A visit to the House of the Seven Gables is a little like a visit to Salem itself. You go because it’s famous and everyone says you should, and you leave thinking that it was nice but also wondering exactly what you just saw.

So what is this place? And how does it fit into the witch-pirate-privateer-China Trade-story of Salem?

The House of the Seven Gables started life as a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne that hardly anyone reads anymore. It’s got some terrific gothic elements but moves like molasses and lacks the implicit sexiness of The Scarlet Letter.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. In 1907 local philanthropist Caroline Emmerton started experimenting with a “settlement house” for Salem’s immigrants. The settlement house movement in American was focused on teaching immigrant women and children job skills and English. Emmerton was looking for a way to fund the house and she hit on the idea of running a tourist attraction.

The 1667 Turner House may or may not have inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s description of the house in the novel. The house was certainly owned by his aunt, Susannah Ingersoll, and Hawthorne definitely visited. But there were several other houses in town that are equally likely candidates and Hawthorne himself said that the house in the book was his own invention.

Even so, by the 1870s the Turner House was entrenched in local lore as The House. And in 1908 Emmerton bought it and hired an architect to remake it in the image of Hawthorne’s fictional creation. The site opened to the public in 1910. In 1958 Hawthorne’s birthplace home was purchased and moved to the site. More than you ever wanted to know about that process can be found here.

When you take the tour today the guides are up-front about the Disneyland aspects of the site. There is some interesting architecture to see, there are some nice period rooms, the house is situated on the water and the gardens and associated buildings are charming, but there’s a curious dissociated quality to a tour on which you learn all about how the things you are looking at are based on a book you’ve never read or read and can’t remember.

Should you go? Yes, you probably should. It’s one of the few historic houses open all day ¬†and all year long in Salem. The grounds are lovely, the gift shop is quite good, and the place is overrun with friendly felines. (Our cat was born there.) And there’s a candy shop across the street worthy of its own entry.