The House of Seven Gables
Everything old is new again
Written by Rochelle Greayer
Photographed by Joseph St.Pierre
Produced by Marsha Jusczak
Modern museum curators are breathing new life into the historic House of Seven Gables, immortalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel. Built in 1668 in Salem, Massachusetts, it is New England’s oldest surviving wood mansion house.
Throughout its long history, the property—lovingly referred to by locals as “The Gables”—has evolved through many cycles of restoration and reinvention. Built during the Colonial period for the Turners, one of an emerging class of aristocratic families, it was later updated during the Federal period by Captain Samuel Ingersoll, who reduced its famed seven gables to three.
Samuel Ingersoll’s daughter, Susannah Ingersoll, cousin of Nathaniel Hawthorne, inherited the house upon her mother’s death (Samuel Ingersoll died earlier at sea). Hawthorne frequented the house as a guest of his cousin, and there found inspiration for his much-loved novel, The House of the Seven Gables. In the novel, Hawthorne weaves a story around several generations of the fictitious Pyncheon family who were tied to the house and a curse that repeatedly haunted them, the tale unfolding ultimately in a somewhat happy ending.
In the early 1900s, one of the first activists in historic Colonial Revivalism, Caroline Osgood Emmerton, realized the popularity of The Gables as a literary and historical destination. With the help of Colonial Revival architect Joseph Chandler, she returned the house to its former seven-gabled glory and restored the mansion to a literal interpretation of the house in Hawthorne’s novel. The wooden clapboard siding, blackened over time for example, is a showpiece element of the museum today.
With proceeds from guided tours that highlighted scenes from Hawthorne’s novel (to the delight of hundreds of thousands of visitors), Miss Emmerton founded The Settlement, an organization that provided support for immigrants and others who lived in the surrounding Salem neighborhood at the time. The organization continues to be funded today by visitors and provides assistance to persons in need.
Under Miss Emmerton’s direction, other historic buildings, including the childhood home of Nathaniel Hawthorne, were gradually moved to the site. All are now nestled in a Colonial Revival-style garden and set behind an original eighteenth-century granite sea wall.
Architectural details of the houses have undergone extensive scientific research in recent decades to ensure historical accuracy, with the goal of reproducing design elements according to much of the original owners’ intent. Paint finishes have been restored using antique techniques, and textiles have been recreated with meticulous accuracy using original weaving methods. Visitors can glimpse a fuller image of the life and times of all of the previous inhabitants while touring The Gables.
Missing for many years, however, were recreations of the visual and decorative details that would reveal the personal stories of its former inhabitants. Drawing upon its long history of seasonal celebrations, in 2009 The Gables reinstated an old tradition: Christmas at The Gables. Teams of designers from all over the North Shore of Massachusetts were invited to recreate visions of past Christmases in many of the individual rooms.
“Our intent with all the décor was to give a sense that the families who lived here might have just stepped into the other room,” says Alan Collachicco, museum curator and chair of the holiday event. Its success led to the idea of reinterpreting many of the rooms in the house with a mind towards telling the story of the house and its early inhabitants and creating a “lived-in” feel.
Kevin White, director of maintenance and preservation, is in charge of the buildings at the museum and shared with Collachicco a long-forgotten collection of accessories and furnishings that was stored in the gables of the mansion house. Realizing the extraordinary nature of these original-period tables, chairs and other household goods, Collachicco used the pieces to recreate settings of early American life in the houses. There is the Accounting Room, where Captain Ingersoll might have worked, and in the Dining Room, the table is set for an informal family meal complete with period utensils, including glass rinsers (eighteenth-century Irish glass used to rinse glasses between courses) and a dumbwaiter where china and glassware from the evening meal was placed. The new displays are ever-evolving, and Collachicco plans to take cues continually from the seasons to refresh the displays.
“The house has come back to life,” said Amy Waywell, the museum’s director of marketing and visitor services. Her comment does not lack irony. For anyone who has read Hawthorne’s novel might recognize in Alan and his team a modern-day incarnation of Phoebe Pyncheon: “Her arrival is a breath of fresh air; she comes to the house of the seven gables, throws open her windows, rearranges her room and coaxes the garden back to health and beauty, she is a natural domestic that brightens the house with optimism and life.”