Vanished Vantage Points

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.

Vantage Point Fed Street 1910

Vanished Federal Street present

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.

Vanished Church Street Nevins Witchcraft

vanished vantages 014

vanished vantages 016

From the vantage point of St. Peter’s Church, looking west towards the Lyceum: all those house removed to accommodate cars.

Vantage Church Street

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.

Vanished Cox House 21 Norman

Vanished Cox House garden

Vanished Cox House Interior

Vanished Norman Street

18 responses to “Vanished Vantage Points

  • theculturegirl

    Great post and fantastic pictures, I love seeing how places have changed over time, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

  • markd60

    I can only tell it’s the same place in the top two photos.

  • Erik

    Cool comparisons! Have you been over to Seems like something that you might like. I love being able to find what was and what is.

    • daseger

      I have, Erik–I did a post on historypin about a year ago, I think, and now am partnering with WGBH to pin Salem images to their Abolitionist map. It’s a great concept and site.

  • thesalemgarden

    I lean heavily toward sad too… but I enjoyed the post, it’s really quite amazing!

    • thesalemgarden

      Hi again Donna! I hope you don’t mind me mentioning this, but I’m quite sure that the church in the background of your first photo is Tabernacle Church and not the Baptist Church. The Baptist Church was located down to the left before it was moved *up* the hill to it’s present location. If you step forward ten steps from where you took your 2012 photo, closer to the house with the Widow’s Walk you’ll see the tower of Tabernacle, still standing just as it is in the older photo. If you look at the Tabernacle Church website you’ll see the bell tower on the home page. I’m a member at Tabernacle, so the tower is very dear to me 😉 Again, I hope you don’t mind my comment… Michele

      • daseger

        Of course I don’t mind, Michele: I welcome all comments AND corrections! I think the problem here is my wording–I am referring to the relocated Baptist church but should also have mentioned the very distinct bell tower of the Tabernacle Church. I’m really glad you did.

  • Vickie Lester

    Just read an article this morning about the relation of health to dependence on the car (not good)… Now I see the relation between architecture and the car, and the lack of human scale. Great post!

  • Down East Dilettante

    Indeed, the auto is the greatest destroyer of scale—it has miniaturized out little down east village, even as it eats up the landscape in the new parking lot rich commercial district.

    How interesting is that interior photograph showing the early 18th century bannister back chair with Victorian over-upholstery updating it?

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    When I lived in Portsmouth, N.H., I would occasionally look through old books about the city at the library and be astounded at how the city had changed in the previous century – and almost never for the better.

    I understand parking is important, as are electrical wires, wider streets, etc., but what was done to many of our nation’s older cities in the name of “renewal” was almost criminal. Take your above picture of modern day Norman Street: There is nothing inviting or historic about it. One is left with a feeling of an impersonal, utilitarian location that could be anywhere, rather than a location in an historic New England community. I know older structures require upkeep and we can’t retain everything from the past, but I’d rather see open fields than some of the ugliness that’s gone up in the past 50 years.

    • daseger

      You’re preaching to the choir here! And as we have discussed before, Portsmouth was the “city” closest to where I grew up in southern Maine, so it established my standards of historic preservation and urban planning.

      • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

        One city that seems to have done a halfway decent job at preserving its past is Charleston. I’ve not spent much time in Savannah, but I’ve heard good things about it, as well. But, then again, “preserving the past” is often a relative thing compared with other cities, which knocked down entire city blocks in the name or renewal.

        Your use of photos, past and present, is one of the most interesting ways to highlight change. I always find it fascinating.

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