Losing our Way?

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.

Path 009

Webb Building

Path 001

Beckford Way

Bridge Street 2016 MA Boating and Fishing Access

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.

Salem 1820 BPL

Bridge Street Before LC HABS

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.

20 responses to “Losing our Way?

  • Pamela Hartford

    I think it would be useful to understand what the impact of the building will be from the prospect of Federal Court – as one exits the Ropes Garden, and walks along Federal Court to Federal Street, the back of the Webb building is clearly visible (as well as the Webb company name writ large). Since this is a viewshed in a historic district, one would think there might be some consideration for this eventual visual impact?

    The view of gardens along North river is one of my all time favorites – each one has the de riguer fruit trees and summer/tea house!


    • daseger

      Good point, Pamela–and yes, I absolutely love that picture too. I had to include it even though it’s not precisely relevant.

      • Donna Thorland

        I used to have a giant laminated version of that photo that we used on the PEM’s (I suspect defunct) McIntire walking tour. It always stunned visitors. And there was a painting as well (fireboard maybe?) that showed the Pierce Nichols garden and dock. I wish I still had them!

  • Brian Bixby

    What looks like the right of way for Beckford Way is still visible on the property lines drawn on Google maps, if you get in close enough. It extends due north from the corner up to Bridge Street.

    Curiously, two of the longer secondary roads in my home town are designated not as “Street” or “Road” but as “Row.” The presumption is that they began as rights-of-way, but I’ve seen nothing definite.

    • daseger

      Thanks, Brian–I see it; I didn’t zoom in close enough before! Row–very interesting–Groton, right? I don’t think we had any rows in Salem. I did find a long-gone street called “North Pole”–going to look into that at some point.

  • Michelle

    There’s actually another public way along Sztela Lane/Settlers Way that I use all the time walking/running. A neighbor told me about it. I wondered when I started reading your post whether there was any index of public ways; it is indeed a pity to lose them, especially in a city that does encourage pedestrianism.

    That proposed building, by the way, looks like nothing so much as a suburban Whole Foods Market.

  • Michelle

    Oh, and I believe there is another on the residential part of Winter Island.

  • Sean

    There is another of these public ways from Ord St. Court to Boston St.,

  • ninacohenenski

    And a walkway from Federal St to Fowler St enabled students at Federal St. School, and before that, St James School, to get home for lunch.

    Also the City paved two new public ways on either side of the North St overpass to allow North Salem residents to access the new MBTA station. Parts of these walkways are on private property, but they were seen as a “desire line” — wonderful phrase for the route people take, like it or not.

    Thanks for writing about the Beckford St way. Since the Rte 114 cloverleaf cut off pedestrian access to Bridge St from the historic district, I use it to go to the park. Heather Famico promised me the City would not close this off, but it’s not clear whether that will survive the negotiations now under way.

    Why isn’t anyone asking FW Webb to reveal their plans for the wonderful but nonconforming warehouse building they own? Are they planning to demo it or develop it? And if the latter, what is the plan? Shouldn’t we know this before giving approval to the new commercial complex?
    A lot of tax money went into capping the contaminated site and into site work and paving for the parking lot that’s there now.

  • Sean

    Map here.


    Marblehead is full of these things. Apparently, people hate them, because of privacy concerns. They seem to be more common by waterfront areas and between blocks with steep elevation changes. An article is in here somewhere…


  • Stephen Delaney

    There is a broader issue at work here…the demise of the area as an industrial center to something else…the product of which is yet to be determined. Evolution of neighborhoods, whether industrial or residential, is part of the life cycle. How we manage/guide that process will assist in determining the outcome.

    From a personal perspective, the proposed Webb building is about as ugly as it gets…comparable to the large boat shed on the other side of the Salem/Beverly bridge near the old McDonalds. One only needs to look at that site as an example of lack of vision. Webb may leave? So what? I suspect that the brick building would be highly desirable as loft/artist residence, regardless of the high traffic area. The issue of Bridge Street as a major traffic artery should be the focus, along with the need to maintain the railroad right of way, which incidentally has seen recent structural improvement and increased freight traffic to Peabody. People may not recall that Bridge Street was, 30 years ago, slated to be part of the Peabody/Salem connector to Route 128. Given that we are still choking on traffic, which in the long term will make the city less desirable, one would think that this issue would be front and center. Ah, but it only took 40 years to get the train station built! (I cannot say that the design is great, but at least it got done.)

    Steve Delaney

    • daseger

      Yes, you’re right Steve–lots of issues, so I really only focused on one! But thanks for raising them–I agree with you about the current Webb Street building–I think it’s beautiful and would be very enticing residential space. I really don’t like the not-so-veiled threats that I read in nearly every commercial proposal for Salem: if you don’t let us do what we want to do we will be FORCED to leave. I agree with you: so what?

  • George O'Brine

    Lost our way along time ago…………………….I remember rotting wharves on the other side of the canal. in the 1970’s and possibly now the canal was classified as a navigable river-making the overpass an obstruction to navigation that should not have been built.

    • daseger

      Thanks for your historical perspective, George. I had no idea the canal was so classified so late.

      • Stephen Delaney

        Here is another bit of trivia…see the plaque on the stone in front of the monument place by the North River. Had the old bridge remained, or some sense of it, it would have been a more famous location that the Concord Bridge…the North River location was the first site of armed resistance in the face of the British, not Concord. Note Col. Leslie’s name on the plaque…ah, see the name of the restaurant: “Leslie’s Retreat?” It all ties together. No extra charge for this tidbit 🙂

      • daseger

        Posted about Leslie’s Retreat several times and remain puzzled why it is not more celebrated in Salem!

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