Generally the “High Street” of a city or town is a main street but this is not the case with Salem’s High Street which was named, I think, because it was literally a relatively high street which looked down towards Salem Harbor. It’s a short cut-through street today, and offers an instructive perspective on Salem’s architectural developments as seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth-century structures line its sidewalks. There are several really nice Georgian houses, a few Federal houses, and the first-period Gedney House, which is maintained by Historic New England as a study house. High Street was spared the obliteration by development of its neighboring street to the north, Gedney, and the obliteration by fire of its parallel street to the south, Endicott, though you can definitely see that the Great Salem Fire of 1914 cut a swath through its eastern end. Most of the street is remarkably preserved, even though in some cases it is through the fortification of asbestos siding. Unfortunately I only have a shallow understanding of the social history of High Street, but enough to know that it was the center of Salem’s African-American community in the earlier part of the nineteenth century and part of its Italian-American neighborhood a century later. That chatty diarist of the earlier era, the Reverend William Bentley, recalled an 1816 visit to “the square laying between Mill Street, High St., the Pickering Hill burying ground & the Mill Pond vulg[arly] called Roast Meat Hill. It was a mere pasture when I came to Salem. There is now a Twine factory & about 100 huts and houses for Blacks from the most decent to the most humble appearance.” (Bentley, vol 4, pp. 382-383). Less than a century later Salem’s Italian-American community built their own Catholic Church at the foot of High Street, St. Mary’s, which was closed by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003 (you can see some of its beautiful interior here).
Looking “up” High Street, the neighborhood in the 1874 Salem Atlas, #10, one of three Georgian Colonial houses on the street.
There are several interesting houses on High Street but I suppose the most “notable” are the aforementioned Gedney House (1665), the neighboring Benjamin Cox House (1775), and the William Fabens House (1804). If you check out the Gedney materials at the Historic New England website (which includes the 1912 photograph of the house below) you can see a gallery of wallpaper samples taken from the house, including a fragment of my favorite “tumbling blocks”. The Cox House was acquired at the same time (1967) as the Gedney by Historic New England (then SPNEA) for use as an overseer’s house and extended to the rear for that purpose. The Fabens house is one of the most unusual in Salem: it has brick sides, each with its own entrance, and a stuccoed front facade—I’m assuming the latter is a legacy of the Great Salem Fire, which passed so close to the street.Not so renown, but impressive nonetheless, is the circa 1820 house at #16, which has been stripped of its Victorian embellishments to reveal a more streamlined Federal facade.
Historic New England’s Gedney and Cox Houses; one of the side entrances of the William Fabens House; No. 16 High Street in the 1970s and today.