The Gablefront House Gets No Respect

There are no museums dedicated to the Gablefront, no Societies for the Preservation of the Gablefront, appalling few Gablefronts on the National Register of Historic Places. On wikipedia, the ultimate arbiter of cultural impact, the Gablefront entry has a mere dozen lines and two photos, compared to hundreds of lines and dozens of photos for both Queen Anne style, its successor, and Greek Revival architecture, its predecessor.

The Salem housing registry does not have a separate entry type for Gablefront. Then again it makes no distinction of types for any houses earlier than the early 20th century, listing every house of that period as “Old Style“, be it Greek Revival or Queen Anne or any Victorian or whatever. Strangely, the registry does make distinctions for late 20th century homes, separating “Colonial” from “RAISED RANCH” from “SPLIT ENTRY” from “Cape”, the Cod part implicit. The inconsistent capitalization is inherent to the registry.

It’s a shame, since making distinctions for 19th century homes would aid realtors, historians, home buyers, especially homeowners wanting an answer to that basic question: what style is my house?

MACRIS (Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System), the registry of historic buildings in Massachusetts, does break old style into multiple classifications for 19th century homes, unlike the Salem registry. Still MACRIS does not have an entry for Gablefront. Instead, most Gablefront homes deemed historic enough to be listed on MACRIS are classified as “No Style“, again showing a lack of respect. A handful of Gablefront homes on MACRIS are classified as “Greek Revival”, consonant with the contention that the Gablefront style derived from Greek Revival style.

How about an example

79-81-83-87 Boston St

Three Gablefront homes along Boston St in Gallows Hill, plus for contrast an imposing Second Empire edifice typified by the Mansard roof (right, c. 1869). On MACRIS #81 and #83 (middle houses, c. 1870 and c. 1876) are listed as “No style”, but #79 (left, c. 1835) is listed as “Greek Revival”, though all three are evidently Gablefront, what with characteristic high gable facing forward, narrow two bay frame, and side passage main entry.

Not even the Guide to Salem Architecture has an entry for the Gablefront house, the most common house type on Gallows Hill. Perhaps not reason to be too disconsolate, as there’s no entry for Queen Anne Style either, though Queen Anne homes dot many Salem neighborhoods.

Lastly, Historic New England produces a wonderful Architectural Style Guide that has extensive listings for Greek Revival and Queen Anne but NOT Gablefront, although this style guide does place Gablefront as a subcategory of Greek Revival: “In New England and the northern United States, the side-passage, gable-front house was introduced … can be found in cities that industrialized during this period.

In part this lack of attention is due to the very humbleness of the style. Recall that Gablefront style came about as a response to a unique event in history, the advent of a middle class due to industrialization. Before  the Industrial Revolution there was no notable middle class, apart from a handful of teachers and shopkeepers. There was an upper class, in Salem residing in imposing Federal and Greek Revival mansions along Chestnut St and around the Common, and an enormous lower class surviving in squalid tenements and cabins in the rest of the city, or living as servants in said mansions.

112 Federal St

Typical Federal House (c. 1800) on, where else, Federal St. Note “squashed” 3rd floor

Lest it be forgotten, the “squashed” third floor in Federal mansions was where lived the masses of servants needed to keep those mansions operating.

Industrialization brought an expanded middle class, what with the new professions of  foremen, supervisors, accountants, designers, engineers, and more. This class was well-off enough to move away from squalid multifamily housing, but not well off enough to live in the mansions. Enter the solution, a sturdy single family house, simple enough to be affordable to the up and coming middle class, i.e. the Gablefront house. As industrialization proceeded in the later decades of the 19th century, the middle class got larger and wealthier, and for them the humble Gablefront no longer sufficed, being supplanted by the more elaborate Queen Anne Style.

So while in Salem there are heralded Greek Revival mansions 14 Chestnut St and rollicking Queen Anne mansions 32 Forrester Stthe very idea of a Gablefront Mansion would be an oxymoron.

And that, in a nutshell, constitutes why the Gablefront house gets no respect.

 

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