Those who have braved the Boston traffic and huge crowds to visit the new Art of the Americas galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts have almost universally given the new wing rave reviews.
Of particular interest to many North Shore visitors are the three recreated rooms from the Oak Hill Farm homestead that stood on the site of what is now the Northshore Mall in Peabody from 1801 until 1958. The summer mansion was originally built for, and owned by, Capt. Nathaniel West and his wife, the former Elizabeth Derby.
On the surface, Nathaniel and Elizabeth seemed to have it all — money, prestige and a healthy, growing family. But neither her new, exquisitely furnished mansion nor other trappings of wealth and high society, were enough for Elizabeth, and soon the couple was having serious domestic problems. In 1803 Mrs. West left her husband and moved for a time back to Salem. By 1806 she was again living at the farm, but this time without Nathaniel. Late in the year the inevitable divorce proceedings finally got underway.
The highly-publicized legal brawl pitted the respected Capt. West against not only Elizabeth, once described by Salem's beloved minister-diarist William Bentley as representing "all that is execrable in women from vanity, caprice, folly & malignity," but also against her equally troublesome brother, Gen. Elias Hasket Derby Jr.
Gen. Derby used every trick in the book — including rounding up nearly two dozen prostitutes from Boston and North Shore communities who were willing to testify that they were very familiar with Nathaniel West in order to ensure a favorable outlook for his sister.
To the surprise of almost no one, Elizabeth was awarded Oak Hill Farm and $3,000 a year in alimony. She immediately undertook a major remodeling of her country estate.
Mrs. West would live at Oak Hill Farm for the next eight years. During most of that period she was ill and at odds with not only her six children, but also most of the local populace. When she died in 1814, none but her own family attended Elizabeth's funeral.
Under the terms of her will, Oak Hill Farm was given to her three daughters. In that same document, the spiteful Elizabeth stipulated that no part of the property was to be transferred to her ex-husband or any of his agents.
But the daughters' ties to their generous and loving father outweighed their respect for their late mother's wishes. Bit by bit, they or their husbands transferred their pieces of Oak Hill Farm to the captain. By 1840 West owned the entire estate.
Capt. West and his second wife lived there until the mid-1830s. Eventually the property passed into the hands of the Rogers family, who in turn sold it in 1922 to the Xaverian Brothers, who turned it into St. John's Normal College. At that time some of the walls and woodwork were relocated, thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Jacob Crowninshield Rogers, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
In the years that followed, the dining room, a bedroom and the parlor from Oak Hill were reassembled in the museum's decorative arts galleries.
Curator Edwin Hipkiss took great pains to be as true to the original version as he could, despite missing furnishings and having to work in a space configuration that did not match those in the original house.
Over the years, some West-Derby descendants helped mitigate the former problem by donating pieces that once graced the house in its heyday. They complemented the woodwork, art and furnishings that had been part of Mrs. Rogers' bequest.
Part of allure of the Oak Hill rooms were the many connections to the great Salem architect and woodcarver, Samuel McIntire (1757-1811). It is believed McIntire played a role in designing the mansion, and known that he carved some of the woodwork and furniture. Augmenting McIntire's contributions were a number of paintings attributed to the French artist Michelle Corne, an early 19th-century resident of Salem, along with furniture made by the legendary Seymour Brothers of Boston.
The new Oak Hill installation opened to the public in 1928. Three years later, Hipkiss wrote and produced a monograph entitled, "Three McIntire Rooms from Peabody, Massachusetts."
The rooms were a museum fixture for decades, and even underwent a later renovation' but were eventually dismantled and put in storage.
Now, reassembled for a second time, they provide visitors to the Art of the Americas with an opportunity to experience what the MFA says "represents the very pinnacle of interior design in the United States in the years around 1800."
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Jim McAllister of Salem writes a weekly column on the region's history. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.