Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Secret Staircase

In keeping with this blog's fixation on useless information, I have spent a fair amount of time researching one architectural feature which Mary and I saw on our recent tour of The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts. Adjacent to the central fireplace is a door which opens on a "secret staircase." You can't take pictures in the house, so I have included a picture of an old postcard, with the addition of two arrows to show the entry to the narrow stairway. I was pretty sure the guide said the staircase was installed during the 1909 restoration of the house initiated by Caroline Emmerton. When I came home and started looking around that great cesspool of misinformation known as the World Wide Web, I found many purported facts about the staircase, such as:

- In the novel, it led from Clifford's room to the first floor.
- Hawthorne learned about the staircase from his cousin, Susannah Ingersoll, who lived there
- It was built in the nineteenth century.
- The door to the staircase was discovered in the 1880s.
- It was used to hide slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.

To all these assertions, I respond with a resounding, "Horse hockey!" I am reading the novel now, and there I can find no mention of a secret staircase, nor can I find one online in searchable versions of the book. There is a scene where Hepzibah is looking for Clifford in his room and where he mysteriously appears in the parlor, but there is no indication of how he got there.

Regarding when the staircase was built, I cite as an authority Alexandria Mason, who wrote in the Curator's Corner column of the Summer/Fall 2004 edition of The House of the Seven Gables newsletter:

Some may wonder why we have chosen to restore the chimneys to their 1909 appearance rather than to one based on the 17th century. The answer is that preservationists today base restorations on hard evidence and we do not have information regarding the appearance of the original chimneys built by the Turners.

This leads to an important question. How did Chandler know what they looked like? Pictures of the house as early as 1857, of which Chandler would have known, reveal that the medieval chimneys were long gone, having been replaced with narrow chimneys used for gas stove pipes. In fact, Chandler’s restoration was very much influenced by Hawthorne’s novel, The House of the Seven Gables, and by his memory of the medieval chimneys of Europe. With both as his inspiration, he rebuilt all three chimneys to appear as if they were ancient, creating an elaborately pilastered central chimney with a “secret” stair descending from “Clifford’s room” in the attic to the dining room. One can assume Caroline Emmerton instructed him to make the house as exciting for visitors as possible in order to ensure revenue for her Settlement House activities!

She is referring to Joseph Everett Chandler, who was hired by Caroline Emmerton to renovate the house. I like Ms.Mason's writing for a few reasons. First, she implies with quotation marks that the idea of anyplace in this house being "Clifford's Room" is quite a stretch, as there doesn't seem to be all that much evidence that Hawthorne based much but the title on the Turner-Ingersoll house. Second, she is honest enough to admit that Caroline Emmerton's goal was to generate revenue rather than seeking historical accuracy. Third, instead of following the annoying modern trend of misusing the phrase, "begs the question," she correctly writes, "leads to the question." In logic, begging the question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true.

Kudos to Ms. Mason for her article, and to Caroline Emmerton for making life imitate art, more or less.

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