Paint it Black

There are more and more and more witch shops in Salem, or perhaps I better loosen up that description to goth shops or macabre markets? In any case, our local chronicler had to reassure his readers that there were, in fact, places downtown where socks could be purchased. But sneakers? I think not. It is concerning as many of these shops are only open “in season,” producing a deadening effect downtown in the “off-season.” [Somewhat off-topic tangent: I often think that Salem’s planners are going for a “15minute city” but I don’t understand how that goal is compatible with Witch City—I’ll follow up in a later post] In the downtown, there is oversight for these shops’ signs and exteriors, and Salem is a constantly-evolving city, so I’m not inclined to get too perturbed about this darkening trend, unless said shops alter an historic interior radically, perhaps permanently: and that’s the case with the former Merchants National Bank, a much-heralded 1908 Little & Browne Colonial Revival structure on Essex Street now transformed into a local outlet of Blackcraft Cult, a Goth fast-fashion retailer based in California. The creative vision of this store is simple: paint it black, all black, walls and trim, ceiling and much of the floor. All is black except for a red witch descending from the center dome, replacing the gilded eagle that overlooked everything previously. Witch kitsch displaces classicism: I don’t think you can find a better visual metaphor for what’s happened to Salem over the last decade or so.

Once an Eagle……now the former Merchants National Bank building on Essex Street is home to Salem’s largest witch! In the vicinity are more seasonal shops, closed on this beautiful & sunny February afternoon.

This building was the fourth headquarters of the Merchants National Bank in Salem, founded in 1811. It received quite a bit of attention after it opened for business in 1908: in national architectural publications and local periodicals, as well as the Bank’s own centennial anniversary publication which tied its history and success to Salem’s history and success. There’s so much craftsmanship and detail and sheer abundance in Salem’s traditional architecture that we take it for granted: I wish I had spent more time in this building considering its now-darkened detail, and I wonder if Salem’s preservationist organization, Historic Salem, Inc., is considering a more agressive policy of seeking interior preservation restrictions and covenants. Perhaps it is time, before everything goes black.

Images of the Bank from 1911: in the Brickbuilder, its centennial anniversary booklet “In the Year 1811,” and an unsigned watercolor, Bull Run Auctions.

13 responses to “Paint it Black

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    “Witch kitsch displaces classicism: I don’t think you can find a better visual metaphor for what’s happened to Salem over the last decade or so.”

    That says it all. That beautiful classic building with the lovely Palladian windows might have been used for so many other purposes. Sad.

    • Jillian

      Fwiw, it sat empty for years due to incredibly high rental rates. A larger corporation was really the only thing that could go in there. Black-on-black isn’t my favorite aesthetic choice, but at least it’s just paint and can always be undone.

      • daseger

        Thank you, Jillian. I hadn’t considered it from that perspective, and I’m glad you did. This explains the California corporation. And you’re right, as several preservationists have told me, the structure is preserved.

  • Nancy

    How distressing. The interior style and details are historic and should be preserved. Where were the preservationists when this building was for sale? And shouldn’t there have been certain mandates in the purchase of it?

    • daseger

      Well, that takes a lot of work. Salem’s preservation organization, Historic Salem, Inc., is a volunteer organization: their reach is limited as there are a lot of preservation issues in Salem. This building is great, but it’s not particularly old by Salem standards. City oversight doesn’t really reach into interiors. I think it’s a dramatic example so I put it out there for discussion, but I can’t offer any solutions unfortunately! I think comprehensive historic preservation has to be an expression of the public will to a certain extent, and I’m not sure it’s there in Salem.

  • az1407t

    WOW! What they did to the interior is depressing and downright ugly.

  • Josiah Fisk

    If it’s just paint — which it seems to be — then the fabric of the interior is still there for any future age that may want to bring it back. (Can’t say I’m holding my breath for that, though you never know.)

    But Donna, you’re absolutely right that the City’s former commitment, stated often and prominently, to be a “walkable city” has become a bad joke. And it’s the City itself that has done that, by actively encouraging the Halloween economy to extend to the entire year and to become Salem’s sole attraction. Both history and the downtown as a neighborhood are rapidly getting lost in the shuffle. It gives “ghost town” a whole new meaning.

  • Louis’s Granddaughter

    Horrific, tragic, depressing. I remember that bank from my childhood in the 1960s. Makes me sad and sick.

  • dpmonahan

    No one ever went broke underestimating the good taste of the American public.

  • Leslie Gagliardi

    It’s heartbreaking to see this kind of transformation.

  • Kathleen Keefe Ternes, DVM

    I literally ( in the true sense of the word) cried when I saw the interior pictures on the day of the ribbon cutting. I don’t believe we can legislate what type of business someone wants to open, but I would like to see more interior design, storefront presentation– no shutting out via blinds that stay closed standards, and requirements for businesses to be open year round.

  • ornesquare

    Thanks Donna,I used to bank at Santander… the new owners were a little. defensive about the black; they did leaving the gilding.. hope we get out of the witch kitsch trough

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