The sight of the poster announcing the arrival of the new Korean fried chicken chain restaurant Bonchon on Essex Street reminded me of how main streets are always in transition: you can trace the history of a town just by examining the evolving nature of its buildings and hardscapes. Essex Street is fronted by structures from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries—residential, commercial and institutional. It has been covered with dirt, cobblestones, tracks, and pavement, widened several times and in several places, and (unfortunately) transformed into a pedestrian “mall” (on which cars–or I should say trucks and trolleys–still drive)–in its central section in the 1970s. I have posted about Essex Street many, many times, so I thought I would feature some seldom-seen images today, and examine the physical evolution of this storied street.
Essex Street has run right down the center of Salem since the seventeenth century; Below, Essex Street from the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries, as imagined and in reality.
Essex Street envisioned in 1776 in Carry On, Mr. Bowditch; and in the 1820s on an old Essex Institute postcard; photographs of the street in 1870, 1874 & 1880s (Historic New England & New York Public Library Digital Gallery). Below: a shopping street–until the 1970s–although the famous stores Almy, Bigelow, & Washburn and L.H. Rogers survived into the 1980s. Only the Almy’s Clock remains, and the Rogers store is now administrative offices for the Peabody Essex Museum. (1976 photograph from Jerome Curley’s great Patch column, “Then and Now” and L.H. Rogers photograph from the website “Hawthorne in Salem”).
Below: a not-so-faithful street. It’s surprising to me how few houses of worship are located on Essex Street: at present, only one. Reverend Bentley’s Second Congregational “East Church” was on lower Essex, and before it was transformed into Daniel Low and Co., the imposing structure at the corner of Washington and Essex—the site of Salem’s first meeting house–served as the First Church of Salem–now further along (up) Essex Street. Salem’s only Jewish congregation, Temple Shalom of the Congregation Sons of David, established its first synagogue on Essex Street (its second on Lafayette Street is currently being adapted into academic offices and classrooms for Salem State University). The more mystical Swedenborgian Church was briefly located on upper Essex Street, on the present site of the Salem Athenaeum (American Jewish Historical Society, New England Archives; Weston Collection).
So many lost Essex Street houses! Too many to mention here–I’ve focused on them individually and will continue to do so. I don’t think I’ve ever featured the Sanders House at 292 Essex however, a site now occupied by the Salem YMCA. Alexander Graham Bell lived in the house in the 1870s and conducted experiments in its attic that led to the invention of the telephone: why it couldn’t have been preserved just on this basis I do not know. It reminds me of the beautiful Pickman house down the street, also gone. This particular block of Essex was definitely trending commercial in the late nineteenth centuries, however, and Georgian structures were not long for this world. The new YMCA came in, and just across the street a bit later-the Colonial Revival structure (with its new facade) that will soon house Salem’s Bonchon.