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.

6 responses to “Preservation Précis

  • William Legault

    The St. Joseph Church building is not historic in any sense, despite it’s “qualification” for the status. The F. W. Webb building on lower Bridge Street would qualify also if the paperwork were done with true intent.

    As for it’s architectural significance, that is also a reach. It is unique for sure, but so is the Museum Place parking garage. What is your preference, cruciform brick or brutalist concrete? I prefer neither.

    I say these things as a member of a long time Salem French-Canadian family. Many family member were baptized, confirmed, educated, married, and mourned from that building.

  • mariathermann

    Erm…as a person who was born in a town founded by Vikings all of the above houses appear “modern and new-fangled”, but I know what you mean by “what is historic”. The ancient Romans were constantly building on top of even older stuff; the same goes for the City of London, where Anglo Saxons, Romans and everybody who just happened to invade Britain has left their construction mark. It seems such a shame that due to council leaders’ own sordid interests the concerns and wishes of whole communities are often ignored.

  • Steve

    Very interesting post. I’ll have to come back to read it again when I’m not at work.

    What a beautiful job they did on that Dutch Gambrel.

  • Down East Dilettante

    Preservation Month? Whoever sent out the memo didn’t do a very good job. If it weren’t for this post, I wouldn’t have known. I am very fearful for the Preservation movement nationally—trying to be all things to all people, and with no claws.

    Historic Districting—the common good vs. property rights. A losing battle in too many cases. I’m watching much of early Maine domestic architecture disappear by the day.

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