Walking down Essex Street in Salem yesterday, holding an umbrella in the rain, Sara Massari stopped to admire a fence under construction in her neighborhood.
“Is this your new handiwork?” she asked the fence builder. “It’s lovely. It’s really lovely.”
Carpenter Mark Pattison, 52, of Danvers smiled and thanked her. A few minutes later, another woman stopped to sing the fence’s praises as she scooted along the sidewalk in what was now a steady rain.
It’s not every fence that can stop a pedestrian in her tracks, especially on a rainy day. Pattison, of Salem Village Carpentry, is putting the decorative finishes on a small fence at 81 Essex St. that he has built, off and on, over the past two years.
The fence, not far from Hawthorne Hotel, borders a 1750 house that was once the home of Benjamin Hodges, a sea captain from the China trade days, and later home to Frank Benson, the noted American Impressionist. The house is one of the stops on Historic Salem Inc.’s Christmas house tour on Dec. 6, 7 and 8.
By that time, the fence will be done. And, if the weather is not too blustery, visitors on the house tour will get a good look at a project that took hundreds of hours and is a labor of love and a genuflection to Salem’s most famous fence builder, the architect Samuel McIntire.
Pattison modestly describes himself as a carpenter. He admits he was called a “preservation carpenter” a few years ago when he did work for the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. But “carpenter,” he said, fits just fine.
“He’s very humble,” said Ugo Liberti Jr., a painter working with him at 81 Essex St. “He’s more a craftsman.”
The fence at 81 Essex St. is clearly more than a carpentry project. It is a throwback to an earlier age, the Federal period, when the city was filled with woodcarvers, including McIntire, and even a fence was a work of art.
“There were probably a lot more fences around in those days,” Pattison said. “There’s only a few surviving.”
Pattison began this project by tearing down an old pine fence that had rotted.
It has been replaced by a fence of mahogany upper and lower rails, spindles and caps of Spanish cedar, all adorned with dramatic, carved urns.
Pattison had never made a fence like this before and, as a result, had to buy lathes and chisels and teach himself to turn and carve. He spent countless hours doing research online and made a detailed study of McIntire’s work, especially one of his gems, a hand-carved urn at the Glen Magna estate in Danvers.
“I spent so many hours just walking around the urn and taking pictures of it,” he said. “That’s the most amazing carving.”
Pattison is quick to stress that his urns are not replicas of McIntire’s, but they are influenced by the grand master.
“I just tried to get the feel,” he said.
It took many tries to get it right and resulted in him throwing out more than a half-dozen urns along the way.
The fence, he said, is strong and well-made, with braces and fasteners — but no exposed fasteners — and layers of epoxy to seal it tight like a ship.
“It’s not a piece of art,” he said, standing under a work tent in the rain. “I’m a little way from that. But it’s a nice, solid, sturdy fence with, hopefully, a lot of years ahead. ... And it makes me smile.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.