I was planning a post on tax collectors for this Tax Day, but it got too overwhelming and too depressing: as one of Lucifer’s Four Evangelists (with the usurer, the banker, and the miller (???), the tax man has been reviled for centuries, and depicted in images and prose in all sorts of unflattering ways. I don’t think anyone wants to see paintings of tax collectors on the day their returns are due, even if they are the creations of Renaissance artists (who seem to have a singular obsessions with tax farmers). So instead, I’m offering LEGO art!
T, The New York Times Style Magazine has some interesting features in its latest edition, despite a thematic focus on minimalism (not my favorite style). There is a lot of texture in the magazine, and one particular photograph stopped me in my tracks: an ancient, crumbling wall, patched with plastic. The close proximity of very new and very old is my favorite aesthetic, so I had to see more of the work of artist Jan Vormann.
Jan Vormann/© 2014 ARS, New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
At first glance, I thought the above image was photoshopped but no, as his website and this Daily Telegraph article make clear, Vormann travels the real world and places bright LEGO blocks in the midst of conspicuous decay, drawing attention to buildings and places as part of a “Repair Manifesto”. He wants onlookers to see the holes, question why they are there, and seek their repair–except perhaps where they serve as constant reminders, as in the case of the bullet and shrapnel destruction of Berlin. How I wish he would come to Salem! We need the colorful and constant reminders of our past, and the manifesto to repair.
Lego “repairs” in Berlin, New York City, Venice and Vormann’s hometown of Bamberg, Germany: JAN VORMANN / BARCROFT USA and Dispatchwork.
I walk steadfastly to work, down Lafayette Street, nearly every day all semester long, but now that Spring has finally arrived in Salem I can stroll a bit in my own neighborhood. I did just that the other day when the sun was out, with a goal but looking for flowers along the way. Last week one of my favorite Essex Street houses came on the market: the Sprague-Peabody-Silsbee House, built in 1807 for Salem merchant Joseph Sprague (with interior carving attributed to Samuel McIntre), and later enlarged and remodeled by William G. Rantoul. This is a striking Federal house, cast in a fading yellow-painted brick, with one of Salem’s best carriage houses out back. I always smile when I see it, not only because it is pleasing to look at, but also because I remember the charming couple that lived there for many years.
Along the way: a field of flowers on Chestnut, an “antler” on Federal, and a window on Essex.
The Sprague-Peabody-Sillsbee House, 1807: front and sides (the Rantoul additions are on the right side, I assume, and in the back–plus the balustrade?), carriage house and interior shots from the listing; exterior detail.
The very first old house which enchanted me–and still does–is the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford, Vermont, where I lived as a child. It’s a pink Gothic Revival confection, perfect in every way, and perfectly preserved. Here in Salem, we have several notable Gothic Revival houses, including conspicuous examples that were captured by Walker Evans when he passed through town and an Andrew Jackson Downing design that I walk by every day on the way to work. And then of course there is the gothicized Pickering House. All of these houses are very well-maintained: people who buy Gothic Revival houses really have to make a commitment to their preservation because the style is characterized by intricate exterior and interior detail and for the most part they do make this commitment, with the very notable apparent exception of Mario Buatta, the famous New York interior designer nicknamed the “Prince of Chintz”. In 1992, Mr Buatta purchased a very prominent Gothic Revival house located in a very prominent historic district: the William H. Mason House (1845) in the midst of the Thompson Hill Historic District in Thompson, Connecticut. After some initial renovations he abandoned the project and the house, and its very prominent deterioration ensued. The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation placed the property on its Most Endangered list in 2004, and last summer an online petition was launched. Things heated up last month: with the cancellation of a scheduled appearance by Buatta on March 6 by Historic New England and an article in the New York Times in which one Thompson neighbor called the designer a “New York interior desecrater” and Buatta threatened to sell the house to a funeral parlor if the complaints don’t cease and desist. Closer to the scene, the Hartford Courant has published an article today which discusses the legal remedies open to preservationists (very interesting–involving environmental laws). “Demolition by neglect” has always been incomprehensible to me, except in situations of hardship–which clearly this is not. This particular case is even more difficult to understand: surely this notoriety is bad for Mr. Buatta’s business as well as his reputation. And this is a man who has served, or continues to serve for all I know, on the board of New York City’s Historic House Trust. Let’s hope that he comes to the decision to sell or save the Mason house soon.
The William H. Mason House today and in 1986 (Hartford Courant and Gregory Andrews for the National Registry of Historic Places, 1986; a watercolor sketch of Mr. Buatta lounging in a Gothic-esque bed, Konstantin Kakanias for the New York Times (pinched from this great post at the Down East Dilettante).
If you’ve read this blog for any time at all you know that I am a traditionalist when it comes to architecture, and a committed preservationist, but there’s a new storefront on Essex Street, Salem’s main thoroughfare since its foundation, which has definitely caught my eye–and it is very sleek and very modern. As a main street, for nearly four centuries, Essex Street has had to change with the times, and this particular block lost its really old structures long ago–in the past century it was home to two adjacent movie theaters, one which looks like it was a real palace (the Empire), and another which was a more modest mid-century construction (the Salem). The building with the bold new storefront was built in 1929 in a Colonial Revival style, complete with urns on top–like a McIntire fence! Its shiny new facade actually has a bit more integrity, I think, and hopefully draws a great new tenant.
The 390s block of Essex Street, present and past.
Salem doesn’t have many “ghost signs” of commerce past–I think sandblasting was part of its urban renewal experience–but it does have one of the most famous and most-photographed, marking the former Newmark’s Department Store on Essex Street. As you can see from my photographs from yesterday and the postcard from a century ago, this is actually the second sign (at least) on the side of this building. With the adjacent two-story building below, it’s an urban billboard.
The F.W. Webb plumbing supplies building on Bridge Street, probably Salem’s most prominent “industrial” building, is a billboard on all four sides. When you’re coming into Salem on 114 over the North Street bypass bridge, you can’t help but notice it on the right, mostly because of its retro lettering and its sharp contrast with the nearby Peirce-Nichols house. You can “read” the history of this building through its surviving signage: I particularly like its rear wall where only shadows remain.
My last ghost sign is on Peabody Street in Salem, a street of brick multi-story residential buildings built just after the great fire of 1914. There’s very little room between them, so this is not a great streetscape for signage, but one has managed to survive: for Beeman’s Pepsin Gum, a nationally-sold product marketed primarily as an aid to digestion. Few people probably notice this sign today, but for decades it was right on one of the major pedestrian paths to Salem’s largest employer, Pequot Mills.
I was sad to see a request for a waiver of our city’s Demolition Delay ordinance on the agenda of the Salem Historic Commission this week, sad but not surprised. The request was made by owners of a beautifully-sited cottage in the Juniper Point neighborhood of Salem Willows. This is a neighborhood of once-seasonal Victorian cottages that were occupied only in the summer, but are now primarily homes to year-round residents. This transition has been hard on the architecture: people need more room if they are living in a house year-round, and they need more amenities. Given the neighborhood’s proximity to the water, people also want their homes to facilitate better views, thus they build them up and out. I’ve seen some terrible things done to Willows cottages: complete demolition, not-very-sensitive additions, and roof dormer windows filled in to create a top-heavy house that looks like it might topple over at any moment. But in the case of this cottage the culprit was a late-summer fire: it has looked forlorn ever since.
The house was built about 1885 according to the inventory on MACRIS, and due to its location–on a corner lot adjacent to beach, park, and ocean, it features prominently in many turn-of-the-century postcards: the beginning of the residential Willows. Its basic outline remains unchanged–until the fire.
Location, location, location. The sun was struggling to come out when I took these pictures the other day in the park just beside the cottage. You can see its views: of the Willows park with the ocean and Cape Ann beyond. Bakers Island, ostensibly part of Salem but quite a separate world altogether, is “glistening” in the fragile sun offshore.
I have featured many abandoned or seemingly-abandoned buildings in varying stages of decline and disrepair on this blog–houses here in Salem, nearby and far away. Ruins stop me in my tracks as I’m driving down the road, like a car crash from which you can’t turn away. So when I read about a new exhibition at Tate Britain called Ruin Lust I went there (digitally) in a flash. My limited view from afar did not allow me to see the full sweep of the exhibition, of course, but I came away a bit disappointed by the preponderance of painting–beautiful as Turner’s Tintern Abbey ruins are, they’re soft, not stark. What draws us to the ruin is the stark contrast between what once was and what remains: to capture that, only photography will do. Picture John Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church, Essex as a crumbling stone ruin, perhaps with creeping greenery engulfing it, like the “feral houses” of Detroit (which you can see here and on the great blog Sweet Juniper).
John Armstrong, Coggeshall Church, Essex, 1940. Tate Britain
There are several houses in Salem to which I return again and again if I want to behold beautiful ruins, most prominently the long-abandoned but still-stately c. 1810 brick house bordering the Ropes Mansion garden, built for Captain Jonathan Porter Felt around 1810 and occupied by his descendants until nearly 1970. Things are (slowly) starting to happen at this house, so I’m wondering if its ruinous days will one day be over. Walking by a month or so ago I noticed that some window replacement is going on, and it really startled me, and last summer someone mowed the lawn. Who knows what will happen next? It’s like the house is slowly “waking up”.
There are books that I also turn to again and again for regular doses of beautiful ruins. When I wrote my first post on the house above, several of the commentators mentioned the work of Brian Vanden Brink, and I’m so glad they did! Amazing, and again: images you can’t turn away from–or look at just once. I also admire the work of photographers Susan Daley and Steve Gross, especially their interior shots. They don’t just do ruins, in fact their latest book is about revival, but their Old Houses is pretty much always by my bedside, and the images in their 2008 book Time Wearing Out Memory: Schoharie County (NY) define the term weathered.
Images from Susan Daley’s and Steve Gross’s Time Wearing Out Memory: Scoharie County (2008).
Spring break week for me, but unfortunately I have no warm destination in sight, just a series of day trips and various “staycation” cultural activities (and of course it is snowing again this morning). Oh well, Salem’s annual documentary film festival is on now, and nearly all of the films look interesting, first among them Maidentrip, which documents the amazing solo circumnavigation of Dutch teenager Laura Dekker in 2011-2012, and The Galapagos Affair: When Satan Came to Eden, which examines the still-unsolved disappearance of several members of a not-so-Utopian community of European expatriates on the Galapagos Islands in the 1930s. I love stories–real or otherwise–about displaced Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, always feuding and over-estimating their abilities!
Somehow I got completely confused over the screening times of the other two films I really wanted to see: they were both up yesterday so I’ll have to see them at other venues. The historian in me mandates that I see Here was Cuba, the latest examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis using recently declassified sources from U.S., Russian, and Cuban archives, and my inner architecture buff really wants to see The Human Scale, a plea for better urban planning–hopefully from the Renaissance perspective that its title implies. Just in time for Salem.
For George Washington’s real birthday, I’m featuring his ancestral home: Sulgrave Manor, in Northamptonshire. The early Tudor building still stands, and marks the point of departure for our first President’s great-great grandfather for America in the seventeenth century. On the eve of the First World War (and in commemoration of the War of 1812), the British Peace Centenary Committee bought the Manor and presented it jointly to the peoples of Britain and the United States in celebration of the hundred years of peace between their two nations. The Manor was endowed by funds raised by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America a decade later, and it also maintains itself as an event and educational venue. I visited the Manor years ago, when it seemed to me to be in excellent condition, but it has recently been placed on the watch list of the most endangered heritage sites in the world by the World Monuments Fund. On the website, statements by the Sulgrave Manor Trust note that Sulgrave Manor has suffered from a lack of investment and is struggling to cope with the repairs and on-going maintenance this Tudor house and its associated buildings desperately need and reveal the intent to establish archive and exhibit space for its large collection of George Washington memorabilia.
Sulgrave Manor today and in vintage postcards by Reginald Blomfield (who designed its Arts and Crafts gardens) and the Detroit Publishing Company, c. 1910 (Library of Congress); reproduction of a Norman Wilkinson poster of the Great Dining Hall after its restoration, and wallpaper fragment which is identical to one from Sulgrave in the UK National Archives depicting Charles II and Queen Catherine–the Washingtons were LOYAL Royalists in the seventeenth century! (Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum); flags at Sulgrave’s entrance, 1930s.
I promised to embrace winter at the beginning of this year but it is only mid-February and I am willing to let go! This particular winter has had a Chinese water torture quality; we’ve had more snow in the past but this year it seems like it is always snowing–just enough to make a mess and disrupt everything. Winter can be tough in the city, and even though Salem is a small city it is still most definitely a city. The momentarily-pristine snow soon turns brown (and other colors) quite quickly and you are dependent on your neighbors and fellow residents to shovel their sidewalks–and often they let you down. Right now we have compacted ice under the latest coat of snow on the sidewalks. Parking has been a nightmare. Whenever the city declares a snow emergency (every other day it seems) all cars must be removed from the streets: we’re lucky to have parking but I feel terribly for my tenant–whose car has been consigned to a public parking lot on Gallow’s Hill on more than one occasion (there are only two public garages). On another note, I must admit to smiling just a bit when the annoying Accura that has been continually parked in front of our house was towed away during our last snow emergency……see how mean Winter has made me!
Chilly scenes of winter…the view from my bedroom window during last Saturday’s storm, and from my office window Tuesday afternoon:
Walking around town, very carefully: