Read this paragraph: ___________ is changing rapidly. Some of the changes have been good: the burgeoning art scene, the museum-building boom, the explosion in restaurants and the whole Napa-of-craft-beer thing, not to mention legalized marijuana. But there have also been some bad changes: the terrible traffic, the litter and pet waste everywhere, the sky-high rents and the swelling ranks of the homeless, not to mention legalized marijuana. It could be describing Salem at the moment! But it’s not: fill Denver in that blank space, a city that is dealing with far more growing pains than Salem, given its much bigger size. Denver’s building boom has given rise to a very boisterous public discussion about the merits and demerits of all the new structures appearing on its horizon, and this particular quote is from an article by art historian and writer Michael Paglia titled “Denver is Drowning in a Sea of Awful Architecture”. This just one of a sea of articles and posts expressing disdain for Denver’s “fugly” architecture: also see here, here, and here; there are also a good measure of constructive articles seeking a more aesthetic way forward for the Mile High City. Why am I writing about Denver? Well, when I did a Google image search of a planned housing development on Salem’s North River hoping for some sort of architectural context, the closest match I could find was one of Denver’s identified ugliest buildings. Here we are: one of five buildings consisting of 48 condominiums with underground parking proposed by the Salem development firm Juniper Point Investment Co. LLC for 16-18 Franklin Street right on the North River, a very visible “gateway” property.
To be honest, I am unsure of the status of this proposed design: it was submitted to the Salem Planning Board at its last meeting on February 15 (after many continuances apparently) and those minutes are not yet available. And to be fair, the site of this proposed development is a junkyard: the long-lived Ferris Junkyard. So anything could be better, right? Well, NO. Too often in Salem I hear: it’s better than what was there before as a rationale for begrudging approval. This large waterfront property, which is adjacent to a park and another prominent property slated for redevelopment, deserves serious consideration of design and context. This is an amazing historic opportunity, as this site has been industrial-zoned for well over a century, but sits on the edge of a beautiful residential neighborhood and right across from Salem’s downtown.
The site, and the North River coastline near the bridge, 1851, 1890s and 1912, when the first City Plans Commission report asserted that the river “needed to be redeemed”.
Given the long industrial usage of the property, it might be hard to find context, but can’t there be some feature—architectural or material—to indicate that these buildings will be located in Salem, Massachusetts and not Florida or California or anywhere else where flat roofs rule? Tanneries, coal sheds and the famous Locke Regulator Company (above): any inspiration there? Slightly to the north, North Salem was a botanical paradise—can’t this land be reclaimed as such? We need pear trees in honor of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle Robert Manning, a famous pomologist whose orchard was in the midst of Northfields, and whose residence remains on Dearborn Street. Perhaps some inspiration can be found in the work of Salem-born and -raised architect Philip Horton Smith (1890-1960), who really distinguished himself as a preservation architect in his Salem commissions but also designed a lot of new buildings, including the Hawthorne Hotel, the Salem Post Office, and the neighborhood of brick duplexes further along Franklin Street for the Salem Rebuilding Trust after the Great Fire of 1914. Smith was a true Colonial Revival architect, and I’m certainly not advocating for brick veneers on every new building in Salem, but just a bit more attention to place, as shaped by both the past and the present. I am certain that the neighbors have been waiting for something special to be situated in this particular place for quite some time; indeed we all have.
Philip Horton Smith’s Franklin Street “low rent brick cottages”, 1915.