Looking for something free to do in Salem, Massachusetts? Built in 1727 and renovated in 1894, the Ropes Mansion is a historic home that is owned by the Peabody Essex Museum and is open to the public on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for free self-guided tours.
I consider the Ropes Mansion to be a hidden gem of Salem because the interiors remain intact, meaning that all of the furniture, furnishings, art, and personal items of the family are still contained in the house today. As you wander around the first and second floors, you won’t find any ropes (no pun intended) separating you from what you see. That means you can get close up to everything, including the dining room table set with pretty Chinese porcelain and glassware from 1847, the gorgeous 1833 piano and beautiful parlor game table in the ornately decorated drawing room, and the family’s extensive China collection in the cupboards. After a fire damaged the mansion in 2009, the Peabody Essex Museum restored the home using the family’s extensive diaries, records, and letters so that visitors can experience the home as if they were guests of the Ropes family.
In fact, each room of the Ropes Mansion tells a part of the nearly 150 years-long story of the family. To me, the most interesting part of that history was that the last of the Ropes heirs, several brothers and three sisters, all remained unmarried. I enjoyed theorizing with the many friendly and knowledgeable docents about why they remained bachelors and spinsters. In any case, the three unmarried sisters, Sarah Ropes, Mary Pickman Ropes, and Elizabeth Orne Ropes, inherited the home and returned from Cincinnati to take up residence in Salem.
Between 1893 and 1894, the sisters renovated the mansion in the popular Colonial Revival style and updated the bathroom and kitchen with the latest technologies. As you explore that 1894 bathroom, make note of the original fixtures, and in the “modern” kitchen, marvel at the state-of-the-art (for the time) interior plumbing, hot water heater, copper storage tank, and gas-burning stove. Now that’s what I call a late 19th century fixer upper!
Upon the death of the last of the sisters in 1907, the mansion and its contents were turned into a trust, which specified that the home be opened as a museum. That’s why the Ropes Mansion is largely intact today.
Heading upstairs, you’ll find two bedrooms that appear as if the family has just stepped out. The original four-poster beds are still made up with the family linens and bedspreads over the original mattresses. Books line the shelves, washing pitchers and basins stand ready to be filled by servants, and personal beauty and grooming items are laid out for the morning routines. The sadder of two bedrooms belonged to Elizabeth Ropes Orne who died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. Her room contains many of her personal possessions including a heart-warming collection of seashells from her travels, and, chillingly, a medicine box with a recipe for a cough remedy, that may have provided her with some relief before her untimely death.
Unlike the bedrooms, the other upstairs rooms are set up in a museum format to display a collection of the family’s keepsakes, valuable furniture, and precious items. To me, the most intriguing artifacts are several tourist souvenirs from mid-19th century Salem, including a silver spoon featuring the image of a witch and a wooden cup from what is now called Witch House. On the other hand, the creepiest items have to be a set of mourning jewelry and a portrait of one of the sisters that was painted after she died. The Victorians definitely had a strange, but intriguing, fascination with death!
After your tour of the inside of the Ropes Mansion, don’t leave the grounds without enjoying the gorgeous formal garden, that was added to the home in 1912. Like the house, the botanical garden was designed in the Colonial Revival style by the botanist and horticulturist John Robinson. He planted more than 150 different varieties of plants, some of which were very rare and provided by the Arnold Arboretum of Boston. Today, two of the plants which have survived from that time are the rhododendrons along the walkway fence and the huge copper beech trees in the side yard. Continuing in that tradition, the staff of the Ropes Mansion have maintained the stunning garden which you are highly encouraged to explore. In such a beautiful setting, take the time to savor a quiet moment of serenity in the busy tourist city of Salem.
The Ropes Mansion is located at 318 Essex St. in Salem, Massachusetts. For more information, about the house and other surrounding historic homes visit their website.