A photographic essay in the Huffington Post from a few days ago entitled “10 Orphan Row Houses So Lonely You’ll Want To Take Them Home With You” did indeed make me sad. A sampling of photographer Ben Marcin’s work, the photographs feature single surviving rowhouses (I prefer the one-word spelling) in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Camden, New Jersey, the heartland of mid-Atlantic urban architecture. I love rowhouses: I actually live in one, although it’s just a double, and I went to college in Baltimore and briefly lived in Washington, D.C., another great rowhouse city. You just know that these still-strident orphans were once part of a strong streetscape, and want to know the story behind their abandonment–and survival.
I got happier when I started reading about some rowhouse renovations, and took a leisurely late-afternoon walk to see some of Salem’s rowhouses. We don’t really have rowhouse blocks like larger cities, but we do have several rows of triple and quadruple semi-detached houses just in my neighborhood, and a few more around town. Before the great fire of 1914, there was a “Tontine Block” of four houses in Salem built in 1805, no doubt inspired by Charles Bulfinch’s Tontine Crescent in Boston, one of the first American residential urban planning projects. The Boston Tontine was built in 1794-95 and unfortunately demolished in 1858, the victim of encroaching commercial construction.
Bulfinch’s Tontine Plan, 1794, and the Tontine Crescent shortly before its demolition in 1858, Library of Congress and Boston Public Library.
Here in Salem, the triple house on Chestnut Street, fortunately very much still standing, and the lost 1805 Tontine block on nearby Warren Street testified to Bulfinch’s influence; the latter was rebuilt after the fire with some charming Craftsman details, inside and out. The other Salem rowhouses are clearly not Federal in inspiration: dating from the second half of the nineteenth century, they are wooden structures built in a more vernacular Victorian style. Each and every one is enhanced by the presence of its neighbors.
Salem rowhouses on Chestnut, Warren, North Pine, and Broad Streets.