Preservation Polaroids

I have heard, and read about, Salem’s experience with urban renewal many times, including first-hand accounts, so I thought I understood its causes, course and impact pretty well, but when you write about something, you have to engage on another level and come to your own understanding in order to explain it to others. It’s the same with teaching. One of the chapters for Salem’s Centuries that I’ve been working on this summer is about the city’s development over the twentieth century and so I really had to dig deep into urban renewal. I decided to start fresh with primary sources, so I went through all the records of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) located up at the Phillips Library in Rowley (these are public records, which should be in Salem, but I’m actually glad they are in Rowley because the City’s digitized records are impossible to search and I don’t know how one might access the paper). The SRA was the agency created to oversee urban renewal in Salem’s downtown and it still has jurisdiction: its composition was incredibly important and remains so. I’m going to be quite succinct here, because the narrative is rather complex and therefore quite boring to read or write about, but here’s the gist of what happened: after conducting a comprehensive study in the early 1960s the City created the SRA and put forward a very ambitious urban renewal plan which was overwhelmingly focused on clearance, including the demolition of between 120-140 buildings in Salem’s downtown area. The goal was to create a new pedestrian shopping plaza, to compete with the new Northshore Shopping Center just miles away in Peabody. The focus was on Parking, Parking, and more Parking. What I did not know before I delved into this research was that at the same time that this plan was brewing, Salem also had another committee looking at the downtown: an Historic District Study Committee, which was surveying all of central Salem’s buildings for inclusion in potential historic districts. What a clash! The “before” photos that you see below, candid polaroids, were taken by members of the Study Committee in 1965, the same year that the SRA was rolling out its demolition plan. Among the SRA records up in Rowley, there is a mimeographed document entitled a “Do it Yourself Walking Tour” prepared by John Barrett, Executive Director of the SRA, for Historic Salem, Inc., Salem’s preservation organization, then and now. It’s a remarkable document, because Barrett basically takes the Study Committee’s inventory and turns it into a hit list: this is what we’re going to demolish! Take a tour and see for yourself! There were 119 building slated for demolition, a number that would expand to over 140 over the next few years. The polaroids represent buildings that Salem’s preservationists were trying to save: they were successful in some cases, but not in others. Their resistance resulted in a far less destructive approach to “renewal”, however, which focused more on rehabilitation than destruction, as these images illustrate well.

This doesn’t line up perfectly, but what a great restoration +addition by Salem architect Oscar Padjen: very representative of the creativity of  “Plan B”!

As these photos also illustrate, once rehabilitation became an objective, several key buildings were restored in exemplary fashion, by local Salem architects and utilizing the new means of facade easements. If you compare past facades of these building with the present, urban renewal looks great, particularly with the hardscaping design of landscape architect John Collins of Philadelphia, whose work is also representative of the “Plan B” approach. What is more difficult to illustrate are the great wide swaths of buildings that were taken down, principally on the main Essex and Federal Streets but also on St. Peter and Brown Streets, while Plan A was still operational. We can never see these buildings restored, they were just swept away. What remains are parking lots and ghastly modern buildings. I’m not a fan of what was called the East India Mall in its orginal incarnation, but its colonnaded side entrance (not quite sure what to call it???) was quite distinctive, and it was butchered under the auspices of the SRA in the 1990s so now we have the Witch City Mall. I think Front Street (below) it probably the most perfect example of Plan B, along with Derby Square, but Central Street (just above) is pretty representative too.

Washington Street was the boundary of “Heritage Plaza East,” where most of the renewal activity happened in both phases, but it did not experience as much demolition as it had already weathered a major tunnel project just a decade before. That’s another realization for me: I somehow never put Salem’s “Big Dig,” during which its railroad tunnel was constructed and depot demolished in the 1950s, in such close chronological proximity to its experience with urban renewal in the 1960s. This generation of Salem residents weathered a lot of construction and dislocation: as always, past experiences temper the present. If you shift the perspective even further back, to the 1930s, when the new Post Office was built after an entire neighborhood was cleared out, you can understand why there is so much concern about the lack of housing downtown today: 51 buildings gone in the 1930s, 87 in the 1960s. Salem’s long “plaza policy” certainly took its toll, but I remain grateful to those residents who persevered in their preservation efforts for what remains.

Strking transformations on Washington Street.

NB: I’m confident in most of these past-and-present pairings, but not all, because streets numbers can change—not quite sure about the Subway market on Front Street for example……….


9 responses to “Preservation Polaroids

  • az1407t

    Donna, I took the History of the North Shore class in my senior year (1974) at Salem State. My professor was Bill Thompson. I did a photo project on architecture in Salem, my home town, and included several photos of the Front Street and Old Town Hall areas which were undergoing major renovations/restorations at that time. I’d be happy to share them with you. These were originally slides and I scanned them several years ago, so the color has held up well. Regards, Paul PS. I love this because I remember the befores and afters.

    • daseger

      Oh, I’d love to see them, Paul! Send to Bill Thompson retired from SSU before I came there, but he was from my hometown, York, Maine, and I went to high school with his son!

      • az1407t

        Will do, Donna. Professor Thompson was a wonderful guy. On one occasion, he brought some of his students to York and we had a great time. I couldn’t believe that he commuted from York to teach. He loved my architecture project and asked me at the time if he could copy my slides. Of course I said “yes”.

      • daseger

        Well you know what? I’m going to do that this fall as I have to get out of Salem for the Halloween season! Wondering how it will work out.

  • Don Carleton

    Great work as always, Donna!

    BTW one of the SRA folders at PEM is, according to their online catalog, still embargoed: according to the PhilCat catalog redcord for MSS 120 “Box four, folder three is restricted.” One wonders why, and how it is that public agency records should even be in such status!

  • John Wright

    I believe 206 Essex Street (to the right of the bank bldg) was the Federal period home of Ezekiel Hersey Derby, out of which building was removed a room or two of wonderful McIntire carvings for a major American museum period room display, well before the SRA got it’s hook onto it…

  • Glenn McDonald

    Thanks for this, Donna….

    I remember it all because it was my paper route in the early 60s.

    I miss Kennedy’s Butter ans Egg shop where one really could get fresh peanut butter by the pound in tubs. Same for milk shakes in the afternoon at Moustakis…. it just doesn’t seem like progress, when i see the ghastly new antiseptic structures that replaced them.

    At least we still have the original Post Office and Police station on Front Street.


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