Tag Archives: urban planning

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).

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.

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

Corner Store Lafayette Place

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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

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

hotel 1

Hotel 2

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

Cobblestone Contest

A very literal streets of Salem post today. A repaving project on Lynn and River Streets in the largest of our historic districts uncovered a subsurface of cobblestones at the streets’ intersection, which several residents want to keep uncovered: for historic, aesthetic, and traffic-related reasons. The City wants them paved over (again), so we have a standoff, and quite a public one at that: there have been stories in all the local newspapers and a piece on one of the Boston television stations. I’m not impartial on this one: I think we should take up all of the pavement and have cobblestones everywhere, or at the very least cobblestone crosswalks in the city’s historic districts. Chestnut Street, the widest in the city, has not one crosswalk (cobblestone or otherwise) to slow down the SUV-driving, phone-adhered-to-their (Marble)head commuters barreling through our neighborhood on their way home. The River Street residents are employing the traffic-calming argument, which I think is a good one, especially as the particular intersection in question transitions traffic from a major artery into a neighborhood–and smooth pavement will make this transition all too speedy–not a transition at all. City officials have cited safety concerns (for bicycles–and this in a city which has a bike lane between two car lanes–but baby carriages and wheelchairs were mentioned as well) and I’m sure cost is a factor. I think a compromise is in the works: the city engineer as offered two 30″ strips of cobblestones at the end of each street to give people an “indication that they are entering into a historic neighborhood”. Sounds like a precedent to me–although I’m a bit wary: a similar cobblestone contest played out in a Brooklyn neighborhood a few years ago, and its compromise solution was the replacement of the old cobblestones with new, machine-cut ones, which I’m not sure are cobblestones at all.

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River Street Flag

cobblestones Brooklyn NYT

Cobblestones at the intersection of River and Lynn Streets in Salem and a River Street flag; the old cobblestones of Brooklyn, © New York Times; you can see the television piece here.

Update: The Mayor has written to the neighbors informing them of the resumption of work at the intersection, which will involve not only the installation of the aforementioned strips, but also an additional triangular buffer–all comprised of the old cobblestones (which she appropriately calls “Belgian blocks”–see comments below). Sounds like a good compromise to me.

Evolving Essex Street

The sight of the poster announcing the arrival of the new Korean fried chicken chain restaurant Bonchon on Essex Street reminded me of how main streets are always in transition: you can trace the history of a town just by examining the evolving nature of its buildings and hardscapes. Essex Street is fronted by structures from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries—residential, commercial and institutional. It has been covered with dirt, cobblestones, tracks, and pavement, widened several times and in several places, and (unfortunately) transformed into a pedestrian “mall” (on which cars–or I should say trucks and trolleys–still drive)–in its central section in the 1970s. I have posted about Essex Street many, many times, so I thought I would feature some seldom-seen images today, and examine the physical evolution of this storied street.

Essex Street Perley Map

Essex Street has run right down the center of Salem since the seventeenth century; Below, Essex Street from the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries, as imagined and in reality.

Essex Street 1776 Bowditch

essex-street-salem-ma-postcard 1820s

Essex Street 1870

Essex Street 1874

Essex Street HNE 1880s


Essex Street envisioned in 1776 in Carry On, Mr. Bowditch; and in the 1820s on an old Essex Institute postcard; photographs of the street in 1870, 1874 & 1880s (Historic New England & New York Public Library Digital Gallery). Below: a shopping street–until the 1970s–although the famous stores Almy, Bigelow, & Washburn and L.H. Rogers survived into the 1980s. Only the Almy’s Clock remains, and the Rogers store is now administrative offices for the Peabody Essex Museum. (1976 photograph from Jerome Curley’s great Patch column, “Then and Now” and L.H. Rogers photograph from the website “Hawthorne in Salem”).

Essex Street

Essex Street Paving

Essex Street LH Rogers

Below: a not-so-faithful street. It’s surprising to me how few houses of worship are located on Essex Street: at present, only one. Reverend Bentley’s Second Congregational “East Church” was on lower Essex, and before it was transformed into Daniel Low and Co., the imposing structure at the corner of Washington and Essex—the site of Salem’s first meeting house–served as the First Church of Salem–now further along (up) Essex Street. Salem’s only Jewish congregation, Temple Shalom of the Congregation Sons of David, established its first synagogue on Essex Street (its second on Lafayette Street is currently being adapted into academic offices and classrooms for Salem State University). The more mystical Swedenborgian Church was briefly located on upper Essex Street, on the present site of the Salem Athenaeum (American Jewish Historical Society, New England Archives; Weston Collection).

EssexSt Synagogue 1930s

Essex Street 1920s HH

Essex Street Swedenborgian Church

So many lost Essex Street houses! Too many to mention here–I’ve focused on them individually and will continue to do so. I don’t think I’ve ever featured the Sanders House at 292 Essex however, a site now occupied by the Salem YMCA. Alexander Graham Bell lived in the house in the 1870s and conducted experiments in its attic that led to the invention of the telephone: why it couldn’t have been preserved just on this basis I do not know. It reminds me of the beautiful Pickman house down the street, also gone. This particular block of Essex was definitely trending commercial in the late nineteenth centuries, however, and Georgian structures were not long for this world. The new YMCA came in, and just across the street a bit later-the Colonial Revival structure (with its new facade) that will soon house Salem’s Bonchon.

Sanders House 292 Essex

Essex Street YMCA 1920s

Essex Street Bon Chon

Southern Exposure

We are just back from a brief vacation down south, to Raleigh, Savannah and Charleston: three very different cities! Raleigh is clearly booming, but it’s hard to find its center in the midst of all the ring roads and housing developments, while Savannah and Charleston have long embraced their urban cores, first out of necessity, later for tourism. They are perfect walking and biking cities while you clearly need bigger wheels in Raleigh. I’ve been to Savannah and Charleston several times, and always together, inviting comparisons. This time I preferred the former, though it might have been due merely to our better accommodations (The Gastonian) and the fact that we were there on weekdays when it was a bit quieter. By the time we got to Charleston I was tired of walking around with a sheen of perspiration on my forehead, and my camera was so tired it just quit! Savannah is–of course–a city of squares and townhouses, and we saw them all, large and small. We bypassed the more touristy waterfront in favor of downtown, and sought out the full architectural spectrum, which is uniform in form but incredibly diverse in style: townhouses from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, English, French, Spanish, and even Dutch in inspiration, or so they seemed to me. We ate and drank very well (Pinkie Master’s Lounge, Crystal Beer Parlor, Alligator Soul)–probably another reason we were a bit worn out by the time we got to Charleston!

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The courtyard garden at our inn and all sorts of Savannah townhouses, above; below: some notable detached houses in Savannah, including the Richardson-Owens-Thomas House (and slave quarters) and the Isaiah Davenport House. Obligatory shots of the impressive cathedral and moss.

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A few more observations, some comparative, some not. I love all the outdoor gas lighting in Savannah–and the garden statuary:  people really embellish their homes and gardens. Both Savannah and Charleston are cleaner (yes, even Savannah, the “beautiful woman with a dirty face”) than Salem: we should do better. Savannah is very serious about dog poop: there are special receptacles in all of the squares and cemeteries. Both cities are also quieter and more traffic-calmed–the squares of Savannah are particularly effective at that. The educational institutions in both cities, Savannah College of Art and Design and the College of Charleston, are much more integrated than our Salem State University, rehabilitating older structures downtown rather than just building new and big outside. More on Charleston in my next post, and shopping.

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