Phillips House History
Architecturally, Phillips House contains layers of history. From the front, it looks typically Federal in style, with a symmetrical façade, elegant proportions, a grand entryway, columns, fanlight, sidelights, a Palladian window, and a hipped roof. The house also has quoins, which were more common in the previous Georgian period. In contrast, the inside of the house is a combination of the Federal style and fashionable early twentieth-century Colonial Revival styles, as remodeled by the Phillips family shortly after purchasing the house in 1911.
This long evolution began in 1800, when Captain Nathaniel West and his wife Elizabeth hired Samuel McIntire to build a grand country estate for them in South Danvers, Massachusetts, approximately four miles from Salem today. Elizabeth was the daughter of Elias Haskett Derby, America’s first millionaire. Unfortunately, the West marriage ended in a bitter and public divorce. Elizabeth, determined that her ex-husband should never get his hands on the house, left it to their three daughters.
After Elizabeth died in 1814 and the youngest daughter Sarah died unmarried and childless in 1819, Captain West inherited one third of the estate, which equaled four rooms of the house. In 1820, he had those rooms removed from the Danvers house and moved to Salem, using teams of oxen and logs. These rooms make up the front four rooms of the present house. West added a connecting hallway, a third floor, and a kitchen wing in the rear. The West family lived in the home until 1836.
The West family continued to own the house into the nineteenth century. By 1836, Malvina Tabitha Ward and her daughter took up residence to run a genteel boarding house and school. In 1863, Nathaniel West’s trustees sold the house to Mrs. Ward for $6,000. In 1875, Sophia Ward, possibly the granddaughter of Malvina Ward, sold the house to Annie B. Webb, wife of William G. Webb, for $15,000.
By 1884, the house had nearly doubled in size to the footprint we see today, including the existing laundry, kitchen, and second floor guest room. Upon Mr. Webb’s death in 1896, David Mason Little, a relative by marriage, lived at the house with his family until 1903. The Misses King then rented it from Annie Webb, a founding member of one of Salem’s philanthropic sewing circles, the “Cheerful Workers,” until 1911. Over the years the interior and parts of the exterior were changed to reflect various styles that became popular, from Federal to Victorian to Colonial Revival.
Anna Wheatland Phillips bought the house in June 1911 for “$1.00 and various sundries.” Within a few months, she and her husband, Stephen Willard Phillips, hired architect William Rantoul to remodel the house in the Colonial Revival style. Using America’s architectural past for inspiration, Rantoul stripped away the elaborate Victorian interior designs, incorporated large windows to let in the sunshine and fresh air necessary for good health and sanitation, and in the dining room and other spaces recreated a “Federal-style” look.
The Phillips family, while appreciating the past as reflected in the beauty of their Federal house, also wanted a comfortable, modern home which reflected their status and wealth; where they could raise their son Stephen, entertain on a frequent basis, and display generations of furnishings and artwork. Two staircases were removed to make way for up-to-date bathrooms, closets, and a great deal of living space. For everyone’s comfort the house was fully electrified and, for the staff, a modern gas stove was installed next to the coal-fired range in the kitchen.
Five domestic staff assisted the Phillips family with the running of the house. Three live-in servants, including a cook, first floor maid, and a nursemaid, were single women who had separate bedrooms in the back wing of the third floor. Two male staff, a coachman/groundsman and a chauffeur, were needed for the horse-drawn carriages and the automobiles owned by the family. The men did not live on the property, but went home at night to be with their families. A selection of carriages used by the Phillipses and three of the automobiles used during this time may be viewed today in the carriage house. The domestic staff continued to live in the home after Stephen Willard Phillips’ death in 1955.
1971-2006: Becoming a Museum: The Stephen Phillips Memorial Charitable Trust for Historic Preservation
Stephen Phillips died in 1971 and requested that his childhood home be turned into a historic house museum. His wife Betty, residing in the family’s neighboring home, officially opened the Stephen Phillips Memorial Charitable Trust for Historic Preservation in 1973, exhibiting five generations of Phillips family furnishings, art, and antiques. Mrs. Phillips was active in the museum’s administration until her death in 1996. From that point forward, the daily operations and programming were overseen by the board of trustees and one staff person.
Historic New England acquired Phillips House in 2006 from the board of trustees. The museum offers a variety of public programming that focuses on the many stories and objects in the house including an extensive film collection, a variety of antique carriages and cars, and specialty tours that highlight what life was like in Salem in the early twentieth century.