Salem’s Oldest House Celebrates Its 360th Year, By David Moffat, Lead/Senior Tour Guide

September 17, 2015 Published by Julie Arrison-Bishop

The Retire Beckett House, moved to the site of The House of the Seven Gables in 1924, is once again in the spotlight. This year marks the 360th anniversary of its construction and the occasion is being marked with an exhibit on the house’s history put together by Store Manager Everett Philbrook, Rachel Sherman, an intern from Salem State, and Dan Marshall, the Manager of Visitor Services.

Built in 1655 by shipwright John Beckett, the house is today the oldest house which survives in Salem. The Pickering House was once thought to be older, but dendrochronology and later research confirmed its construction to be from the early 1660s.

The Retire Beckett house was originally on a part of Beckett Street which disappeared in 1951 with the construction of the Salem Harbor Construction. Caroline Emmerton purchased the house long before that, in 1916, and brought it to the property eight years later. Its construction is typical of the seventeenth century: it has a steep-pitched roof and a framed overhang on the second story. When the house was first constructed, it may have had leaded casement windows, a batten door, and a massive brick chimney. The original exterior of the house is not known, though it may have been covered with large weather boards or hand-riven clapboards nailed directly to the studs.

The house’s appearance today reflects the changing styles of three centuries. The house has been through several alterations, and latter additions were removed in the 1800s, saving only the original portion. The interior of the house has been slightly reconfigured to become the museum store, but its original framing and low ceilings remain.

The history of the house is very closely tied to Salem’s shipbuilding industry and the surrounding community. In 1807 at the height of its trade, Salem had over 200 vessels at its disposal. Many of those ships were made by the Beckett family. Their shipyard was on Essex Street, and each successive generation of the family, from John Beckett in the mid-1600s to Retire Beckett in the early 1800s worked there. It was this last Beckett shipbuilder who would be the greatest.

Retire Beckett, who lived between 1753 and 1831, was a “genius at ship-building” who constructed 25 documented vessels in the early 1800s. Beckett built ten ships, seven brigs, two brigantines, five schooners, and one yacht. The yacht, Cleopatra’s Barge, was the first in Salem, commissioned by merchant George Crowninshield Jr. in 1816, and is today considered Beckett’s masterpiece. It sailed in 1817, visiting 16 ports in Europe and North Africa. In 1820, the ship was stripped and sold to King Kamehameha II of Hawaii. It ran aground off Kaui in 1824 and was unable to be salvaged. Today, one of its cabins is recreated in the Peabody Essex Museum.

Shipbuilding was an integral part of Salem’s maritime trade in the 1700s and early 1800s. As the economy changed in the early 1800s and foreign trade became less viable from Salem, shipbuilding declined. As a result, Retire Beckett built his last ship in 1818 and lived to see the decline of Salem’s golden age.

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This post was written by Julie Arrison-Bishop