SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Local News

August 18, 2009

Ropes Mansion: a treasure saved

SALEM — The Peabody Essex Museum "dodged a bullet" last weekend.

The Saturday afternoon fire at the Ropes Mansion, which investigators say was accidentally started by a painter's heat gun, heavily damaged a third-floor attic and apartment, but left most of the 18th-century Georgian Colonial intact.

Although a glass pitcher broke downstairs, virtually all of the valuable objects and furnishings survived.

"We marveled that there was so little damage," said Joshua Basseches, the PEM's deputy director.

Among the salvaged treasures were a 345-piece set of Chinese export porcelain, a collection of cups, saucers and dinner plates, and nearly 300 pieces of Irish cut glass, including fine wine goblets, tumblers and decanters.

"It is the largest surviving set of table glass and of Chinese export dinner service to survive in America from the early 19th century," said Dean Lahikainen, a museum curator who once lived in the house.

Also intact were pieces of furniture made by Mark Pitman, a noted Salem cabinet-maker who lived across the street.

While firefighters battled the two-alarm blaze, which started around noon, the museum went into action.

As part of a disaster plan, the PEM rapidly assembled a team of conservators, curators and collections staff. As soon as they were allowed inside the 318 Essex St. house, they removed all of the China, glassware, portraits, books, furniture and family papers and took them to the museum for safe keeping.

"I feel through some combination of skill, planning and luck we dodged a bullet," Basseches said yesterday as he led a tour of the house.

The Ropes Mansion, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is special even among the museum's collection of historic properties because it is filled with furnishings collected by several generations of one family over more than a century.

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