDY
The House of the Seven Gables, built in 1668, is one of the most studied houses in the United States. Experts and amateurs have spent years unravelling its mysteries and creating a narrative of its various inhabitants and architectural changes.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was one of the first visitors to be intrigued by the house’s story. After numerous visits to the property, he published The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, giving the house its name. He used the house’s long history as a canvas for a tale of greed and decay. After Hawthorne made the house famous, both locals and visitors began to pay more attention to it.
Following the centennial celebrations of 1876 there was a period of growing interest in America’s past. For the first time there was academic and popular interest in the early architecture of the United States. The Gables has remained an object of fascination ever since.
READING THE DOCUMENTS
Some houses are lucky enough to have large archives of material written by their inhabitants. Letters, diaries, or other writings are invaluable sources for understanding people in the past. In cases where personal papers do not exist, legal documents, such as deeds, wills, and probate records, can provide a rare glimpse into the lives of those who lived in the house.
DEEDS AND PROBATES
A series of nine deeds for The Gables shows the transition of ownership through time. The documents provide clear dates for when new occupants acquired the property. Descriptions of the boundaries give us a sense of the land around the house as it changed through time.
Probate inventories provide descriptions of the contents of a person’s home and business along with values of their belongings. Legally, these inventories showed debts claimed for and against an estate, but they also provide an indication of social status.
The earliest known English wallpaper dates to about 1509. By the early 1700s wealthy colonists were able to purchase English paper hangings for their homes, but few examples survive. Most examples of early wallpapers found in New England date to the 1760s or later when English imports increased and Americans began to manufacture wallpaper shortly after the Revolution.
Wallpaper is more temporary than paint. Fragments are often found behind later architectural additions. The composition of papers over the centuries as well as style, color, and printing techniques provide clues for dating it.
Richard Nylander, a preservationist and specialist in historic wallpapers, organized Historic New England’s large collection of wallpapers in the 1960s. His knowledge has led to many successful restorations including the Otis House in Boston. At The Gables, he was instrumental in dating wallpapers and decorative schemes for the Accounting Room and soon-to-be opened Dining Room Chamber.
Henry Davis Sleeper, an antiquarian and interior decorator, was among the first to examine architectural elements in search of earlier colors. His findings were used in the decorative scheme for his mansion, Beauport (1907), built in Gloucester. During the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, Susan Nash scraped away layers to document early colors.
Today, our methods for determining decorative treatments are more technically advanced. Conservator Morgan Phillips of Historic New England pioneered the use of microscopes. He used technologies imported from fine arts studies including x-ray fluorescence and mass spectrometry. These techniques help to identify specific pigments and the composition of paints and other finishes. These findings help to more accurately reconstruct decorative treatments from a specific period of time.
Conservator Christine Thomson has undertaken paint analysis projects at The House of Seven Gables. In 2001, she helped to identify the verdigris in the parlor. In 2016, her work supported the restoration of the Accounting Room and soon-to-be-open Dining Room Chamber.
READING TREE RINGS
A.E. Douglass, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, theorized in the 1920s that tree rings could be analyzed based on their patterns of growth to date ancient ruins in the American Southwest.
Annual tree growth is dependent on temperature and moisture. Regional environmental conditions like a cold year or a drought will produce rings of a similar width in trees of the same species. When living trees are cut down, a dated chronology going backward from the present can be established.
In New England, the first efforts to date buildings began in the 1970s. In 2001, dendrochronologists from the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory successfully produced a master chronology for historic oak in Eastern Massachusetts. Since then, Historic Deerfield, the Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory, and others have dated over 200 early New England houses. In 2005, the earliest part of The House of the Seven Gables was dated to 1668 and the addition to 1677.
CLUES IN ARCHITECTURE
Architectural style is subject to fashion and the technological limits of the time. There are many areas in which architectural style and construction details can be studied: tool marks, types of nails and screws, hardware like hinges, types of joints in structural members, profiles of moldings, layers of paint, layout and size of rooms and the construction of the chimneys and fireplaces. Together, these details can help to date a structure.
In 2008, architectural historians William Finch and Anne Grady completed a Historic Structures Report of The House of the Seven Gables. This report details the history of the building by analyzing the interior and exterior stylistic features. Finch and Grady were able to present a clear picture of what elements of construction were added by inhabitants prior to 1909 and which pieces came from the 1909-1910 restoration. The research for this report aided the organization in acquiring its designation as a National Historic Landmark District.
Historical archaeology is the excavation and study of objects and architecture from a past for which written sources also exist. The discovery of material culture illuminates the lives of those whose stories were not written or gives context to lives that are already known.
In 1936, J.C. Harrington began the American tradition of historical archaeology at Jamestown, Virginia. John L. Cotter and Edward B. Jelks further developed methods of historical archaeology at Jamestown in the 1950s. Ivor Noël Hume, the director of archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg from 1964 to 1988, wrote books that further popularized historical archeology.
Lorinda B.R. Goodwin conducted an archaeological investigation of The Gables in 1991. More than 17,000 artifacts were recovered. The pieces found spanned centuries of Native American and European-American use of the property. Weights, used in measuring cargo, attested to the Turners’ merchant activities and fragments of expensive pottery, such as imported Chinese porcelain from the 1720s, demonstrated the wealth of the inhabitants.
OUR EVOLVING LANDSCAPE
For the first century, the Turners considered the land around the house a valuable working space. The inventory of John Turner I lists three warehouses. John Turner II’s inventory catalogs several service buildings and warehouses. These outbuildings provided essential functions for their businesses but reduced the pleasurable qualities of the landscape.
In the nineteenth century, homeowners began to use their grounds for pleasure. The Upton family, who lived here 1883-1908, had a garden with hollyhocks, lilac, a large apple tree, and vines climbing up the side of the house.
Caroline Emmerton and Joseph Chandler continued this trend and incorporated professional landscape architecture. Miss Emmerton’s handwritten notes indicate that a teahouse, flanked with grape arbors, was built by 1914. This Colonial Revival garden was inspired by a variety of periods in Salem’s history. For example, the rose trellises were modeled after others from a ‘grand house,’ built on Salem Common in 1819.