Caroline Osgood Emmerton was born on April 21, 1866 in Salem, Mass. Emmerton grew up in a city that was transitioning from its past as a major shipping port to its future as a manufacturing center for both textiles and the leather industry. George Emmerton, Caroline’s father, worked in the growing chemical industry. The Salem that Caroline grew up in was the Salem of “The Gilded Age,” when advances in machinery led to economic growth, waves of immigration, and tension around class inequality. These trends influenced Emmerton’s career choice later in life.
Emmerton’s family valued community service. Her grandfather, Captain John Bertram, gave $25,000 in 1873 to build Salem Hospital. His heirs donated his mansion on Essex Street to Salem to be the public library. Her mother, Jennie Bertram Emmerton, was well known for her charitable work with the Salem Society for Higher Education for Women and the Old Ladies’ Home. When Jennie Emmerton died in 1912, her obituary read: “She was the richest woman in Salem, well known for her charitable disposition and ever ready to extend a helping hand to those who were desirous of helping themselves, and to those who were unable to help themselves.”
Emmerton herself was a board member at the Carpenter Street Home, a shelter for orphaned children, and at Historic New England. Emmerton was a founder of the Salem Fraternity, the first Boys and Girls Club to be established in Massachusetts.
Caroline Emmerton purchased the Turner-Ingersoll mansion in 1908. Soon after, she hired Joseph Everett Chandler (1864-1942), one of the most prominent Colonial Revival architects in New England. His restoration of Boston’s Paul Revere House (1680) proved his abilities. Emmerton and Chandler restored the mansion from its early twentieth century appearance to its perceived original look at the time it was constructed in 1668. Some parts of the restoration and interpretation were focused on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary classic, The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne was a visitor to the house in the mid-nineteenth century and Emmerton knew this story would draw visitors. The House of the Seven Gables opened to the public in April 1910 and has seen millions of visitors since.
Emmerton continued to focus on saving threatened Salem buildings in her lifetime. The Hooper-Hathaway House (1682) was moved to the property in 1911. The Retire Becket House (1655) was saved in 1924. Today’s museum campus is a reflection of Emmerton’s dedication to preservation.
Emmerton used proceeds from museum visitors to fund The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association. In the early 20th century, the settlement house movement was seen as the progressive method to help newly arriving immigrant families adapt to life in their new cities. Settlement houses offered a variety of services including classes, medical care, and recreational opportunities.
In Salem, the first settlement house was run by the YMCA. By 1908, the YMCA settlement house was located in the Seaman’s Bethel at the bottom of Turner Street where The Gables’ seaside lawn is today. The Bethel was a church for sailors associated with the Young Men’s Bethel Society that formed in the 1820s. In 1908, Emmerton assumed responsibility for the settlement house. She said the offerings included, “sewing…and some of the other handicrafts, dancing and gymnasium work.”
Emmerton expanded the programs and services of the settlement house to the point that they exceeded the capacity of the Seaman’s Bethel. When Emmerton learned that the neighboring Turner-Ingersoll Mansion was up for sale, she purchased it as the settlement’s practical and collective center.
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?”
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.
The Boston Sunday Post wrote of Caroline Emmerton’s restoration of The House of the Seven Gables in 1910: “…Miss Emmerton did not intend it only for a showpiece or a literary shrine, and so she is to turn it into a settlement house for social uplift work.” From the beginning, the two diverse goals of preservation and social work have been central to Emmerton’s organization.
After Caroline Emmerton’s death in March 1942, The Salem Evening News called Emmerton “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. The mark of her generous spirit can be found at the Women’s Friend Society on Hawthorne Boulevard and at the Plummer Home for Boys on Winter Island.
The House of the Seven Gables Settlement remains one of about 50 settlement houses which still operate in the United States. Her organization has survived over 100 years now and will continue to help generations of children.