Why the “Looney Barn”?

When we first bought the house, we referred to it as the “graveyard house” on account of there being a graveyard in the backyard. The house would more aptly be referred to as the “Looney Barn,” though, for the simple reasons that its first owner was Ellen D. Looney (and her husband, John Looney) and that the house was originally an outbuilding, carriage house, or barn. Thus, this house is literally the Looney Barn. Someday when reconstruction is complete, I will take measures to obtain a house history plaque from Historic Salem, Inc., after which point I will propose that our house history plaque reads “The Looney Barn” to make the designation official.


The Vertical Caveat.

Looking back at all of the hurdles that have come up with reconstruction, our interactions with the Historical Commission have been downright pleasant. Truth be told, such pleasantries were not what we had anticipated. When we bought the house, the seller’s agent, neighbors, prospective contractors, and other locals had more or less indicated to us that any proposed exterior changes would be met with a hardline stance and/or likely rejected when presented to the Historical Commission. I do not know where this reputation comes from, as I am not from around here and do not know much local history. In any case, I am thankful that Jamie is an architect and that I am a researcher, because these skill sets – especially hers – have been invaluable in preparing applications to propose exterior changes. That said, we didn’t even originally want to do any exterior changes, but one thing leads to another, especially when a home is being reconstructed.

In the brief time that we lived in the Looney Barn, I can tell you that the first floor was very cold and rather dark. We moved in during a particularly cold November, and the flooring on the first floor was vinyl glued to a concrete slab. Hence: cold. There also weren’t many light-emitting windows on the first floor. Add to all of that a low ceiling in the graveyard half of the first floor, and Jamie referred to the space as something like a dungeon or otherwise torturous living area. Indeed, she spent most of the winter upstairs where it was much warmer; I stayed downstairs with the TV. The more we got into mapping the place out with the walls down and a new layout, we started wondering; what if we could add some lites to our faux doors on the front of the house?

Something like so (above) was the plan. Then, if you live in a historic district, you have to determine what kind of certificate you need to apply for to make your alterations. The options are a certificate of appropriateness, a certificate of non-applicability, or a certificate of hardship. The Historical Commission’s guidelines and criteria, available through the city of Salem’s website, read as follows:

We needed a certificate of appropriateness, so we put together the application which included:

  • description of work proposed
  • photos of existing conditions, taken from all public ways
  • site plan showing location of improvements
  • elevation drawings of the existing conditions and proposed improvements
  • drawings of details and other special conditions, including profiles
  • description, photographs, and/or catalog cuts of proposed materials
  • dimensions

Our description of the work proposed was as follows:

We propose to change the door style on the front of our carriage house to include lites in the top portion. The existing doors would be altered to include these lites. These doors are not original to the property, they were modified at some point after a photo we found, which was taken in the 1980s. 

The lites would be of a pine wood construction with true divided lites, and would follow all other guidelines relating to windows on the historical guidelines, where possible, since it is not considered a “window”. There will be no trimwork – the lite will sit inside the upper portion of the existing carriage door, see the attached drawings for an elevation with sizing information. 

We have documented many other similar conditions throughout the McIntire District, which include carriage doors with lites at the top. This precedent shows it is not uncommon to find these types of doors in the historic district. 

Jamie undertook the lion’s share of drawing work that I didn’t know how to handle. I referred to some information from the house’s MACRIS report – such as that the carriage doors are not original to the property – and also took photos to include in our application, for instance, of other carriage house doors with lites in them that exist in our neighborhood to establish precedents. I also went to Staples to print out copies of the application packet and walked them to City Hall.

On the day of the hearing, we were both actually quite nervous. A lot of plans and emotions were riding on whether we could get these lites added to the property. I took a selfie in the moment to document the occasion on social media, and inject levity into the situation.

“If you would’ve told me 5 years ago that today we’d be having our hearing at City Hall with the Salem Historical Commission to determine whether we’re allowed to alter the carriage doors on our home, I’d’ve said, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’
Yet here we are.”

The whole hearing took all of five minutes, and passed with a “vertical caveat,” which, in layperson’s terms, means that lites should be taller and more narrow, rather than square-like. Two and a half months later (on 7/1/19), we got the new lites delivered to us, and they have been sitting in the corner of the living room of our temporary living space ever since. When they are installed in December ’19 or January ’20, I will be sure to update the post.


First floor, existing

Above is the pre-reconstruction layout of the first floor. The front door opened into a living room. The light switch was inconveniently located behind the door. Below is how the first floor used to look (from the far wall of the old living room) when we bought the place.

Previously existing 1st-floor living room

Also located behind the front door was the door to the only room in the house officially recognized as a bedroom. It was narrow as hell, was formerly used as an “office,” and had two closets.

Previously existing 1st-floor “bedroom”

The closets were used to house the electrical panel and the gas meter. The electrical panel being in a closet was a code violation, and the gas meter being where it was had to have constituted one violation or another. Silly!

Also on the first floor was a bathroom with a washer/dryer making space a little tight, to say the least.

Previously existing 1st-floor bathroom

Next to the bathroom was the mechanical room (not pictured); then a stairwell; then another fairly useless closet/crawlspace. There’s also a backdoor that leads right to the stone wall overlooking the graveyard. Notice any room missing here typically found on a first floor? Where is food cooked and eaten in this place?

Second floor, existing

When you arrived upstairs, you were allegedly in a “dining room.”

Previously existing second-floor dining room with bay window overlooking Friends Cemetery

When you take a couple steps up, you’re in a really narrow kitchen. It was absolute hell getting the old stove outta there and more so getting the new stove up there.

Previously existing second-floor kitchen beyond dining room

In any case, beyond the kitchen was our “bedroom” to which there was no door, and then an en suite bathroom that did have a door. There was also a closet in the bedroom.

Previously existing second-floor bedroom.

All in all, tons of wasted space in the place. Hence the need for some significant alterations.

I don’t know what this is.

I don’t know what the above image depicts. Joists? Jamie’s explained joists to me before, but I have trouble understanding pieces of wood as anything more specific than wood. I guess these lines represent pieces of wood which run (“as needed”) between the first and second floors.

The new plans (below) will have the front door open into a kitchen. There’ll be a dining room table which I don’t really think we need because we never eat at a table. The kitchen’s in an L shape, and there’ll be new punched openings in the front of the house (see below). Then along the back wall: full bathroom (which will remain unfinished until we can afford to finish it); new staircase upstairs; and then mechanical in the back corner. Living room is remaining where it was.

First floor, re-did
Second floor, re-did

Upstairs will go into a hallway that leads to bedroom, guest room, and/or full bathroom. We’ll probably Airbnb the guest room which overlooks the graveyard. Given Salem’s reputation, especially around Halloween, some folks might see the space as a desirable destination.

New window penetrations

This is how the new windows will appear, more or less, punching openings in these existing fake doors on the front facade.

UPDATE: Given what we’ve heard from the building inspector re: egress in the upstairs bedroom, the half-moon window has got to go. Will be replacing with an operable arch-top window similar to what existed before the half-moon.

New kitchen stuff

New punched openings from within the house.

A bunch of drawings

More detailed stuff pertaining to lights, heating, etc. Everything is labeled; no need to type it all out again.

I believe this is called a “section”

Old render versus new render of first floor layout.

Current first floor interior render. Blegh!
Future first floor interior render. Yippie!

House History.

Looney Barn’s second-floor view of Friends Burial Ground.

When we were first in talks to purchase the Graveyard House (colloquially referred to as such on account of the graveyard in the backyard), we were told that it was built in ~1890 and had (potentially!) been moved to its current location from Federal St. (which is just around the block [through an alley] from us) in the 1940s. Interesting story, and one which would make sense in a few regards. For one thing, the house’s street number is “0” (“zero”), so maybe the street had run out of numbers, thus leaving “0” for a recently-moved home on an otherwise full street of no remaining street numbers from which to choose. The house also has no basement: it’s just plopped onto a concrete slab. Concrete slabs wouldn’t have been extant (or if extant, not common) in 1890, so again, the fact of it being moved made some sense: maybe a concrete slab was put down and then the house was dropped onto it.

Then we started looking at some old atlases and went down the research rabbit hole, eventually learning that the house was not moved to where it is. It was definitely built where it stands in ~1890. It originally served as the carriage house and/or “outbuilding” of 398 Essex, which I say more about at the end of this post.

The 1874 atlas below features Jonathan S. Saul as the owner of the property we’re on as well as the adjacent property at the corner of Essex and Pine St. Right up against Friends Buriel[sic] Ground, there is a footprint (see the square too small to be a house with an “X” on it [which I believe signifies structures not meant for housing humans; aka stables, “outbuildings”[?]) right around where our house is standing now. Definitely too small to be the carriage house as it currently exists. For that matter, 1874 is well before this house was pegged to have been constructed (in ~1890, as we were told). But OK, we knew something was here before us. Let’s keep looking at atlases.

City of Salem Atlas, 1874.

Here’s the atlas for 1890. (Not the greatest quality print, but love the yellows and pinks!) The footprint is bigger and still has an “X” over it, so now we know where we are and approximately when we were built. (Fun[?] fact: Pine St. also became N. Pine and S. Pine at some point between the 1874 and 1890 atlases.) What’s the next atlas look like…?

City of Salem Atlas, 1890.

Saul is no longer associated with the property by 1911. Now the name attached appears to be “E. D. Lowney.” What happened between 1890 and 1911? Let’s check with the Registry of Deeds for Essex County.

City of Salem Atlas, 1911.

I’ve transcribed this bill of sale elsewhere, suffice to point out here that John F. Saul and his wife Sarah Saul of Salem in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in consideration of One dollar paid by Ellen D. Looney (wife of John Looney), granted the lot of land in said Salem which was bounded Southerly by Essex Street 29 feet and 6 inches, Westerly of North Pine St 100 ft and 6 inches, Northerly by land late of Richardson 37 ft and Easterly by the Friends Burying Ground 95 feet and 5 inches, together with the buildings thereon. (Maybe one of these days me and Jamie will take some tape measurers outside and see what’s doing with these measurements.) Interesting that North Pine is referred to as North Pine here rather than plain-old “Pine” as the atlas would attest. The sale was made in Providence, RI on June 22, 1887. Did the carriage house actually exist when the sale occurred? Not sure. I suppose that’s why we have the word “circa.” The sale did note “buildings thereon” plural, so maybe the structure was already extant. Would absolutely love to know exactly when the carriage house was built and how it originally looked. Unfortunately we’re finding that no one really took the time to photograph an unassuming barn from 1890-1994.

Scans of sale from Jonathan Saul to Ellen Looney, 1887.

The Registry of Deeds shows a pretty small number of transactions on the property afterwards. Ellen Looney sold the property to a family member (Josephine Looney) in 1902, and an updated atlas (below: ~1906-1938) doesn’t feature an “X” on the property anymore. I suppose this means that, at the very least, at some point between 1902 and 1936, the house was no longer recognized as deserving of an “X.”

City of Salem Atlas, 1906-1938.

A couple more property shifts occurred in 1958-9 and 1979, and then not much activity until 1994, when the bulk of interior renovations happened that we’re aware of. We’ll be undoing and redoing all of those renovations beginning May 20, 2019.

The only actual photos we have of the property are from the 1967-1996 timeframe. The photo below is from 1980 and was featured in the home’s MACRIS report (Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System). In 1980 it was deemed a “garage.” This photo is kind of cut off, but looks like the owners would have had to inconveniently hop a curb to park in their “garage.” Cool doors, anyways, though they don’t appear to be automatic. People used to have to manually open doors to get in and out of their garages??

Photo of Graveyard House, 1980.

This next photo was taken in November 1967 and was found in the MACRIS report for 400 Essex. (When you live in a former-barn-turned-residence that has been historically neglected because humans didn’t live in it, you have to look at other people’s house histories to find photos, I have found.) Our carriage house is off to the right, seems to have been painted a color darker than its current yellow, and has a pretty big growth sticking out from under the second-floor window.

400 Essex St (forefront); Graveyard House (to the right), November 1967.

This next photo (from our MACRIS report and no one else’s) is dated February 1996. Apparently between 1980 and 1996, the front carriage doors were changed. The 1996 photo’s “doors” are still extant, and aren’t actually functional. They’re essentially fastened to the front of the house. The style of window above the doors was also altered to a half-moon. From the view below, there’s also no fence as of yet. I wonder if the 1994 occupant(s) was able to park next to the house! (I do believe in one record or another I have seen that the previous Graveyard House owner sold off what was left of their driveway to 398 Essex.)

Photo of Graveyard House, February 1996.

There’s now a fence along the side of the house, and a thriving garden out front (weather permitting). If we ever had a driveway, we certainly no longer have one.

Graveyard House, 2018.

At some point in throughout this research, I reached out to Historic Salem Inc. which does great work in its capacity as an architectural/historical preservation organization. Indeed I wouldn’t have known what a MACRIS report was/is without their guidance. For a nominal fee, Historic Salem also fashions out plaques to display on persons’ homes featuring the year in which they were built and for whom (and their profession, if known).

Photo courtesy of Historic Salem Inc.

The MACRIS reports feature “Architectural Descriptions” and “Historical Narratives” of properties, the latter of which essentially give away the ending in sleuthing out the how, what, and why of the Graveyard House. For instance, see below:

Architectural Description of Graveyard House.
Historical Narrative for Graveyard House.

Not much else stands out from the reports, other than Frothingham and Stimpson having allegedly moved properties to N Pine St. Interesting that even when we bought the house in 2018, we were told that the home was potentially moved here (though that didn’t turn out to be true). Lore is nothing if not persistent. Also, “Ellen D. Cooney” is likely a typo: every other document I’ve seen says “Looney,” though it’s possible that Looney changed her name. In a cosmic coincidence, I often call one of our cats (Luna) Looney. This is her right after we moved in. She was very “on alert.”

Luna when we moved in, November 2018.