Tag Archives: urban planning

Salem Spirits

After the various map posts, which go viral immediately and retain a steady following thereafter, the most popular posts on my blog have been those focused on spirits, in particular an examination of a peculiar Salem drink from colonial days named Whistle Belly Vengeance and the story of a libelous temperance pamphlet directed at the wealthy rum distiller who happened to build my house. I can understand why: there’s just something very alluring about alcohol! The process of distillation, in particular, has always had a rather mysterious and even diabolical reputation, from the days of alchemy to that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, when a certain ambitious temperance minister named George Cheever targeted the largest rum distiller in town, John Stone (who built my house and styled himself Deacon for his role at the First Church of Salem) in an allegorical pamphlet entitled  The Dream, or, The True History of Deacon Giles’ Distillery (1835). In the thinly-veiled Deacon Giles, who concocted barrels of cholera, murder, fever and delirium with the aid of his demon workers, Deacon Stone saw the inverse of his pious self: both men were (hypocritical) bible-society members, both lost relatives in the diabolical vats of their distilleries, both had alcoholic sons, both made demon rum. Stone sued for libel and won, but Cheever became a cause celebre and temperance hero during the trial. His little story was reprinted for a national audience, and within the next decade Stone’s largest distillery was converted into a sawmill.

Deacon Giles Frontspiece 1835

Domestic and Demonic Distillation: Rebecca Tallamy’s Book of Receipts. Written in the margins and blank spaces of a copy of John French’s Art of Distillation, 1651, Wellcome Library, London; the frontspiece to George Cheever’s True History of Deacon Giles’ Distillery, 1835, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

But now Deacon Giles, and rum distillation, has returned to Salem in the form of a new (and real) craft distillery named after the fictional distiller. Deacon Giles Distillery, located just off Canal Street, not only reflects the current appetite for crafted spirits, but also Salem’s rich rum-selling past. Rum is as “Salem” as the Witch Trials of 1692, Samuel McIntire, Hawthorne, and (unfortunately) Halloween: with eight distilleries in operation in 1821 and a reputation for the best “New England” rum around, the city logically became the target of the evangelical temperance movement in the next decade. It wasn’t just all about Deacon John Stone! And as the distillers were walking me around their beautiful “still house” this afternoon while talking about their triple-distillation process and pursuit of “purification”, I couldn’t help but think back to the days of the medieval alchemists, who also pursued the ultimate quintessence, or “elixir of life”, through a multi-step process in which distillation, the next-to-less step, effects the ultimate purification.

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Deacon Giles Distillery, 75 Canal Street, Salem: Tasting Room mural, the distillers at work, the products–Liquid Damnation Rum and Original Gin.

Deacon Giles was aided by the path which Salem’s craft hard cider brewery, Far From the Tree, paved and the amendment of the Salem zoning ordinance to allow Massachusetts Farmers Series licenses allowing them to produce, pour, and sell. Both businesses have great tasting rooms and really knowledgeable people eager to tell you all about their products while you sip them. I was really tempted today, but I didn’t think having a swallow of rum (or more) was a good idea when I had class in an hour!

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The Far From the Tree Tasting Room on Jackson Street in Salem and two Far from the Tree ciders: they also have Rind (my favorite–but I think it is a seasonal variety), Spice, and several others. These ciders are great because they are really dry, as advertised. Next up: Notch Brewing on Derby Street!

Wooden Water Pipes

There are holes all over Salem, granting access to traces of our infrastructural past below. Lots of utility projects this summer, and even now, and each time I see men’s (it is always men) heads semi-submerged I run over to see what I can see. Generally, it’s just road layers and cobblestones–not very exciting. So when a friend posted a picture of the wooden water pipes uncovered during a big project on Boston Street, I got over there as quickly as possible. And there it was, just one pipe in pieces, except where it opened up into the property from the street. Amazing!


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WWPipes 3

I am fortunate to have an archaeologist/historian and an architectural historian among my colleagues, so I obtained the essential information about how this pipe came to be on Boston Street relatively quickly. Apparently Boston, Salem, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire were laying such pipes in the 1790s, initiatives of incorporated aqueduct companies which were formed by the merchant communities of all three cities. In the case of Salem, the Salem and Danvers Aqueduct Company was established in 1797, “for the purpose of supplying the inhabitants generally of Salem and Danvers with pure spring water”, and in the spring of 1799 water began running through wooden pipes (pine was preferred) to the properties of its subscribers. The first reservoir was on Gallows Hill, in relatively close proximity to Boston Street. According to the Company’s history, demand was ever-increasing: the 3-inch-wide pipes were replaced by 5-inch pipes in 1804, iron replaced wood in the 1850s, at around the same time that the still-beautiful Spring Pond, bordering Salem, Lynn and Peabody (then South Danvers) became the primary reservoir, supplying the city of Salem with “the elixir of life” as author Samuel W. Cole observed in 1858. There were many leaking issues too, and the extraordinary craftsman/engineer Benjamin Clark Gilman (1763-1835) from Exeter, New Hampshire was called in to fix them, based on his experiences in Boston, Portsmouth, Exeter, and New London, Connecticut. Industrial demand kept the pressure on the Salem system, and in 1869, the private Aqueduct Company transferred the ownership of its corporation to the city of Salem.

Water Receipt 1844

Water Works Map 1893

Lynn Mineral Spring Hotel

Lynn Mineral Springs Hotel ad

Subscriber receipt, 1844, Peabody Institute Library. Note the stipulation about wasting water! 1893 Map of part of Lynn and Salem, including Spring Pond, which indicates the main water route–Wenham Lake soon replaced Spring Pond as Salem’s reservoir; The famous Lynn Mineral Springs Hotel at Spring Pond–later the Fay Estate–from Alonzo Lewis’s History of Lynn, 1844; 1831 advertisement for the Hotel, Boston Evening Transcript.

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.


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