One of the latest looming commercial developments in Salem is a proposal for a new showroom facility by the F.W. Webb Company, a large distributor of plumbing and HVAC parts, on an abandoned lot adjacent to its large brick building on Bridge Street. The lot was long occupied by the Universal Steel and Trading Company, which stored and processed scrap metal on the site, creating a contaminated cauldron from which they simply walked away, leaving the City to clean up the mess. Once the site was cleaned up–a process that took several years–the City put the parcel up for sale, and F.W. Webb was the only bidder. The public process by which the City divests itself of the site and the Webb proposal is reviewed by various city boards commenced last week, and consequently both the big picture and the little details are starting to emerge. Regarding the former, the jury’s still out for me–of course the proposed new building appears blandly “modern” and appears to have no connection to the existing Webb building–but this section of Bridge Street is not distinguished by structures of great architectural integrity. Where the terraced gardens of Federal Street houses once sloped down to the North River used car lots have more recently and characteristically occupied a filled-in Bridge Street, so you can argue that anything is an improvement. There are two “details” that do concern me at this point in the process, however: 1) the not-so-veiled threat inherent in the F.W. Webb proposal documents: this new building will allow us to remain in Salem and; 2) the loss of venerable public “way”called Beckford Way. This public path once accessed the riverfront but is now a trail to nowhere; nevertheless, it is still public property and will cease to be if the Webb proposal is approved.
NOW: The current Webb building on Bridge Street and the adjacent lot, now cleaned and paved, on which the company wants to build a new showroom building; rendering of the proposed new building and Beckford Way alongside the lot. A current map of Salem, with no Beckford Way.
I looked into the history of Salem’s public ways a bit, primarily by examining maps of the city in 1820, 1851, 1903 and 1916 in the Norman B. Leventhal collection at the Boston Public Library. It was an interesting exercise, through which you could clearly see the disappearance and/or transformation of myriad ways, courts, and even streets by projects that were both public and private. The nineteenth century privileged the train while the twentieth century was all about the car; the pedestrian lacked advocacy in both centuries. Sewall Street, once lined with houses, became a parking lot for the YMCA and adjacent developments; Liberty Street was absorbed by the Peabody Essex Museum just a decade ago. Now all of Salem’s “ways” exist only in condominium developments built out on Highland Avenue: they’re not even really part of the city.
THEN: Jonathan Saunders map of Salem, 1820, clearly indicating Beckford Street’s access to the North River, Boston Public Library Leventhal Map Center; a map of the terraced gardens of Federal Street (a bit further west from the Webb property) before the River was filled in for the railroad and Bridge Street extension, HABS, Library of Congress.