Connected \\ June 22, 2021

Little-known female activist integral to Salem's historic preservation efforts

Donna Seger, a Professor of Medieval & Early Modern History at Salem State University, is behind the blog, Streets of Salem, where she shares her observations about culture, history and the material environment.

When I first heard the great news of a collaborative initiative by PEM and the city of Salem to provide enhanced stewardship and interpretation for one of Salem’s most vulnerable historical resources, the “Old Burying Point” on Charter Street, I was elated for several reasons: the prospect of increased protection for a venerable and sacred space; the opportunity to enter a historic house I have long admired; and a feeling that the woman who “discovered” that house hiding in plain sight would be very pleased indeed.

Samuel Pickman House

Samuel Pickman House. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

The Samuel Pickman House (about 1665), adjacent to both the cemetery and the Witch Trials Memorial, will be utilized as a Welcome Center for the cemetery, a fitting use for a structure of like vintage. One of only a few First Period structures in Salem on its original foundation, the Pickman House looks its age now, but 50 years ago it was a “seedy” rooming house with a mansard roof when real estate agent Elizabeth K. Reardon Frothingham spotted “a break in the corner post above the second-floor windows, just at the point where the steep, sloping roof of a 17th-century house would have belonged” while walking along Charter Street in the summer of 1965.

Photograph from PEM’s Phillips Library says

Elizabeth Reardon Frothingham is believed to be on the right. Chestnut Street Day luncheon, circa 1948, Almy, Butler, and Robson family papers, MSS 664, box 4, folder 5. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.

According to the story in The Boston Globe (“Housewife Discovers, Rescues 1660 Salem House” by Phyllis Coons, September 10, 1965), “Libby” Reardon Frothingham “talked her way in” to the house, and “there they were, those beautiful double summer beams!” that she had learned all about from her mentor, the eminent architectural historian Abbot Lowell Cummings. With the latter’s counsel, the Pickman House was restored by Historic Salem, Inc. and purchased by PEM in 1983.

Pen drawings of two houses

The recognition and restoration of the Pickman House was not only a key moment in the preservation of Salem’s history; it was a key moment in Salem’s history. Despite its architectural pedigree, Salem was faced with a sweeping and imminent threat of urban “renewal” in 1965, represented by the Salem Redevelopment Authority’s plan to demolish much of its downtown: 145 of 177 buildings were marked for “clearance,” and a new four-lane highway built to bring cars right into the center of the streamlined city, routed adjacent to East India Marine Hall on the present site of the PEM’s recent addition.

© Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Aislinn Weidele/Ennead Architects

The discovery of the Pickman House raised the possibility of other treasures hidden by ungainly roofs, siding and facades in Salem’s downtown, and galvanized opposition to the renewal plan: the unrestored house was featured prominently on the front page of The New York Times in Ada Louise Huxtable’s influential article “Urban Renewal Threatens Historic Buildings in Salem, Mass.” a mere month later. Ultimately, the 1965 plan was abandoned for one which focused more on rehabilitation and integration than demolition as a path towards Salem’s renewal.

NYT newspaper article

Huxtable is often credited for having “saved” Salem from urban renewal through her amplified influence, but for me it’s all about Elizabeth Reardon Frothingham and her local colleagues, on the ground, in the streets, and in endless committee meetings. The same year that she scored the great victory of the Pickman discovery, Frothingham (and Salem) suffered a great loss when a rare brick Georgian commercial building, the Philip Saunders House on Essex Street, was demolished by the city to create a parking lot for just 13 cars. When questioned by The Boston Globe reporter as to why concerned citizens couldn’t just raise the requisite funds to purchase and restore the house, Frothingham replied “The citizens of Salem are already supporting so many historical projects that private funds are no longer adequate,” indicating that the preservation community was stretched very thin.

Yet she was clearly its leader, assuming the presidency of Historic Salem, Inc., instituting its pioneering historic plaque program, contributing to the purchase of yet another vulnerable 17th-century structure, the Gedney House on High Street, by Historic New England, serving on the city of Salem’s Design Review Board, and writing countless inventory reports on Salem buildings to provide documentation for the expansion of historic districts.

Daniel Bray House sign

PEM’s Bray House bears one of the city’s historic plaques. Photo by Dinah Cardin.

Elizabeth K. Reardon Frothingham died in 1983, the same year that PEM purchased the Pickman House and about a decade before I came to Salem. I wish I had met her in person, but nevertheless she has still inspired me for decades: from my time as a plaque researcher for Historic Salem to the creation and keeping of my blog on history and culture, Streets of Salem, 11 years old and counting. Its title is both metaphorical and literal, and when I am walking down the actual streets of Salem, I feel like I’m walking down Mrs. Frothingham’s path, a well-marked one.

The family papers of Elizabeth K. (Butler) Reardon Frothingham are in PEM’s Phillips Library (Almy, Butler, and Robson family papers, MSS 664) as are her Historic District Committee reports and records of the Salem Redevelopment Authority during the Urban Renewal era.

Almy, Butler, and Robson family papers, 1804-1982, MSS 664. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.

Cummings, Abbott L., Letter to David T. Gavenda, November 15, 1973, Almy, Butler, and Robson family papers, MSS 664, box 2, folder 7. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA

Mayor Kim Driscoll and representatives from the City and PEM cut the ribbon on the new Welcome Center on June 30. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Mayor Kim Driscoll and representatives from the City and PEM cut the ribbon on the new Welcome Center on June 30. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Listen to a past episode of PEM’s award-winning podcast, the PEMcast, to hear more about historic preservation in Salem and Ada Louise Huxtable’s success in fighting urban renewal. Go HERE to episode PEMcast 008.1: Historic House Crush.

To explore the Pickman House further, take a listen to our new series PEM Walks, audio postcards from our historic house collection.

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