Tag Archives: urban planning

When Monster (Buildings) Attack

Salem is still in the midst (throes) of a relentless building boom that began several years ago with the construction of an over-sized courthouse and will eventually encompass a train station/parking garage (just opened), a new hotel complex, and an expanded campus for Salem State University. This is a lot of construction for a relatively small city, and the buildings are big. Actually I’m not sure whether the scale of these structures bothers me more than the design, though now that I’ve thought about it for a second, it’s definitely the former with the courthouse and the latter with the proposed hotel complex, which looks like it is shaping up to be a truly ugly building. Anyone who has glanced at this blog briefly knows that I’m a traditionalist when it comes to architecture so no surprises there. But I don’t want to write about the design attributes of these buildings in this post: I’m more focused on what the average citizen can do when these big projects attack–and they can, at any time and anywhere. After years of watching these developments play out, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that there is very little that one person–or even a group of very dedicated and well-connected people–can do to stop them, most especially if the state is the developer. The process usually goes something like this: the project is proposed in all its glory, people get mad, and organized, but are repeatedly told that it’s a done deal, a fait accompli, except for (relatively) little details that are subject to mitigation, these details get discussed in the review process, the project gets built, period. And that’s how Salem got its GIANT courthouse and its generic parking garage. Even though Salem State University is Salem State University, the process of development has been a bit more collaborative, at least from my perspective (which could be very biased, as I work there), but now the university wants to build a large parking garage in very close proximity to a residential neighborhood that really doesn’t want it there. And I’m wondering if they have the power to stop it.

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Massive/massing: the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center in Salem; the new Salem Station Parking Garage; the proposed RCG Hotel Complex with “Cube” wing, courtesy Salem News.

I’m very torn on the Salem State parking garage, and not just because I work there. It seems quite apparent to me that design is a much greater priority for those who are planning the Salem State campus than those who are transforming Salem’s downtown. Salem State has 10,000 students and no parking garage–obviously it needs one (but it also needs a train stop)! There are actually three separate campuses: must there be one HUGE parking garage rather than three smaller, less obtrusive ones? I suppose this option is cost-prohibitive, but this is what every student that I’ve talked to wants. And there are plans for more buildings: won’t forcing this garage down the neighbors’ throats hurt future development plans? The neighborhood has organized itself into a group called Save our Salem (S.O.S: they started out as Save South Salem so this was a wise change), and they look committed. I’m really hoping that this particular superstructure doesn’t harm the environment in which I live and work.

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Facades and aerial outline of the proposed 54-foot, 725-car parking garage on the North Campus of Salem State University; Save our Salem signs along Raymond Road.


Details, Details

Wow–there’s so much going on in the world today: while the current conflicts continue, the British union is preserved and Skinner Auctions sells a Qing era vase for nearly 25 million dollars. And the golden weather continues here in Salem, where I took an aimless walk the other day and started noticing lots of (relatively) little things that I had never noticed before. None of these observations are related to each other, except for the fact that they all occurred on one walk: and some of the things that I just noticed have been hiding in plain site forever, “hiding” in plain sight, while others are relatively new developments. Just a little walk on a busy, beautiful day.

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Cockspur Hawthorn Tree, Ropes Garden. I’ve been looking for a Hawthorn tree for my garden, and this one is beautiful in the spring, but too messy in the fall! I’m crossing it off my list.

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Howard Street Cemetery. Needs some work, but there are lots of stories here! I feel sorry for Mr. Thomas Manning, but on the other hand, instant death is better than long-suffering death.

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Facades matter: these three buildings are on Williams and Mall Streets, which run between the Common and Bridge Street. I never noticed the brick back of the brown shingled house before–that’s quite a fortification! They’ve been working on the green house for the last few years–it used to be a nondescript multi-family. And this “Victorian” garage masks a much more simple structure.

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Bridge Street: is a very busy entrance/exit corridor which for the most part is rather charmless but there are some great houses and an almost-endless series of improvements were completed a year or so ago. I like how they built out the brick sidewalk to soften the effect of traffic and allow for some greenery, but I’m worried about what this little shop will become–it used to be a cute bicycle shop.

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Back at home, it’s turtle(head) time–or nearly past.

 


Return to Carlton Street

I am returning to the ruin on Carlton Street, what remains of a circa 1803 structure decapitated by a “developer” a few weeks ago, even though I don’t have much of an update. Work was stopped on the day after, and the shell of no. 25 is still standing—in a very vulnerable state that must be incredibly distressing for its neighbors to gaze upon. We are waiting for either the judgement of the city engineer or the city solicitor, maybe both, and then the developer will be brought before the ZBA (Zoning Board of Appeals). There are two preservation agencies in Salem: the Historic Commission (which has jurisdiction over the city’s four local historic districts–see below) and Historic Salem, Incorporated (HSI), a nonprofit preservation advocacy organization. Both have been rendered relatively powerless by the demolition of 25 Carlton: the Historic Commission because the house is not located within its jurisdiction, and HSI because it has chosen not to even issue a statement to the effect of: We are sorry to see such an insensitive renovation of a historic structure. I have received hundreds of emails from all around the country in the past few weeks, expressing rage and disgust, but also amazement that this could happen in Salem. So that’s why I wanted to return to this house, to show that this could easily happen in Salem.

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The three local historic districts in downtown Salem (there is a fourth on Lafayette Street)–just click to enlarge; 25 Carlton Street this past weekend; the plans posted in the window (which were produced by a structural engineer rather than an architect) show a gabled roof quite similar to that which was lopped off, but completely different fenestration in the front of the house, and and whole new rear addition.


Gothic Visions, Realized

I have posted on Salem’s Gothic Revival structures before, but I didn’t really delve into the sources or inspiration for this mid-19th century romantic style, other than to reference Andrew Jackson Downing. While Downing and other outside influences were no doubt important, it is now clear to me (thanks to two scholarly papers* by Arthur Krim) that Salem had its own Gothic promoter, Colonel Francis Peabody (1801-1867). The second son of Salem’s most illustrious merchant prince at the time, the Colonel’s life and work mark Salem’s transition from Federal city built on maritime trade to “Victorian” city sustained by industry: he even had a statue of Queen Victoria installed in the truly Gothic “Banqueting Room” of the family’s Essex Street mansion. But it is important to note that Peabody was an energetic entrepreneur and philanthropist, not just a dilettante dabbling in design. He was colonel of the 1st Regiment, 1st Brigade, 2nd Division of Massachusetts Militia, the founder of the Forest River Lead Company (the subject of my last post), and the first president of the Essex Institute. He clearly had two passions, which seem very different but perhaps are related: technology including all of its potential applications and the public awareness thereof, and the Gothic style, interpreted quite conservatively–and widely. The colonel seems to have craved a Gothic environment not only for himself (encompassing the interior of the family home on Essex Street and Kernwood, his “country” estate in North Salem) but for much of Salem: he was the driving force behind the design of the First Unitarian (North) Church on Essex Street in the Gothic style by Boston architect Gridley J.F. Bryant as well as the foundation structures of Salem’s picturesquely-planned cemetery, Harmony Grove, for which he designed the “rustic arch” himself in 1839. Certainly it was not an impartial publication, but the successive editions of the Essex Institute’s Visitor’s Guide to Salem in the later nineteenth century proclaim that Peabody’s love of the beautiful in architecture has left a good influence in Salem in many way. His two pursuits, technological innovation focusing on the future and a design aesthetic focused on the “medieval” past are not incompatible: in moments of dynamic change like mid-19th century Salem (or Britain), reverence for the past, especially the rural past, seems perfectly understandable to me.

Colonel Francis Peabody’s Gothic Salem:

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Gothic Banqueting Hall Francis Peabody House 134 Essex 1850-1908

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The Peabody House, 134-36 Essex Street Salem, c. 1890, and its “Banqueting Hall”: photographs by Frank Cousins, Duke University Urban Landscape digital collection (the house was taken down in 1908 and replaced by the Salem Armory headhouse); Photograph of Kernwood, Peabody’s North Salem estate built on 66 acres, by Walker Evans, c. 1931, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Harmony Grove Arch, designed by Peabody in 1839 and taken down in 1960, quatrefoil, and Kernwood Gate and Gatehouse, Frank Cousins photographs, c. 1890, via Krim (1992); Harmony Grove chapel door and Peabody Family Funeral Monument; The gathering for the Colonel’s funeral, Harper’s Weekly, February 1870.

 

* Arthur J. Krim, “An Early Rustic Arch in Salem”, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 51, No. 3 ( 1992), pp. 315-317, and “Francis Peabody and Gothic Salem”, Peabody Museum Historical Collections, Volume 130, no. 1 (1994), 18-35.


Deleaded

Like many northeastern cities, large and small, that flourished during the Industrial Revolution, Salem is still wearing the scars of its productive past: there are decaying tanneries, free-standing chimneys, and ramshackle warehouses in close proximity to more beautiful (and lively) places around town. I think these sites are simply part of the layered texture of the city, and of course a century or more ago their builders would never associate the word “scar” with these constructions: they were industrial palaces. I’ve been thinking about lead mills recently, as there is a large site on the Salem-Marblehead line that is the subject of a planning study right now. The buildings of the Forest River/ Chadwick Lead Mills sat on this site (originally known as “Throgmorton Cove”) for nearly 150 years, producing bullets for Union soldiers, and “pure” white lead for generations of painters. The company received authorization to fill in the Forest River in three separate occasions in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, creating the landscape that had to be cleaned up a century later, after its almost-landmark building burned to the ground in 1968. An earlier–palatial and pastoral–incarnation of the company is represented by a F.F. Oakley chromolithograph in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum, along with a similar image of its competitor across town, the Salem Lead Works. I do think it is interesting how nineteenth-century printmakers portrayed industrial buildings not as encroaching on the landscape, but as part of it.

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Deleaded Salem River

Boston Athenaeum chromolithographs:  F.F. Oakley Litho., 1860; Chas. H. Crosby & Co. Lith., 1872, both Boston.

Nothing survives of this second Lead works, which was situated on the North River along the train tracks–as you can see in the lithograph, except for little scraps of paper which advertised its products, which of course necessitated a century-long (and more) deleading process pursued not only by cities, but also individual property-owners.

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Forest River Lead Company logos from a 1919 billhead; Salem Lead Company ad from the 1886 Salem Directory; 1930s Dutch Boy ad featuring “Salem White Lead”.

 


Ghost Signs

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.

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Ghost Signs 1907

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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.

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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.

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Salem Film Fest 2014

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!

Salem Film Fest Maidentrip

Galapagos Affair

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.

Salem Film Fest Here was Cuba

Human Scale


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