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      Connected | November 16, 2023

      Dreaming of a white whale at PEM’s Andrew-Safford House

      Victor Oliveira

      Written by

      Victor Oliveira


      When PEM staff members – with our collective expertise and creativity – come together, the results are nothing short of spectacular.

      That’s why when Historic Salem, Inc. approached us to participate in the Christmas in Salem historic house walking tour and informed us that this year’s theme was unconventional, our response was "bring it on." We are a team full of creatives in lighting and exhibition design, merchandising, marketing and curation. So, if you want an unconventional take on holiday decorations, buckle up, kids! You’ve come to the right place.

      Like most, we are also very house-proud and eager to invite people into PEM’s beloved Andrew-Safford House while it’s spruced up for guests. The home has always drawn curiosity and love, with its four colossal columns and its distinctive carriage house (current home of Goodnight Fatty cookies). The chance to get a peek inside wouldn’t be possible without our incredible Facilities crew, who are crucial when it comes to keeping PEM’s historic homes and gardens in order. After the crew finished their cleanup, we turned our attention to the exhibition schedule to find inspiration for our decorating theme.

      Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.
      Corinthian columns at the Andrew Safford House. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

      This summer, PEM will be opening the exhibition Draw Me Ishmael: The Book Arts of Moby Dick, in our Phillips Library gallery, featuring exquisite copies of the American classic Moby Dick. So, we decided to use Herman Melville’s novel as inspiration for a holiday journey. Our theme for the decorations will be “I'm Dreaming of a White Whale,” and it will be our own interpretation of the salty story. Each room is based on a popular quote from the novel. For curious ticket holders and for those who can’t join the tour in person, I’ll do my best to share our watery vision here. Every room will have a quote from the book and other subtle references (including a whale or two) will be hidden throughout the house.

      Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM
      Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

      “It is not down on any map; true places never are."

      The first room we envisioned was Captain Ahab’s quarters, decorated in a traditional manner for a mid-19th-century Christmas. The room is adorned with nautical references, green and red decorations and handmade paper chains on the tree. The exquisite hand-carved fireplace in this space is its own form of decoration.

      “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing.”

      Crossing through the main entrance of the house, we take you to a shoreline scene. The sights and sounds there will lure you into the undersea journey that awaits. As you gaze upwards, take your time and appreciate the ornate staircase and all the architectural features of the entryway.

      “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.....”

      Next, you’ll enter our underwater dining room scene. Although we went all in on the “azure” theme, our portrayal of ocean creatures is hardly menacing or treacherous. We took creative liberties and made them look a little more festive than Ishmael, Moby Dick’s narrator, suggests. Furnishings to look for in this room include a beautiful marble mantle, a crystal chandelier and a tall gilded mirror.

      Rebecca Barber and Chris Stepler from our Collections department hang jellyfish in the Safford House. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      "For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations."

      Rebecca Barber and Chris Stepler from our Collections department hang jellyfish in the Safford House. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      As you enter the Andrew-Safford library, the undersea theme continues with a group of jellyfish hovering above you. We have kept them separate from the other sea creatures, and the library is a perfect setting – we imagine these jellies to be the bookish, somewhat solitary type, but with a stinging intellect. However, we did add some festive toppers to our illuminated invertebrates. Take a moment to appreciate the inset library shelves and imagine closing the pocket doors of this space to settle down with a good book on a snowy afternoon in Salem.

      'Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!"

      Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM
      Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      Of course, Ahab met his end with this dramatic quote, but whether or not the great white whale survived is up to interpretation. In our version, he certainly does – and has a grand victory celebration with his fishy friends. We imagine that after Ahab's ship, the Pequod, is destroyed by the whale, all the treasures on the ship fall to the sea floor. Among them is a tree that lands upside down and is taken over by all the sea critters. Can you spot Ahab's relinquished harpoon? This final room on your journey showcases a beautiful chandelier, hovering about the wreck below.

      We aim to offer a unique experience to visitors by showcasing the stunning interior of a historic house in a new and creative way. There is something for everyone to enjoy. And we don't want to give all the surprises away, so come and take the journey with us!

      Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      Afterwards, join us outside in the garden, where PEM staff members will be available to answer questions about the Andrew-Safford House and its history. According to our Manager of Historic Structures and Landscapes Steven Mallory, this “extravagant mansion” was designed in the Federal style by an unknown architect and built for John Andrew, a Salem merchant specializing in trade with Russia. One of the reasons we know about the construction of this house in such detail is that diarist Rev. William Bentley lived just a few hundred yards away and documented the whole process, including the day he watched the towering front columns being hoisted into place. Much of the interior woodwork is by Joseph True, a master wood carver from Salem who apprenticed with Samuel McIntire. John Andrew went to extraordinary expense to build this house, and the solid mahogany doors throughout still retain their original mercury glass knobs.

      For those interested in Salem architecture, I highly recommend checking out the updated 40th-anniversary edition of Architecture in Salem by Bryant Tolles, a former director of our institution. This illustrated guidebook meticulously chronicles almost all of the historic homes in Salem. You can find it at the PEM Shop. Visit us on the same day as your Christmas in Salem tour and show your ticket stub to receive a 25% discount on the book.

      A big THANK YOU goes out to the folks at Historic Salem Inc. for featuring PEM on their tour. We appreciate their hard work in bringing this event to life year after year. It’s something that many of us look forward to, and it is a big undertaking, executed beautifully with a lot of dedication and heart.

      And also an even bigger THANK YOU to our loyal staff of volunteers and interpreters who will be stationed inside the house for the duration of the event, and to those who helped decorate and prepare the interior. This tour would not have been possible without the PEM staff members and volunteer docents who generously donated their time.

      Moby Dick book cover

      Happy Holidays! For more information on the Christmas in Salem house tour on December 2 and 3, and to purchase tickets, go to and see this story in The Salem News. For more on the Andrew-Safford House, visit PEM Walks, our audio storytelling series that unlocks PEM’s historic houses. For holiday gifts such as the Spanish edition of Moby Dick, visit the PEM Shop online.

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