Daily Archives: May 6, 2011

Preservation: Gains and Losses

Historic preservation has been an ongoing effort in Salem since at least the second World War, when the seventeenth-century Jonathan Corwin house (later, unfortunately, labelled the “Witch House”, was threatened by a street-widening project and Historic Salem, Inc. (HSI) was formed by a group of citizens determined to save the house.  They were successful, and HSI (along with other individual passionate preservationists) has gone on to fight urban renewal, save a succession of historic structures, and advocate for both individual restoration and adaptive reuse projects as well as a more general planning policy encompassing historic preservation.  There have been losses and gains over the past half century or so, both of which have had a dramatic effect on Salem’s streetscape.

Two projects of the last decade represent the dynamic of gain and loss in the continuum of preservation advocacy very well.  Most recently the very shabby Elks Lodge was transformed into the stately One Eaton Place Condominiums, a rehabilitation that is even more impressive given the building’s prominent place along one of Salem’s entrance corridors, North Street.  When HSI, which had a vested interest because its headquarters are immediately adjacent to this building as well as a more general preservation concern, informed the developers that their newly-purchased building had somehow lost its third story at some point in the twentieth century, they were more than eager to put it back and gain additional units at the same time.  This was a win-win for everyone, and (in a tough real estate market) the condominiums sold out within months of completion of the project.

In the loss column goes one of the most hard-fought preservation efforts in Salem’s history:  the effort to secure the redevelopment of the 1908 Salem Armory after its partial destruction by fire in 1982.  The imposing (many architectural adjectives come to mind:  fortress-like, castle-esque, Romanesque/Gothic/medieval revival) structure, long home to the Second Corps of Cadets of the Massachusetts National Guard, dominated several blocks of central Essex Street right up to its demolition in 2000, even after the 1982 fire, as these before and after images illustrate.


A Frank Cousins photograph of the Armory Billiards Room, c. 1910. Duke University Library Special Collections


HABS, Library of Congress

Ten years after the fire, 1992

At about the time of this last photograph, the newly-formed and adjacent Peabody Essex Museum (a merger of the Peabody Museum and Essex Institute) entered into a memorandum of agreement with the Massachusetts Historical Commission and other parties to incorporate the street-fronting “head house” into its expansion plans while the National Park Service proceeded to transform the rear “drill shed” into a Visitor’s Center.  Throughout the 1990s, the Museum delayed and eventually reneged on its agreement, transferring its expansion focus to the present Moshe Safdie-designed atrium addition across the street.  HSI initiated a legal action to save the head house but to no avail:  it came down in 2000.  In its place, the Museum left only the Tudor arch entryway standing (presumably to maintain some semblance of streetscape) and promised a “world-class” Armory Park to honor the Second Corps of Cadets.

I’ve always found the stand-alone entry a bit ghostly; it’s an architectural memento mori.  Amory Park is not really a place, but simply a pass-through path to the Salem Visitor’s Center beyond, which is a great resource for both Salem’s residents and visitors.  May is Preservation Month, a time to look around and remember both what has been saved and what has been lost.

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