SALEM — A landmark building with ties to Nathaniel Hawthorne has become the center of controversy as some conservatives support plans for renovations and additions, while others try to block it.
As of Monday afternoon, an online petition to ‘Save the Grimshawe House’ had garnered more than 4,100 signatures – but one was from the owner of the business carrying out the project.
“I went online and signed the petition to stop me from turning this building into condos,” said Walter Beebe-Center, owner of Essex Restoration. He wants to restore the property to its original historic appearance and build five apartments inside.
The Essex Restoration plan is under discussion before the historic commission on Wednesday.
The three-story home at 53 Charter St. sits next to The Burying Point, the city’s oldest cemetery, and is beloved for its connection to famed Salem writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The house was built in the early 1700s and extensively remodeled in the 1790s. In 1835 it passed into the hands of Salem dentist Nathaniel Peabody, whose three daughters – Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia – all became historically notable . Sophia married Hawthorne; Mary married Horace Mann, the first superintendent of schools in Massachusetts; and Lizzie, who remained unmarried, was a well-known publisher and educator credited with promoting the kindergarten movement in America.
Hawthorne used the house as a setting in “Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret” and “Dolliver’s Romance”.
In the 1900s, it became a rooming house, and at some point a barber shop in the basement was added, according to Beebe-Center. It is now owned by a Peabody family trust.
Beebe-Center was hired more than two years ago to begin restoring much of the property, but the project was put on hold due to a death in the Peabody family.
That is, of course, until last week when plans for a new renovation project at Grimshawe House emerged on social media.
Some angry voices
The reaction was swift, with some fearing the house would be destroyed or lose its historic value, and others praising the effort to restore the property.
The petition to stop the project stated that the proposal “is to turn this important piece of Salem history into more condominiums! This has been the fate of house after house in Salem over the past decade, but we cannot not allow the house of Grimshawe-Peabody to fall prey to the same death!”
In fact, the project aims to convert the building into five apartments, not a condominium. A first floor unit would be reserved for a property manager, and the rest of the first floor is currently identified as “office space”, according to the plans. This would be done in part with an addition on the inside corner of the L-shaped building, new construction which would not be visible from Charter Street or the nearby cemetery. The other two floors would have two apartments each.
“We started looking at the ultimate safeguard for this building and how to make the building financially self-sufficient,” Beebe-Center said. “The family can’t afford to operate a building in downtown Salem that can’t be a single family residence. It’s hard to park, it’s inconvenient for a family with young children. .”
Although it’s labeled as office space, three rooms on the first floor would eventually become a historic library, Beebe-Center said.
“It would be a library, a library for visiting scholars,” he said. “There is information about this house and these individuals scattered around Salem. If we can piece together various items and have them all in one place, I think that would be really good.”
The Historical Commission has no legal jurisdiction over the property, as it is not located in a historic district. Essex Restoration is voluntarily seeking input from the commission, hoping to gain its influential support before presenting the plan to the Salem Redevelopment Authority, which has jurisdiction.
“We are delighted that the owners have chosen – on their own initiative – to appear before the Historical Commission not only for support but also for advice, and we encourage others to do so,” said Jessica Herbert, president of the Commission. “It is a privilege to be part of historic restoration, especially in parts of the city not covered by historic districts, and we are very happy to reach out to other councils to support excellent restoration.”
One issue facing the project, however, is the status of the historic materials used inside.
“The entire interior of the building has been altered by it being turned into a rooming house, so very little of the original material remains,” Beebe-Center said. “We know the main staircase is ancient and dates from the late 1700s, and we are optimistic that we will find original materials in the two front rooms.”
Herbert also played down concerns about the addition diminishing the historic value of the property.
“We want to look at the addition,” she said, “but historically that’s what happened with the first houses. As families grew, additions were added. It can be a very appropriate historical addition.”
The ultimate goal of the project, Beebe-Center said, is to restore a historic property to its former glory.
“We want to save the building, restore it to its original state, salvage everything we can inside and allow someone to live in it and enjoy it,” he said. “We’ll get back to it. We’ll pick up where we left off as soon as we have those approvals online.”
The project will be discussed Wednesday, February 6, at a meeting of the Salem Historical Commission, which begins at 7 p.m. in the First Floor Conference Room of the City Hall Annex, 98 Washington St. Le Grimshawe house plan is the seventh item on the agenda.
Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or [email protected] Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.