Category Archives: Salem

Housework

For every sleazy developer who destroys an old house, there are many, many more Salem homeowners who take great care to restore and preserve their old houses, showering them with effort, energy, and money. I’ve been dwelling on the former too much lately, and not enough on the latter, even though I am literally surrounded by ladders in my own neighborhood. This summer I believe that I have heard the sound of saws every day, often all day, and I don’t mind a bit! I think there is a cyclical pattern to home improvement in neighborhoods, although to tell you the truth “housework” is intermittently never-ending for an old house. We’ve done a lot of interior work this summer to repair the damage from February’s ice dams, and in the fall roofing and chimney work will begin. At some point we need to take on our 1960s kitchen (the original one is in the basement and is now my “potting shed”): some people actually think it’s deliberately retro! Clapboard repair on the back next year, and then…….something else. Still, our challenges are nothing compared to what some of our neighbors have been through, and I truly appreciate their efforts, each and every day.

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Just one walk’s worth of housework: houses in varying stages of renovation and painting projects in the McIntire Historic District.


A Salem Suffragette

Well, today is Women’s Equality Day, designated in 1971 to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which finally granted women the right to vote after a long struggle for suffrage. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never knew this was a “day”, but it seems as good a time as any to shine a spotlight on a Salem suffragist (I’m an English historian, so I used my preferred “Suffragette” in the title, but the more appropriate American term is “Suffragist”). I’m certain that there was more than one fierce advocate of votes for women in progressive Salem, but Margery Bedinger of Forrester Street committed at a crucial time, and went on to lead a very interesting and independent life. And I have pictures! Margery was born in Salem in 1891, the daughter of the Rector of St. Peter’s Church (and the granddaughter of the Ambassador to Denmark). She matriculated at Smith College first, but graduated from Radcliffe in 1913. In 1914 and 1915, she was one of many members of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association campaigning actively in support of a state referendum to give women the right to vote. The suffragists and their supporters walked, ran, trolleyed, biked and drove all around the Commonwealth, distributing their colorful materials and holding open-air forums, and capped off their campaign with of parade of 9000 supporters (including Helen Keller) on October 16. Despite their efforts, the referendum failed, and Massachusetts women did not gain the vote until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920. Margery was no doubt disappointed by the returns of 1915, but she moved steadfastly forward (and west–where suffrage had triumphed first), completing her graduate degree in Library Science and becoming the first female librarian at the United States Military Academy at West Point in the 1920s (and later publishing a “spirited” article about the Academy entitled “The Goose Step at West Point” in the New Republic), assuming a succession of library directorships at academic libraries in Montana, Washington, and New Mexico, authoring an authoritative book on Native American jewelry, traveling the world, and finally retiring to Hawaii!

Margery Bedinger was an incredibly accomplished woman but I only discovered her through another incredibly accomplished woman: Florence Hope Luscomb (1887-1985), the leader of the Massachusetts Suffrage movement and one of the first women to graduate from the distinguished architectural program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (this was just the beginning of a long lifetime of social and political activism). Luscomb’s papers are at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University, and while I was looking around for things related to her architectural practice, I found Margery, her comrade in 1915. And here is Margery at work and at play, in those interesting times a century ago.

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Margery Bedinger of Salem (front and center) and her Massachusetts suffragist colleagues on their “auto tour” across the state, 1915, & Margery and her horse somewhere out west a bit later and in close-up, from the Florence Hope Luscomb Archive at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. Below: a broadside and paraphernalia from the 1915 campaign–the back of the fan reads “keep cool and raise a breeze for suffrage”.

Suffrage Broadside 1915 MHS

Suffrage mementos MA


De Facto Demolition

One year ago contractors working for a developer/convenience and liquor store owner named Jewel Saeed tore the roof off a Federal house on Carlton Street here in Salem and exposed it to the deluge of an approaching tropical storm: in the following weeks they ripped out all of the original (soaked) fabric, including its massive center chimney, and rebuilt it as petrochemical-clad condominiums, surrounded by blacktop. I may rant against the huge generic buildings which are gradually transforming the Salem streetscape, but no Salem development has ever troubled me more than the mutilation of 25 Carlton Street. The act was so brazen, and the response so tepid. Carlton Street is not located in one of Salem’s four historic districts, so it is not subject to overview by the Historic Commission, but all Salem structures are subject to the city-wide Demolition Delay Ordinance and Mr. Saeed did not apply for a demolition permit or a waiver. He didn’t have to bother. But make no mistake: the structure that now occupies the lot designated 25 Carlton Street is not the same building that existed a year ago.

Carlton Street 1985

Carlton Street 2014

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25 Carlton Street in 1985, 2014, and this (very foggy) morning. The fine grain of vinyl siding.


The Reverend Billy Cook, Salem’s Self-Published Poet

As I am typing this, beside me is a little hand-bound and -printed pamphlet of verse, what one might call a chapbook, dating from 1852: it is one of many similar publications produced by the Reverend William “Billy” Cook (1807-1876) in the middle of the nineteenth century and sold to family and friends. The son of a prosperous ship captain, Cook spent his entire life in Salem except for stints at Phillips Academy in Andover and Yale University, from which he failed to graduate because of illness–both physical (typhus) and mental: his sole biographer, Lawrence Jenkins, writes in 1924 that “unkind Nature” had failed to outfit this “gentle soul” with a “complete and well-balanced headpiece”.  After his return to Salem, Cook studied for the ministry but never made it beyond the level of Deacon: nevertheless he and everyone else seems to have referred to him as “Reverend”. To make ends meet (as the captain’s money seems to have run out), Cook tutored private students in Latin, Greek and mathematics and began writing and sketching. He maintained what is referred to as an “art gallery” in his home on Charter Street and included woodblock illustrations in all of his publications. These woodblocks are quite primitive, nevertheless they highlight the fact that Salem was Cook’s entire world as numerous street scenes and buildings are intermingled among his verse whether they have anything to do with Salem or not. According to Jenkins, the woodblocks were carved from maple or birch wood by Cook with a jack-knife, and touched up with lead pencil or paint after they were printed–one page at a time–on a hand-press that he had built himself. This rather rudimentary process is revealed by the folk nature of the prints, but I think it also renders them a bit more timeless, and charming.

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Cook East Church

Cook First Baptist Church Print

Cook St. Peters Church

Cook Tollhouse Print

Cook Pickering House Print

I wish I knew more about William Cook. Jenkins’ article definitely paints him as a rather eccentric figure, but isn’t he in a similar situation as his contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne? The old Salem money had run out for both of them, and they had to depend on the their well-placed friends and ink-stained hands to provide for themselves. And they were both so so shaped by Salem. (I think the similarities must end here). The poem that illustrates Cook’s life the best for me is his “Chestnut Street”: not only did he include the names of all the contemporary residents of the street but also accompanying illustrations of nearly every building by my estimation (including the McIntire South Church). He had to: these were his patrons. So here we have quite a different Chestnut Street than that portrayed later in the photographs of Frank Cousins or the etchings of Samuel Chamberlain. Cook’s style emphasized the elemental fundamentals–chimneys and windows–and all those top-heavy, twisting trees–the lost elms of Chestnut Street, I believe.

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All illustrations from The Euclea collection of Cook’s poetry, 1852;  For more on Cook see the only source: Lawrence Jenkins, William Cook of Salem, Mass.: Preacher, Poet, Artist and Publisher,” in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, New Series, Vol. 34, April 9, 1924-October 15, 1924.


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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Corner Store AP SSU

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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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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.


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