I like to recognize the anniversary of the Great Salem Fire (June 25, 1914) every year, or most years, as it was such a momentous event in so many ways, starting, of course, with sheer destruction and dislocation: 1376 buildings burned to the ground (out of around 5000 structures in Salem proper), 18,000 people lost their homes and 10,000 people lost their jobs. Only three people died, which seems incredible given the magnitude of this conflagration, but 60 people were injured. Like every disaster of this scale, there are so many topics to address about its aftermath: the immense shelter and aid effort, the rapid rebuilding program, the plans for a “new” Salem. New might not be the correct word, as the architects and planners and owners who sought to rebuild on the broad swath of fire-ravaged land along Lafayette streets and the harbor were very interested in fire-resistant building materials but their aesthetic preferences were more traditional. This is a moment when Colonial Revival Salem comes into full flower, after germinating for several decades. You could label the traditional brick, stucco, and wooden buildings which line lower Lafayette and its side streets “conservative” but I prefer the terms referential or contextual: I’m always impressed with the deep appreciation displayed by early twentieth-century architects for Salem’s colonial and federal architecture and their desire to study and emulate heritage buildings. Perhaps post-fire architects, builders and planners were a bit too deferential to the past (architectual author and photographer Frank Cousins seems to view the opportunity before Salem as one of colonial compensation after all those sub-par Greek Revivals and Victorians were swept away) but I’m alway happy to see the past privileged over the present. I thought I’d illustrate this Colonial Revival moment with just one “new” house: a saltbox built on Cedar Street for Mr. and Mrs. George A. Morrill as designed by architect A.G. Richardson.
Two Cedar Street, built 1815: today, in the 1980s, and as newly-built.
A.G. Richardson was a Boston architect who lived in Salem, and thus the recipient of quite a few post-fire commissions. His pre-fire work does not seem to be overwhelmingly reflective of colonial inspiration, but more like a mix of old and new. He did design a “new Colonial house” for a harborview lot on Lafayette which was featured in House and Garden magazine in June of 1907. But the Morrill house at 2 Cedar Street looks much more traditional, and Frank Cousins and his co-author Phil Riley even praised it as “practical” in their Colonial Architecture of Salem (1919): “the resulting house as it stands to-day represents virtually and exact copy of the Maria Goodhue house in Danvers, erected in 1690 and destroyed by fire in 1899. Its long roof-line, formed by the lean-to continuation of the same pitch, contributes a uniquely appropriate character to the modern architecture to the modern architecture of Salem and was found to provide a very practical way of bringing a piazza in the rear and all service appurtenances under one roof, thereby saving expense and avoiding all leadage complications common to roors considerably broken by gables or dormers.” Riley had praised the Morrill house earlier as “in the spirit of old Salem” in his 1916 article in The House Beautiful, but I think I should note that there were not many surviving saltboxes in early twentieth-century urban Salem, so Richardson had to look to nearby Danvers for inspiration! Fortunately Cousins had photographed the Maria Goodhue house (see below, from the Cousins Collection at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth) before it was destroyed by fire. The new door of Two Cedar Street was definitely old Salem, however: Richardson copied the entrance of the Captain John Hodges House on Essex Street.
There was something about the Fire that fueled preservation in Salem and elsewhere, as story after story in national newspapers and periodicals emphasized the fact that the older sections of Salem escaped its path: an early report indicated that the House of the Seven Gables had been swept away, and it seems like there was a collective sigh of relief when it was revealed to be false. Wallace Nutting, that exemplar of the Colonial Revival, featured ethereal ladies draped in timeless white dresses on the steps of Chestnut Street houses spared from the fire in his 1915 “expansable” catalog, and the equally timeless saltbox merged colonial charm, clean lines, and (space for) modern conveniences.