End of an Era

The razing of St. Joseph’s Church in Salem began this week, with the steeple coming down on Thursday and some serious demolition ongoing yesterday. This was the parish church of the Point neighborhood of Salem, closed by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2004. Since that time, plans for its removal and/or redevelopment have divided the community. Preservationists, represented by Historic Salem, Inc., sought to save the mid-century “International Style” structure (it was built in 1949-50, finally replacing the more majestic church that was destroyed in the great fire of 1914) while others favored the affordable housing plan put forward by the Archdiocese’s development arm, the Planning Office for Urban Affairs. The two sides/goals could not be brought together, and of course affordable housing always trumps historic preservation, so the church is coming down.

St. Joseph's Church and Parish House, Salem, Mass, MA

St. Joseph's Church Salem

St. Joseph’s before the fire of 1914, and the shiny new building of the 1950s.

While I did not care for the style of St. Joseph’s, I fear that something far worse will be erected in its place. This is a very vulnerable, and prominent, location in Salem, where the once-grand boulevard of Lafayette Street meets downtown, and it has been neglected for some time. And while the exterior left me cold, the cruciform-planned interior was apparently something to behold.  I regret that I never saw it while in use:  all I have to go on now are pictures, like the one held by one of the witnesses to yesterday’s demolition.

Saint Josephs 032

Saint Josephs 030

Saint Josephs 021

Saint Josephs 026

Saint Josephs 034

9 responses to “End of an Era

  • michellenmoon

    Modernist architecture is a tough sell, and often an acquired taste. Often, distinctive structures suffer from their own recency – we tend to count as lesser anything built in living memory, and venerate older structures. But in many cases, those same structures become the ones that are treasured as architectural gems and “sense of place” creators a few generations later. The world of preservation is full of “almost lost” stories about old buildings deemed junky in their day which are know city gems. This consistent issue is one of the reasons the Recent Past Preservation Network was founded (unfortunately, their page right now is a temporary static memorial to a building lost after a fight – there’s a great website underneath which I hope returns, and a LinkedIn and Facebook group to0). http://recentpast.org/

    So it was an uphill climb for a building like this anyhow. I came to like its distinctiveness and the sculptural qualities of the steeple facade. It was utterly unique. My hope would be that something of that steeple and cross will be retained, but I haven’t read anywhere about that. Adaptive reuse is always my first hope for old buildings, but it seems it was thoroughly investigated and found not to be feasible. And so it went the way of ever so many New England churches with shrinking or no-longer-extant congregations. We’ll always need housing, so that is probably the best proposal for this lot, but it’s true that contemporary housing design usually leaves a lot to be desired. Thanks for recognizing the passing of a polarizing and unusual icon.

  • michellenmoon

    Ugh. Forgive the typos – this was pre-coffee!

    • daseger

      I didn’t even notice them, Michelle: I was too spellbound by your comments–and thanks for the link! I really need to develop some appreciation for twentieth-century architecture, I think.

  • thesalemgarden

    This has been a long, sad thing to watch… we’ll never know if St Joseph’s would have become a treasure in the future. I haven’t seen the lady you photographed mentioned in the news coverage. Thanks for being there Donna!

  • William Legault

    To be direct, I was never a fan of that building. It was unique with the brick and cruciform design but I always found the exterior cold and somewhat foreboding. Albert Speer after smoking a good blunt might have sketched something out just like it.

    The interior however, was a sight to behold. Spacious, grand and bright.
    The altar was huge, with seating on all four sides.

    It would have made a wonderful performing arts center.

    My last time in the building was this past summer when I walked in bolds as brass while workers on scaffolding did prep work for the razing. I was able to get a few photos prior to being discovered and “politely” asked to leave.

    In 2002 I buried my father and his wife together from St. Joseph’s. That now rest side by side at Harmony Grove. Most of my relatives up until then, including my “Memere” were also sent off from there.

    The Catholic Church lost me years ago. Closing this church when it was one the best as far as sacraments (baptism, conformation, weddings, funerals) and Sunday mass attendance in the city and on the north shore certainly does not encourage my return.

    “deos enim religuos accepimus, Caesares dedimus.”

  • Dorothy Malcolm

    I was never a fan of this church’s architecture but to tear it down, unmercifully, to build “something better” in its place is sheer folly. I despise seeing relatively-good-to-perfectly-good structures destroyed; I’m a preservationist to the core and beg the question: What happened to recycling, revamping and reusing? The existing structure, while no St. Peter’s in Rome, could have been used as the new senior center, a neighborhood center for Point citizens and kids, a new center for the arts, including the Salem Theatre Company, the Salem Arts Association, and a great venue for lectures, concerts, special exhibits, or any other civic enterprise that requires more space.

    True, parking is non-existent there, but we have a good infrastructure and bus/transportation service, including shuttle and elderly/handicap accessible busses and vans. But to tear this perfectly reusable building down–not to mention the spiritual center for many Salemites–is so disheartening and a rude debacle, to say the least. I’m deeply disappointed that we/Salem has not stepped-up to the plate to preserve this cruciform and mid-century modern ediface, if not for spiritual sustenance, then for viable reuse.

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