Chinese house transports visitors

The Peabody Essex Museum rebuilds fortress-like house with original stones and fish pools

It's not often that a sleepy regional museum can transform itself - practically overnight - into a major artistic and tourist destination. But that is precisely what has happened to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

This once quaint repository of Asian artifacts and nautical art now boasts a new wing, atrium, and 30,000 feet of exhibition space, designed by architect Moshe Safdie.

But the real jewel rests just outside the glass-and-steel doors in a sun-drenched courtyard.

A walk through these doors transports visitors from a pristine 21st-century aesthetic to that of a 19th-century wood-frame house from rural China.

The house, called Yin Yu Tang, was a serendipitous discovery by Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese art at the museum. In 1996, during her travels through the Huizhou district, a tiny village in a mountainous region about 200 miles from Shanghai, she came across a house built by a prosperous Shanghai merchant. The building encapsulated everything remarkable about architecture of that period and region.

On a return visit, Ms. Berliner met the Huang family, who had owned the house for eight generations. Their patriarch had decided not to retire to the ancestral home in Huizhou, and they were preparing to sell the house. Provincial authorities were also looking for a cultural exchange with an American institution, as they wanted to preserve examples of their heritage.

The Peabody Essex Museum bought the house and its contents, including furniture, clothing, journals, account ledgers, and other documentation of daily life. "A curator's dream come true," Berliner says.

In 1997, a crew of 20 people took the house apart stone by stone and timber by timber. Even the roof tiles were handed down one at a time. The building's pieces were packed into specially designed crates that filled 19 containers in a cargo ship, and eventually made their way to a warehouse in Medford, Mass.

There, repairs were made and restoration work begun. Then the components of Yin Yu Tang (the name refers to shade and shelter) were moved to the Peabody Essex Museum's courtyard and reassembled - everything from the original foundation stones and fish pools to the weathered wooden lattices and cedar support beams.

Visitors can walk through the 19 rooms on both floors of the house, which is thought to be the only complete 19th-century Chinese house outside that country. The Huangs' belongings, including a battered bicycle, have been set in Yin Yu Tang as if the family were returning at any moment.

With its fortresslike exterior, the house appears a bit forbidding, until a visitor enters the front doorway. Inside, high walls rise to form a sheltered courtyard. An overhang protects the gallery, which runs completely around the perimeter and links all the rooms.

Wooden lattices, traced with intricate designs, form screens that let in light and air, but provide privacy.

Berliner says that because such wooden houses were connected, villagers could walk from house to house along the second-floor balconies without ever touching the street. This helped protect them from bandits.

The history of China has left its mark on Yin Yu Tang: A poster of Chairman Mao adorns one wall; chalk marks on another wall tell of villagers who camped on the floor of a common room while engaged in militia training during the Cultural Revolution. At times when business faltered, rooms were sold off, and a peasant family lived among the Huangs for a time.

Preservationists have mixed feelings about uprooting the house to the United States. What eases their concerns a bit is the thought that Yin Yu Tang would most likely have been torn down and replaced by a modern house with amenities such as plumbing. In fact, the cavity left by Yin Yu Tang's removal was soon filled with just such a house.

Museum staff declined to say how much it has cost to restore the house, but a news report quoted sources estimating at least $15 million, including fees paid to the Chinese government.

Overall, the museum has raised $107 million toward its $125 million project, which includes the new Safdie wing, an enlarged museum shop, and a cafe and restaurant.

The expanded museum as envisioned by Safdie is well thought out, but it shares characteristics of other museums in big cities. Despite his desire to harmonize with the historic buildings in Salem, the structure looks as if it could be almost anywhere in the world. Its space is still too new and sleek to compete successfully with Yin Yu Tang's human-scaled, lived-in quality.

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