What would Ada think?

In honor of tomorrow’s symposium, Mightier than a Wrecking Ball: How Ada Louise Huxtable Saved Salem, jointly sponsored by Historic Salem, Inc., the Peabody Essex Museum, and Historic New England, I thought I would ask and consider what Ms. Huxtable (1921-2013) might have thought about the emerging streetscape of Salem in 2015, fifty years after her influential New York Times article “saved” Salem from the destruction of 100+ historic buildings and a four-lane highway running down its center in the guise of “urban renewal” in the fall of 1965. I think she would have abhorred the big glass-and-faux-brick boxes looming on our horizon both literally (now) and digitally (proposals for the future), but I don’t really know. She was certainly not an exclusive preservationist: such a stance would have been impossible in her capacity as the architectural critic for the Times. She seems to have detested “Williamsburging” nearly as much as the emergence of “slab cities” and heralded preservation as a bulwark against thoughtless development with little historical or architectural integrity. In an effort to answer my own question, I browsed through many of her articles in the archives of the Times: this took some time, primarily because she is such an amazing writer. I wanted to restrict myself to skimming, but her sharp observations and critiques (Albert Speer would love the Kennedy Center) kept me reading. Certain words and phrases kept popping up as architectural attributes: art, identity, variety, and the integration of new construction and preservation, and others as outcomes to be avoided at all costs. In this category, I would place the phrase sterilized non-place, which appears in her 1974 follow-up article “How Salem Saved Itself from Urban Renewal”.

Ada 1974 NYT

That phrase just says it all for me: sterilized non-place. And it makes me think that Ada Louise Huxtable, who summered right next door in Marblehead and would have taken a personal interest in all these new buildings going up in Salem, would not have viewed or reviewed them favorably. Lined up all together, as they are below, you can see an apparent generic uniformity on the one hand and a thoughtless, careless nod to Salem’s historic structures on another—just slap on some brick! So since we can never really know Ms. Huxtable’s opinion on these buildings, perhaps it is better to ask is Salem becoming a sterilized non-place?

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Washington at Derby RCG

Big Box Hotel

Big Box District Courthouse

Two existing developments (the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center-and RCG Corporation’s Washington at Derby building) and two proposals (the winning design to replace the existing District Courthouse and RCG’s proposed Mill Hill development further down Washington Street).


11 responses to “What would Ada think?

  • Sean

    I have an actual physical copy of the urban renewal plan from the 1960’s. Scary what they were planning, which would have made downtown Salem like Boston’s City Hall Plaza, a wasteland. Even what they did demolish (Ash St., Church St., St. Peter’s, etc.) has had a lasting negative impact. They word blight was thrown around like confetti at a party. Everything over 50 years old qualified, in their eyes, for removal.

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  • Barber

    personally… atleast the new development plan for the courthouse is better than what is there now..rather a new replaceable building be built than that atrocity..yes they could work with more of the surrounding buildings like next door..
    but I rather see that than an empty lot

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    • daseger

      For some reason that 1970s courthouse has never bothered me, but you’re right, there is not much love for it in Salem! I tried to find what Ada’s opinion on it, but could not. She does not seem to mind One Salem Green or even the parking garage…..

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  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I really don’t know what “they” were thinking with the whole urban renewal effort of the 1960s and ’70s. I’ve lived in or visited cities across the Eastern US, in particular, where urban renewal took place and what happened is that in so many places the historical centers were gutted.

    It’s ironic that today it’s often the remnants of those centers that didn’t get bulldozed in renewal efforts that are used to attract tourists to visit. And don’t get me started on the buildings that were put up in place of the older ones pulled down.

    I understand that not every old building can be saved, but if you want to hollow out the spirit of a city, put up generic structures full of glass and steel and watch how quickly your town loses its uniqueness.

    I certainly hope Salem comes to its senses and recognizes the aesthetic dangers inherent in “big glass-and-faux-brick boxes .” You can’t recreate tradition and history. As you’re aware probably better than anyone, when it’s gone, it’s gone.

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  • AV Crowbar

    May I add the non functional. generic monstrosity that is the Ruane Courthouse to your collection? At least the church was preserved, but the rest of this building is just a big glass and brick disaster. Sitting this modern, absurdly wasteful piece of junk next to the classical court houses on Federal street jars my sensibilities daily. It is as if they took a court house from some other planet and just plopped it down without regard to the character of the city, the use of the building and the historic context.

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  • Stephen Costa

    It’s hard to read into the mind of someone who’s no longer here… she and all the others who played a role in averting Salem from the urban renewal disaster deserve incredible praise. Ada’s former Marblehead summer home is a couple doors down from me. As we just built new here (we had to – the 1968 home that had been on the property was condemable), I always wondered what her view of our house project would be — would she have offered us any constructive input, would we have gained her support at ZBA (or not?)!

    Based on the neighborhood setting here, I’d wager she wasn’t completely against mid-century and modern 20th century architecture. Her house was (is) a post-war ranch, surrounded by other post-war split ranches and a few contemporary modular homes from the 70s. I had actually been surprised to learn that an esteemed architectural critic lived at her address. The neighborhood has great views of Salem Harbor (and perhaps that was the main draw), but it certainly doesn’t exemplify fine residential craftsmanship. My former street in South Salem (Holly) ran circles around my new neighborhood in that regard.

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    • daseger

      Thanks for commenting, Stephen–I too think that Ada embraced the modern, as well as architecture that simply works–or works simply–but I don’t think she liked buildings which are pastiches. But of course we can never really know.

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