New exhibit celebrates Emmerton’s life and legacy
By Shelley A. Sackett
If Caroline Osgood Emmerton, founder of The House of Seven Gables Settlement Association, were to wander into their new exhibit celebrating her 150th birthday, Special Projects Manager Julie Arrison-Bishop is certain she would be pleased.
“We selected colors that would have been popular in the early 20th century to highlight the images and text selected to tell her story. Using what we have in our archives, we think that we give a look into Miss Emmerton’s life in a way that she would have appreciated,” Arrison-Bishop said.
Throughout 2016, The House of the Seven Gables will be honoring Emmerton, one of Salem’s most prominent citizens, and her 150th birthday. “Our annual exhibit program is a way for the organization to consistently improve the quality of the visitor experience and to share the many little known stories we have,” she added.
“Caroline Emmerton: An Unbounded Vision,” kicked off the year of planned events on Friday, April 8. The small but splendid exhibit features artifacts from Emmerton’s life, photographs, and richly detailed, easily digested commentaries. Especially charming is a carte de visite, recently discovered among photographs and wallpaper from her Essex Street home, that is believed to portray the young Miss Emmerton and her younger sister, Annie.
It all started with John Turner, a Salem sea captain and merchant who built the house in 1636. Three generations of Turners occupied it until 1782, when Captain Samuel Ingersoll bought it. He died at sea, leaving the property to his daughter Susanna, a cousin of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose visits to the house are believed to have inspired the setting of his 1851 novel, “The House of the Seven Gables.”
Emmerton (1866-1942), a philanthropist and preservationist, purchased the “old Turner Mansion” in 1908 with money inherited from her grandfather, maritime trader Captain John Bertram, an immigrant from the United Kingdom. Her mission was to carry on her family’s tradition of endowing and supporting charitable good works.
In 1873, Bertram had donated $25,000 to build Salem Hospital at a time when there were fewer than 200 hospitals nationwide. His generosity eventually funded the Bertram Home for Aged Men, the Salem public library, the Seaman’s widow and Orphan Society, the Family Service Association, and the city’s Public Welfare Society.
Emmerton was also a product of her times. She lived during The Progressive Era, a period in American life marked by widespread support for social and political reform. The plight of newly arrived immigrants was one of the era’s social concerns.
With the goal of preserving the house for future generations, Emmerton worked with architect Joseph Everett Chandler to restore it to its original seven gables.
She was inspired by Jane Adam’s Hull House, which opened its doors in 1889 in the Near West Side of Chicago, Illinois, to recently arrived European immigrants. Emmerton wanted to assist immigrant families who were settling in Salem. She envisioned providing educational opportunities for visitors and then using the proceeds from the tours to fund her settlement programs.
Her programs served all ages and were meant to enrich the lives of Salem’s primarily Eastern European community, offering lessons in sewing, crafts, job skills and English. Over time, Emmerton continued to expand and reorganize the compound, eventually moving four colonial-era buildings to the site. To her, exposure to historic environments and stories was a perfect way for new immigrants to absorb democratic values and practices.
To honor this legacy, The House of the Seven Gables has partnered with Salem Parks, Recreations and Community Services to offer enrichment programs on the historic museum campus throughout 2016.
Because Emmerton did not leave much behind in terms of private correspondence and photographs, shaping this exhibit was challenging. Arrison-Bishop and her committee of volunteers had to look beyond the personal items historians normally use to share a story.
“Our biographical look at Caroline Emmerton was a wonderful opportunity to work with a group of historians who were interested in telling not only the story of Caroline Emmerton, but also what influenced her. Emmerton was an early leader in the field of historic preservation, and she used her knowledge and means to save a number of Salem’s most influential buildings — some of which are on our National Historic Landmark Campus,” Arrison-Bishop said.
While there are many lessons to be learned from Emmerton’s work that shaped her community and provided educational opportunities to those who needed them most, Arrison-Bishop hopes exhibit goers will pay particular attention to the broader nuances of history.
“One of the threads that we found both in Miss Emmerton’s biography and the background of the Progressive Era was a series of language — much of it politically charged — that shows how history continues to repeat itself,” she said.
Everyone is encouraged to attend the April 23rd “Caroline’s Community: A Celebration for All”, with $1.50 tours, cake cutting, dance performances, music and Living History Labs. Emmerton historian and Lynn resident, Irene Alexrod, will perform biographical sketches of her life throughout the day. “We hope that the public sees how Miss Emmerton used her influence and means to support her community,” Arrison-Bishop said.
For a full list of commemorative events, lectures and activities, go to 7gables.org.