Blank Buildings

Periods and events of the past are generally identified after they are over: history is about remembrance, and imposing order and meaning on what has happened. There’s no better way to convey this essential point than to reference wars: obviously people in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Seven Years’ War had no sense that these were the historic events in which they were participating or enduring! Often historical and cultural eras overlap, and that means that styles are identified well after their expression: medieval, colonial, Victorian. But there are also cultural descriptions detached from precise historical periods: Gothic and Palladian come to mind but I suppose any “revival” style could fall into this category. This long preamble is just my mind wondering how people of the future will categorize Salem’s current architectural style: in a city long identified by its architecture, how will the buildings of the early 21st century be branded? I think we are turning a corner with the latest downtown building slated for construction—a condominium development on the site of the District Courthouse on Washington Street–but I’m not sure where this turn will take us.

Blank Architecture 1 Coming Soon on Washington Street via Building Salem.

The style–or perhaps I should say form–of this rendering is familiar: similar buildings have been built in the last decade on Federal and Lafayette Streets. But what is it? I am architecturally naive, but it looks like a Prairie-esque type design on steroids, shorn of craftsmanship and charm. I’ve often heard Frank Lloyd Wright characterized as the most influential architect of the last century, both for better and for worse. All I see when I look at these buildings are the shallow or flat roofs with their overhanging eaves, sometimes slanted and sometimes straight, and their bulk. They look vaguely Italianate, vaguely “Mediterranean”, vaguely Prairie, and like they could belong anywhere and everywhere, and as more of them are built in Salem, Salem becomes less and less Salem-esque.

Blank Architecture 2

Blank Architecture 3

Blank Architecture 6

Blank Architecture 5Ten Federal and 135 Lafayette; I think this “style” started with the Ruane Judicial Center nearly a decade ago, on the far right: it is very bulky with a conspicuous overhang. The panorama of courthouses on Federal Street makes quite a statement!

My title is a double entendre: I really don’t know what this architectural style is called or what architectural era we are in so I am inviting readers to fill in the blank______, but I also think that this architecture is blank: empty, soulless, devoid of any connection to its surroundings. We could do so much better; inspiration is all around us. A building in Lynn caught my eye just as I was driving back from the airport this morning: it features some of the very details that characterize these stark buildings in Salem but is clearly a composition rather than just a composite. It has texture, ornamentation, depth, craftsmanship: its builders were obviously proud to cast their mark on it, and mark its time, as it was built to last.

Blank Architecture 7

Blank Architecture 8The Loraine Apartment Building in Lynn’s Diamond District, designed by architect Samuel Rogers.

15 responses to “Blank Buildings

  • az1407t

    With all the charm and character of the various period buildings that Salem is so fortunate to have, I don’t understand why the big box buildings you show are so sterile in design/appearance. They could be in Anywhere, U.S.A. They also overwhelm their surroundings. Why allow a six story monstrosity to replace the former courthouse on Washington St. when the buildings around it are all 2-3 stories? I can’t imagine future generations clamoring to preserve these buildings.

    • daseger

      I know; I hadn’t realized that that Washington Street building was going to be quite so tall–it was quite a surprise when the rendering was published the other day!

      • Nelson Dionne

        The new building goes well with our little bit of Granada Heights , built on the edge of Riley Plaza 30 years ago. That is the Malden MA project that you see when you drive towards Bosston on Route 1, in Saugus..
        IT WAS Considered UGLY THEN, & STILL UGLY NOW?

        That said, I hope that the new hotel is a success.. .Salem needs jobs that locals can walk to.

      • daseger

        This is a condominium building, not the Riley Plaza hotel development

  • Nelson Dionne

    This latest addition to the Salem business community is actually quite an
    improvement from the previous tenants. At one time, a building supply firm manufactured drain pipe. The bulk of the area was taken for the
    extension of Washington Street circa 1870. The Salem fire cleared the area, leaving open land.. Does anyone remember shopping at the 1St
    National supermarket ? The Walgreens Drug chain demolished the auto
    garage that was built with much indoor parking. The paint on the cars of the late teens wold quickly fail in exposed to heavy sunshine.
    Enough rambling on about long gone Salem..
    Visit the Flickr web site maintained by the SSU Archive for some really
    interesting photos of what our city’s residents went through. the site will also provide the background on what was located on the cities many parking lots .

    • daseger

      I think the policy of “it’s better than what was there before” has not served Salem well in the last decade, Nelson. We are a much in-demand city, and we should demand and plan for better buildings rather than just acceding to developer’s desires.

  • Carol J. Perry

    I’m still bemoaning the loss of the Paramount Theater–the destruction of which I consider an art crime!

  • Nelson Dionne

    I remember the Paramount well. I saw my 1st movie there. “The Robe”. circa 1953 ? It had seating for 1,764 , on the main floor, and 423 on the
    balcony .!
    The competition sat 500 on one level at the RIALTO. The Plaza, considered small had 500 seats , with 300 seats hugging the balcony .
    . The angle was so steep, that even the kids felt like they could fall off and land on the adults below.
    I do not have the capacity for the Empire, or the original Salem, nor it’s later version

    More for another day.

  • Rob Lutts


    Some good points here. Are we sacrificing quality architecture as a trade off for economic return for developers? No doubt in my mind we are.
    This location downtown is the center of the city. The size and style are not our best.

    • daseger

      Thanks for weighing in, Rob–I’m glad to hear a businessman’s point of view: obviously I have the rather stake-less perspective of an academic! But I really do believe that the better the city looks—and the better we preserve and present our history–the more we will prosper.

  • Rob Wall

    In my opinion, the architectural pattern of the latter 20th and early 21st century are a reflection of what I call ‘the digital mind’. That is, the photos in this blog are a reflection of the flat digital screen on which I am writing this comment. You are right to call them ‘blank’ and ’empty’. Digital monitors are the ubiquitous conveyors that shape our perception. When I step back, I see the flat two-dimensional glass windows and facades, read ‘soulless’, of Salem’s new buildings. Welcome to the 21st century. The patterns of these buildings know nothing of invitation, welcome, and aspiration.
    To put a fine point on it, and I am referencing Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building, our computer screens, iPhones, Instagrams, Facebooks etc have infused such flat glass patterns into our minds such that we don’t even notice it when our landscape starts to reflect them. I suppose it was so for the Victorian architects and people of Salem 100 years ago who walked by columnar court houses that referenced the Greek Classics without thinking twice about it. Those people were steeped in those patterns. What you point out, Donna, in this blog disturbs me for how normal these buildings seem to me as well. Disturbing because at best 21st architecture like this is impoverished, two dimensional, and without reference to any aspiration. Just like my digital mind. I don’t wish to go back, to another era, but a dose of Alexander’s wise architectural guidance would be a win-win for everyone. To start we might ask a local architect whose been here for decades what he/she thinks about the influence of the digital mind on the buildings we live in (I won’t suggest names on line).

    • daseger

      Wow, Rob, THANKS. What you’re saying immediately resonates with me—and I’m grateful because I don’t really have a very strong visual vocabulary! The flatness that you speak of seem so apparent to me, and now I understand its source! Can’t wait to dig into these two books and yes, must consult more architects including my husband!

  • gallowshillsite

    Could NOT disagree more with your negative assessment of today’s architecture. The vibrancy, daring, reach, experimentation of today marks a great period in architecture, and will be harkened to a century or more to come. I’ll eventually deal with those matters in a full-length post on my own blog (Streets of Gallows Hill).
    Perhaps I’m biased because the near century long hegemony of modernism, and its bastard spawn post-modernism, is finally ended. Where any color was allowed so long as it was grey, steel grey, or concrete grey. Where any shape was allowed so long as it was cubic. Where any roof was allowed so long as it was flat. Where any adornment was condemned as petty bourgeois. Cornices, lintels, cornerboards, etc, etc all thrown into the dumpster. For a blistering critique of modernism, and a humorous read besides, get Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe. Yes THAT Tom Wolfe.
    Salem fortunately mostly escaped the detritus of modernism, not intentionally but only b/c the local economy was so dismal through the 2nd half of the 20th century that little got built. The overbearing extension behind the Probate Court, now thankfully replaced. The dismal, dank, depressing, dysfunctional District Courthouse, a building so dreary and drab that there are not enough alliterative adjectives in English with which to demean it. Ironically, what the 1st building in your post is intended to replace.
    As to your other assertion that “styles are identified well after their expression”. So true, so true. Queen Anne was named long after the popularity of the style had waned, and it was apparently based on a bad pun that stuck. There is as yet no name for current style, though “deconstructivism” ( and “parametricism” ( and “New Urbanism” are tossed about. It could be another generation before a name sticks. Myself I like “contemporary aesthetic” a term discovered on the blog And yes, they are in favor of “contemporary aestheticism”.
    So what are the likeable principles of “contemporary aestheticism”? Well, polychromatism is back, is both color and materials, after being on hiatus for a century. Homage to prior neighboring styles is almost mandatory, with shades of Italianate, Georgian, 2nd Empire, more, popping up in almost every example (view River Rock going up on Boston St). Transit-Oriented Design, thank god, gets enforced. Adornment has returned to good graces, with modern CAD permitting projections, angles, recesses, alcoves, balconies, cornices, multi-layered facades, and more, where previously w/o CAD such features were too expensive to consider. (And also the source of the term “parametric”). Multi-use, once so common that it didn’t need to be named, is replacing single-use 20th-century predecessors. Now residents can shop, dine, work, and play, all w/o having to leave their building. And density gets promoted. The aversion of Salem-ites like yourself to height is most perplexing. Look at old photos of Salem. Six, eight, ten story block-wide buildings were everywhere. They get razed and replaced with dinky strip malls, somehow considered normal when they are the aberration.
    Like I said, so much to consider that several full-length blog posts will be needed. Your post will hopefully be the impetus for me to write what has been circulating through my mind for some time.

    • daseger

      Well thanks for your substantive and passionate response as well as your ideas for filling in the blanks! Not a fan of modern architecture either but I confess I can’t get up much enthusiasm for the current construction: it seems fake as well as flat: grab a mansard roof from there and a hipped roof from there and slap it on there. But I’ll think about it more, and look forward to your posts.

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