Evolving Essex Street

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 Perley Map

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 1776 Bowditch

essex-street-salem-ma-postcard 1820s

Essex Street 1870

Essex Street 1874

Essex Street HNE 1880s


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”).

Essex Street

Essex Street Paving

Essex Street LH Rogers

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).

EssexSt Synagogue 1930s

Essex Street 1920s HH

Essex Street Swedenborgian Church

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.

Sanders House 292 Essex

Essex Street YMCA 1920s

Essex Street Bon Chon

13 responses to “Evolving Essex Street

  • coldhandboyack

    Neat sequence of images.

  • daseger

    Thanks! Since it is our main street, there are lots of images available, but I tried to go for some rarer ones–at some point I’d like to do a more focused visual analysis of before and after the Pedestrian Mall–I’ve never been a fan of enclosing MAIN streets.

  • Pat Ayer

    All those wonderful homes —gone !!!! What a shame –especially the home where Bell lived–!!!! What was the 129 EssexSt. before condos ??

    • daseger

      I am so glad you asked, Pat–The Gideon Tucker House (built 1809) was a residence–and later home to the Termperance Society I believe, but it had a 20th-century storefront attached to it at some point, which was mercifully taken off in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I believe. A typical main street story–you’ve always got to look behind those storefronts!

      • Alan Lord

        Thanks, so much, for your posts. I remember urban renewal in Salem very well. I was sad when they torn down the Paramount theater. Can you just imagine what a useful attraction it would be today?

        I have been looking for a good photo of one of the wooden popcorn wagons that used to be in Salem. Does anyone know where I can come by one? Thanks

      • daseger

        Let me see, not off the top of my head, no–unless Jerome Curley’s and Nelson Dionne’s books have one…let me check around.

  • Alan Lord

    Oh, I would be so grateful if you could help me find one. I could have bought one of the last ones back in 1981 for $4,000.00 & passed it up. I’m still kicking myself for letting that go.

  • Savanah Lee Alexis Gauthier

    Hello, I was curious if you knew any history to of what are used to stand where the parking garage on Essex Street is. My boyfriend owns the Village Tavern with his family and I’m history geek for Salem.

    • daseger

      Hello Savanah, That site is pretty large so several things actually, including a succession of taverns, and from about 1800 until is was torn down in the 1970s, the “Captain Billy Gray House”, later known as the Essex House, a pretty famous hotel.

  • James

    The bit about Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery.. For your information, we absolutely will have a dedicated gift shop in the front of this building (which has been vacant for 3 years) when we do finally open this Spring! We will be starting out with an expanded selection of items we currently sell and will branch out as the season continues. We’ll have all the things one might want in the gift shop of this niche museum and we’re proud to say the merchandise is exclusive to our location. We’re very excited to bring a little urban renewal to this vacant and historic building on Essex Street and we’re sure that many of our faithful patrons will follow us there!

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