Mid-Century Maritime

The Peabody Essex Museum’s new building, or at least its exterior, is now completed, creating a sweep of contrasting structures along Essex Street, with the East India Marine Hall centered between two more modern monolithic structures. During the long construction process, and after we learned that the PEM would be removing Salem’s archival heritage to a new Collection Center in Rowley, it was revealed (not in a press release, of course) that the large anchor which was placed in front of the Marine Hall over a century ago would also not return. I believe it’s up in Rowley too. I don’t know the rationale for this decision with absolute certainty, but I did hear a rumor that the leadership of the museum believed that the anchor reeked of “maritime kitsch”, which is obviously incompatible with its new profile and identity. If that is indeed the case, it’s amusing to see several “Ladies of Salem” figureheads hanging prominently in front of the PEM’s sleek facades.

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Salem is awash in witch kitsch; I think a little maritime kitsch would balance things out. But the anchor is hardly kitschy when you compare it with some nautical designs from half a century ago, when Salem was embracing its maritime identity a bit more than its witch-trial one: before Bewitched white-washed the latter and paved the way for full-scale exploitation. The sleek nautical images of the 1920s and 1930s gave way to more idealistic and pictorial depictions in the 1940s and 1950s, and I don’t think you could find any better representative of this mid-century aesthetic than the marketing materials of the Hawthorne Hotel. I have a menu and a flyer which present a very colorful past, enabling the hotel to offer “the charm of Old Salem in a modern manner.”

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I don’t really see how the Hawthorne’s 1950s lobby “captured the spirit of Old Salem”, but its Main Brace cocktail lounge was indeed very “salty”. It featured murals by the Rockport maritime artist Larry O’Toole, who also produced a famous pictorial map, “A Salty Map of Cape Ann”, in 1947-48, as well as maritime murals and paintings commissioned by institutional and individual patrons. The netting, the captain’s chairs, the mural: not a nautical detail was overlooked in the Main Brace.

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Mid Century Maritime HH Main Brace 1942

Mid-Century MapThe Hawthorne Hotel’s lobby and Main Brace cocktail lounge; Jonathan Butler, Harriet Shreve & John Pickering X in the Main Brace c. 1942 from Kenneth Turino’s and Stephen Schier’s Salem, Volume 2 (Arcadia Publishing, 1996); Larry O’Toole’s Salty Map of Cape Ann from Geographicus.

The idealized maritime aesthetic was not just a presentation or projection: it was also a perspective, as illustrated in the many “great men in their great ships” books which were published in the 1950s and 1960s portraying American history as the history of expansion by land and sea—-and Salem playing an absolutely central role in the latter. Consequently when tourists came to Salem they wanted to see the remnants of this glorious past. Arthur Griffin’s photographs of Salem in the 1940s and 1950s (at the Digital Commonwealth) depict well-dressed tourists looking at all manner of maritime relics in the old Peabody Museum of Salem: how far we’ve come from that innocent age.

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8 responses to “Mid-Century Maritime

  • Anne Sterling

    They have (inadvertently) created a perfect shelf for seating along the front of the new PEM building on the Essex St. Mall. I wonder which mall denizens are going to cozy up and get comfortably seated along their new front porch. Should be interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

  • Nancy Lutts

    Oh my yes. We do miss the big anchor. …….Nancy lutts

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  • Carol J. Perry

    Loved the anchor. . .and the Mummy! Carol (Phelps) Perry

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  • Brian Bixby

    I’m reminded that ship figureheads were used to promote Cape Cod tourism in the mid- to late 1930s.

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  • Stephen Kilczewski

    The Olde Ship Models and Anchor are what I do remember about the Museum. I spent many a day exploring the Museum during the 60’s. I do hope that those ship models and the artifacts were all saved and a revival is in the future.

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  • Paul Dyer

    I remember when the PEM opened their new “addition”, back in the 90’s, of a big plain facade and (yet another) high glass atrium. It was all so cookie-cutter and disappointing. I couldn’t understand (and still don’t) why so many museums think a glass atrium is just SO important to have. It wasn’t even original then. The whole new addition seemed slick, impersonal,and very dull. The old museum was so fun and relaxed and had a nice air of authenticity.. Now it looks like they’ve added another predictably boring facade on this latest addition. And like the last addition, it won’t mesh with the rest of the historic city.

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