Tag Archives: Architecture

What would Ada think?

In honor of tomorrow’s symposium, Mightier than a Wrecking Ball: How Ada Louise Huxtable Saved Salem, jointly sponsored by Historic Salem, Inc., the Peabody Essex Museum, and Historic New England, I thought I would ask and consider what Ms. Huxtable (1921-2013) might have thought about the emerging streetscape of Salem in 2015, fifty years after her influential New York Times article “saved” Salem from the destruction of 100+ historic buildings and a four-lane highway running down its center in the guise of “urban renewal” in the fall of 1965. I think she would have abhorred the big glass-and-faux-brick boxes looming on our horizon both literally (now) and digitally (proposals for the future), but I don’t really know. She was certainly not an exclusive preservationist: such a stance would have been impossible in her capacity as the architectural critic for the Times. She seems to have detested “Williamsburging” nearly as much as the emergence of “slab cities” and heralded preservation as a bulwark against thoughtless development with little historical or architectural integrity. In an effort to answer my own question, I browsed through many of her articles in the archives of the Times: this took some time, primarily because she is such an amazing writer. I wanted to restrict myself to skimming, but her sharp observations and critiques (Albert Speer would love the Kennedy Center) kept me reading. Certain words and phrases kept popping up as architectural attributes: art, identity, variety, and the integration of new construction and preservation, and others as outcomes to be avoided at all costs. In this category, I would place the phrase sterilized non-place, which appears in her 1974 follow-up article “How Salem Saved Itself from Urban Renewal”.

Ada 1974 NYT

That phrase just says it all for me: sterilized non-place. And it makes me think that Ada Louise Huxtable, who summered right next door in Marblehead and would have taken a personal interest in all these new buildings going up in Salem, would not have viewed or reviewed them favorably. Lined up all together, as they are below, you can see an apparent generic uniformity on the one hand and a thoughtless, careless nod to Salem’s historic structures on another—just slap on some brick! So since we can never really know Ms. Huxtable’s opinion on these buildings, perhaps it is better to ask is Salem becoming a sterilized non-place?


Washington at Derby RCG

Big Box Hotel

Big Box District Courthouse

Two existing developments (the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center-and RCG Corporation’s Washington at Derby building) and two proposals (the winning design to replace the existing District Courthouse and RCG’s proposed Mill Hill development further down Washington Street).

Baker’s Island, Now and Then

If you look at a Google map of Salem you will see that its borders extend out into the Sound, to encompass several islands miles off the coast. These islands have been legally part of Salem from the seventeenth century, guarding the long entrance into Salem Harbor. The Reverend Francis Higginson commented on his entrance into Salem in 1629: we passed the curious and difficult entrance into the large and spacious harbour of Naimkecke [“Naumkeag” i.e. Salem]….it was wonderful to behould so many islands replenished with thicke woods and high trees and many fayre green pastures….

Bakers Island Map 17th C BPL

Bakers Island Map 1897

Given its importance as a port, every map of Salem from the seventeenth century on indicates the islands in Salem Sound: a detail from a map of the coastline of New Netherlands in 1656 from Arnold Colom’s “Zee Atlas” shows the unnamed islands (Leventhal Center, Boston Public Library), and I’ve highlighted Baker’s on an 1897 navigational map.

After several centuries of use, these islands are not quite so fertile but they remain “fair”. Among the largest is Bakers or Baker’s (both forms are used interchangeably; I have no idea which is correct) Island: around 60 acres of residential land, except for the easternmost 1o-acre section which has been owned by the Federal Government from the 1790s and remains the site of a lighthouse (there were previously two). The rest of the island became a summer colony from the late nineteenth century, after Salem physician Dr. Nathan R. Morse built a large cottage for his family as well as a 75-room hotel, called The Weene-egan, for those who sought the ocean air as well as his homeopathic regimen. Around 60 summer cottages were built on the island, and after the Weene-egan burned down in 1906 the island became increasingly “private”, as the owners of these cottages passed them down and restricted access via their exclusive dock. So for most of the twentieth century, Baker’s Island remained a Salem island on which few, if any, Salem residents could step foot. That changed a year ago, when (despite appeals by the cottage owners) the Federal Government (via the U.S. Coast Guard) transferred ownership of the eleven-acre Baker’s Island Light Station to a regional heritage organization, the Essex Heritage Conservation Commission. In the past year, Essex Heritage began a campaign to restore the lighthouse and enabled access to the station (NOT the rest of the island) through daily tours aboard the Naumkeag, which lands on the beach, not the dock. These tours ended yesterday, and we just squeezed ours in the day before.

Baker's Island Steamer 2

Winne-egan Ad.

Baker's Island Launch

Baker's Approach

Baker's Approach 2

Baker's Approach 3

Lining up for the steamer to Baker’s Island and the Winne-egan, 1903; an ad for the hotel in The Outlook, 5 June 1896; our “steamer”, the Naumkeag, approach and landing.

It was a beautiful day and I took lots of pictures, and when I returned home and looked at them they seemed very familiar–even though I had never been to Baker’s Island before. I realized that I had just been checking out some photographs in a collection that local author Nelson Dionne has donated to the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections which included several similar scenes of the island a century ago. I guess tourist shots are timeless! So now we have a perfect opportunity to see some “now and then” perspectives of this newly-revealed island. The images don’t match up perfectly, but close enough, I think.

Baker's Island Light 3

Baker's Island Light from Beach SSU

Baker's Island Light SSU

Baker's Island Lighthouses SSU Archives

Bakers Island Lights PC

Baker's Island Light Interior

Baker's Island Light 5

Baker's Island Light 6 SSU

Above, one light now, one light before…but there were actually TWO lighthouses on Baker’s Island: the second was taken down in 1926. Early twentieth-century views of both, interspersed with my photographs, including one of the interior of the surviving lighthouse, now undergoing restoration.

Below: the former site of the Winne-egan Hotel (I think–or close by), the Hotel, and several Baker’s Island cottages, now and then. Not sure when “then” is for the cottage photographs–they look a bit more mid-centuryish (the flag and power line are clues) than those of the Hotel,  which burned down in 1906 due to the presence of “gasoline stored in the basement in large quantities”!

Baker's Island Hotel Site

Baker's Island Hotel Wineegan 2

Baker's Island Hotel Wineegan

Baker's Island Houses

Baker's Island Houses 3

Baker's Island Houses 2

Baker's Island Houses SSU Archives 2

Baker's Island Houses SSU Archives 3

Baker's Island House SSU Archives

Distinct “old man on the mountain-ish” rock formation photographed by me and some anonymous tourist years ago. Some things never change! For a more comprehensive history of the Baker’s Island Lighthouse(s), see here; to buy a piece of Baker’s Island, see here.

Bakers Island Old Man on the Mountain

Baker's Island Rock Formation SSU Archives


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.

Old Homes Made New 1879

After I came across a little book named Old Homes made New. Being a Collection of Plans, Exterior and Interior Views, Illustrating the Alteration and Remodeling of Several Suburban Residences, published in 1879 by architect William M. Woollett, I really understand the “alterations” made to my 1827 house by its owners in the later nineteenth century. Like the simple colonial and Greek Revival houses used as Woollett’s “befores”, my own house must have been far too spare for the exuberant sensibilities of my Victorian predecessors, and so they added bay windows, French doors, arches, etched glass, a curved mahogany banister, and lots more space–up and out they went, into the attic and out back: I guess I should be thankful I don’t have a tower or a turret! The 1920s owners of the house attempted to restrain the house’s exuberance under their stewardship, but I bet they liked the light provided by the bay windows and I know they needed the space: they had 12 children!  And so what remains is an amalgamation, just like Stonehurst, and most houses, I suppose.

oldhomesmadenew cover


Old Homes made New 1812

oldhomesmadenew 1812 remodeled


oldhomesmadenew 4

oldhomesmadenew 5

oldhomesmadenew modernized hallway

“Modern” houses, a modernized hallway, and a modern man from William Woollett’s Old Homes Made New (1879).


Waltham, Massachusetts is a bustling little city just west of Boston that manages to be urban, suburban, and rural all at the same time, depending on what sector you find yourself in. There’s a lot there: an impressive industrial heritage, two universities, Bentley and Brandeis (where I got my Ph.D.), a pretty vibrant downtown, lots of corporations along the Route 128 beltway, and three historic “country” estates preserved as house museums: the Lyman Estate (also known as “The Vale”, built in 1793 and owned and operated by Historic New England), Gore Place (built in 1806 and saved in the 1930s by the Gore Place Society), and Stonehurst (completed by 1886 and owned and operated by the City of Waltham since 1974). Because of my predilection for early American architecture, I have visited the older houses many times: Samuel McIntire designed the foundation structure of The Vale and Gore Place is just about the most elegant Federal house anywhere (outside of Salem, of course). But despite the fact that it is the product of a collaboration between two giants of late nineteeth-century design, architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886) and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), I have to admit I have dissed Stonehurst: I saw it long ago and never returned. The other day I was driving home along Route 128 at just the wrong time on a beautiful day: it was rush hour(s) and the northern lanes were jam-packed. I just had to get out of the car, and as I happened to be in Waltham, I thought I’d go look at the Lyman Estate for a bit and wait out the traffic. After I turned off the highway, however, I saw the sign for Stonehurst and remembered that it is situated on far more land: 109 acres of Olmsted-designed walking trails, to be precise–and I needed some exercise. So there I went, but got slightly distracted by the house, which is a bit……………intimidating? perplexing? provocative?

Stonehurst 002

Stonehurst 005

Stonehurst 018

Stonehurst 023

Stonehurst 010

Stonehurst 060

Stonehurst is really a combination of two houses built for Robert Treat Paine, a Boston lawyer, philanthropist, and advocate for workers’ housing (scion of a real Brahmin family: his namesake grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Massachusetts’ first Attorney General) and his wife Lydia Lyman Paine: her father had financed the Second Empire house that constitutes the western end of the structure, which was later deemed too small for their large family. So Paine (who served on the building committee which oversaw Richardson’s masterpiece, Trinity Church in Boston) commissioned the architect to relocate the house and integrate it with a structure of his own design. The exterior (again, to my untrained eye!) is therefore quite an amalgamation: of the pre-existing Second Empire house, combined with Richardson’s more organic “Richardsonian Romanesque” and Shingle styles. I found the interior far more integrated, with large rooms that related to one another (and the outdoors) in a very pleasing way, and lots of crafted built-in features: window seats, benches, bookcases, mantles, staircases, mouldings: a warm and inviting Arts and Crafts house encased in a somewhat more imposing envelope.

Stonehurst 026

Stonehurst 032

Stonehurst 029

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Stonehurst 061

Interior of Stonehurst and a trail not taken; the line inscribed on the second-floor landing mantle, “Build Thee More Stately Mansions, O My Soul” is from the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem, The Chambered Nautilus.

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.

Corner Store 002

Corner Store 005

Corner Store AP SSU

Corner Store Lafayette Place

Lafayette Place 2

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

An Abandoned House in Essex

Brakes literally screeched, disturbing a quiet neighborhood, as I spotted a beautiful abandoned house in Essex yesterday. I was on my way from Ipswich to Beverly to home on a rather circuitous route, and then I spotted this stately house on Western Avenue: striking in both its elegance and abandonment. Neighbors looked warily on as I took some pictures, and then I hopped back in the car and drove home so I could research the house, forgetting all about my Beverly errand. Here it is.

Abandoned House Essex

Abandoned House Essex 2

Abandoned House Essex 3

Barr Farm Essex 1979

The Col. Andrews House (Barr Farm) yesterday and in 1979.

We are fortunate in Massachusetts to have MACRIS, a digital database of inventories of historical properties undertaken for the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and I quickly found the Essex house, which was identified as the Colonel Andrews House, built in 1806 and better known as the “Barr Farm”. Besides the decaying elegance, that’s what caught my attention: this is no country Colonial but a pristine Federal farmhouse. The inventory, which dates from 1979, is largely based on an interview with the 99-year-old Mrs. John Barr, who had lived in the house nearly her entire life and still lived there at that time. She notes that it had always been a farm (I didn’t even notice outbuildings–I only had eyes for the house) up until the death of her husband 40 years previously, and then it became “inactive”. And so it remains–or does it? That chimney looks rather rebuilt to me, and the surrounding lawn is mowed……

Abandoned House Essex 5

Abandoned House Essex 4

Abandoned House Essex last


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