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Caroline Emmerton’s Lasting Legacy

September 7, 2021 Published By Holly Watson

This year we are celebrating our founder’s vision of preservation and service. Join us as we explore her life that lead to her legacy here at The Gables.

“Halfway down a by-street of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst…the aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance, bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressive also, of the long lapse of mortal life, and accompanying vicissitudes that have passed within.”

–Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (1851)

As a young girl, Caroline Emmerton visited the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion during the four year period when it lay vacant between 1879-1883. Caroline, along with her friends, entered the “empty home with its echoing rooms.” Decades later, she remembered “the thrill that the gaunt old house gave [her] when [she] first caught sight of it,” and the adventure of seeing “circular cup board in the parlor with its shell-like top…[and] the sketchy outlines of two vanished gables on the sloping walls.”

In 1908, the opportunity to own the “gaunt old house” appeared and Emmerton jumped at the chance. She was serving on a committee tasked with providing social services for immigrant families in Salem, and thought that the old home would make a perfect headquarters for this Settlement House.  Emmerton wrote of her choice: “If, as is generally conceded, the settlements do the best Americanization work, should not this settlement excel whose home is the ancient House of Seven Gables, the foundations of which were laid by the first immigrants who came here long ago, strangers in a strange land?” Miss Emmerton hired well-known architectural preservationist Joseph Chandler to work on the restoration of the house. By 1910, The House of the Seven Gables was open for tours.

Caroline was restoring and preserving a structure for posterity, but her work extended to those living in her contemporary community. The Settlement house was a pinnacle achievement for Emmerton. Not only was the Settlement designed to help Salem’s diverse population towards the goal of social advancement, education and community engagement, but she was providing employment opportunities for young women, who worked for the Settlement as educators or docents, some of whom even lived on the upper floors of the mansion. Residents in the surrounding Derby Street neighborhood were the primary beneficiaries of the settlement house. The area was an enclave for Eastern European immigrants, especially from Poland and Russia. Other communities served by Emmerton’s work included the Irish, Italian, Syrian, and African.

Today, The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association serves the modern immigrant communities of Salem through literacy, citizenship, college preparation, and cultural programming. Because of demographic shifts, the focus of the work has moved away from the Derby Street neighborhood, but the settlement mission remains the same: to provide educational and enrichment opportunities for the local immigrant community.

Caroline Emmerton died on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1942. The Salem Evening News ran an obituary that day. It called her “one of Salem’s Best Beloved Citizens” and noted that she “gave freely of her time and money for the benefit of underprivileged children and adults, winning the admiration and respect of the entire community.” Emmerton’s legacy can be traced all across the city of Salem. Her grave is in Harmony Grove Cemetery. Her birth house still stands on Summer Street and her home as an adult can still be seen today on Essex Street. She was instrumental in the establishment of hospitals, support services, and educational institutions, and she became one of Salem’s most beloved and charitable citizens.

In 1973, The House of the Seven Gables was added to the National Register of Historic Places, in recognition of a place of historical significance. Visitation numbers rose throughout the late 20th century, and with the popularity of Haunted Happenings, which had its first year in 1982, the month-long October Halloween celebration in Salem, the nature of tourism would change in the city. In 2007, the House and surrounding campus became a National Historic Landmark District.

Today, close to 100,000 visitors each year walk the halls of the house made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne, with almost 1/3 of them visiting in the month of October alone. Whether it is architecture, maritime history, literature, or any other aspect of history or culture that draws guests to visit the famed House of the Seven Gables, every visitor shares in the ever-growing story of one of the most beloved houses in America.

The House of the Seven Gables Settlement remains one of about 50 settlement houses that still operate in the United States. Her organization has survived over 100 years and continues to serve Caroline Emmerton’s vision with the help of generous support from members, visitors, and donors.

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This post was written by Holly Watson