New Life for an Old Salem Church

Salem has been the scene of almost-continuous construction projects since I’ve lived here; some have changed the streetscape for the better, some for the worse (in my humble opinion).  One of the largest is nearing completion this summer:  the construction of a brand new “Judicial Center” on Federal Street adjacent to the previous courthouses, all sadly decommissioned.  This location is certainly appropriate, as this stretch of Federal Street is judicial Salem’s legal row, but it begs comparisons between the new center and the older courthouses.  Probably the architects (Goody Clancy) knew this, and certainly they received pressure from the preservationist community to retain something of what was on the site, especially as three nineteenth-century domestic buildings were taken down to make way for the HUGE boxy central building.  Consequently one building was retained and moved to serve as a link between old and new and a reminder of those days when architectural proportion ruled:  the former First Baptist Church of Salem.  Here is the church (now reconfigured as a law library) on the corner with the new complex behind and beside it.

The original location of the church was to the right and back a bit, where you see the large curtain wall now.  When it was moved several years ago (there’s a picture in an earlier post), it was not only moved forward but repositioned on a slight angle, following the lines of Federal Street.  This is one of the few concessions the entire project has made to the pre-existing streetscape.  Though the jury is still out for me on the entire complex, I think that  church/library is an important component, not only filling a gap but softening the transition between old and new, human-scaled and HUGE.  Below is the current streetscape on a recent rainy day.

From the foreground to the background we have the church/library, the new judicial center, which is comprised of the huge building behind the curtain wall (very imposing as you come into Salem along Route 114; I’m going to spare you a view for now) and the adjacent building with glass and columns, which (I guess) is supposed to effect another transition to the former Colonial Revival Probate Court, and then the Romanesque and Greek Revival court houses beyond. Below are some century-old shots of these court houses from the Library of Congress.  I’ve always found the Greek Revival one in the second picture to be really beautiful, and its the Romanesque neighbor has an amazing interior, including (of course) a law library.  I worry about these buildings’ fates.

It’s quite a succession of architectural styles, and then you get to the new complex, anchored by the old church/library.  The contractors not only repositioned the building, they repointed it and repaired its trim, revealing some beautiful details that I had never noticed before.  When I did look at this building before its big move, it did not strike me as particularly church-like, which is understandable given that it was stripped of its impressive steeple some time ago (in 1926, according to Bryant Tolles, Architecture in Salem).  Fortunately there are lots of accessible images of the church in its earlier form, making it all to obvious that this is a structure that has gone through several transformations in its two-hundred-year lifetime.

Photography credits:  a beautiful Frank Cousins photograph in the Urban Landscape collection at the Duke University Library, two undated postcards which I believe are from around the turn of the twentieth century, and two nineteenth-century stereoscopic cards from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


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