There’s no better way to see how a landscape, or a streetscape, changes over time than to compare images of the past and the present. I am always on the hunt for nineteenth-century photographs and drawings of Salem, before urban renewal, before the great fire of 1914, before the CAR, so I can see how these forces altered the city, for better or for worse (mostly for worse).
I’m going to ease into what is often a shocking contrast of past and present with two photographs of a section of Federal Street, taken about a century apart. This is the street looking east from the vantage point of the Peirce-Nichols House, one of Samuel McIntire’s most important commissions, looking toward North Street and the courthouses on the other side. The new (hugely out-of-scale) courthouse (or “judicial center”), which opened up for business just last year, is mostly out of the frame of the modern picture, or the contrast would indeed be shocking. What you do see, or what I see, is the brick former Baptist church, now law library, which was moved to its present location and situated on an angle so to accommodate the curve in the road and effect a transition from residential to institutional buildings on the street. This was an absolutely brilliant idea, whoever thought of it (I know that Historic Salem, Inc. advocated for it) as the courthouse project mandated the demolition of the smaller wooden buildings you see in that location in the earlier picture: without the in-scale angled brick building, the judicial center would have even less connection to the street.
Now for a comparative vantage point that is a little more jarring: Church Street in the 1890s and today. This was an old residential street in Salem, which was also the site of the original Salem Lyceum building, which you see here (the image is from Winfield S. Nevins’ Witchcraft in Salem Village, 1892 & 1916) as well as St. Peter’s Church, the source of its name. In between the church, the Lyceum, and the great old firehouse (fortunately still there) were rows of primarily eighteenth-century houses, now all gone. The old wooden Lyceum was built about 1831 and burned down at the turn of the century, but it was replaced by a very elegant brick structure that was long the site of the Lyceum Restaurant, now 43 Church. Despite the unfortunate designs of both the District court on the right and the office building past the Lyceum on the left, the upper (foreground) part of Church Street is aesthetically pleasing and commercially successful (the site of an organic grocery store, a wine shop, and a coffee shop in addition to 43 Church), primarily because its buildings line up with the sidewalk, just like those in the older photograph. But in the background of the modern photographs, you see the ravages of urban renewal: a large parking lot on the right, and a faux-Federal condominium building and brutally ugly parking garage/mall on the right.
From the vantage point of St. Peter’s Church, looking west towards the Lyceum: all those house removed to accommodate cars.
My last group of images shows a completely obliterated street: Norman Street, a short street that has been transformed beyond all recognition in the twentieth century. Not a shred of its built historical fabric remains, including this wonderful house, the Benjamin Cox house at 21 Norman Street (with the man standing in front of it). It is gone, along with its garden, and all of its neighbors, replaced by office buildings and a wide, wide road so that commuters might easily speed through Salem on their way to the university, or Marblehead. The historic photographs below, which date from about 1875-85, are from the Brown Family Collection of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, and the modern photograph was taken this morning. It’s difficult to reconcile these two settings: I think that the Cox House was located somewhere in the vicinity of the white car (the one driving, as opposed to the one parked) in the 2013 photograph.