Remember the Armory

The opposition to the Peabody Essex Museum’s removal of Salem’s historical archives to an industrial park in Rowley incorporates a range of perspectives: some people have never been in the Phillips Library but nevertheless have been waiting for its return; others have very concrete memories of childhood forays or later visits to research some specific aspect of their Salem past: their house, their neighborhood, their family. Everyone had great expectations: as the Museum leadership closed the Library in 2011 with promises to return in two years, only to disclose the Rowley move six years later, under duress. Expectations are a powerful motivating force, but so too is distrust: and for those of longer Salem residence the latter is clearly apparent. For them, the PEM’s latest move (literally and figuratively) falls into an established pattern of behavior that has broken trust with the Salem community. And the event that looms largest in this pattern is the demolition of the storied Salem Armory in 2000, under the auspices of the Peabody Essex Museum, which had previously signed a memorandum of agreement to preserve and incorporate the Armory’s headhouse into its expansion plans. Only the Armory entry arch remains on Essex Street, right next door to what used to be the Phillips Library, a constant reminder of what was and what was not preserved.

Armory 2

Salem Armory LOC

Armory Arch

The Salem Armory in 1992, ten years after a ravaging fire, and the year of the Memorandum of Agreement by which the “Museum Collaborative” promised to preserve its headhouse. This was also the same year that the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem were merged to form the Peabody Essex Museum, which was still bound by that agreement. Library of Congress.

The Armory story–of its rise, role, and fall–has been written about many times, and well: the preservation report and narrative for the MOA is here, some colorful context is here, and the story in parts, right up to arrival of the wrecking ball, is here. But one of the most poignant accounts of the Armory (or of any building’s destruction, frankly) that I have ever read is a Letter to the Editor (of the Salem Evening News) written by Salem architect Staley McDermet in 2002, two years after its demolition. Mr. McDermet asks for an apology that I don’t think he–or we–every received, and goes on to document everything that happened. Indeed, the letter is historical in terms of both intent and subject, but it is also a very timely document, in light of the PEM’s recent actions and their explanations for actions in the past, so timely that I thought it should be “published” again.

Armory text 1

Armory text2

Armory text 3

Armory text 4


15 responses to “Remember the Armory

  • Robin M

    Wow. Powerful words. Now it’s 16 years later, and I still can’t “accept losing our unique history and maritime museums.” Yet nothing has changed at PEM. Who’s listening? And will we be able to stop this total disregard and destruction of Salem’s history?

  • Carolyn Holbrook

    Hello I have enjoyed reading all your info about the Phillips Library. I was one who used it to research my Salem and North Shore families. I was waiting for it to reopen when and I was told that they had a grant from the Pingrees to digitally copy all of the material in the library. Did that every happen? If they had a grant I wonder if it specifically stated the purpose. If the PEM violated the grant I wonder if the Massachusetts Attorney General could get involved. I don’t know if this has come up in conversations. Thank you for all you have done to keep us informed. Carolyn Holbrook


    • daseger

      Hello Carolyn: thanks for your interest and engagement in this matter, as well as your kind comments! To date, and to my knowledge, only the catalog & finding aids to the materials in the library have been digitized, along with a few actual items. In partnership with the Congregational Library and the British publisher Adam Matthew, a few other notable collections have been digitized, but the latter are behind a pay wall and not available to everyone. The new Library Director, whose position is endowed by the Pingrees, has stated his commitment to digitization so we’re hoping more materials become more accessible.

  • Nancy Lutts

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    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad

  • Isabella Jancourtz

    Isn’t it high time for these PEM miscreants to be held accountable for their falsehoods and their breach of contract in state court? If the City of Salem refuses to take action, the aggrieved citizens of Salem could file suit.

  • Bonnie Henry

    While I am only a 30+ year resident of Salem, I loved that wonderful building and what it represented. I was heart-broken and angry when the PEM demolished and i remember fighting furiously to at least preserve something. So the arch remains… It doesn’t have to be this way.

  • Bonnie Henry

    Perhaps we need look elsewhere for the disregard of Salem’s full history – the mayor and the city council have the access and authority to curb the PEM’s most agregious. Why aren’t they paying closer attention?

    • daseger

      Well the city council passed a resolution & the Mayor established her working group. That’s all I know.

    • dcp16

      The mayor never said a word (so unlike her) until days after her inauguration at the PEM on Jan 1. That didn’t, and doesn’t, bode well. Council passed what they passed, but the only one who really came out for the PL initially was Josh Turiel.

      The city has, for all intents and purposes, taken a “hands off” approach. The mayor heads up a working group which, IIRC, was announced at the PEM forum on 1/11. However, the below was sent to me on 1/5 – so the group was in the works well before the 11th.
      …the PEM has committed to allowing the concept of a working group to form, which they will host, and will deal with the issues of the Phillips Library Collection, the Reading Room, and other topics of interest to Salem residents. A recommended list of participants will have to be agreed to going forward.
      I hate to say it, but I think that group and all interaction with the PEM to date has been lip service – although! They did back off on closing Plummer Hall to the public. It wouldn’t be surprising, however, if the final outcome is, tough spit, Salem. The PL will remain in Rowley. We will toss you a bone by making grandiose promises to digitize, which we will, of course, back-burner, and upon which we will drag our feet, and again hope that memory fades.

      Memory hasn’t. Memory won’t.

      The city will also crow about what a victory this is, and/or make excuses about the good of the collection.

      Please don’t take this as a criticism of those who are really digging in their heels and fighting to get the PL back. They are great and determined people; but given the politically incestuous nature of relationships of those in power in this city, I’m not holding out a whole lot of hope.

      • daseger

        Well, I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said at this point, yet still must keep pressing! And documenting.

      • dcp16

        We all must keep on keepin’ on! Kudos to those of you at the forefront of the battle, who know past history, and are documenting current events. Onward!

  • az1407t

    I have lamented the loss of Armory since its demolition. It was one of my favorite buildings downtown and added so much character. I always thought it was demolished due to lack of city officials to get their act together after the fire and stabilizing the building for restoration. I never knew PEM’s role in the demolition of this fine building until now. Thank you for publishing this letter. Mr. McDermet eloquently stated a number of my feelings on this issue. I hope this article of yours gets posted on the Salem Facebook pages, so that many more will be made aware of the history.

  • M.P.

    You say:..established pattern of behavior that has broken trust with the Salem community.
    I say from an early posting: it alienates the youth and older people alike…

    I am sad to see such a proud structure CLOSED. Not even a hint of who was the architect or whatever happened in there.

  • D

    i have lived in Salem all my life and spent many days growing up iat the Peabody Museum when it was the Old and perfect Museum, filled with all sorts of objects from the around the world. I also worked there for an internship, and later worked at the Essex Institute. What the PEM did under their new leadership is unthinkable and did Salem a disservice by taking funds and promising to restore the headhouse, only to have them renig on the deal years later when nothing could be done to preserve the building. That and the lies about the Phillips Library staying in Salem. The PEM and the we will take the museum to Boston or elsewhere in you don’t give us what we want ( concerning the first of many expansions) didn’t set well with me either. The move away from a history and ethnographic museum to an art museum is only because the leadership knows that Art Museums bring in far more grants and donations than History Museums

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