Monthly Archives: July 2013

Ideal Cities

Salem is a boom town/construction zone right now with big projects ongoing, or about to begin, all over town: a large housing project on the site of the demolished St. Joseph’s Church on Lafayette Street and two more on the outskirts of town, a new “Gateway” center on one of the major entrance corridors, a new parking garage for the train station, more expansion for the Peabody Essex Museum and my own university, a huge (and great) power plant demolition/reconstruction project, and, of course, infrastructure work, a constant activity in a city as old as Salem. There is so much going on that the city has put up a separate website just to handle information about these projects.

Boom Town

I am glad that Salem is doing so well in terms of development, and I believe that most of these projects will benefit the city tremendously. But not all. Certainly the Mayor’s office and city government facilitated these proposals, and are doing a good job overseeing the process of their implementation. However, I can’t help thinking that much of this development is compartmentalized and not part of a plan, that our city is reacting to proposals rather than seeking them out, vision in hand and mind.  Too often a proposal skates by the various boards, simply because it’s better than what is there now. As is my general inclination, I can’t help but compare past and present, and as I’m teaching a summer-long graduate class on the Renaissance, a time when urban planning became an art (like everything else) that is my past. Ideals were very important to Renaissance society, for both human development and urban development. The rediscovery of Vitruvius’s Ten Books of Architecture in 1414, the desire to build structures on a human scale. and the influence of mathematics combined to create an ideal vision for Renaissance cities, exemplified by three panels produced in the 1480s, all called The Ideal City.

Boom Town Ideal City Walters



Ideal Cities in Baltimore, Urbino & Berlin museums: Fra Carnevale, Walters Art Museum; Piero della Francesca or Leon Battista Alberti ?, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino; Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.

It’s really not fair to hold up these panels as standards because they were, in fact, idealized rather built cities:  “windows into a better world”. Yet the ideal, the plan, the desire to live in a better world, still has merit. I know we lost the sense of human scale and aesthetic detail in the twentieth century, but we can still seek better and more beautiful buildings, that assimilate easily into their material landscape. Perhaps it’s not the lack of planning but the actual architecture that is troubling me. This is certainly the case with one project: a proposed $45 million complex that would include a possible hotel, residences and retail stores to be built on a downtown block that definitely needs some help–this would be an easy case of it’s better than what’s there now so the expectations, and the standards, will be low. The renderings for the project reveal a (cheap) brick and glass multistory building which is a mirror image of the “Tavern on the Square” structure affixed to the old Salem News building across the way:  both are more suited for the suburban corporate office parks found along Route 128, Boston’s inner beltway, than a historic port city like Salem.  Both buildings, like several structures built in Salem in the past few years, are not only grace-less but also place-less: they have no relation to our city’s built environment and are also, quite frankly, boring. Can’t we do better?

Boom Town Dodge St

Boom Town Waltham Corporate Center

“Mill Hill” proposal conceptual rendering for Salem & the Waltham Corporate Center along Route 128.

Waiting & Walking in Old Boston

I spent all of yesterday in Boston, in the realms of two of the city’s more venerable–and very different–institutions. At Massachusetts General Hospital, I kept my father company while we waited for news of my stepmother’s condition after surgery (she is fine, thank you). This particular institution has such a strong historic identity that you can’t escape it: sepia-toned photographs of firsts line the halls, a flyer for the “MGH History Trail” greets you in the waiting room, the original 1821 Bulfinch-designed building still sits in the center of its expansive campus, and a new Russell Museum of Medical History and Innovation opened its doors just last year. While waiting, I made my way to the Bulfinch Building, and ascended stone steps to the 4th floor surgical theater called the “Ether Dome”, the site of the first public surgery with anesthesia, performed in 1846 (there is a mummy up there too).

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In the afternoon, I found myself in another venerable Boston institution: an “Old Boy’s Club”, except it wasn’t! Surviving bastions of the Brahmin past, Boston’s social clubs–most of which are located in the Back Bay–continue to function as social centers for their members but also offer rooms for short-term stays “in town”. My father’s club was closed for renovations, so they had placed him at the nearby Chilton Club, the only women’s club (clearly I cannot say “Old Women’s Club) among its brethren. Named for Mary Chilton, the first Mayflower passenger to leave Plymouth for Boston, the club occupies two adjacent brownstones on Commonwealth Avenue. Compared to the other Boston clubs I have seen, the decor of Chilton was indeed decidedly feminine, with needlepoint, lots of toile, a damask fabric-lined dining room, delicate fancy chairs scattered about, a pale yellow ballroom with mirrored “windows”, and a beautiful front-facing parlor called the “Dexter Room”. I asked the man at the reception desk if it was safe for my father to stay there, and he said they had admitted men a while ago (but they asked him to use the side entrance when he returned later that night).

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Appendix:  in the Public Garden, a swan laid on her newly-lain eggs, in the biggest nest I have ever seen!

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Girls of Summer

I detest hot weather and we’ve had a long stretch of it, so instead of extending my energies outdoors I have been lingering indoors, working on a couple of academic projects and watching old movies and Wimbledon. It’s been an unusually passive July Fourth long (long) weekend, though not an unpleasant one–perhaps I’m living vicariously through images on the television and computer screens–and not breaking a sweat! Anyway, for some time I have admired the work of two very different artists who captured the girls of summer in very different, though equally charming ways: Hamilton King’s “Sports Girls”, issued as a series of oversized cigarette cards promoting Turkish Trophies and Helmar Cigarettes before World War I, present the idealized (ironed!) view, while Boston photographer Leslie Jones captured many real sporting girls in the interwar era and after, most of whom seem rather sweat-less as well.

Girls of Hamilton King 1

Girls of Hamilton King 2

Girls of Hamilton King 3

Three of Hamilton King’s “Sport Girls” , Series T7-6, 1913, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Leslie Jones, long-time photographer for the Boston Herald-Traveler, was not an artistic photographer but a working one, who covered both everyday life and the big regional events from 1917 to 1956. There’s a large collection of his photographs on the Boston Public Library’s Flikr photostream, and also here. All of his work is amazing, but I find his coverage of sporting events particularly interesting, because it focuses more on the athletes and their surroundings as much (or more) than the action: Jones’ girls of summer are real women, smiling and completely in context.

Girls of Summer Betty Nuthall Jones 1930s

Girls of Summer Jones Marblehead 1940s

Girls of Summer Genevieve Peabody BPL

Leslie Jones’ photographs of Betty Nuthall at Longwood Cricket Club, Brookline, Massachusetts, 1930s,Yachting girls during Marblehead Race Week in the 1940s, and champion sculler Genevieve Peabody of Salem, 1920s. Boston Public Library and © Leslie Jones.

There were several national women’s golf tournaments at the Salem Country Club and the Kernwood Country Club in Salem in the 1930s, and Jones was there, but he was also sent to Revere Beach, just north of Boston, on the hottest days in July and August, where both casual groups and the “peek-a-boo” girls frolicked in and out of the water. I absolutely adore the center picture below, taken in July 1919:  it reveals Jones’ ability to put his subjects completely at ease.

Girls of Summer Helen Hicks

Bathing Girls Revere Beach Leslie Jones 1919 BPL

Girls of Summer Peek-A-Boo Bathing Girls Revere Beach Jones 1920

Champion golfer Helen Hicks at Salem Country Club, 1932, “Bathing Girls” at Revere Beach in 1919 and “Peek-A-Boo” Girls on Revere Beach in 1920, all Boston Public Library and © Leslie Jones.

A Fashionable Fourth

Even though it’s not an era in which I have any academic expertise, I admire the Gilded/Edwardian era from afar: nearly every contemporary commercial  image seems to convey a society that is simultaneously dynamic and elegant. Of course we never see who did all that ironing! The other day I was looking through some examples of a new ephemeral category for me, menus, when I spotted a rather dashing young lady outfitted for the Fourth of July. This particular Gibson Girl graces the cover of a menu for a holiday dinner held in 1900 at the Hotel Magnolia up in Gloucester, a New England coastal “clapboard castle” now sadly gone. I wanted to see some more examples of July Fourth fashions from the era, so I rounded up the usual sources and found a fashionable couple and a girl from a century ago who would look perfectly fine today–especially in her gladiator sandals, very on trend this summer.

Fashions for the Fourth

Fashionable Fourth Penfield LC

Fashionable Fourth 1914 Puck

1900 Menu, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Edward Penfield cover for Collier’s Magazine, July 1913, and “Follow the Flag” cover for Puck Magazine, July 1914, both Library of Congress.

I think I’ll extend my era, backwards and forwards, to encompass more nationalistic looks.  The two dresses below, separated by more than a century and featured together in the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s 2009 “Fashion & Politics” exhibition, are certainly patriotic, and perhaps a bit over the top. If you don’t want to wrap yourself in the flag, an accessory in red, white, and blue will do– a trend that was all the rage during World War Two.

Fashionable Fourth FIT

Fashionable Fourth Shoes

Fashionable Fourth Clutch

1889 costume and 2009 dress by Catherine Malandrino, Collection of the Museum at FIT, New York; LaValle Shoes, 1940, Collection of the Museum at FIT; 48-star Clutch, c. 1940-58, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Thunder Month

In his annual almanac, the seventeenth-century astrologer John Gadbury calls July the Thunder Month, [when] it was customary at Malmsbury-Abbey, to ring the great bell call’d St. Adam’s Bell, to drive away the THUNDER AND LIGHTNING. If the last week of June is any indication of things to come, his characterization will prove correct for July 2013. We’ve had rain pretty much every day over the past week, and it is raining again today. A bit of thunder and lightning, but nothing too dramatic…yet.*** It’s quite humid so the feeling is more tropical than New England, but the garden is thriving.



John Gadbury, Ephemeris, or a Diary Astronomical, Astrological and Meteorological for the Year of our Lord 1696; a Strobridge Lithograph Company calendar for July 1901, which could also work for July 2013, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Other texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries–astrological, agricultural, and “medical”–predict: if the first of July be rainy weather, ’twill rain more or less for four weeks together, which wouldn’t bother me at all. They also offer the following prescriptions for July:  don’t eat “strong”, substantive or spicy foods, nor any “muddy” fish, green fruits, or beets, drink but a little wine, eat sage and rue on a bit of bread every morning, and take as much “verjuyce” as possible, as it cools and refreshes the body (and the mind). Verjuice is a juice made of crushed and strained sour (unripe, green) grapes or apples mixed with a variety of herbs, and it appears to be experiencing a bit of a comeback at the moment, so maybe my early modern experts were right.


***Tornado watch later in the day: very unusual for New England.

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