Category Archives: Current Events

From Corner Store to Colossus

There are no pretty pictures in today’s post (well, as usual, the historic one is relatively pleasing) but I feel the need to weigh in on yet another inappropriate development looming over Salem–in this case, threatening the view and the neighborhood I see from my office window at Salem State University. An assortment of tired twentieth-century shops grafted onto an older building in a rather awkward–but certainly not imposing–manner might possibly be replaced by a behemoth commercial structure more appropriate for a Route 128 office park, and if the developer doesn’t get this way, an apparently even larger building comprising 34 residential units. The developer in question is of course from nearby Marblehead, a town which has produced a long line of investors in Salem, hoping to either reap returns or assuage their suburban guilt over residing in a town that “celebrates diversity” but has none. He unabashedly proclaims his project “Lafayette Place” even though there is a lovely little street bearing the same name (for over a century) a few blocks down the road. Because he is also a former overseer of SSU, there are also concerns that this is another encroachment by the university into a residential neighborhood. I really hope that’s not the case and I tend to think it is not: the university is building big–very big–on its own campus but it is also the new tenant of an ambitious adaptive reuse project just down the road from the proposed “Lafayette Place” (and up the road from the real Lafayette Place) in which a Salem developer has transformed the former Temple Shalom into an academic building within its existing footprint.

Now brace yourself for the pictures: the corner of Lafayette and West Streets, present, past, future (?). The cute little A&P store that once occupied the site (you can still see its Colonial Revival “frame”) makes me very sentimental for corner grocery stores in general and A&Ps in particular, although I’m not sure I’ve even been in one! The scale of this building is still appropriate for its surrounding neighborhood.

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The corner of Lafayette and West Streets present & past (Dionne Collection, SSU Archives and Special Collections), and renderings of the proposed “Lafayette Place”.  Jerome Curley, a great source for Salem’s visual history and history in general, has offered the picture below so you can appreciate the scale issue. On the immediate right is the Lafeyette/West corner, and all of those residential buildings on both sides of the street remain. (From his Salem through Time, co-edited with Nelson Dionne).

Lafayette West Corner


Antique Automobiles Assembled (in August)

From my perspective, early August is not only for Americana but also antique automobiles, or perhaps they are the same thing. What started out as a small neighborhood event–a meeting of vintage automobiles on Chestnut Street sponsored by Historic New England’s Phillips House, accompanied by a makeshift lemonade stand organized by local children–has grown to a large assemblage of both cars and people. This year, there were 80 cars on the street with quite a crowd of onlookers and the added attractions of music, cannolis, and a Volkswagen van transformed into a photo booth. I think pretty much every decade of the twentieth century was represented by the cars–or at least the middle part thereof. Lots of Belairs, several wagons of varying vintage. There was a Lamborghini parked on the opposite side of the street which offered some pretty stiff competition, but the largest crowd of the afternoon was definitely in the proximity of the bright red Heinkel. It was nice, but no match for my “chrome crush” of last year, a BMW Isetta 600 Limo. The Heinkel was perhaps the primary representative of a group of classy foreign cars, mostly convertibles, which were surrounded by much bigger American cars. Even though it was not a car for purists (its owner had replaced the original seats with slightly more plush ones as he likes to drive his car) I really liked the 1960s Datsun convertible, and I learned quite a lot about its history.

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Blue Moons

Today offers a great opportunity to widen my focus a bit and celebrate the appearance of the Blue Moon of 2015. These “extra” seasonal full months, the 13th full moon of a calendar year, happen about every three years: our last blue moon appeared in the summer of 2012 and we won’t see another one until 2018. These occasions are a perfect examples of how man and nature are seldom in sync: the creation of the calendar created the blue moon, which is apparently never really blue unless there some even more unusual astronomical conditions are present. It is always nice to wonder, and be reminded that Nature is our master and will not be boxed in by man’s organization of time. Cultural representations of the blue moon all focus on its rarity: “once in a blue moon” the earth is cast in a new/blue light and anything can happen.

Blue Moon Poster

Blue Moon Barbier 1928

Blue Moon Kingman MFA

Lunar Rocket Squires

Metropolitan Printing Co. poster c. 1906, Library of Congress; Ball Under the Blue Moon, Georges Barbier illustration for ‘Fetes Galantes’ by Paul Verlaine, 1928; “Blue Moon” by Dong Kingman, 1942, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Frank Ward, Blue Moon over Wolverhampton, 1958, Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; “Lunar Rocket” furnishing fabric by Eddie Squires (amazing! celebrating Apollo 11), 1969, Victoria & Albert Museum.


Architectural Anxieties

For some time now I’ve been anxious about all of the new buildings going up in Salem: the sheer number, their size and scale, and their design. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while I’m sure that this will be no surprise to you, and I have not been subtle with my opinions or presentations (see “When Monster Buildings Attack”, or the more idealistic “Ideal Cities”). I am a traditionalist so “modern” architecture is always a bit jarring for me, but many of these new buildings don’t seem to even have a distinct design, modern or otherwise: they just seem blatantly and mundanely ugly. Beyond aesthetics, it also seems rather obvious that there has been no attempt to integrate these structures into the existing material fabric of Salem: they could be built anywhere. Salem’s architectural heritage is so apparent: I’m clueless as to why developers and city boards do not make integration a higher priority. As I said, my concerns have been intensifying for some time: I used to just write off my dislike of a particular building to the organic nature of the ever-evolving city (there are so many great buildings here; we can absorb a few not-so-great ones) but now it seems to me that there is a danger of the bad outweighing the beautiful, and then Salem will be forever lost. Here are just two cases in point, of proposed buildings going up in very conspicuous locations, accentuating their impact: the new “Community Life Center” (essentially a Senior Center, long overdue), which will be built adjacent to a “Gateway Center” (housing/retail on the first floor) on a lot at the intersection of Bridge and Boston Streets, two major entrance corridors of the city, and the new, additional Waterfront Hotel on Pickering Wharf. The rendering for the former looks like it was drawn by a five-year old, and while the latter is somewhat less objectionable the completed building looks like it will block out the view of the harbor completely in its immediate vicinity. So we are welcoming people to Salem with one particularly unprepossessing building and then blocking their view of the harbor with another once they manage to navigate their way downtown.

Community Life Center

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Proposed Community Life Center building, High Rock Development, and Salem Waterfront Hotel & Marina, Symmes Maini & McKee Associates.


Trip to Bountiful

We took a very quick trip this weekend to New York State for a family wedding in Saratoga Springs and stopped at my brother’s house in Rhinebeck on the way back. The weather was midsummer dramatic: dark thunderstorms on the way there and back and hot, hazy and humid in between. The bride was the picture of cool nonetheless, and the wedding was held in the groom’s backyard, which features one of the most spectacular gardens I have ever seen: a powerful mix of the most colorful of perennials and the most architectural of vegetables! And so very well-tended by the groom’s father: I came home a bit ashamed of my weedy patch and more than a bit envious of all those vegetables. Though I’m a notorious non-eater of green things I am always struck by how beautiful they are as plants, and wish I had more land so I could grow some (to look at). In my urban garden, I grow perennials and herbs together because this is what the colonials (and their predecessors) did: in much the same way this Saratoga garden has integrated raised vegetable beds with surrounding perennials. Then there is lawn–which is where the wedding tent was, right on the edge of the garden, or rather in the garden. I’ve been to many garden weddings before, but this was a GARDEN wedding. We drove south on the way back and stopped at my brother’s house for lunch and saw more New York bounty on the way and when we got there–including a transplanted Massachusetts white hydrangea from my mother’s family house (why don’t I have any????)–which seems to be doing particularly well in New York. Once we were on the Pike driving back to Salem I recalled a very distant memory from my early childhood in Strafford, Vermont:  there was a well-established farmer who suddenly and inexplicably (to me, who could not imagine any place more perfect than Vermont) sold his farm and moved to New York State. I asked either my mother or my father (I can’t remember which) why? And they said:  the farms are so much larger in New York, and there is just MORE: more land, more crops, BIGGER vegetables. I am definitely paraphrasing here but that was the gist of it. I remember that at that moment “New York” became something different than, or additional to, the city, for me, and associated with bounty.

An amazing Saratoga Springs garden (encompassing a wedding celebration), including weird-looking brussel sprouts, and a flourishing white hydrangea (the best kind) in Rhinebeck:

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Event-fully Salem

There is so much going on in Salem this summer that I’m a bit overwhelmed, and have taken to hiding in my garden! This was my strategy this past weekend, which was hot and sunny and jam-packed with things to do: sadly I inadvertently missed PEM Curator Dean Lahikainen’s lecture on the recent renovation of the Ropes House and the Salem Garden Club’s seaside garden tour, along with the “Paddle for Plummer” fundraiser for the Plummer Home, though I deliberately missed the Salem Willows Seafood Festival, which is not a community “festival” at all but a corporate event held in a (roped-off) public park. There’s still plenty of time to see the Thomas Hart Benton exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum and the exhibit on the alchemical activities of John Winthrop at the Witch House is just opening today. In a metaphor for this “close to home” summer, I also missed this weekend’s pop-up installation of giant inflatable rabbits down in Boston (Intrude by Australian artist Amanda Parer), but spent Saturday weeding with (three? four? rabbits) hopping (and napping) right in my backyard! On Sunday however, I could not avoid another event which happened right in my (de facto) front yard: Salem’s 4th annual Diner En Blanc pop-up picnic, which was held in the Chestnut Street park. You may be familiar with this……movement? (this sounds like too strong a word) in which people dressed in white “spontaneously” set up a picnic (with more white stuff, including food) in some secretive (right up to the afternoon of the event) location and dine together in pristine magnificence–it started in Paris nearly 30 years ago and now has spread to over 40 cities around the world, probably more, including Salem. As elsewhere, the dinner gets bigger every year as friends invite friends who invite friends….I wasn’t going to post on this happening (better word) as I thought it might seem a bit exclusive, almost as if we’re in Marblehead or Manchester-by-the Sea, but then I thought: what’s exclusive about this? Anyone can come, and they don’t have to pay for the privilege, like the Salem Willows Seafood “Festival”. Plus there was a great hat in attendance, which you simply have to see, and I am proud of my own blanc arrangement, made up exclusively from flowers from my garden.

Mid-July Weekend in Salem (and Boston–“Intrude” Rabbits courtesy of Mark Favermann):

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All that’s left is my ghost-like chair this morning.


Flowers and Flags

That’s what late June and early July are all about in essence:  flowers (mostly roses) and flags. This particular year, even more so regarding the latter. I worked on my garden quite a bit during this mostly sunny week, and I was so happy to wake up to hard-driving rain this morning because it meant I could have a Sunday day of rest–or laundry. Much of the garden is in full flower, but as I’ve been going for interesting leaves rather than short-lived flowers over the past few years green dominates. I think I went a bit too far in this direction so I introduced some interspersed old-fashioned mallows in the central garden this year, and I think they provide a nice pop of color. But mostly it’s about roses, which I have yet to master and probably never will–but even a fool can grow roses in June (July and August are quite another matter). Now for the flags: we usually have a full range of flags flying on Chestnut–from standard and more unique versions of the stars and stripes to the Hawaiian flag at the Phillips House to the rainbow flag, flying for last week’s North Shore Pride Parade but obviously bearing even more resonance now. I like to display my great-great-grandfather’s 45-star memorial flag on the side of the house, but it’s “flying” in the front parlor until the weather clears up. If anyone knows a good source for (cotton) reproductions of historic flags, please let me know: I’d like to buy a 24-star flag, the official version when our house was built in 1827. There was a more jarring display of flags last week, fortunately only digital, when The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore used a photograph of Hamilton Hall (just next door!) to create a “Confederate Flag Museum”: I’m including it here because it’s always good to remember that not everything is beautiful.

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Late June Flag in Salem

Nightly Show Confederate Flag Museum

Late June garden with roses, roses, roses (only the yellow ones are mine: the rest are from the Ropes Garden and Flint and Becket Streets). Flags–real and fortunately NOT–on Chestnut Street.

Appendix: and even worse, someone hung a real Confederate flag on the Robert Gould Shaw/ Massachusetts 54th Memorial in Boston yesterday, and it remained there for several hours before a Lowell woman pulled it off: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/06/28/confederate-flag-hung-from-regiment-memorial/bLFrtGsKCLAEpFFDBsX0DK/story.html.


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