Writers’ Houses: Seven Surprises from the House of Seven Gables

Salem, MA is not the tiny, forest-choked hamlet I’d always imagined. It’s a breezy harbor town of mazy streets lined with roomy mansions. Like Concord, MA there is a cosmopolitan feel that overlays the small town charm. The elegance and deep quiet of the place withstand the kitschy occultism of Essex Street and the downtown, which have been cashing in on the witch trials of 1692 for at least 150 years (more on that in a later post).

At the far end of town on some prime land overlooking the harbor is The House of the Seven Gables. The tour guides call it the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, but the signs and everybody else call it by the name that Hawthorne gave it, also the title of his great novel.

I’ll confess haven’t read the novel, but I have been on the tour, and here are seven things that surprised me.

1. The house did not have seven gables when Hawthorne saw it. He was having dinner with his cousin Susannah Ingersoll, lady of the house, when she mentioned that she remembered the place with seven gables in her youth. By the late 1840s, when she and Hawthorne met, her father Captain Ingersoll had long ago demolished three of the gables (triangular extensions of the roofline) to give the mansion a more streamlined modern feel. After learning of the house’s old appearance, Hawthorne raced to the attic to puzzle out where the gables had been. Today, because of the novel he wrote, the gables and the house have been restored.

2. The pine floorboards in the attic are no wider than 32-inches, because all trees that afforded any larger planks had to be shipped back to England by edict of the King, to form the hulls of ships in the Royal Navy.

3. At one point, three slaves lived in the attic. We know they lived in the attic because an inventory lists the slaves along with the other “property” that was stored there. The museum staff are looking through plantation records in Barbados, where they think the slaves may have been sold, to learn more about them, but for now they are only three names on a list.

4. The cent shop on the ground floor is not original to the house, but an early 20th-Century recreation of the one that appears in Hawthorne’s novel. Families built cent shops into their homes to sell what the industrious mothers and children of the house made by hand—baskets, dried herbs, tallow candles, etc. Both the Turners and the Ingersolls were too wealthy to need a cent shop, but one was added in the house’s restoration to satisfy the romantic expectations of museum goers.

5. Behind a panel in the dining room is a secret passage that leads to the attic. It’s a claustrophobic climb up two and a half stories through the undulating brick tube that used to be the chimney. Like the cent shop, it was built for charm over function.

6. Susannah Ingersoll, Hawthorne’s cousin and frequent entertainer, whom he nicknamed “The Duchess,” never married, likely because she didn’t want to be forced to hand over her family’s considerable fortune to her husband. So she went into business for herself and made an additional family fortune trading real estate in the Salem area.

7. Hawthorne’s childhood home is just across the garden, but it was originally down the street. It was moved to its current location in the 1950s to avoid being demolished. I like to think that it was in the kitchen near the massive brick fireplace that would’ve warmed the house 365-days a year, that Hawthorne heard and read the tales which first kindled his own genius. I started tapping the words of this post in the very same kitchen.

I’m heading to Concord later this autumn and maybe to Sleepy Hollow, too so more writer’s houses to come. And more on Salem later this week.

Me, with the House of Seven Gables. The new sections were added after a record string of storms last winter, which the 350-year old house withstood better than the 20th-Century visitors’ center.

The hearth that warmed Hawthorne’s childhood.

The Ha(w)thorne House.