The house — now more a mansion, really — is a mix of fact and fiction, on more than one level.
John Turner, a sea captain turned successful merchant, built it 350 years ago on the waterfront in Salem, Mass., and for more than a century the home stayed in the Turner family. As their wealth grew, Turner and his son, John Turner II, converted the postmedieval structure into a comfortable, Georgian mansion with elegant paneling, moldings, and expensive wallpaper and furniture.
That is the fact.
The fiction is that through the years and several owners, many of the furnishings were replaced and the interior remodeled, until an owner in the early 1900s wanted to convert the house into a museum and restored it so that most of the interior and furniture today reflects that Georgian style.
Another mix of fact and fiction stems from an owner who inherited the property in 1811 and one of the frequent guests there.
That frequent guest was author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
This is the House of the Seven Gables, which was also the name of his 1851 novel.
After wealthy philanthropist Caroline Emmerton purchased the house, in 1908, in addition to restoring much of the house to its Georgian-era splendor, she arranged other rooms to suggest scenes from Hawthorne’s novel, in preparation for opening the mansion as a museum. (She used admission fees to fund a settlement association philanthropy based on the work of social reformer and activist Jane Addams to assist the many Polish immigrants in the neighborhood in adapting to an American way of life.)
Our enthusiastic guide, Lehan Morley, greeted us at the house, leading us into a small, dark kitchen with an enormous fireplace, the only room in the house restored to its 17th-century appearance. Our heads practically touched the ceiling. A chowder pot, tea kettle, and frying pan were hanging from hooks in the hearth. The empty pot alone weighed 50 pounds.
Adjacent to the kitchen is the Cent Shop. I recognized this as the purely fictional place where Hawthorne’s Hepzibah Pyncheon opened a store in the opening pages of his novel.
We next emerged into the dining room, where large, double-sash windows let in the late morning brightness to illuminate the painted moldings and fabric wallpaper. This room reflects the style of John Turner II, the wealthiest of the house’s owners. Canton porcelain dishes on the table and paintings of Macao on the walls show the link between Salem and the China trade.
Most of the furniture on display is not original to the occupants. Morley said Emmerton had access to inventories of the Turners and was able to acquire similar furnishings.
A hidden door in the dining room leads to a narrow staircase that twists and turns up to the second floor. This secret staircase was just wide enough for my shoulders to fit between the brick walls. My wife, much smaller than I, had no problem nimbly climbing the stairs leading to a second-floor garret.
When I was a kid growing up in Salem, there were all kinds of stories about why the staircase was there. Was it a refuge for accused witches or a stop on the Underground Railroad? I was disappointed to learn that Emmerton created this space during the reconstruction of the house as an attraction for visitors.
From the garret, we ducked through a Hobbit-size door and entered the attic.
“This is one of the oldest domestic locations in America,” Morley said, referring to the sleeping place of Joan Sullivan, a Gaelic-speaking indentured servant to the first John Turner. “All the skeletal beams, the majority of the bricks in the chimney, and insulation is actually from 350 years ago.”
Morley then led us downstairs to John Turner II’s accounting room, where he kept his funds and paid his crews. Today, it is interpreted as the room where Col. Pyncheon was found dead in Hawthorne’s novel, the victim of a curse.
The Great Chamber bedroom features cushioned window seats, a lovely canopy bed with yellow valances highlighted in red and green, and a wooden highboy. A portrait of John Turner III hangs on the wall, the only known one from the Turner family.
The final room of the house tour is the parlor. Morley pointed out chairs and a table that belonged to Susannah Ingersoll, the owner who was a cousin of Hawthorne’s and hosted him as a guest. The green-pigmented verdigris paint and hand-drawn, individually stenciled wallpaper with a flower pattern in pinks, yellows, and blues dates to the Turners. Portraits on the wall are of Susannah Ingersoll in her late 40s and Hawthorne at 36. A pianoforte, mandolin, and clarinet, as well as a mah-jongg game, seem to await players.
One of the charms of the House of the Seven Gables is its location at the end of Turner Street (Hawthorne’s Pyncheon Street), overlooking Salem Harbor. The grounds of this National Historic Landmark contain several preserved Salem houses, including the Hawthorne birthplace, all moved here by the timely intervention of Emmerton to save them from the wrecking ball. I enjoyed the lovely Seaside Garden amid the lilacs and tulips that were blooming during my visit. The garden’s wisteria arbor, trellises, raised flower boxes, and view of the harbor make it an ideal spot to relax.
Sitting there, I thought about Emmerton’s settlement association, today one of about 50 remaining in the country. When I was a child, it provided social services for needy families in the neighborhood. The program’s mission has changed over the years, just as the house has changed.
Those Polish immigrants have been replaced by many of Hispanic origin. The Gables Settlement Association, in partnership with other organizations, offers summer enrichment programs, ESL and citizenship classes, and community dialogues. It is still supported by museum admission fees.
The House of the Seven Gables. Forty-minute guided tours are offered 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily roughly July through October, until 5 p.m. other times of the year. Admission: $15; seniors (65) and students, $14; youths (13-18), $12; children (5 to 12), $10; younger children, free. Information: 978-744-0991 or 7gables.org.
General information: salem.org