September 06: Salem

2012/09/06 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1628 colonists settled Salem, Massachusetts.

The Puritans who organized here, originally as an independent place later swept into the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sought their own devotional peace but were not interested in extending it to others.  Outwardly hostile to other faiths, their brethren in Boston hanged three Quakers in the mid-seventeenth century.  Most infamously, Salem itself is the site of the eponymous witch trials that began in 1692 that caused the death of two dozen people, nineteen of them by hanging.  If that history was not enough to ensure its position as one of America’s creepiest places, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The House of the Seven Gables (published in 1851 and given cinematic treatment in 1940, with Vincent Price, natch) sealed the deal.

To what extent are the seventeenth-century structures of Salem sullied by these associations, or is there something in their character that enhances the historically menacing quality of this place?  The houses built in Salem (and elsewhere) during the seventeenth century have a brooding, ponderous quality,enhanced by their sharp edges and massive scale and generated by their heavy timber framing and foreboding darkness of tone.  They possess a kind of architectural reticence generated by the retiring quality of big buildings with tiny windows, buttoned up with tight clapboard to stave off the winter wind, the examinations of neighbors and passers-by, and maybe other less evident, more nefarious threats in the air.  They examine us too, like dark-clad critics peering from tiny eyes in those portraits that so define our ideas about the harsh, ascetic Puritans themselves.

In actuality the early buildings of Salem are simply vernacular, Tudor-era traditions of house design imported with the colonists, adapted to their new setting and built of easily available local materials.  And yet by this specificity to the place, and no doubt given the legacy of the first settlers, Salem’s early architecture is awash in a kind of menacing dread that certainly was not the intention of its settlers, who named their town with a derivation of the Hebrew word shalom, “peace.”

Image: the “House of the SEven Gables” (from this source)


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