Daily Archives: May 25, 2012

Preservation Précis

We’re well into “Preservation Month” and I’ve yet to post on this topic, so it is definitely time. In my experience, the preservation process is seldom a smooth one, because it is ultimately a political process, tied more to property rights or urban planning than any aesthetic or cultural initiative. About a month ago, I was driving home from Maine and I decided to stop in Newburyport, a beautiful old port city north of Salem with an amazing collection of historic houses from many periods (they had their big fire in 1811, whereas we had our much larger fire in 1914).  I will take any and every opportunity to drive down High Street just to see the succession of stately homes, all perfectly preserved.  On this particular occasion, however, nearly every house had a sign in front of it:  either for the expansion of  the Local Historic District, or against. It clearly wasn’t a preservation issue–no matter what the sign said in front, the house was perfect–it was a property rights issue.  I stopped to talk to one man, with a “NO” sign on the fence in front of his beautiful Federal house, and he indicated that the appointed, not elected historic commission charged with enforcing regulations within the district were the problem–they had no accountability. His neighbor had another opinion.

For and against the Local Historic District in Newburyport.

Here in Salem a preservation controversy has been festering for months, even years.  Following the closure of St. Joseph’s Church by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2004, its development arm, The Planning Office for Urban Affairs, put forward a plan to demolish the 1949 “International Style” church and build an affordable housing complex on the site.  After a complete review process, and despite a lawsuit, the plan has been gradually moving forward, even gaining tacit approval from the Massachusetts Historical Commission (charged with enforcing the Section 106 review triggered by all redevelopment projects that are slated to receive federal funds) which ruled that the demolition of the church was unavoidable. The voices of opposition to the project–or specifically to the demolition of the church–were Salem residents who had grown up in the “Point” neighborhood surrounding the church when it was largely French Canadian (now no longer the case), who clearly saw the church as the sole physical reminder of their historic community, and Historic Salem, Incorporated (HSI), the venerable preservation organization in Salem.  HSI’s continued appeals, based on the positions that due diligence was not done and that the church could be saved and incorporated into the housing project, have divided not only the community, but also its membership and Board of Directors.  For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this process/struggle has been the continuing question of what is historic?  As you can see from the pictures below, St. Joseph’s is not a traditional “historic” structure, but a mid-century modern one. I think it has been hard for a lot of people in Salem (myself included!) to see this structure as historic, given our stock of much older (and frankly, more aesthetically pleasing) buildings.  The present building replaced the Romanesque Revival church that was destroyed in the Great Salem Fire of 1914, only a years after it was built.  If that church was slated for demolition, how would the process–and the debate–have been different?

St. Joseph’s Church before and after the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and yesterday.

Often preservation efforts result in a compromise, as is the case with the former First Baptist Church on Federal Street, saved (in large part due to HSI’s advocacy) as the historic anchor of the new Ruane Courthouse complex, but surrounded by imposing and intimidating  Soviet-style buildings.

There have been several smaller preservation projects in Salem over the past few months; no controversies here, just some nice restorations.  I wrote a post just a couple of months ago about a dilapidated and condemned Victorian house in North Salem that was almost gone; today it seems to be experiencing a near-miraculous revival. Along Derby Street, a long-declining little Georgian house has experienced a similar rebirth in the last few months, and the little Brown Street house of Daniel Bray, mariner, built in 1776, is looking better every day.

Preservation projects in North Salem, Derby Street (“before” picture courtesy of Jerome Curley/Salem Patch), and downtown.

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