Let’s Restore (Some Semblance of) Norman Street

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 (Kinvarra Capital) and Architects (Balance Architects) 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?

Piedmont Park Square in Boston’s Bay Village by Studio Luz Architects.

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 DXA Studio

11 responses to “Let’s Restore (Some Semblance of) Norman Street

  • gallowshillsite

    Wow, the most reasoned and balanced critique of contemporary architecture I’ve ever read on this blog.
    You touch the two guiding principles of contemporary architecture (not modern, mind you; modern is a dirty word).

    1. Context: a new building should somehow evoke (“take its cues”, you write) from its neighbors. If placed near a row of townhouses, then it should somehow mirror those townhouses, as your example of Piedmont St in Bay Village. But be careful. Resemble its neighbors, not BE its neighbors.

    2. Texturalism: in your example “variegated façade and roofline”. Not mentioned, but a close cousin, is Polychromaticity, the sometimes absurd clash of colors, as in the famous Painted Ladies in San Francisco. Both texturalism and polychromaticity reached their zenith in late Victorian era with Queen Anne style, and both were placed in the dustbin for a century by modern architects, but have been resurrected, thankfully, in the 21st century. Both were detested in their prime (late 19th century into early 20th) and both are beloved a century later. IUn their contempory incarnation, both are often detested by some, beloved by others.

    But you also point out that following these principles is “challenging” and conflicting and complicated: “…should they take their contextual cues from the adjacent 1980s plaza, or the Georgian with its … addition, or the 1930s Holyoke building across the street or the Federal and Italianate buildings which open Chestnut Street?” As to texturalism: the Bed-Stuy example has “so much texture! …I like it, but my husband-the-architect does not and neither … do its neighbors.” It is, as you sigh, impossible to tell what is too much texture and what is too little, what is the right context and what is not.

    Critique of contemporary architecture can fill another hundred blog posts ;-), but in closing would like to draw your attention to the premier example in Salem of adherence to Context and Texturalism, the recently opened River Rock Apartments in Blubber Hollow. So much Texture! So much Context! The Georgian parapets at the ends reflect the parapets on the former Putnam Tannery (now Proctor Crossing condos) across Boston street; the “variegated” lintels evoke Italiante houses in the area; the Mansard roofline evokes Second Empire houses across Boston St; the high gables on the townhouse portion evoke Queen Anne and Gablefront styles all over the place. There’s even, in the latticed decor on the balconies, a shout out to the wrought iron balconies in your Julia Row example, though what New Orleans style is evoking in Salem is a mystery.

    And multitexturalism and polychromaticity galore! Red brick and green sheet metal and clapboard in a half dozen shades of ocher and gray roofing.

    River Rock is simultaneously a delight and too much, recalling the old academic jest: M, W, F the building is adored; Tu, Th, Sa it is detested; Su is a day of rest and recovery from the strain.

    • daseger

      I’m sorry, River Rock IS too much: too much plastic. I hate it all week long and will never drive or walk near so I don’t have to gaze upon it. I miss Boston Street, but I will have to avoid it for the rest of my life, sadly. No integrity, no restraint, no understanding of the various styles it is attempting to emulate, and terrible materials. I’m only surprised that it doesn’t have varying rooflines in mansard AND prairie styles.

  • az1407t

    Personally, I don’t like the looks of this new building at all. It looks like a smaller version of the ugly box buildings that have been built in Salem in recent years. The building at four stories is much larger than the nearby homes. It looks like a factory/warehouse and does nothing to add any charm to the surrounding area. I was hoping that it would complement the Crombie St. homes. I know that it’s all about money, so they increase the size and density and cram in all that they can.

    • daseger

      Well this is why most opposition to new construction downtown centers on zoning regulations relative to parking: if there is not enough parking, the size of units must come down unless the project gets an exemption. It’s really the only tool that opponents of new boxy buildings have: complaints about design never seem to carry much weight. There is not enough parking for as many units as the developer of this building wants: if I recall, it has 23 units and only enough parking for 17, but I will check.

      • Stacia KRAFT

        They proposed 25 units which is 8 units that could be eliminated by following the laws of zoning. You may remember that the developer Kinvarra Capital advertises itself as “Creating passive income for our investors”. The concept of building housing that is ill suited for a local community because it is a moral imperative rings false to me. Especially, when building on flood plains and wetlands is disregarded because of that said moral imperative. Salem is already a lovely “compact city” which has long been idealized by urban planners. We need is to focus on providing better public transportation locally and throughout the region. But that takes investment, and it is not a cash cow for investors.

  • gallowshillsite

    As regards the current proposal for the site, you are right, it is a marked improvement over the steel-gray ship’s-prow original proposal. There is some context now (red brick) and texture (jutting ledges), but as you note the proposal “reads industrial”, for a sight that was never industrial (unless you count the former service station there as industrial). It resembles in texture and form the Halstead Station project going up on Flint St in Blubber Hollow (wonder if it’s the same architect). But that site WAS Industrial, so the context is nearly ideal, with the new buildings evoking the former factories.

  • gallowshillsite

    Context and historical preservation and connecting neaighborhoods are all worthy considerations, but you omit the most worthy and urgent consideration – housing.

    The Boston metro area, according to the governor and the MA Dept of Housing, will need to build several hundred thousand new housing units in the next ten years, just to stay even with demand, let alone get ahead of demand. For a city the size of Salem that computes to 3000 to 4000 units in ten years. And that is ALL types of housing: multiunit AND townhouse AND affordable AND workforce AND middle class, AND even, dare it be uttered, high end.

    So for the benefit of all. there’s a moral imperative to make new development as large as possible. Your post doesn’t mention it, but the vintage photos tell the tale – 20th century development caused the loss of dense housing along Norman St, Any project has to make up some of that loss.

    You and HSI and others frequently bring up the model of the historic homes along Crombie St. That type of historic preservation is all well and good, but development on that scale 1) won’t make up for the loss of housing in the area; 2) won’t satisfy the urgent need for new housing, and 3) won’t make economic sense.

    So, as you post considers, there’s no way that any proposal can simultaneously meet all expectations – housing and preservation and restoration and context. ” I don’t envy the architects” indeed.

  • Louis Sirianni

    Excellent review of what needs to be done.You have said it all and so clearly. I hope all the SRA board members will read it carefully. They are mandated to direct new construction in just the way you have outlined.
    Thank you for this important public service.

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