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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Salisbury Mansion & Store Tour

Salisbury Mansion was the home of Worcester’s wealthiest family in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. It served many purposes but mainly as the location of the Salisbury Family’s Worcester branch of their hardware store.

The family came from humble beginnings and it was only with an unexpected inheritance from England did the family get into the hardware business. In 1767 Stephen Salisbury was sent to Worcester by his brother Samuel to open a store at the young age of 21. When the operation proved profitable he built the Salisbury mansion in 1772 to serve not only as his home but as the store and located it at the north end of Lincoln Street at Lincoln Square.  He had decided to build a single building to serve both purposes to allow him to better serve the needs of those who purchased goods from him.

The home was built in the Georgian style and looked quite different than it does today. It was built primarily as a store and storage for goods. The residence was a total of 4 rooms on the left side of the house. It was there that bachelor Stephen Salisbury lived when not working. The store was a success making him the wealthiest man not just in Worcester but in all of Worcester County. The home wouldn’t have impressed the wealthy Bostonians it was considered a Mansion in rural Worcester.

When the British came to Boston the home played house to 8 more people. To escape the city he played host to his Brother Samuel and his family as well as his mother beginning in 1775. They stayed for 8 years before returning to Boston. At this time an addition was built onto the back of the home to serve as the kitchen and more living quarters.

In 1797 Stephen married Elizabeth Tuckerman, a young lady 21 years his junior.  He was 51 and she was 28 and the daughter of one of his business associates. They had three children. Only one of their children lived more than a few years and making it to adulthood.

The Embargo of 1812 spelled the end of their hardware stores since they had been cut off from the many goods they imported from England. Thankfully the family had well invested store profits in other areas such as real estate and canal building which assured them of the financial safety.

By 1820 all of the space once used for the store had become living quarters and the home’s exterior also changed the main entrance of the home shifted from the side to the front where the store entrance had been. The former store space was renovated and featured elegant Federal detailing, a proper through-hallway with pattern book entry surrounds, and a columned front portico. This 1820 renovation expanded the living space to include double drawing rooms, a library, and chambers above for family and staff use.

In 1929 Stephen Salisbury died leaving his widow Elizabeth Tuckerman Salisbury in the home. She was the last of the Salisbury’s to inhabit the home until 1851.

Her son Stephen Salisbury II a Harvard graduate, enjoyed a brilliant career as a gentleman farmer, industrial developer, leader in civic, cultural, and political affairs, world traveler, and all-around Renaissance man. He had built himself a home of his own and when his mother passed he had no use for it and sold off all the contents at auction.

His son Stephen Salisbury III also a Harvard graduate spelled the end of the Salisbury line in Worcester. Like his father, he became a prominent leader in cultural and community affairs in Worcester.  He remained a life-long bachelor, reportedly preferring the company of his horse to many of his acquaintances.   At his death, Stephen left his substantial fortune to Worcester civic, cultural, educational, and health care organizations.

The home future however seemed murky. The once grand home then became girl's school, tenant house, and then a gentleman's social club until 1929, when the building was donated to the American Antiquarian Society. In 1929 the home was relocated from its original location up the hill to make way for a new Memorial Auditorium. Parts of the home like the addition didn’t make the move. It was then given to the Worcester Art Museum.  In 1975 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was leased to a nonprofit, and eventually acquired by the Worcester Historic Museum in 1985. The museum undertook to restore the much-altered building to its condition as of 1830, and opened it as a museum. It is considered one of the best documented historic house museums in New England.

It is the mission of the museum to try and re-acquire as many of the original pieces that had been sold at auction. Some pieces have returned and today visitors to Salisbury Mansion today can see household furnishings and decorative arts that range from early 18th century Queen Anne to 1820s Boston Classical.  Perhaps the most stunning piece on exhibit is Stephen Salisbury’s standing desk, purchased from a Boston cabinetmaker in 1772.  Also eye-catching is the heavy Boston Classical sofa with falcon heads embellishing the front legs, part of a suite of furniture purchased from Isaac Vose & Son of Boston in 1820.  Other Salisbury pieces include a set of Vose chairs, an 18th century harp, two 19th century sofas, and ceramics.

Salisbury possessions are complemented by artifacts representative of the furniture listed in an 1851 inventory of household goods, written by Stephen Salisbury II prior to selling them at a public auction after the death of his mother, Elizabeth Tuckerman Salisbury.

What struck me most about this amazing home was its condition. I was a bit surprised to find that it wasn't maintained as well as I would have hoped or expected. I noticed peeling paint, stained wallpaper, cracked glass and grounds that were poorly taken care of. I don't expect a perfect home since after all its 242 years old but it's part of the history of the city of Worcester and I hope that as the Worcester Historical Museum continues to work towards preserving it that they might try to ensure that it will last for another couple hundred years. I would also hope that perhaps the city will donate the municipal parking lot to the museum to allow them to enlarge the front lawn and have the exterior compliment rather then detract from the home.

Our guide/docent for the day was very knowledgeable about the home and the family and was able to answer many of the questions we asked. He took us around each of the rooms and explained its purpose and how its changed over time. He also explained how each family member impacted the home. It was an enjoyable visit and a learning experience.

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