Developer-driven Design

Salem has been experiencing a building boom for the past several years and 2017 promises to intensify that trend with major projects rising on several ends of Washington Street, a new 40,000 square-foot wing on Essex Street for the Peabody Essex Museum, a new building on Lafayette Street adjacent to Salem State University, the completion of the Footprint power plant on Fort Avenue, and various other public and private developments around town. Given recent completion of the new courthouse addition and MBTA parking garage along Bridge Street, I think this is going to be the year that the “new” Salem almost overtakes the old when it comes to the downtown streetscape, and this makes me sad, because the new buildings do not live up to the standards of design and construction upheld by the old. This is a subjective opinion, of course, but I believe that it is shared by many people in Salem. None of us knows what to do about it, however: we are all, it seems, at the mercy of developer-driven design.




The first and second (current) designs for the District courthouse site on Washington Street; the second is heralded as more “contextual” ; the former Essex County District Court building, which currently occupies the site, is slated for demolition soon.

I don’t mean to demonize developers: I’m sure they’re all lovely people (at least the ones I know are), but they are generally driven by economic factors rather than aesthetic ones unless they are steered towards the latter by some approving authority. Is this happening in Salem? I just don’t know. From my perspective it looks like the boards are tinkering with the generic designs submitted to them, making improvements where they can but never altering the basic bland box in any substantive way. We end up with a building that simply fills a space rather than enhancing a specific place: Salem. I’m dreading the construction of the condominium building on upper Washington Street (above) so much that I have become increasingly attached to the 1970s modernist building that presently occupies that space: at least it has a distinct design. As bad as the proposed new structure for this site is, it cannot compare to the building planned for further along Washington Street to the south: the Mill Hill/East Riley Plaza development, which will include a Hampton Inn. A great project but a dreadful design: I’ve yet to find a single fan: just “it’s better than what is there now” (which is just an empty space at present, so I’m not sure about that).


The RCG LLC Mill Hill East Riley Plaza Development–I think this is the final plan, unfortunately.

I  do not discern a great deal of excitement about the Peabody Essex Museum’s new wing either: I’ve no doubt the design details and construction materials will be superior to the projects above but on paper it looks like a cube with little or no relation to the prominent building next to it: the stately East India Marine Building (1825). I’m going to reserve judgement for now, as this building has had a series of incongruous structures adjacent to it in its long history and sometimes the contrast between old and new can be striking, but I already miss the Japanese Garden, which is now a jobsite. I can’t help but think of the words of the architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who was so instrumental in saving Salem’s downtown from complete destruction during the wave of urban renewal in the early 1970s. Much later, in a retrospective interview about her career in the Boston Globe, Huxtable opined that she had had a major impact on Salem, where they were going to eliminate the beautiful Japanese garden next to the museum, and now that garden is gone.





Renderings of the new PEM wing, © Ennead Architects; the jobsite last month and the East India Marine Hall in the 1890s by Frank Cousins.

The other day I was walking downtown along Federal Street and came upon another recent project: the massive curtain-walled and faux-columned J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center. My immediate thought, as always, was why it so big? But then I noticed, and again, not for the first time, the contrast provided by the juxtaposition of the former First Baptist Church, now a law library. I remember the citizen effort behind that building’s situation, just so, following the lines of the street and enhancing the adjacent (hulking) buildings’ placement here in Salem. Maybe all these new buildings will benefit from a similar effort, with positive results. And maybe not. But just imagine what it would look like if that old building was not there.


17 responses to “Developer-driven Design

  • lynnclnf

    Very interesting!

  • Piper B.

    I clicked over to Salem Savior..I wonder where I could find public records of Ms. Huxtable’s arguments in defense of preservation. I too live in a historic town and changes are creeping in. The old guard is dying off. There aren’t many of us who care to save until it the damage is done. Then they question how did this happen. I love your blog..I may not often comment, but please keep writing. Thank you.

    • daseger

      Hi Piper, It’s just the New York Times—I am subscriber so I have access to their archives, which are invaluable. I’ve cited them all here so you should be able to find all of her major Salem articles. She was not a strict preservationist, so I also encourage you to look at the National Trust’s website and publications for encouragement, and I also find the City of Charleston’s Civic Design center to be inspirational. Good luck!

  • ladykatey

    THE FOUNTAIN! Are they planning on taking out the John Collins gate fountain?

  • gardenkeeping

    Too bad! This kind of change is difficult. It’s sad to hear about the Japanese garden being taken out. Was any of it save?

  • Down East Dilettante

    Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear. So much to discuss here that I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll focus on the Peabody Essex building. No ambivalence here. While its architectural merits are debatable—per se it isn’t a horrible building, although it is boringly predictable. But it is bad urbanism. It shouts for attention when it should be deferring to East India hall. It ignores the materials and scale of its neighbors. Sometimes, an architect’s talent shows more flatteringly when he deals with what’s around him and tips his hat in deference.. Shame on the board for okaying this aggressive triviality, dated before its even begun. Less starchitecture, more tact. The board should have gone on field trips to look at differnet solutions to their particular problem. (The Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, for example, which has grown to occupy an entire city block in the old fishing port, and whose campus is almost an object lesson in designing with understated tact for where it is. Poor Salem.

  • Bonnie Henry

    Yes, very sad. Saps the joy.Why isn’t it a requirement that the design fit with Salem’s heritage? Yup…All big boxes.

  • Christine M

    What are your thoughts on how review boards can exert more proactive influence during the design phase, and not just react to the designs that are presented?

    • daseger

      I think that the review boards’ hands are tied if the city does not have a master plan or stated policy that addresses and stipulates aesthetic as well as practical criteria.

  • az1407t

    Great article, Donna. It saddens me to see these big box buildings going up in my hometown. They are sterile in design, out-of-scale, and not in harmony with their surroundings. I think a great architect takes these in consideration. Are these buildings designed by architects from the former Soviet Union? They scream “ugly”. I can’t imagine a future generation fighting to preserve these buildings. The Peabody-Essex Museum addition is uglier than the addition on the other side, and the new hotel near Riley Plaza adds nothing to the character of Salem. If we have to have larger buildings, can’t some elegance in design be factored in? Then there are the courthouse additions… They did a beautiful restoration of the former church, which is now the law library, but it is overwhelmed by the new additions. I didn’t mean to rant…

  • gallowshillsite

    Could not disagree more. To push away all modern architecture reflexively, as done in this and earlier posts, harkens to past criticisms of other
    architectural epochs. One can imagine a contemporary critic of Federal style: “Egad mate, another ‘basic bland box’: again three floors, five window bays, central entryway. Why can we not get more varied design?” That critique is imaginary, but we do know that 19th century contemporaries excoriated both Victorian and brownstone rowhouse architecture, and both styles are eminently pleasing today, especially for their “basic bland boxiness”. Here, for instance, is the wikipedia description of South End architecture: “aesthetically uniform rows of five-story, predominantly red-brick structures.”

    The contemporary architecture epitomized in the District Courthouse and Riley Plaza proposals is eminently pleasing. It’s of a piece with thousands of other recent buildings throughout Greater Boston, all of which you seemingly dismiss. Contemporary developers, like developers of earlier architectural eras of note, are naturally driven by economic factors but more so by the current zeitgeist. There’s something to be said for the zeitgeist of contemporary buildings, their steel-gray, egg cream and red-brick facade colors, their mix of turrets and numerous bay windows, their uneven ‘broken’ facades, their curtain-walled windows. Serene, comforting, soothing. Same as Salem’s vaunted Federal architecture – serene, comforting, soothing. Especially in contrast to the Brutalist and modernist architecture that preceded contemporary architecture, which went out of the way to be displeasing, despairing, distressing.

    Perhaps the lack of acceptance for this style comes from not having a catchy name. “Post-modernism”, the label usually applied, is just too drab. “Early 21st-century style” doesn’t cut it either. Awaiting a label more resonant, more accepting.

    The criticism may come from the scale of the proposals. Salem has a long-standing “urban fabric”, which you have hinted at in several posts. Urban fabric needs density and concentration, not small-scale. So many people, your blog included, cry out for urban amenities but object to the scale needed to gain and maintain that urban fabric. Don’t be contradictory.

    And as to the PEM addition, don’t like it either, as it contradicts all tenets of post-modernism. No idea what the hell happened there.

  • L.M. Valdez

    Very interesting article, please check what modern architecture is in my home, México

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