Connected \\ February 27, 2019

Following forensic evidence

Passers-by on Brown Street near the museum have perhaps taken notice of the scaffolding and full wrapping of the Daniel Bray House, a PEM historic property. This project is a huge push forward for our historic buildings program and kicks off our global reinterpretation effort of all of PEM’s historic buildings.

The museum hasn’t undertaken a comprehensive restoration of this scale since 1959 with the Crowninshield-Bentley House. The Gardner- Pingree House was a milestone interior restoration, back in 1989. But even these two past restorations didn’t involve recreating from scratch entire chimneys, walls and staircases, or bringing something back from a dilapidated state, which is what the Bray House project entails.

Bray House stairs

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer

For the Bray House, we’ve relied on forensic study and research. Our ongoing plans for a full restoration were finally approved in December and we quickly got to work. This requires the skills of a team of three restoration carpenters, two restoration chimney masons — and down the road — a historic restoration plasterer and scientific analysis of interior paints to determine the original color schemes of the rooms.

Daniel Bray House sign

But first, a little history: though the house was initially constructed in 1766 by Benjamin Bray, it was completely renovated inside and out and expanded to the rear in 1806 by his son Daniel, who was a master mariner and rigger. Daniel captained merchant ships for John Derby and Joseph Peabody on voyages as far away as Mocha and Calcutta. Today, virtually nothing of the 1766 house remains except for the frame. However, a watershed of data survives to determine its appearance in 1806, which is the target date of our restoration.

The 800-square-foot home is a window into the economic and social history of Salem, and therefore America, at the time. When Benjamin Bray initially built the house, this wasn’t one of Salem’s elite neighborhoods, but during the lifetime of his son Daniel, it became one of the wealthiest in Salem. The Gardner-Pingree House, one of Salem’s finest mansions and abutting to the south, was built just two years before Daniel inherited his father’s house, replacing a much older, more modest dwelling. Daniel Bray remained a working-class tradesmen, increasingly surrounded by the new mansions of Salem’s wealthiest citizens.

Brown St. corner of Washington Sq. West," October 1910, FPH000533

Brown St. corner of Washington Sq. West," October 1910, FPH000533, Salem Streets. Courtesy Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem MA

Bray enjoyed an unobstructed view of Salem Common, but 12 years after he renovated the house, Safford built his mansion a mere 18 inches away, blocking Bray’s view, which remains blocked today. What Bray did see from his rear second floor window was Richard Crowninshield skulking around the Gardner-Pingree House, right before the murder of wealthy merchant Joseph White. This led to Bray becoming a witness in the most famous murder trial of the early 19th-century, prosecuted by Daniel Webster. 

The Bray House has been owned by PEM for many years, acquired by the Essex Institute in the early 1930s. It served as a residence from 1766 until about 1903, when it was converted to commercial use. The front façade was fitted with large storefront windows and the interior floor plan opened up for retail use. In the early 20th century, a candy and confectionery company was located on the first floor. In 1914 it became a small neighborhood grocery store and later was home to several other retail enterprises.

In the late 1990s the second floor was lived in by PEM’s assistant gardener. But by the early 2000s the building was no longer in use. The Salem Fire Department determined that it was so structurally deteriorated that it would be unsafe for firefighters to enter the building in the event of a fire. A giant red X was placed on the front door. By that time it was clear that the Bray House required future planning and consideration.

Fast-forward to 2011, when Finch and Rose, preservation consultants were hired to study the building and make a determination of its historic integrity. Carefully peeling away the accumulations of 20th-century materials, they discovered a wealth of information for the building’s 1806 appearance, including many areas of intact plaster and original woodwork. Clear evidence for missing features survived as well. However, serious structural problems were uncovered, including rotten sills, a deteriorated foundation and areas of advanced decay. Beginning in 2012 a first round of major structural repairs was made. This included fixing the foundation and replacing the entire first-floor framing. Many major structural timbers were also repaired. 

Bray house

From 2013 to 2018 other progress was made, mostly involving slowly jacking up sagging timbers to prepare them for a major restoration of the building, while also accumulating the funding for such a restoration. The roof is being repaired from the inside out, which is a complicated process, involving a series of carefully engineered trusses to be installed that will allow the deteriorated historic roof framing to remain in place as a record of the building’s construction, while being relieved of their long duty supporting weight. The 1950s store windows have been removed and the front façade re-framed to reconstruct the original locations of the front windows and door.

As winter progresses into the spring, the last of the structural work will be completed and a new roof covering of wooden shingles installed. The missing center chimney will be reconstructed, and historically correct windows and door installed on the front façade. In the spring the scaffolding will be removed and restoration work on the interior will continue, involving reconstruction of the staircase, missing wall partitions, woodwork and plaster.

bray house wall

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer

The exterior building envelope will hopefully be finished this fall and it will be beautiful. When it’s finished, it will be it’s 1806 self, to the highest standards that we can attain for accuracy and quality. Stay tuned for future updates as we hit the next exciting milestones.

drawing bray house

For more on the history of the Bray House and PEM’s ongoing restoration, see this recent article from the Salem Gazette.

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