A stately, robust, classically New England-styled brick house stands on Derby Street in the heart of old Salem, overlooking the harbor. Built in 1810 with architect Samuel McIntire’s characteristic black shutters and rectangular silhouette, and neighboring the famous Custom House (birthplace of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter), the Brookhouse has, for generation after generation, served as one of the finest Rest Homes for aged women in Massachusetts.
Before pension plans and Social Security, aging folks who hoped to retire had to either save up their own money or rely on family to take them in once they grew too old to work. Those who weren’t fortunate enough to have substantial savings or a family on which to depend turned to aid societies established by wealthy patrons in their community (the 19th century wealthy were seen as having an obligation to help the less fortunate by donating money to charitable causes). Thusly, foundations such as the Association for the Relief of Aged and Destitute Women, in Salem, came about. Every provision was considered for the dignity of these women, including designated cemetery plots, available to this day, in the shade of a spreading Beech Tree next to the Fountain Pond at Salem’s Greenlawn Cemetery.
The three-story building was built in 1810 for Benjamin Crowninshield, a prominent Salem merchant and an acquaintance of President James Monroe. Robert Brookhouse, a philanthropist who made his fortune in the West African cowhide trade, bought the house in 1854 for $5,000 and gifted it to the Relief of Aged and Destitute Women in 1860, establishing the first home in Salem for elderly women. One-hundred-fifty-seven years later, the 36-bedroom house still functions as a Rest Home, as beautiful and quaint as it was in the 1800s.
Stepping into one of the elegantly furnished living or dining rooms used as common spaces for the residents, or by residents’ family to celebrate special occasions, feels like stepping back in time into the shoes of a 19th century New England aristocrat. The picturesque harborside location allows a fresh sea breeze to waft over the grounds and through open windows.
The Brookhouse Home’s funding through Medicaid and the Department of Transitional Assistance provides financial support to women with limited income. An involved board of sixteen directors, comprised of professional members of the community, is dedicated to maintaining the original mission of the home, which is to provide a safe, comfortable, and respectful environment to senior women.
Brookhouse provides residents with home-cooked meals, housekeeping, laundry, and an array of daily activities such as exercise, movies, music and art therapy, and a reading group. Community volunteers provide poetry readings, current event discussions, holiday teas, a series of Summer Musicales, and companion dogs who visit with the ladies. The home encourages residents to build friendships and live active lives. Combine all of this with a dedicated, well-trained, and committed staff, some of whom have been working at Brookhouse for over 20 years, and it’s easy to see why this home has continued to provide quality of life to aging women for 157 years.
Salem visitors are frequently heard to comment as they stand before the plaque at the front of the house, sometimes in amazement, that such a quaint concept as an “old ladies’ home” still exists in the 21st century. Robert Brookhouse would be pleased by their observation.