Daily Archives: March 13, 2012

The Bulfinch Bank

In terms of architectural turf, I like to think of Salem’s own master woodcarver/architect Samuel McIntire as being so eminent and prolific that no other architect of his day could compete for commissions within the bounds of the then-bustling port. I like to think that, but I am wrong, as an even more eminent architect, Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844), designed several buildings in Salem, including one that is still standing: the Essex Bank Building.

Charles Bulfinch built Federal-era Boston in much the same way that Samuel McIntire built Federal-era Salem but the former architect had more of the background and inclinations of a “gentleman” (Harvard, the Grand Tour) than a craftsman, and seems to have been far more politically ambitious as well, serving on the Boston Board of Selectmen and as the Commissioner of Public Building in Washington. In addition to the residences he designed for wealthy Bostonians (including the Harrison Gray Otis house, the present-day headquarters of Historic New England), his New England commissions included buildings for Harvard and the Massachusetts General Hospital, the state houses of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine, and the majestic “Bulfinch Church” (Unitarian First Church of Christ/Fifth Meeting House) in Lancaster, Massachusetts. In Washington, Bulfinch was responsible for restoring the Capitol building after its burning by British troops occupying Washington during the War of 1812:  he rebuilt the wings, laid out grounds, and designed the center domed building that was later replaced by the much larger dome of today.

Bulfinch's Capitol Dome in 1846, Architect of the Capitol.

In Salem, Bulfinch designed at least three buildings that I know of:  The Salem Almshouse on Salem Neck (1816), Ezekiel Hersey Derby’s grand house on Essex Street (1800), and the Essex Bank.  There seems to be conflicting information about the Old Town House, which is sometimes attributed to Bulfinch and sometimes not, so I’m leaving that out.  The Almshouse, often called the “Poor Farm” survived until the 1950s when it was razed to make way for condominiums, and the Derby House survived until the 1970s, albeit in unrecognizable form as it was increasingly swallowed up by the commercial storefronts of busy Essex Street.

The Salem Almshouse and the Ezekiel Derby house in photographs from the early 20th century, after the latter had been transformed into the “All America Shoe Shop” adjacent to the Salem Five Cents Savings Bank. I couldn’t find a photograph of this Bulfinch house in its heyday, but you can see a similar house in Portsmouth in this post by the Downeast Dilletante. In her 1919 book A Loiterer in New England, Helen Weston Henderson attributes the Derby house to McIntire rather than Bulfinch and includes the elevation drawing above–she also bemoans the house’s “desecrated front”. The bottom photograph shows the Ezekiel Hersey Derby room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

These Bulfinch buildings in Salem are gone, but the Essex Bank Building survives, due in large part no doubt to the preservation efforts of Historic Salem, Inc. and the Salem Redevelopment Authority.  It was the first bank building in Essex County, and remained a bank for a good part of that century until it became the headquarters of the Salem Fraternity for Boys (the forerunner of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salem) in 1869.  Frank Cousins’ photograph below indicates that it had reverted back to a bank in the early twentieth century. At the end of that century it became an antiques store (with a stunning second-floor apartment) and now it houses an antiquarian bookstore.

Frank Cousins photograph from the Urban Landscape Digital Collection at Duke University; the Essex Bank Building yesterday.



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