Monthly Archives: January 2013

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.

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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.

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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.

A Two-Comet Year

Looking forward to the year ahead, as we all tend to do at this time, I notice that not only is this the “year of the snake” and the year of the (Pantone) color emerald green, but also a year in which there will be two great comets visible in the northern hemisphere. I’m working on an academic project on changing perceptions of wonder in the early modern era, and few things were as wonderful as a truly “Great Comet” blazing a very visible trail through the sky, so this is one of those times where past and present, scholarship and blog intersect, which is very exciting. It’s a rare year that one comet is visible to the naked eye, so the possibility of two is extraordinary. Comet PANSTARRS will be the first comet of 2013, appearing only in the southern hemisphere for the first two months of the year, but by the middle of March it should be visible in the north. The recently-discovered Comet ISON, so bright that it might even be visible at daylight if it doesn’t break apart or flame out, will make its appearance towards the end of the year.

Both before and after the sixteenth century, comets were portents of a potentially cataclysmic event or great change:  plague, earthquake, the fall of a regime, all of course the wrath of God bearing down on sinful people. Omens were always ominous. In political terms, comets were “the terror of kings”, and one of the first images of a comet, likely Halley’s comet, is in the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry, which records the Norman Conquest from the Norman point of view. Isti mirant stella:  they gaze in wonder at the star, blazing over King Harold II’s head, foretelling his defeat and death.

comet Bayeux

Halley’s Comet did not return until 1456 (when it was associated with the conquests of the Ottoman Turks in eastern Europe), but there were bright “hairy” stars recorded by European chroniclers in 1264 (predicting the death of Pope Urban IV) and 1402 (again–the advances of the Turks).  The first image below, from a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript, shows a man looking upon a particularly bright (and hairy) comet with wonder, a mixture of fear, awe, and curiosity, and I think that balance tips towards the latter in the early modern era. As evidence, look at the amazing second image below, of what I often describe in class as a “comet party” viewing (and drawing) the Great Comet of 1577:  these people are not quaking in fear; to the contrary, they look rather celebratory.

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Comet of 1577

British Library MS Royal 6 E VI, c. 1360-75, England; Woodcut by Jiri Daschitzsky, Von einem Schrecklichen und Wunderbahrlichen Cometen so sich den Dienstag nach Martini M. D. Lxxvij. Jahrs am Himmel erzeiget hat (Prague: Petrus Codicillus a Tulechova, 1577).

The changing perception of comets isn’t quite as straightforward as these two images indicate; in fact, early modern descriptions and representations of comets are a mixed bag, some very “scientific”, others very allegorical. Below, two sixteenth-century men of science depict comets of their time in very different ways:  while Peter Apian attempts to chart the course of the comet of 1532, physician Ambroise Paré presents blazing stars as fearful “swords of the heavens”, like the “mortal darts” of John Milton’s Paradise Lost a century later:  Incensed with indignation, Satan stood Unterrified, and like a comet burned, That fires the length of Ophiuchus huge In th’ arctic sky, and from his horrid hair Shakes pestilence and war.


L0021174 Ambroise Pare, Les Oeuvres, 1579: fearful comet

The comets of Peter Apian (1532) and Amboise Paré (1579), Wellcome Library, London.

The comets of the seventeenth century provoked fear and trepidation, but they also provided empirical celestial evidence of a more predictable universe.  The Great  Comet of 1680 (to which ISON might be connected) was viewed through the telescope and utilized by Newton to verify the accumulated theories and hypothetical laws of the previous century and therefore “complete” the Scientific Revolution, and the Comet of 1682 became “Halley’s Comet” after his colleague Edmund Halley utilized historical and scientific analysis to connect it to comets of the past and the future.  I don’t really see much of this rational spirit on display over here in the New World, where Increase Mather called the Comet of 1680 a “terrible sight indeed” and the colonial government of Massachusetts proclaimed a general fast in order to cease “that awful, portentous, blazing star, usually foreboding some calamity to the beholders thereof.”

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Comet over Rotterdam Verschuier1680

Engraving of the Comet of 1619 after Adriaen van de Venne, British Museum; The Great Comet over Rotterdam, December 26, 1680 by Lieve Verschuier, Historisch Museum, Amersterdam (note the crowd below with their measuring devices).

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially after Halley was proven posthumously correct with the return of “his” comet in 1758, comets were perceived with a more modern sense of wonder on the part of both the scientific community and the general public. The blazing comet of 1811 inspired all sorts of cultural expressions, and was tied to a positive outcome (for once):  a conspicuously good year for wine production. And even better than wine (or at least on a par), the return of Halley’s comet in 1835 inspired a completely new category of jewelry:  comet pins.

Comet of 1811 Thomas Rowlandson BM

Comet Brooch, France V and A

Thomas Rowlandson’s caricature of comet-viewing in 1811, British Museum; French paste comet brooch, c. 1950, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Twelfth Night

The Twelve Days of Christmas (finally) conclude this weekend with Epiphany, or “Twelfth Night”, marking the arrival of the Three Kings from the East in Jerusalem so that they might adore the baby Jesus. Once again, however, biblical traditions merge with earlier ethnic ones, creating hybrid celebrations and customs. In western Christian culture, Twelfth Night was a big party night before the nineteenth century, the peak of the Christmas season rather than the afterthought that it is today. I’m wondering if that is changing, however: there have always been Epiphany services in churches in our area but this particular year I’ve been invited to three Twelfth Night parties. Maybe people are getting fed up with the sheer consumerism of Christmas Day and refocusing on the social and festive aspects of the holiday season through Twelfth Night.


Twelfth Night Magi MS

Two Renaissance views of the Adoration of the Magi:  by Hans Memling (c. 1470, Museo del Prado, Madrid) and British Library Egerton MS 2125, Ghent, early sixteenth century.

Twelfth Night traditions vary from place to place and time to time, but there are some constants:  there is always feasting, there are always cakes, and there is generally some sort of performance that involves role-playing, often world-turned-upside-down role playing, such as Shakespeare’s cross-dressing Viola of Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, which was first performed in 1602 as part of the festivities. This particular play survives because it was included in the 1623 First Folio, but it is just one of many Twelfth Night masques that were staged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for both elite and popular audiences.

Twelfth Night Viola

Twelfth Night Masque 1607 costume

Viola’s duel with Sir Andrew Ague Cheek, 1788 print by H.W. Bunbury, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; printed edition of a masque performed for King James VI on Twelfth Night,1607.

Twelfth Night celebrations also have to include a cake, but there seem to be many recipe variations:  spiced cakes, fruit cakes, sugared “Kings’ Cakes” with multicolored icing or little crowns on top, “rich cakes”,Martha Washington’s “Great Cake”.  I particularly like the recipes from Colonial Williamsburg and the Folger Shakespeare Library:  these cakes are rather dense, alternatively brandy-soaked, and to be really authentic they should be baked with surprises inside that relate to the Twelfth Night festivities: a bean, a coin or a trinket representing the baby Jesus, perhaps a slip of paper to be safe. At parties in the past, the guest who found the prize in his/her slice became the king or queen of Twelfth Night. Some old recipes refer to the insertion of both a bean (for the king) and a pea (for the queen), so two “sovereigns” can rule over the festivities. Again, the world is turned upside down–for a night. And of course, as the last image illustrates, everybody wants to be King, even if it was just “King of the Bean”.


Twelfth Night Cake 1841 BM

David Teniers the Younger, Twelfth Night (the King Drinks), 1634-40, Museo del Prado, Madrid; 1841 editorial cartoon, British Museum.

Old Wethersfield

Whenever I’m heading home from New Jersey or New York or points south, I always like to stop in at Old Wethersfield, Connecticut:  it’s a beautiful village just off the highway and just outside Hartford:  a convenient respite for a weary traveler. Old Wethersfield is a National Register Historic District, comprising 100+ houses from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries situated along a main thoroughfare and a slender rectangular green, which is part of the larger town of Wethersfield. I had two restless guys with me yesterday but they still let me stop for a bit, to take pictures of some of my favorite houses and briefly run into Comstock, Ferre & Company, which has been selling heirloom seeds for two centuries. Wethersfield is known not only for its colonial architecture, but also for its venerable seed companies, including Comstock and the Charles C. Hart Seed Co. in the present and a whole host of provisioners in the past. The most profitable product of these companies, a red “Wethersfield Onion”, even gave the old town the nickname “Oniontown” for a while. I am also compelled to mention Wethersfield’s fascinating/notorious founder, John Oldham, who was exiled from the Plymouth Colony for “plotting against pilgrim rule” and went on to establish settlements in Hull, Gloucester, and Watertown, Massachusetts, and eventually Wethersfield, the first English settlement in Connecticut. (Oldham seems to have rubbed shoulders with Salem’s founder, Roger Conant, on more than one occasion). Travel and Leisure magazine just designated Old Wethersfield one of America’s “prettiest winter towns”, and it certainly appeared so yesterday afternoon with snow lining the brick sidewalks and artfully draped on the colorful colonial houses.

Just a small sampling of Old Wethersfield, New Year’s Day 2013:

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The plaques and signs refer to the house above, as in the case of one of Old Wethersfield’s most famous houses, the Webb House, pictured below with its neighbors.

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More!!! And as you can see, there are “newer” houses in Old Wethersfield too.

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The Comstock building, obviously a livelier place in the summer but still very much open, and an 1899 seed catalog cover featuring the Wethersfield Onion, the “greatest onion on earth”,  from the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ Collection.

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Wethersfield Onion Smithsonian

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