Connected \\ January 11, 2019

Preserving historic homes and their stories

When Steven Mallory thinks about his childhood, he still remembers the distinct sweet aroma from the fresh wood shavings created while in his grandfather’s cabinet-making shop. He readily recalls the smell of wood smoke, curling from the fireplaces of the historic houses that his mother took him to visit.

Ever since I was young, the minute you told me something was very old, you had my attention, he says.


Lucky for PEM, he never outgrew his childhood interests. Mallory recently joined the staff as the Manager of Historic Structures and Landscapes where he will oversee PEM’s architecture collection, the largest of any American art museum. The collection is comprised of 22 noted historic structures, including four properties designated as National Historic Landmarks and six properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


© 2017 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola


Steven Mallory reveals some of the discoveries found in the Ward House. Photo credit Allison White.

“In addition to being a noted scholar, lecturer and architectural conservator, Steven is trained in restoration carpentry, fine woodworking and landscaping. Perhaps his greatest asset, however, is his boundless enthusiasm and contagious passion for historic structures,” says Robert Monk, PEM’s Chief of Security, Facilities Operations and Planning. “Steven brings an unmatched set of theoretical and practical skills to his role at PEM.”

Following his role as Manager of Preservation at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, Mallory got a chance to work directly with PEM as lead architectural conservator at Groundroot Preservation Group. The museum hired the firm to provide detailed analysis of more than a dozen of the museum’s historic properties, developing preservation and long-term planning recommendations.

Now, as a full-time PEM staff member, Mallory is working to preserve a Federal-style garden behind the Gardner-Pingree House and spruce up the Essex Street block by replacing a dilapidated wooden fence on Brown Street with an iron and brick one. Alongside craftsmen, he’s restored shutters on several of the historic houses.


In addition to preservation, Mallory seeks to bring these structures to life through the stories of those who lived there for more than 300 years.

Since last fall, Mallory has pored over historic documents and curatorial research to learn more about the residents of these houses. Some of these stories include: the slave history of PEM’s Crowninshield-Bentley House in the 18th century; the Irish servants who worked in the Gardner-Pingree and Safford houses in the 19th century; and the many fortunes won and lost across Salem.

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George Ropes, Crowninshield's Wharf, 1806. Oil on canvas. Gift of Nathaniel Silsbee, 1862. Peabody Essex Museum 2007 Photography by M Sexton
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Robert Hinkley, Portrait of Jacob Crowninshield, mid-19th century. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mr. William C. Endicott, 1888. © 2009 Peabody Essex Museum Photography by Mark Sexton

“I’m particularly interested in the swashbuckling way in which the Brahmin class lived, and how these who were newly rich just after the Revolution managed their finances,” says Mallory. “It must have been a tremendous amount of stress. I liken it to the hedge fund manager today. They often bet their entire fortune on one ship coming in with goods.

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© 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

I want these houses to reflect actual human activity and not just the contents of a probate inventory,” says Mallory, who just might be adding to the atmosphere of one of the houses himself, by creating a  forensic reproduction of a rare spinet harpsichord in PEM’s collection, made by Salem craftsman Samuel Blythe in 1789. Even before working at PEM, Mallory sought permission to take measurements, photographs and rubbings in order to accurately reproduce the instrument. It’s now well on its way to completion.

According to surviving inventory, the two rooms Reverend William Bentley rented on the second floor of what is today known as the Crowninshield-Bentley House were densely packed with his possessions, in what appears to have been a hoarding situation. His library of 4,000 volumes  was one of the largest in America. The prolific diarist was a collector of curiosities -- a giant clam shell, a human skull, piles of prints and paintings, 25 sets of book shelves, carved busts of famous people, Roman antiquities, alcohol-filled jars containing specimens of snakes and lizards and endless other odds and ends.


© 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

© 2017 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Bob Packert

One of the most exciting discoveries involving PEM’s historic houses happened while Mallory was consulting. He and his team spent quite a bit of time on the 17th-century John Ward House, peeling back layers and layers, only to to learn that George Francis Dow, responsible for the building’s Colonial Revival renovation, inadvertently left a ton of information behind. “It’s in the details,” says Mallory. “Small things have big implications.” There is sufficient data in the building to do a cutting edge restoration to turn the Ward House into the most up to date, accurate, compelling look at how life was lived in the 17th-century.


Steven Mallory investigating the small treasures found in the Ward House. Photo credit Allison White.

Steven Mallory points out some of the structural details of the Ward House. Photo credit Allison White.

Steven Mallory points out some of the structural details of the Ward House. Photo credit Allison White.

The artistic and interpretative possibilities at PEM are myriad,” Mallory says, reveling in the future opportunities to tell stories about each of the houses. “I look forward to unlocking new narratives and experiences that bridge the past and the present and ignite our collective imagination.
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