The H7G Blog

House of the Seven Gables: History and Memory and Forgetting

When did Nathaniel Hawthorne Build the House of the Seven Gables?

I get this question a lot.

And the answer is always easy: Hawthorne literally built the House of the Seven Gables in 1851. And by literally, I mean figuratively

I’m kind of poking fun at the way that many people seem to conflate the novel and the House. But in a way, this type of conflation speaks to the extent to which the House and the Book are linked in the American mind. 

I mean, Hawthorne didn’t build a house; he just wrote a book. Still, there is an actual house in Salem named The House of the Seven Gables. Which was built long before Hawthorne wrote his book. When Hawthorne wrote the book, the House only had three gables, and it wasn’t called The House of the Seven Gables. But now it does, and it is. 

Confused? This might be my fault. Let me try this a different way.

The House of the Seven Gables is a non-profit museum located at 54 Turner Street in Salem, Massachusetts. The museum is named for its seven-gabled house. It is one of the oldest timber-framed houses in North America. It is also very big. It has 17 rooms and exceeds 8000 square feet. The House forms a part of the The House of the Seven Gables National Historic District, which is comprised of 6 very old houses that were relocated and restored to the 1.7 acre campus. These houses include the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The House of the Seven Gables is also the title of a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is 88,040 words long, and 6,710 copies were printed in its first year of publication. But more copies have been printed since then. 

When we think of the The House of the Seven Gables, we usually think of the house and the book. Since I’ve already at least partially introduced you to the House, I want to give a more detailed account of the history of the House below. 

The House was not always called The House of the Seven Gables. When originally built for sea-captain John Turner as a two-room, two-and-a-half story house in the Jacobean style in 1668, it was just The Turner House. And it remained so for three generations, during which the House would be remodeled, expanded in the square Georgian style. John the third died at sea in 1782, and the property was sold to another sea captain, Samuel Ingersoll, who remodelled the home in the Federal style and in the process removed four gables. (You might be thinking that this is a lot of Captains. But you have to remember that Salem Harbor was, way back then, one of the country’s largest seaports). When Samuel died, his daughter Susan inherited the property.

So when Nathaniel Hawthorne began to visit his cousin Susan Ingersoll in the house, it would only have been a House of the Three Gables. But Susan acquainted Hawthorne with the history of the house, and Susan’s adopted son even took Hawthorne to the attic and showed him the beams that used to support the four removed gables. And these experiences, as word on the street has it, inspired Hawthorne to write The House of the Seven Gables. One Gable for each sin, right? Right. 

Because in the novel the House functions as a personification of the sins of the Pyncheon family. “So much of humankind’s varied experience had passed there,” writes Hawthorne, “that the very timbers were oozy, as with the moisture of a heart.” The House was, he continues, “itself like a great human heart, with a life of its own, and full of rich and sombre reminisces.” Here Hawthorne describes the House as being infused with the experiences and emotions of its denizens. But he also implies that these collective experiences have imbued the House with an existence independent of its creators. Human sin has taken on “a life of its own.”

After Susan Ingersoll’s death, the house changed hands several times before being purchased by the wealthy Salem philanthropist Caroline Emmerton Osgood in 1908. Osgood hired the renowned preservationist Joseph Everett Chandler to “restore” the home to its original appearance. By “restore,” I mean that Chandler made educated approximations of what the house looked like before Samuel Ingersoll got ahold of it and started yanking steeples, and then reconstructed the home based on twentieth-century preservationist philosophies.

Osgood was not only a philanthropist, but the founder of the House of Seven Gables Settlement Association, an organization devoted to providing education and social services for immigrants. She also created a museum in 1910, and used the admission fees to support the Settlement Association. The Settlement Association’s original mission to support and improve the lives of immigrants to the United States remains a part of the museum’s vision statement. 

During the historic preservation process, Osgood and Chandler fudged a little bit on the verisimilitude. Osgood sought to attract paying customers to the House by capitalizing on early twentieth-century interest in Hawthorne’s novel by modeling the “restored” structure on the fictional House. For instance, the secret staircase of the museum never existed in the historic home, but was instead added to match the novel’s secret staircase, which leads from Hepzibah’s sitting room to Clifford’s room. Osgood also improved the structure by including a “ten-cent shop” fashioned after the one that Hepzibah operates at the beginning of Hawthorne’s novel . 

These two objects, historic museum and classic American novel, remain prominent facets of American culture. The House of the Seven Gables attracts swaths of tourists to Salem each year, and in some ways has become synonymous with the New England city. And Hawthorne’s novel maintains its position within the canon of great American novels, as it is read in countless university classrooms each year. The novel is frequently reprinted, including an illustrated edition as recently as 2015. Thus, neither the classic novel nor the historic landmark has remained the same since Hawthorne’s time, whether in material form or the American mind.
In this way the structure and the printed book really are inextricably intertwined.

So did Hawthorne build The House of the Seven Gables after all? Or did the house simply solidify the New England author’s national legacy? Which influenced the other more? Was Hawthorne more inspired by his visits to the Turner-Ingersoll mansion, or does the restored House of the Seven Gables National Historic Landmark owe a greater debt to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fecund imagination? Can we legitimately speak of house or novel without referencing the other? 

These are just a sampling of the mind-bending questions we ponder when we talk about The House of the Seven Gables. Watch this space for the answers to these, and many other, exciting questions in the weeks to come! 

Clay ZubaComment