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“Fixing” The House of the Seven Gables

February 20, 2021 Published By Julie Arrison-Bishop

Copied with permission from The Cornwall Chronicle 
Original article and interview by Jane Bean

When artist/architect Tim Prentice was a senior at Yale University, his English teacher, whose name is sadly forgotten, realized Tim suffered from dyslexia. This brain/eye condition was little understood then, and many worthy students lost their way in school.

“I was not a student of distinction,” said Tim. School had always been hard. “My professor knew that writing and spelling and even reading were not my strong points. And, my senior thesis was looming.”
Instead of finding him a tutor, or just passing him on, Tim’s professor had a stroke of brilliance: maybe Tim could do his senior thesis on the house featured in Nathanial Hawthorne’s 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables.

Why that novel? Who knows? Perhaps the professor was aware of the discrepancies between the house described in the novel and the house as it stood on Salem Harbor, Massachusetts. Maybe he saw in Tim, as a budding architect, an ability to sort it out; to see things differently.

So, Tim took on the project with great excitement. After getting the assignment and reading the novel, he went to see the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Mass­achusetts. Built in 1668 for Captain John Turner, the house/museum still sits on a corner lot in Salem.

Tim realized there were “mistakes” in the novel’s description of the house and the house itself. “It was actually a very simple design. Why would he do that?” Tim mused. Hawthorne was born in 1804 in a house just adjacent to the Turner house, which by then was owned by Hawthorne’s second cousin. He was very familiar with the Seven Gables. “It didn’t affect the novel. Why would Hawthorne describe the light coming into a room at a certain time of day when it couldn’t have happened in real life? Except for the geometry of the building, the design was simple and Hawthorne had spent many hours there.” A question never answered.
My assumption, from a reader’s point of view, is that the house took on the mood of Hawthorne’s book. Often somber, always a little dark, the House of the Seven Gables symbolizes the characters in the book. But, we’ll never know.

Tim spent every waking moment dur­ing his spring break building a model of the Seven Gables House. Relying on the book’s description and what he had observed, he built a scale model of the Seven Gables so detailed it had trees and bushes around it. His teacher was thrilled, and maybe a little startled, that this young man, who would later become an architect of great repute, had built a model so accurate, with no written plans, except for what he’d read and seen for himself. He didn’t even take photos of the house, so when he built the model it was from memory only.

“My teacher was never my mentor, and I feel terrible I can’t even remember his name. But the fact that he had this idea for me to try is pretty amazing. A part of me will always thank him for his insight into my struggles with dyslexia and for giving me this chance. It turned out well.”

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This post was written by Julie Arrison-Bishop