Salem's oldest house will help tell stories of town's past

Salem - After a half year of discussion and negotiation, the oldest house in Salem now belongs to the town's historical society.

The society now plans to turn the house, built sometime between 1690 and the early 1700s, into a museum.

"It's very exciting, what we're about to embark on," said historical society president David Wordell.

He said he signed papers last week to purchase the house at 184 Hartford Road, which was listed for $90,000, in short sale from previous owner Kevin S. Cavanagh. He declined to say how much the society paid for the house, a purchase that was financed by private donations to the historical society.

The historical society already operates a museum of Salem history, located on the town green, but the new museum will be dedicated to Music Vale Seminary and its founder, Orramel Whittlesey, who was raised in the Hartford Road house.

Whittlesey founded the music school in 1839 to teach young women musical notation and composition and provide lessons in voice, organ, harp, guitar and piano. The music school was the first in the country to confer degrees, said Wordell, and attracted national attention. Many of its graduates were girls from wealthy plantations in the South, which contributed to the school's decline during the Civil War.

This year marks the 175th anniversary of Music Vale Seminary's founding, and Wordell is excited to celebrate by turning the house where Whittlesey practiced piano as a child into a place to teach future generations about his legacy.

Wordell said the museum is going to be "outstanding," noting that he has already received several calls from members of the Whittlesey family offering to donate artifacts, including musical instruments used at the seminary.

But it will take some work to get the house, which hasn't been occupied recently, to the point where it can be used as a museum. Wordell said his goal is to have the museum ready in a year, but he's hesitant to commit to a timeline until an architect has assessed the building.

Wordell said he believes some renovations will be necessary to an addition to the house, but maybe not the original structure. He also plans to replace the building's front porch and add lighting.

The historical society has planned several events for the summer to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Music Vale's founding and raise awareness and money for the museum.

During the town's Memorial Day parade, a replica of the elaborate carriage used to transport out-of-town Music Vale students to the school will roll down Route 85. The Salem School marching band will also be playing an arrangement of one of Orramel Whittlesey's songs, "Salem Quickstep," in the parade.

Other programs organized by the society include an introduction of a unit on Music Vale into the fifth-grade curriculum at Salem School; a presentation about Whittlesey's grandson, Bela Lyon Pratt, a famous sculptor; and a party on Music Vale Road in which a textile conservator will discussing her preservation of the fancy dresses Whittlesey's wife wore to concerts.

The upcoming museum is "exciting for our future," said Wordell, who expects it to be around for many years to come.


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