With warmer weather and the completion of my manuscript, I’ve been out on the Salem streets more, but every time I’m on a lovely walk I see some horrible structure that makes me run home: it’s not just the new big buildings but also the small old ones, purchased by developers so they can “save” them from rot and decay by gutting their interiors and blowing them out in every possible direction so they can shove five or six or more units into their then-unrecognizable structures, thus solving our housing crisis at the same time! Maybe we might be left with some semblance of a “historical” facade but that’s about it. I’m sure you can tell I’m not happy, but it’s a lovely spring Saturday and I’d like to focus on more pleasant and interesting things, like a really cool preservation/education project at an 18th century plantation ruin in Virginia. But beware: monster preservation (or lack thereof) post coming up: I’m gathering steam and data!
But for today: Menokin, the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It is a beautiful ruin in the Northern Neck of Virginia, once the center of prosperous Tidewater plantation. Despite its ruined status, Menokin is one of the best documented Georgian houses in America: the original plans exist, and a comprehensive inventory was created by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1940. It was left to decay for most of the twentieth century, and then a tree fell on it in the 1960s, nearly reducing it to rubble. Now it is under cover, and its owners, the Menokin Foundation, are in the process of “restoring” it in an innovative and transparent way—literally. Those portions of the house which are intact will be preserved and stabilized, while missing walls, floors, and sections will be replaced with glass, thus revealing its fabric and construction over time. The phrase dynamic preservation is used by those who envisioned the project: their goal is tell the story of Menokin through the process of reconstruction, “not as a snapshot in time but as a continuing narrative.” The “Glass House Project,” designed by architect MachadoSilvetti in collaboration with glass engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan and landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand, began last summer and is scheduled to be completed in 2023. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Neither Ruin nor Relic,” Michael J. Lewis called the Menokin Glass House Project “the first postmodern restoration” and a “cannonball flung between the feet of the historic preservation community.”
Menokin in 1940 (HABS, Library of Congress), after the destructive tree fall, at present and envisioned.
A cannonball indeed! It will be interesting to see what the professional historic preservation community thinks of this project. I’m no professional, and I’m torn, but the educator in me is impressed by the Menokin Foundation’s obvious commitment to transforming the house and its surrounding 500 acres into a teaching tool. The Foundation’s interpretive arm, Menokin: ReimaginingaRuin, is very active, with a series of presentations on both material and human history. The complex topic of slavery is the focus of ongoing initiatives and discussions centered on its Remembrance Structure, built with historical techniques above the archaeological remains of one of the dwellings where the plantation’s enslaved laborers lived. The Foundation clearly has no interest in reconstructing the house according to the constraints of one moment in its history, and dressing up guides in pre-revolutionary or antebellum costumes to give tours to visitors about what once was. Its focus on evolving construction will facilitate more substantive discussions about how and why rather than just when.
Remembrance Structure at night; interior rendering.
Norman Street was and is an important thoroughfare in Salem, one of the major connections from the major route north to the center of the city, and ultimately the harbor. The street was charming in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with substantial houses lining its brick sidewalks and TREES. Two of my favorite Salem Georgians were on Norman, the Jonathan Mansfield House and the Benjamin Cox House: details of the former show up in all sorts of early American architecture books in the first few decades of the twentieth century.
Norman Street in the later nineteenth century (1880s-1890s), Phillips Library, Peabody
Norman Street was essentially annihilated in the twentieth century: its charming houses demolished and replaced by generic business boxes, its width expanded for automobiles, its trees left to die. I can’t think of a street in Salem so utterly transformed. Its bleakness is all the more apparent by the fact that it’s basically an extension of mansion-lined Chestnut Street, so the contrast is striking: I sigh with relief when I pass over Summer Street and everything gets greener and more friendly. All the twentieth-century forces aligned to kill this street: a big public works project (the Post Office), the car, of course, and the worst architectural eras of the century, the 1930s and the 1970s-1980s. There are three crosswalks, but cars whip around the corner onto Norman so you have to be a rather audacious pedestrian to think about using them. The street is so bleak it can only be improved, but the one vacant lot now set for redevelopment is in a particularly conspicuous spot: on a corner, between two historic districts, and between a residential district and the beginning of the commercial downtown: this project has the potential to CONNECT so many constituent parts of Salem, and restore some structure (and dignity) to Norman Street at the same time. I have high hopes and great expectations, and I really hope the permitting boards of Salem do too.
So let me show you the current lot and the prospective building: I am taking these photos from the presentation that the developers (KinvarraCapital) and Architects (BalanceArchitects) gave to a neighborhood group last week, before they go before the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) next week. This presentation was very thorough in its consideration of all of the challenges and context of this site, I thought. You can see the whole thing for yourself here. Let me say that I don’t have really strong objections to this building: compared to recent construction in Salem, and to what defines Norman Street at present, it’s an improvement. But I think it could be better. And I REALLY think that it should prompt a city-wide discussion about design rather than just a neighborhood discussion about parking.
Existing conditions looking north (top) and east (bottom): Chestnut Street is right behind you in this second photo. The city has decided to put a roundabout at this busy intersection, but they haven’t really committed and it’s too small a space, so everyone just drives over that yellow circle.
Same vantage points as above with the rendering of the new building. The bottom image also show the recently-approved “suburban” addition to the adjacent Georgian house by the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA), the same board that has jurisdiction over new Norman Street building.
So you see, a challenging site. I don’t envy the architects: should they take their contextual cues from the adjacent 1980s plaza, or the Georgian with its (insert adjective; I have no words) addition, or the 1930s Holyoke building across the street or the Federal and Italianate buildings which open Chestnut Street? You know me, I’m a traditionalist and a historian: I’d like to restore something of what was Norman Street in its glory days, perhaps along the lines of the Julia Row in New Orleans, without the wrought iron. But you can’t really recreate that: it would look cheap with today’s materials, and it wouldn’t fit in with the twentieth-century buildings of Norman Street. It’s not the entire composition but rather the depth of façade and detail I’m after, and in this case I was particularly attracted to the parapet end wall: if integrated into a new building on Norman, it could match the one at 2-4 Chestnut Street, establishing continuity and connection.
Julia Row, New Orleans; Chestnut and Norman Streets in the 1880s, Salem Picturesque,State Library of Massachusetts.
The New Orleans building is also too big, as is the proposed Norman Street building. What you don’t see in these photographs is the Crombie Street Historic District tucked away in back, with smaller-scaled buildings than any of the other adjacent structures. I looked at some recent developments in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in which new construction was integrated into existing historic neighborhoods and came up with a few favorites in terms of scale and also texture, which is missing in most of the new construction I see. The first is in Bay Village in Boston, a small historic neighborhood tucked away in the midst of downtown Boston. The scale and detail of of Piedmont Park Square is nice: it fits right into its quaint neighborhood on the storied site of the Cocoanut Grove, where a tragic fire occurred in 1942. The building “stitches” together townhouses—what could be more connective than that?
As I searched for semblances of things I’d like to see in this important new building, I was motivated by scale, detail, texture, integration, contextuality, and some sense of the past: the proposed rendering reads “industrial” to me, and Norman Street was never industrial, so I don’t understand the reference. I don’t think I found what I was looking for, but I really like the integration achieved by a recent infill development in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, below. Tucked in between an early 20th century mansion on the site of its fire-ravaged garage and a row of 19th-century townhouses, this structure fits in but still makes a statement with its variegated façade and roofline and so much texture! This seems like an even more difficult challenge than Norman Street. I like it, but my husband-the-architect does not and neither, apparently, do its neighbors. All architecture is paradoxical, but urban architecture particularly so: it is so very public, yet the public has so little power to influence what is built.
Renderings of 375 Stuyvesant Street, Brooklyn by DXAStudio.
The Howard Street Church was a short-lived institution, but it had an enormous impact on Salem’s nineteenth-century social and political life, far beyond the brevity of its existence or size of its membership. It is also a great example of how Salem’s history has been distorted by the exploitation and commodification of the Witch Trials: today the Church is little-known, and the adjacent Howard Street Cemetery is significant primarily as the place where accused victim Giles Corey was pressed to death upon his plea of “standing mute” and the imposition of peine forte et dure.
The Howard Street Cemetery in 1949 by Life photographer Nina Leen: it looks much the same now and the vantage point is approximately the location of the Howard Street Church.
The Church was founded out of a schism, and it too experienced schisms during its brief existence, from 1803-1864: both it pastors and its membership were active and engaged citizens, often to the extreme. As its last pastor, the Reverend C.C. Beaman, concluded in his 1861 history (Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 3): “the Church has been likened in reference to its trials to the bush that was in the fire and yet not consumed. On the slavery question and on temperance it has been a marked church, having early spoken boldly upon them;—and if the being cast into prison is a proof of regular descent from the apostles, this church has a strong claim, inasmuch as one of its ministers died in prison and another was confined there.” The men in question were the Reverends Charles T. Torrey and George Barrell Cheever. The latter was a passionate proponent of temperance, who targeted one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in town, John Stone, Deacon of the First Church and simultaneously Salem’s largest distiller (who also built my house), in The Dream, or, The True History of Deacon Giles’ Distillery and Deacon Jones’ Brewery: Reported for the Benefit of Posterity, which was first published in Salem in 1835 and later in New York City for national distribution. After its publication, Cheever was accosted in the streets, horse-whipped, and sued, convicted, and imprisoned for slander, but his campaign for temperance, waged from the pulpit as well as in print, did not cease. I wrote about this story way back in 2011, and now we have a distillery named after Deacon Giles (a perfect Salem story).
One of Deacon Giles’ Distillery’s great illustrations, from an edition at Boston Rare Maps.
So the Howard Street was a center of a temperance storm in the 1830s, but it was the center of Salem’s abolitionist activities from its foundation to its end. Its first pastor, the Reverend Joshua Spalding (sometimes spelled Spaulding) had welcomed African-Americans into his new congregation from the beginning, after his dismissal and his flock’s “separation” from the Tabernacle Church in 1802, and with each successive pastor the commitment to abolition became stronger. Spalding was an early advocate of public education for Salem’s African-American children, and he appointed an African-American man, Israel Freeman, as one of his new church’s deacons. A short-lived successor of Cheever, Charles Turner Torrey clearly could not stand to just talk about the evils of slavery in somewhat-enlightened Salem: he went south and became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, dying in a Baltimore jail of consumption after facilitating the freedom of some 400 enslaved persons. In jail, he wrote his memoirs to support his family back in Massachusetts: Home or The Pilgrims’ Faith Revived was first published in Salem in 1845; following his death in the following year, Torrey “returned” to Massachusetts and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery with considerable ceremony. One of Salem’s most eminent educators and abolitionists, William B. Dodge, was a long-time member and Elder of the Howard Street Church: he first taught Salem’s African-American students in its vestry, where the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (among whose founding members were Dodge’s wife Sarah Dole Dodge and daughters Lydia and Lucia) also met frequently. The whole congregation, and indeed the city, was summoned to the Howard Street Church on occasions for prayer services for the end of slavery, as was the case in June of 1835.
There is ample evidence that the Howard Street Church served as a hub for abolitionist activities in Salem over the first half of the nineteenth century, but it’s hard to pay tribute to a site that is no longer there. I can’t even come up with a photograph (well, there is a semblance, see below), which is really frustrating as the Church was the creation of Samuel McIntire! It had a tower, and a very famous bell, which might have ended up the adjacent Central Baptist Church on St. Peter Street after the Howard Street congregation was dissolved (but the City of Salem had a claim, so I’m not sure). The Church was almost in constant flux: it started out as the Branch Street Church, named for the lane that connected Brown and Bridge Streets, later called Howard, and assumed the name Howard Street Church in 1828. Its denomination changed too: from Congregational to Presbyterian and back to Congregational. It’s the individuals that stand out in the history of this church, though: Spalding, Cheever, Torrey, Dodge and more, It seemed to draw men and women of great conviction. And if Howard Street’s abolitionist history was not illustrious enough, there is the role that the Church played in one of the most deadly battles in pre-20th century naval history: the defeat of the USS Chesapeake by the HMS Shannon on June 1, 1813. The former ship’s crew was annihilated in the 12-minute battle, which was watched by North Shore residents from atop Legg’s Hill. The Chesapeake‘scaptain, James Lawrence of “Don’t Give up the Ship” fame, died shortly after that famous plea, along with several of his officers. The Chesapeake was sailed to Nova Scotia by the British with its dead and wounded aboard, and Salem’s George Crowninshield retrieved the remains of Captain Lawrence and Lieutenant August Ludlow from Halifax at his own expense and returned them to Salem for a formal funeral at the “Rev. Mr. Spauldings Meeting-house” in late August 1813. And thus the Howard Street Church became the center of national attention.
Massachusetts State Library; Newburyport Reporter and Country Gazette, August 24,1813.
The Howard Street congregation began to dissolve in 1864 and the end of the material church (in Salem) came in 1867 when everything was auctioned off. The McIntire Church building was removed, not destroyed: it was floated (I assume) over to Beverly, where it became the new Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in 1869, with some adjustments and alterations at that time, and more in the 1880s, so I don’t think that the photograph below represents what the Howard Street Church looked like—though perhaps some semblance. Its former location became the site of a new Salem public school, the Prescott School, but not for long: the growing Polish Catholic community represented by the Church of St. John the Baptist purchased the closed Central Baptist Church in the first decade of the twentieth century, and expanded its property to Howard Street in the 1960s. The history of Salem’s churches is indeed quite dynamic!
Salem Gazette; 1874 Salem Atlas @State Library of Massachusetts; photograph of the Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, HistoricBeverly. The displaced congregation of St. Alphonse began worshipping in this Church after the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and it was destroyed by arson in 1963.
1904 was a big year in Salem’s commemorative history: it was the centennial of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birth, and his birthplace received both regional and national attention. This was squarely in the midst of the time when Witch City and Hawthorne/Colonial City were duking it out to see which one would define Salem’s identify going forward: the former won, of course. Hawthorne was born on July 4, so in the midsummer there were lots of stories on Salem in the Boston papers, with a notable focus on material culture: his houses, other storied Salem houses, Salem gardens, Salem streets. As Hawthorne was so often focused on the past, so too was his commemoration.
Homes and Gardens in Salem, Boston Daily Globe, July-August 1904.
Salem was also featured in a book on American architecture published in 1904: American Renaissance. A Review of Domestic Architecture by Joy Wheeler Dow, Architect. This first caught my attention because I assumed “Joy” was a woman architect, but it turns out that Joseph Wheeler Dow preferred to be called Joy. He was a prolific writer and critic around this time, publishing in several “shelter” periodicals, and had a very forthright style. I like opinionated authors, and even though Dow was very snobby, concerned when anyone who lacked a Harvard education was in any position of authority and using the term “Anglo-Saxon” a bit too much for my taste, he’s still fun to read. His concept of the material “Renaissance” was strictly Victorian but he detested Victorian architecture: his division of American architecture centered on a Renaissance of craftsmanship and style in the colonial and first half of the nineteenth century and a “Reign of Terror” thereafter in which too much money and fashion (as opposed to style) created objectionable buildings. He loved Salem and placed its building firmly in the era and style of the American Renaissance.
Dow’s captions are great, so I included a few of them above: if you want atmosphere and plenty of it, go to Salem! (exclamation point mine, as that is how he writes). We’re so fortunate to have all of the houses above still standing, and they still provide a wonderful context and atmosphere. I don’t share Dow’s opinion of Victorian architecture, either residential or commercial, and I think buildings from that era—and after—add context and atmosphere as well. If I were to divide Salem’s built environment into periods I would have a long “Renaissance” era extending up to the twentieth century, perhaps even to the Great Salem Fire of 1914, then a rebuilding/accommodating the car era (not sure what I’d name it) and the “Reign of Terror” would begin in 2000 or so: we are clearly in a Reign of Terror now. It’s hard to characterize all of Salem’s new buildings: several appear to have tried for some context in the details but ended up as plastic pastiche, others could have been built everywhere and anywhere. I can’t explain the first building below, Salem’s new Hampton Inn: I really have no words. I’m not really sure what to think about the Brix, a new condominium development built on the site of the former District Courthouse: it’s a big boxy building but its downtown location can support that, even as the transition to a side street, Church Street, is rather abrupt. I guess it’s just the roofline that bothers me: why the overhanging eaves? This is the third or fourth new Salem building with similar roofs: has there been some secret pact to transform Salem into an exemplar of a revived Prairie Style? Maybe that’s the new “atmosphere” we’re going for but it seems odd given Salem’s illustrious architectural past. Away from the downtown, but not too far, are the new Halstead Apartments, which manage to represent a shadow of Salem’s vibrant industrial past in a rather reassuring, even atmospheric, way.
Salem’s new multi-colored Hampton Inn (+apartments) and multi-style River Rock development on Goodhue/Boston Streets; The new Brix condominium building on Washington and Church Streets; the Halstead Apartments on Flint Street.
I was enthralled this week with news of the new technology which has unlocked “letterlocked” letters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: before the onset of the envelope in the nineteenth century there were often-intricate practices of folding, cutting, creasing and sealing letters to secure their contents, making it impossible for modern scholars to pry them apart without causing considerable damage to invaluable sources. With every discovery of a locked letter, or a cache of locked letters, the pressure mounted to discovery another way to reveal the writing inside, and this very week, a team of scientists announced their process of “Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography.” This is BIG news: the letters are scanned and “virtually unfolded,” rendering their physical integrity intact. Secrets are revealed! I just can’t think of anything more exciting.
The computer-generated unfolding sequence of a sealed letter, Unlocking History Research Group via New York Times.
I’ve worked with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century letters before but they had already been opened up: hopefully they weren’t quite as “locked” as some examples and no harm ensued. It’s so interesting that envelopes became common so late in western history: really only from the 1830s. With the completion of my manuscript (and before readers’ comments come in) I had the time to indulge my curiosity a bit this week, the first opportunity in over a year, so I engaged in one of my favorite pastimes, putting a Salem spin on a much larger and more global topic. I haven’t engaged in “ephemeral history ” for a while so it was also nice to look at some pieces of paper. Both epistolary and postal history can reveal all sorts of interesting things, even on the surface, and two great sources for all things philatelic are the Stamp Auction Network in general and Daniel F. Kelleher Auctions in particular: all the letters below come from the latter source unless otherwise noted. First up, some folded 18th-century Salem letters from the Kelleher archive: addressed to Mrs. Hannah Pickering, Widow from 1725, and the nephews of John Hancock, Thomas and John, from 1796 (via the Salem “packet”).
Once envelopes arrive, they become increasingly elaborate, especially with the coming of the Civil War. The Phillips Library has a large collection of Civil War Covers which I hope to see one day but the one below is from Kelleher: as you can see, it contrasts quite strikingly with the simple letter addressed to Mr. Robert Manning, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle. The Salem printer-publisher J.E. Tilton specialized in embellished envelopes: here is one showcasing John C. Frémont’s western expeditions in support of his presidential campaign in 1856. In the next decade Tilton moved his business to Boston, but other Salem printers took up the patriotic paper trade. The envelope illustrations seem to get larger and more colorful over the second half of the nineteenth century, leaving little space for the address—illustrated by the Spanish-American War cover from 1898.
In addition to patriotic purposes, envelopes were great means for advertising and commemoration: all sorts of engines start to appear from the 1870s on, along with a variety of other industrial (and agricultural) goods and of course, the company headquarters. Salem’s famous hotel, the Essex House, appeared on numerous envelopes in the later and early twentieth centuries. Clothing and shoe manufacturers took full advantage of their stationery (the 1895 letter to the Naumkeag Clothing Co. in Salem is from DowneastStamps), and before the stamp became the chief expression of commemoration, it was all about the envelope.