Monthly Archives: October 2011

Columbus Day

A century ago, Columbus Day was not just an excuse for a three-day weekend; it was a serious national holiday demanding intense preparations on the part of local officials all over the country.  I found two little descriptive articles about the Columbus Day celebration here in Salem in the digital archives of the Essex Institute Historical Collections, a long-running (1853-1993) journal of local and regional history that ceased publication after the merger of the Essex Institute and the Peabody Essex Museum.  Both articles are from 1892, a particularly intense Columbian year due to the 400th anniversary of the voyage and the upcoming Columbian Exposition of 1893.

The first article is a virtually a minute-by-minute account of the Columbus Day celebration in Salem, including all the performances given by schoolchildren in every Salem school as well as the speeches (word for word) given by their various principals.  These speeches all stress bravery (the “flat earth myth” established earlier in the century by Washington Irving is certainly reinforced), patriotism, and in an odd sort of way, diversity:  Columbus was the first immigrant!  After a day full of activities around town, the celebration of Columbus in Salem ended with a huge parade, in which every civic institution and group in the city marched.  How interesting that the big October parade in Salem now is in recognition of Halloween rather than Columbus.

The other article is all about preparations for the Columbian Exposition on the part of officials of the city and the Essex Institute.  Each state at the Exposition was to have its own representative house full of exhibits, and though a reproduction of the eighteenth-century Thomas Hancock house by the Boston architects Peabody & Stearns was going to be the Massachusetts House (rather than a distinctive “Salem House” in the seventeenth-century or McIntire style), the city of Salem was to be responsible for assembling an exhibition for the main reception room, so there was much discussion of what to send and how to send it.  A selection of  “portraits, paintings of old houses, Salem views suitably bound in albums, and historical relics” was chosen, put on display at W.H. Gardener’s Store on Essex Street for public approval, and then sent off to Chicago.  Another difference in emphasis in the past as compared to the present:  the focus was clearly on representing colonial Salem rather than global Salem.

The Massachusetts State Building at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, Winterthur Library

Addendum:  Apparently Christopher Columbus was embraced by all immigrant groups, not just Italian-Americans–a song sheet from 1893.

Salem Staircases

Staircases are one of the most interesting features of older homes as what could be a very utilitarian detail is often not.  Given its history, Salem has tons of really interesting stairways, in both private homes and public buildings, dating from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries.  This post contains a rather random selection of some of my favorites, but certainly not all.  I put in one shot of our staircase, although it’s really not all that impressive, as the original simple Federal-style railing was ripped out in the 1850s and replaced with a rather bulky (though solid mahogany) “improvement”.  I didn’t want to bother all-my-Salem-friends-with-nice-staircases (because they all do) but I did bother one, as I wanted to feature one of my very favorites:  look at this beautiful suspended spiral staircase unfold.

This is the amazing staircase of the Jabez Smith House, built around 1806 on upper Essex Street and now the home of my friends Dan (an architect), Betsy (an interior designer), and their two young daughters.  Besides this elegant entryway, this house has a living room that extends the width of the street, with fireplaces at each end, and you can see the rest of the first floor (along with 12 other decorated historic buildings) in early December when it is featured on Historic Salem’s 32nd Annual Christmas in Salem tour.

Below is another spiral staircase, in the Saltonstall-Saunders House on Chestnut Street.  The next succession of photographs were all taken by Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926), the Salem-born photographer, author, and Colonial Revival aficionado, a colleague and contemporary of Wallace Nutting and Frank Cousins.  The first photograph is from her 1911 book Colonial Homes and their Furnishings and the rest are from Historic Homes of New England (1914)After the Saltonstall staircase, there is a rather grainy photograph of the staircase in Samuel McIntire’s Cook-Oliver House, also built in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and the staircases of the seventeenth-century Pickering House and two eighteenth-century houses (left is an unidentified Norman Street house, right is the John Derby Mansion of Washington Street–neither survive).

You can see that the owners of the Cook-Oliver House have simply draped a hall runner on their stairs, which strikes me as a great example of “Yankee thrift”.  Another example, which I have seen on many second-floor Salem stairs, is provided by these upper stairs in another McIntire building, the Peirce-Nichols House (1782 and after 1801).  Painting a runner on the upper staircase to mimic an expensive carpet runner on the first is a neat trick, and as you can see below,  I did the same thing on my second-to-third-floor stairway and saved quite a bit of money in the process.

Peirce-Nichols Second-floor Stairway. Photograph courtesy of Jim Steinhart, 2011

Two last photographs of more of my favorite Salem staircases:  a HABS shot of the elegant central stairway in the Joshua Ward House (1784-88) from the Library of Congress, and the front hall of the Brookhouse Home for Aged Women, with an interesting lattice detail on its stairs.

Haunted Happenings

And so it begins. Haunted Happenings, the city’s month-long celebration of Halloween, officially begins tonight with the Grand Parade from the harbor to the Common.  If you scroll down the schedule of events, you will see that the celebration consists primarily of offerings by local businesses: Halloween in Salem is a commercial happening more than anything else.  Rather than join in the festivities, I tend to hide out in my house during this long month; I never really accepted the connection between the Witch Trials and Halloween or understood the compulsion to profit on the persecution and death of innocent people.  That said, Salem is far more than Witch City, and maybe more than a few people among the crowds who descend upon the city in October will come to realize that.

October in Salem:  A  commercial awning invades the sacred space of the Witch Trial Tercentenary Memorial and the Old Burying Point beyond.

Actually, Halloween has become increasingly bearable over the past few years as the focus of activities has shifted to family fare and the logistical problems associated with thousands of people descending on a compact city have been addressed: the police have become far more efficient in dealing with crowd control, and the city tries to clean up after everyone.  A decade ago, it seemed as if no one was in control and that was scary.  And everything is relative: more and more real businesses have been established in the city, to balance out the pop-up tee-shirt shops, sausage vendors, psychic parlors, and haunted houses.  This particular year, I am also cheered by the fact that visitors who really care about what went on in 1692 have, for the first time really, several places to go for substantive information, orientation, and context:  the new Salem Museum, on the first floor of the Old Town Hall, and the National Park Service Visitors’ Center down the street, where the new film Salem Witch Hunt. Examine the Evidence, featuring some of the most eminent historians in the field, will be on view four times a day during Haunted Happenings.

So if you’re coming to Salem, my advice (instructions):  take the train (or the ferry), get oriented, look at some architecture besides the Witch House, go to a real museum like the Peabody Essex, have a meal at a great restaurant before your fried dough, and bring home more than a tee-shirt:  the ensembles of witch hats and aprons at Pamplemousse are actually pretty cute.


One more post on Salem’s Winter Island, where (in addition to Fort Pickering) there are two historical resources that have long been the focus of discussion and concern:  the former Coast Guard seaplane hangar and barracks/administration building, shown in “then (1938) and now” photographs below.

As you can see, these building have deteriorated dramatically following the closure of Air Station Salem in 1970.  Still, the new master plan for Winter Island proposes their rehabilitation and adaptive reuse.  I hope I am wrong, but it looks like it’s a little late for the Barracks Building, but a template for what could happen with the hangar is provided by the redevelopment of its twin in Miami.  The hangar at the former Coast Guard Air Station Miami at Dinner Key, built in the same year (1935) as the Salem hangar with identical plans, has been transformed into an adaptive aquatic center by the Shake-a-Leg Foundation in cooperation with the City of Miami. One possibility for a site with lots of potential.

Musters in Salem and Miami, from the Coast Guard Historian’s Office.  The Shake-a-Leg Aquatic Center in Miami with its rehabilitated hangar.

Another possibility, perhaps even more attractive as it involves year-round use, would be to convert the hangar into an indoor recreational facility.  The best example I could find of a pre-World War II hangar turned into a sports arena was in Seattle, where a private company transformed the historic Sand Point Seaplane Hangar #27 (built in 1938) into a sports club.  I think that the terms of the conveyance of the Winter Island site from the Federal government to the city of Salem would mandate a public venture, but hangars do seem to be well-suited to this particular use.

The former Sand Point Naval Air Hangar #27 in Seattle and the present Arena Sports Magnuson.  Architectural Design by Clark Design Group, Seattle.

An Unmarked Fort

Salem’s Winter Island has been the focus of a lot of attention this year, with the unveiling of a new master plan this summer and a proposed wind turbine on the table.  But it has always been a busy place, with a history of potteries, fishing and shipbuilding, executions and recreation, and above all, military installations.  The aerial photograph below was taken in 1955, at the peak of operations of the Coast Guard Air Station on Winter Island.

CGAS Salem, 1955, from the really neat site Abandoned & Little Known Airfields by Paul Freeman.

And a century before, in what looks like (and was) a completely different world, we have a 1858 lithograph of “Camp Banks”, an encampment of the Second Division of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia on Winter Island just before the Civil War.

"Encampment of the 2d Div. of M.V.M. on Winter Island, Salem Harbor/Camp Banks", print by J. Bachelder, NY (1858)

Neither image indicates the most important, and long-lasting, military installation on Winter Island:  Fort Pickering.  This fort was established in the mid-seventeenth century as Fort William, renamed Fort Anne after 1703, and “Fort #2” by Patriot forces during the Revolutionary War.  After the Revolution, the Fort was named Fort Pickering after Timothy Pickering, Salem native and Cabinet member in both the Washington and Adams administrations.  It was rebuilt in several phases in the nineteenth century, and apparently tripled in size during the Civil War, when is was known as the Salem Barracks.  The Fort occupies the point in the bottom right-hand corner of the aerial photograph below, anchored by its lighthouse, Fort Pickering Light (1871).

After Air Station Salem closed in 1970, the Federal government transferred Winter Island to the City of Salem, which has maintained it as a recreational park.  The remaining Federal buildings have deteriorated considerably since that time, including those of Fort Pickering.  For the most part, Winter Island is maintained as a campsite, though this past summer camping was not allowed within the perimeter of the Fort.  I was happy to see that the new master plan called for improved signage and interpretive trails around the Island, as I think that this is a particularly pressing problem for the Fort site.  The succession of photographs below illustrate the problem:  the brass plaques that were once attached to stones around the Fort were apparently stolen, and replaced with markers that have not stood the test of time.

The entrance to the Fort:

Inside the perimeter of the Fort:

The Lighthouse:

Within the remnant walls of Fort Pickering, there is one plaque in excellent condition, though you have to really want to find it.  Attached to a gated powder magazine is a small brass plate In Memory of Fallen Special Forces Soldiers, its single permanence in striking contrast to the temporary rainwashed markers all around the fort.

I am glad that the proposed plan calls not only for improved signage, but also more formal interpretation of this important site as the historical record presents a confusing picture.  Even though there is firm evidence of its foundation in the mid- seventeenth century it was rebuilt so often in the succeeding centuries (including “demolition” phases) that we have to wonder what we are really looking at when we walk around the old fort today. Did the major expansions of 1794 and 1863 wipe out the remnants of the seventeenth century?  Hand-drawn pictures (below) from the charming Pictorial Fieldbook of the War of 1812 by Benson Lossing (1869), as well as literary and visual sources from the era of the Spanish-American War (the last time the fort was manned) testify to the existence of embankments and buildings that did not survive the twentieth century.  What exactly is left?  Recent archeological surveys of the site can best answer that question, and, when combined with the historical record, should tell a story that needs to be told.

In the clear: the remains of the Fort between the Wars

It is difficult not to compare the present state of Fort Pickering with a fellow “First System” fort of similar vintage: the better-preserved and -interpreted Fort Sewall in Marblehead.  As the master plan for Winter Island gets implemented in the coming years, perhaps this neighboring fort can serve as a model.