Salem Savior

She was not the only hero(ine) in the story, but rather in good company:  still Ada Louise Huxtable played a big role in the prevention of the complete annihilation of historic Salem by the forces of urban renewal in the 1960s. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning architectural critic for The New York Times and The Wall Street Post, often referred to as the “dean” of American architectural criticism, died yesterday at the age of 91. The dominant themes of the obituaries that I am reading this morning are Mrs. Huxtable’s influence over both architectural criticism and the architecture of New York, but she shaped the architecture of Salem as well. So here is my little parochial appreciation.

Ada Louise Huxtable in her New York apartment, 1988.  Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

Ada Louise Huxtable in her New York apartment, 1988. Arnold Newman/Getty Images

Mrs. Huxtable. who summered in nearby Marblehead, heard of the urban renewal plans for Salem and was moved to write a rather passionate piece that the Times put on its front page on October 13, 1965: “Foes Fear Plans Will Mar Old New England Heritage; Urban Renewal Plan Threatens Historic Sites in Salem, Mass.” She reported on what was going on, but definitely put her own viewpoint in the article:  By setting up “design controls” for the new construction, the city guarantees itself, at best, “instant Georgian” (apparently she detested Colonial Williamsburg!) to replace the genuine example. The spurious product is a much better economic deal than the real thing…As things stand now, it will take some potent modern witchcraft to save Salem’s historic past.  A series of follow-up articles were published in the Times from 1967 to 1974, culminating, happily, with the latter year’s “How Salem Saved itself from Urban Renewal (September 29). During this period, local preservationists were galvanized to fight the demolition of 103 buildings in the city center in the name of “urban renewal”, and the plan shifted to the redevelopment and revitalization of Essex Street, Derby Square, and Front Street. Many buildings were lost, but not as many as would have been without the advocacy and inspiration of Mrs. Huxtable, I believe.

Many years later (1993), Mrs. Huxtable was interviewed by Robert Campbell, the architectural critic of the Boston Globe, and he asked her where in New England she thought she had had the most impact.  She replied:  I think I had more impact on Salem, because Salem had a hideous urban renewal plan. I remember going over it with the then-mayor and planner, and they were going to eliminate the beautiful Japanese garden next to the museum and they were planning roads that would take away whole blocks. So I went back to New York and sold it to the Times as a Page 1 piece … and that brought whoever was on the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Washington to Salem. “What are you doing here?” That resulted in the change of planners and the total change in the plan.

Urban Renewal 015

Urban Renewal 018

Essex Street today:  a road does NOT run through the Japanese garden of the Peabody Essex Museum, but unfortunately the Brutalist parking garage with its first-floor shops did replace earlier commercial buildings.

Urban Renewal 020

Urban Renewal 009

Front Street, revitalized not destroyed, a far more successful shopping district than the nearby Essex Street pedestrian mall, and the Ash Street house (built in 1811) of another preservation heroine, Bessie Munroe.  She fought urban renewal in the 1960s while she was in her 80s! Unfortunately the house now looks over a parking lot, and a very ugly modern building built on the site of jail where the accused witches were held in 1692.

4 responses to “Salem Savior

  • mariathermann

    How terribly short-sighted those supposedly in charge can be – given the huge amount of revenue the town must make from tourism, pulling down important sites to do with the witch trials is downright idiotic…the original jail where the witches were held would have been another highlight on the tourist trail. Who puts such fools in charge? Three cheers for people like Mrs Huxtable and the formidable Bessie Munroe.

    • daseger

      Hi Maria! To be honest, I’m not sure exactly when the old Salem jail–a 17th century building–was taken down, but it was definitely before the urban renewal threat. When I moved to Salem, there was a 1950s building on the site, now there is an even bigger (and uglier) building there. I’ll have to do some research.

  • Down East Dilettante

    I had wanted to do a tribute post also, but a couple of magazine deadlines looming make it impossible to stray from the path. You’ve said it so well. I lived for her columns, and it was she, more than any other writer and critic, who opened my eyes to the social, communal aspects of planning and preservation—definitely sharpened my own way of looking at issues of aesthetics and preservation. In several of the obituaries, note is made that some scholars found her approach a bit light—but I always found it accessible (and isn’t it important that big ideas be made so?), and her writing of course, so enviably logical and graceful and passionate.

    Thanks for this post– (if only the PEM paid more attention to Ms. Huxtable today. They are arguably my favorite regional museum in the country, their exhibits are delights, but oh, their building program not entirely street friendly. As for the commercial garage across the street, don’t get me started. I find that little stretch of Essex St. one of the coldest dreariest spots anywhere on a winter afternoon—and 25 years ago found it lively and interesting.

  • daseger

    Well thank you, DD, it was slightly off-the-cuff because I did want to get something out there as soon as I heard the news of her death. LOVE her writing–I’m going to go back and read lots more. Totally agree about the PEM & wondering what they’re up to now.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: