THESE WALLS DO TALK How We Know What We Know About The House of the Seven Gables


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.

Left: The architectural historian and photographer Frank Cousins (1851-1925) was one of the first to document the structure of The House of the Seven Gables. He took a series of photographs of the house’s interior in 1892. This was the same year that the bicentennial of the Salem Witch Trials began to bring even more tourists to Salem. Right: The Upton family, the owners of the house from 1883 until 1908, began to offer tours and display artifacts from the house’s history in the 1890s.


The House of the Seven Gables is relatively well understood today thanks to written sources.

We know who owned the land before the house was built, who built the house, when the house passed from family to family; but little is known about the daily lives of those inhabitants. There are no known surviving diaries and few letters to illuminate the lives of the earliest inhabitants, the Turner family. Our understanding of the Turners is based on public records and the work of antiquarians such as Joseph B. Felt (1789-1869) and Sidney Perley (1858-1928), who told the story of the Turners as part of the larger history of Salem.

More is known about the subsequent owners, the Ingersolls. The Rev. William Bentley (1759-1819), the family’s minister, kept a diary in which he made observations about the family, and surviving letters from Hawthorne give us a view of the house in the mid-1800s.

Rev. William Bentley served as the minister of the East Church of Salem from 1783 until his sudden death in 1819. This period almost perfectly overlaps the Federal period of Salem’s history, and Bentley is our greatest source on Salem in this era. The learned minister is also considered New England’s first architectural historian. (Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society)


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.


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.

Left: This document, part of the probate of John Turner II, records Habbakuk Turner ceding his share of the inheritance to his brother John Turner III for £936. Such documents make it possible to determine who owned the house at different times. Right: This document is part of the 1771 probate of Mary Kitchen Turner, widow of John Turner II. The list shows what was considered to be her property, including three enslaved persons.


When furnishing a house, people reveal their tastes, priorities, and economic means. John Turner II’s room-by-room probate inventory reveals the layout of the home and furnishing plans. It also indicates the patterns of commerce and trade. The document features china, a mirror, sconces, and mezzotints in the “Best Room” and blue bed hangings and calico window curtains in the “Kitchen Chamber.”

Paintings provide a window into the appearance of another time. Several portraits of the Turner family painted by prominent artists survive: John Turner III, painted in 1737 by John Smibert; Eunice Brown Fitch, painted by Joseph Blackburn in 1760; and Mary Turner Sargent, painted by John Singleton Copley in 1763.

Eunice Brown Fitch was a niece of John Turner III. This portrait, by prominent painter Joseph Blackburn (d. 1787), connotes Fitch’s wealth and the sewing basket on the table to her right signals her domestic role. (Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum)

Only a few pieces of furniture are known to be original to The Gables. In the parlor, there is a Chippendale tilt-top tea table; in the dining room a set of chairs which belonged to Susanna Ingersoll’s mother; in the Nathaniel Hawthorne Birthplace, the author’s favorite chair.

This chair is part of a set of six in the dining room of the mansion. According to tradition, these belonged to Susanna Ingersoll (1784-1858), who lived in The Gables longer than any other resident in the house’s history.


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.

The “Diana” pattern (seen here) depicts the Greek goddess of the hunt with her bow and dog on the pedestal. The original paper was printed in Boston or Salem in the 1780s.


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.

Paint analysis uses microscopy to identify paint layers on architectural elements. A conservator takes small samples from around a room to be studied and compares stratigraphies from different elements to determine how the room evolved over time. The final report helps to guide restoration by documenting color schemes and advising on color choices.



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.

This photograph, taken for National Geographic by J.C. Clarke in 1929, accompanied A.E. Douglass’ article “The Secret of the Southwest Solved by Talkative Tree Rings.” Douglass wrote “Just as the far-famed Rosetta Stone provided the key to the written mysteries of Ancient Egypt, so the collection of an unbroken series of tree rings has made clear the chronology of the Southwest.” (Courtesy of the National Geographic Society)

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.

When the wane edge of the tree, the layer closest to the bark, can be found intact, the felling date of the tree can be identified to within six months. Using the Eastern Massachusetts chronology collection, dendrochronologists were able to date these samples from The House of the Seven Gables. Top to bottom: Oak, undated; Oak, winter 1667/68; Ash, summer 1676; Ash undated. (Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory)


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.

An example of a carpenter’s mark found in the attic of The House of the Seven Gables. Typically, these markings would be guides to assist in assembling the structure. If one looks closely around the attic of the house, many such markings can be seen.
Caroline Emmerton (1866-1942) and Joseph Chandler (1864-1945) studied the evidence in the house to determine how to make their restoration as accurate as possible in 1909 and 1910. In the sewing room, this fragment of beam was discovered which featured a mortise in the top to support a dormer which was later removed. They displayed the beam as evidence of how the house was once constructed.


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.

An assortment of artifacts excavated during the 1991 dig at The House of the Seven Gables. Pictured are a large iron nail, fragments of pottery, an arrowhead, a pig’s tooth, a speciman of mortar, and a clay pipe stem. To assist in interpreting artifacts, archaeologists consider their placement, proximity to other artifacts, and other contextual clues. Though these artifacts span several eras of the house’s history they were discovered in the same general area.

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.

Archaeologists begin by establishing a grid system to help record where objects are found. The team starts to move layers of earth using tools such as brushes, scalpels, dental picks, and plumb bobs. They record everything they find from changes in soil composition to historic objects.


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.

The Uptons used their home’s landscape as a place for leisure and recreation.

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.

Caroline Emmerton wanted to create an “old-fashioned” garden oasis that would be a place for retreat. Landscape architect Daniel J. Foley added many touches to the site throughout the latter part of the last century. He gave the garden its scale and sense of place. Since 1980, landscape designer M. Robyn Kanter, who worked with Foley for many years, has carried on his traditions.


What will future generations discover about The House of the Seven Gables? The possibilities are exciting. It would have been unimaginable to the antiquarians restoring the house in 1910 that dates would be established through scientific analysis of the wood or that the changing appearance of the rooms through time could be discovered through the analysis of paint and wallpaper. Still major questions exist and much research remains.

Preservation is a core piece of our mission at The House of the Seven Gables. As stewards of our National Historic Landmark District it is our responsibility to preserve our historic structures and grounds as wholly as possible for further study. The more that is understood about our houses, the better other structures can be understood. The methods of understanding house histories relies on large amounts of data. Other structures must also be preserved and studied. Each time a piece of our architectural history is lost, an untold wealth of information disappears.


Support for this exhibit was provided by Mass Cultural Council as well as our 350th anniversary sponsors, Soucy Insurance and The Salem Inn

We would also like to thank our panel sponsors David M. Hart, AIA; CTM Media Group; Peabody Essex Museum; Adelphi Paper Hangings, LLC; Red Barn Architecture; Merry Fox Realty; and Structures North Engineering Consultants, Inc.

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