Samuel McIntire, who was born and died in poverty, created fine Federal style buildings in Salem, Mass., for wealthy patrons. Today, an entire historic district is named after him.
He was born Jan. 16, 1757, to housewright Joseph McIntire and Sarah Ruck, people of modest means. He took up woodcarving as a trade, and showed so much skill his friend the Rev. William Bentley persuaded him to take up sculpture. He carved a bust of John Winthrop for Bentley, now in possession of the American Antiquarian Society.
In sculpture, wrote Bentley, “he had no rival in New England & I possess some specimens which I should not scruple to compare with any I ever saw.”
McIntire also had musical ability, according to Bentley. “He was among our best Judges & most able performers,” Bentley wrote. “All the Instruments we use he could understand and was the best person to be employed in correcting any defects, or repairing them.”
Land of Promise
Salem held great promise for young men during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Maritime commerce boomed, from privateering during the American Revolution to the China trade afterward. Another protege of Bentley’s, Nathaniel Bowditch, also rose from poor beginnings in Salem to wealth, fame and a place in history.
McIntire, though, stayed on land. He spent what little spare money he had on books about art and architecture, and he studied them assiduously.
Working out of a simple home on Summer Street, he began to design houses. His first major commission was the Peirce Nichols House, now owned by the Peabody Essex Museum. (Sarah Peirce Nichols took the walking cure from this house.)
McIntire then caught the attention of Elias Haskett Derby, at one point the richest man in the United States. Derby commissioned him in 1780 to build a mansion costing $80,000 — an astonishing sum.
Derby’s mansion cost so much no one could afford to buy it when he died. Before it was torn down, McIntire’s fine woodwork was taken from it and sold.
Capt. Samuel Cook later hired McIntire to build a house while he took on a voyage. The trip, though, didn’t succeed and he returned before McIntire had finished the house. He didn’t think he could afford to finish it. McIntire said his men needed work and they could finish it slowly, with Cook paying along the way. He then persuaded Cook to buy some of the Derby woodwork, such as the gateposts in front of the Cook-Oliver House.
Similarly, four rooms of the Stephen Phillips House were taken from Elias Haskett Derby’s farm in Danvers by his heir, Capt. Nathaniel West. McIntire then designed a new house for West in Salem incorporating those rooms. Then Stephen Phillips bought the house in 1911 and lived there with five generations of family furniture until 1955. Historic New England now owns it.
McIntire established a reputation for building elegant homes. With his two brothers, son and nephew he built many of the 407 houses in Salem that now comprise the McIntire Historical District established in 1981. The district includes the grand old homes that line Chestnut Street — called one of the most beautiful streets in America. It also includes the Federal Street Area Historic District, along with 249 structures nearby. The McIntire District is considered the greatest concentration of 17th and 18th century domestic structures anywhere in America.
McIntire also built homes in communities nearby, such as the John Cabot House in Beverly, Mass.
McIntire completed Hamilton Hall in 1807, a social gathering place for Salem’s leading Federalist families. Considered one of his finest works, it is still in use today.
By 1811, he had supervised nearly “all the improvements of Salem,” according to Bentley. Those included the courthouse and the North and South meeting houses.
He died suddenly and intestate on Feb. 6, 1811, only 54 years old.
The Rev. William Bentley then wrote of the passing of Samuel McIntire in his diary.
This day Salem was deprived of one of the most ingenious men it had in it. Samuel McIntire, age 54, in Summer street…
He had a fine person, a majestic appearance, calm countenance, great self command & amiable temper. He was welcome but never intruded.
His death, wrote Bentley, left a vacuum. “The late increase of workmen in wood has been from the demand for exportation & this has added nothing to the character and reputation of the workmen so that upon the death of Mr. McIntire no man is left to be consulted upon a new plan of execution beyond his bare practice,” he wrote.
This story updated in 2022.
Images: Peirce-Nichols House By Fletcher6 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11752606. Hamilton Hall By Fletcher6 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9963923. Stephen Phillips House By Fletcher6 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9022657.