Exterior view of Gedney House with children standing on street, Salem, Mass.
Building Gedney House
On April 20, 1664, Eleazer Gedney, a wealthy shipwright, purchased a half-mile tract of land in Salem on the highway from Marblehead, know today as High Street. In anticipation to his marriage to Elizabeth Turner, the sister of the John Turner who would build the House of the Seven Gables in 1668, he began construction on the earliest portion of his home. The house was a typical seventeenth-century timber-frame structure with two main rooms on either side of a central chimney. Atypical features included an attic with a large façade gable and a parlor with a lean-to roof. Other features, mentioned in Gedney’s probate inventory from June 25, 1683, included a hall chamber, garret, kitchen loft, and “seller.” After Gedney’s death, his second wife, Mary Patteshall, resided in the house with the couple’s children. The probate records indicate financial hardship to the family and therefore it is likely that there were no major architectural changes made while Patteshall owned the property.
Gedney’s youngest daughter Martha, born in 1682, married James Ruck in 1712. Ruck, also a well-to-do shipwright, moved to Gedney House at this time. Because of the improved financial status and stability that the marriage brought to the family, it is likely that the first major renovations occurred around this time. The lean-to was raised, a second story, and overhang were added to the north elevation of the property, and the façade gable was removed. The house was left to their only child, Mary, in 1739. Her child, Gedney King, sold the property to Benjamin Cox, a fisherman, in 1773, ending the Gedneys’ ownership of the property.
An Investment Property on High Street
Benjamin Cox likely built the small cottage behind Gedney House c. 1775. From 1773 on, the property was used as an investment property for a chain of absentee owners. Around this time, the central chimney was decreased in size and an addition was added to the west elevation of the house, likely to add rentable space. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the interior went through numerous changes. The property was used through 1962 as rental property in what would become Salem’s Italian-American immigrant neighborhood.
Becoming a Museum
Fred Winter of Marblehead purchased the High Street properties in 1962 for conversion into apartments. Elizabeth Butler Frothingham, a student of Abbott Lowell Cummings at Boston University, is credited with the rediscovery of Gedney House in 1967. While walking home from the train station, which was located in today’s Riley Plaza, she noticed piles of eighteenth-century paneling on the curb for trash pick-up. As Frothingham investigated what she believed was a poor preservation practice in an eighteenth-century property, she quickly learned that the historic fabric of a seventeenth-century house was what was actually being demolished. After the acquisition of the house from Winter by Historic New England, the house was left in the condition it was found and is considered “an unparalleled opportunity for making available to all students all the many structural secrets normally concealed in a finished house.”
Through the years, Historic New England completed dendrochronology on the house, framed drawings that detail the elaborate joinery, added lighting that highlights the early paint treatments and important architectural details, and executed supportive structural repairs.