Category Archives: Architecture

MIT and Salem: little details and big plans

I knew that students in the pioneering professional architectural program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came to Salem to measure and draw interior and exterior details of notable Salem houses in the 1890s and after, but I did not know that the “Salem as laboratory” role extended well into the twentieth century for both architecture and urban planning students at MIT: recently I browsed through an archive of MIT Masters’ theses and saw several Salem studies among them as graduate students considered the waterfront, how to integrate historic and modern architecture (a perennial problem), public art, and the logistics of tourism, among other spatial topics. These were interesting to read as we seldom have debates about public spaces in Salem that are intellectual or contextual or even public: projects are simply announced and implemented. The most interesting thesis for me was one of the oldest, entitled “A new Peabody Museum for Salem, Massachusetts,” written by M.Arch candidate Donald H. Panushka in 1951. The thesis of Mr. Panushka’s thesis was that the Peabody Museum of Salem, especially its beautiful East India Marine Hall, was both detached from the waterfront and crowded in by commercial development on Essex Street, so that it should be removed to the Derby Wharf campus of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site (SMNHS). As you can on his map below, several other waterfront sites were considered, but ultimately he chose the large lot adjacent to the wharf in what was solely an academic exercise: I don’t think Mr. Panushka even consulted the SMNHS, but he did include some striking photographs and renderings to make his case. So it’s an interesting “what if” scenario, visually presented. I’m not sure the mid-century buildings placed alongside the relocated Hall would have weathered well, but knowing what we know about the development of Witch City in the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it’s tempting to think about how a more robust interpretation of Salem’s maritime heritage might have countered that trend—-and we could have had a ship decades before the Friendship. But again, it was all academic.

The first generations of architectural students at MIT were a bit more focused on architectural practice than planning: several “summer schools” in the 1890s produced measured drawings of Salem houses that were published in the the American Architect and Building News and later the successive volume of the Georgian Period published by William Rotch Ware. Details, details: including those of several Salem houses which, unfortunately, no longer exist in a material sense as well as those which fortunately do.


A Salem Shipwright

Salem’s Federal-era shipwrights Retire Becket and Enos Briggs are justly famous, but the men who crafted ships both before and after the so-called Golden Age are a bit more obscure. A case in point is Edward F. Miller, who maintained a productive and prosperous shipyard (at the site of Briggs’ yard) in South Salem in the middle of the nineteenth century producing ships for Salem, Boston and New York merchants before he shifted his attention and skills to erecting structures for land: I first learned about Miller when I visited Stonehurst in Waltham, which he built for the architect Henry Hobhouse Richardson and his client Robert Treat Paine, but there is little mention of him in Salem. His shipyard built La Plata (bark, 1850); Dictator (schooner, 1853); Delight (bark, 1855); Mary Wilkins (brig, 1855); Arabia (bark, 1857); Guide (bark, 1857); Jacinta (schooner, 1860), Glide (bark, 1861); Jersey (bark 1869); and Taria Topan (bark, 1870, and the latter served as the model for the cabin headquarters of the Salem Marine Society on the top of the Hawthorne Hotel.

William Pierce Stubbs, Bark Taria Topan of Salem, 1881, Bourgeault-Horan Antiquarians; The Salem Marine Society Room at the top of the Hawthorne Hotel, The Bark Glide of Salem.

Miller had a dynamic nineteenth-century life: learning his trade at shipyards in his native Nova Scotia, East Boston, and Charlestown (where he worked on the Constitution), going to sea and to California at the time of the Gold Rush, returning to Massachusetts and investing his new fortune into shipyards in Marblehead and then Salem, and building ships for two decades until he moved to Newton, Massachusetts in 1878 and starting building houses (apparently he also had a third career in maritime publishing). In Salem Vessels and their Voyages, George Granville Putnam presents Miller’s ships as worthy successors of those of Becket and Briggs: “No vessel so large as the Grand Turk of 1791—which was allways spoken of in its day as ‘the Great Ship’—was built in Salem for nearly 80 years until the bark Jersey of 599 tons was built in South Salem by E.F. Miller for Captain John Bertram in 1868; the barks Guide and Glide each of 495 tons had preceded it and there followed in 1870 the bark Taria Topan, 631 tons, also built by E.F. Miller, the last large square-rigged vessel built in Salem.” At the beginning of every project and the occasion of every launch, the Salem papers heralded Miller’s activity, reminding us all that Salem’s “ebbing” maritime culture, so vividly depicted by Nathaniel Hawthorne, was still quite lively in the decades before and after the Civil War. And of course the Stonehurst connection is Mcintire-esque: when I first stepped inside its massive entry hall, I remember thinking, “this is like a ship’s cabin” and indeed it was.

Miller notices: Salem Gazette, 1.17.1856; Salem Observer, 7.16 1864, Salem Observer, 9.22.1860; Salem Register, 1.12. 1857; The cabin-like Great Hall at Stonehurst, built by Miller.


Way Down South

We’re just back from a quick trip to the Florida Keys and Miami, not really my ideal vacation location but my husband craved sun and sand and fishing and I had never been to Key West so it was good compromise destination. There was just enough architecture to keep me occupied and he indulged me with a visit to Vizcaya. I was a bit worried about Florida’s reputation for negligent masking, but everywhere we went people wore their masks inside. The highlights of the trip for me were: Key West cottages, with their myriad shutters, porches, and brightly painted doors, our Key West hotel, which was both very stylish and very comfortable, the shrimp and grits featured at the hotel’s restaurant, with the non-traditional, amazingly delicious additions of manchego cheese and bacon, Ernest Hemingway’s house and its resident cats, many lime-flavored drinks, learning all about the female keepers of Key West’s lighthouse and the construction of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad, and Vizcaya, of course. It was also very interesting to watch the coexistence of so many different vehicles on the streets of Key West, including cars, scooters, bicycles (which really rule the road) and skateboards. And because I cannot go to another tourist city without comparing its “interpretive infrastructure” to that of Salem, I must say that Key West’s signage (both wayfinding and historical) is more uniform, more aesthetic, and simply BETTER than that of Salem, although that’s not saying much as our signage is so bad.

Key West, including the interior and exterior of our hotel, the story of our marriage, and a Marathon sunset.

Lowlights? Only the heat, I would say. It was exhausting to do my characteristically energetic architectural walkabout in Key West, but as I write this bundled up in bed on a cold and wet New England spring morning, that warmth is a fond memory.

Miami & Miami Beach: Vizcaya exterior and interior, and just a few houses from a few decades later—all is turquoise and coral.


Envisioning Salem, 1962

Salem is currently in the midst of implementing another urban renewal plan under the supervision of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA), the board that was created by the city’s first urban renewal plan in the 1960s. The story of the implementation of that plan is a pretty established narrative: over-ambitious SRA orders destruction of much of downtown and advocates for the construction of a highway into central Salem to increase access for shoppers lured away by the North Shore Shopping Center in Peabody until concerned citizens’ protests and the New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s extremely influential article brought national attention to the imminent destruction of Old Salem, shifting “renewal” towards redevelopment and preservation. Well, obviously I’m simplifying a much more complex process with many players: I’m starting to go through some of the sources which documented this process so I can understand it a bit better. I thought I would start with the early 1960s vision, as expressed by a series of reports issued by Blair and Stein Associates of Providence, RI, a planning firm hired by the City. Blair and Stein supposedly produced seven reports for the Salem Planning Board: I have found only three so far and the “Central Business District” report the most interesting: Salem, Massachusetts : central business district / prepared by Blair and Stein Associates in cooperation with the Salem Planning Board and the Massachusetts Department of Commerce (1962).

This study and its recommendations was not as focused on “tear it all down” as I expected: there are definitely recommendations for clearances, but also for preservation. Blair & Stein believed that the North Shore shopper, who is always referred to as “she,” could be lured back to downtown Salem if “blight” was cleared away and access improved. There are many references to urban blight, which was perceived as both decay and the reign of “inappropriate” facades and signs: after those were removed the state and fate of the stripped building should be considered. Because the emphasis is on renewing Salem’s shopping district above all, parking is very important, as is the overall design of pedestrian avenues around the downtown. Thus they gave us a pedestrian mall on Essex Street, Salem’s main street, but also on secondary routes leading into it. Salem would become an outdoor mall, with a mix of old restored buildings and new complementary structures: complementary not “imitative,” which is what I think most people would like to see now. It’s just annoying when advocates of sub-standard new construction accuse anyone who argues for higher standards of trying to turn Salem into a faux Federal city: I like the language below emphasizing scale, texture, character and “spirit” of new construction and did not expect to find it in a document of this nature and vintage.

Interesting spelling of “aesthetic” but these are goals I wish we were shooting for now!

Apart from the concerns about blight, parking and aesthetics, the major difference between this plan and the current one relates to housing: Blair and Stein envisioned a distinct shopping and cultural district and did not advocate for the expansion of residential buildings downtown, while that is a major planning goal at present. While they referenced tourism, they clearly saw it through a regional focus rather than a national one, and they don’t even mention Halloween. Salem would be a city of day trippers and day shoppers, returned to regional hub status.

Deed restrictions prevented all that planned Front Street parking, and inspired Artists’ Row, here pictured in 1978, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

The schematic sketches are just that, clean and orderly, and now I am seeking the specifics of how this rather vague plan turned into the scary plan of action recorded in the Boston Regional Office of HUD several years later: The Heritage Plaza East project advanced from the planning stage to the execution stage in February 1968. About 40 structures in the area will be rehabilitated, 140 will be razed, and 75 families will be relocated in the process of clearing the area. CLEARED OUT. The records of the SRA, which for some reason are deposited in the Phillips Library, will certainly shed light on the “progress” from planning to execution.

Appendix:  Historic Salem, Inc. has prepared a “Citizens Guide to the Downtown Renewal Plan” for those who wish to engage with its implementation, available here.


Circa 1775

For Patriots Day, I endeavored to find Salem houses built in 1775, but it turned out to be a bit more involved task than I envisioned. I was just going to walk around and look at the Historic Salem, Inc. plaques, then I decided to consult the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s MACRIS database, which gave me a very workable list. The former overruled the latter for many of the houses I encountered however, so “circa 1775” is the best I can do. Salem houses are sometimes tricky to date just by apparent style: there is a conservatism that dominates the quarter century after the Revolution when it comes to you average dwelling (as contrasted to the Federal mansions which rose at the same time). Several “Georgian” cottages were built in 1806 or even 1826. So these houses are very “circa” for the most part, in the most flexible sense of the word, and I’m not really going to be able to answer the question behind this post: how many people in Salem were confident enough to build a house after five+ years of escalating conflict and tension over representation and sovereignty in British America?”

First up is the Wendt House on Crombie Street: this house has been the object of consternation for decades. First it was threatened my Holyoke Mutual Insurance Company, which threatened to demolish it for parking spaces, then it was saved by Historic Salem, Inc. (HSI), now it is threatened again (not so much its form but its LIGHT) by a large apartment building proposal. Below, Summer, Cambridge and Hight Street Houses: 51 Summer Street is dated 1771 by Historic Salem, followed 6 Cambridge Street and 8, 14 and 21r High Street.

And over on the other side of town: a Briggs Street house which MACRIS dates to c. 1775 but for which HSI has a more precise history, a Daniels Street House which is a great example of the “conservative” trend I spoke of above, and 19-21 Essex Street, which has been through many transformations. Such a cool house, and pretty substantial even without its later additions, indicating that even though the political times were turbulent, the economic future perhaps looked a bit more promising from the perspective of 1775.

19-21 Essex Street in 1985, MACRIS.


Mansard Mania!

So the developers of a large lot on Norman Street, a major artery in Salem which connects the downtown to one of the city’s major residential/historic districts and also serves as a primary gateway, have come up with their third schematic rendering for the site. We first saw a rather brutalist box, then an industrial-esque box, and now we have a mansard box. I wrote about their challenge here, and despite my lack of enthusiasm for their projections, I do believe that they have a very challenging site: Norman Street was once an absolutely charming street of residences and shops of diverse style and size, but it was ravaged by a perfect storm of an unleashing of all the infrastructural forces of the twentieth century. This is the design that will be presented to the Salem Redevelopment Authority this week:

Proposed design for 38 Norman Street, Salem.

This is a site that is not only very conspicuous, but also situated directly between two historic streets: Crombie and Chestnut (where I live), so both scale and historical context are issues for consideration. Frankly, based on its judgements over the past year or so, I don’t think the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) is particularly concerned about either of those criteria, but the developers met virtually with several neighborhood groups and I’m sure they were notified of such concerns. So I think this mansard addition must be in response to these meetings, although I’m at a loss to explain how that particular roofing style fits into the streetscape. While it is known for its Federal architecture, Salem actually has some great mansard-roofed buildings, but they are overwhelmingly residential rather than commercial or institutional, and none are in the immediate vicinity of this lot. The original Salem Normal School building on Broad Street is the only mansard-roofed institutional building that comes to mind. I really, really hope that these developers were not inspired by the ghastly River Rock residences on Boston Street, but why wouldn’t they be? This project was approved, and thus serves as a practical precedent for aspiring Salem developers.

River Rock Residences.

Whatever the inspiration, this new rendering gave me an excuse to read all about mansard roofs, past and present. There was a lot to read: people really have a lot to say about mansard roofs, not so much the original early modern examples or even those revival mansard roofs from the third quarter of the nineteenth-century, but the “neo-mansard” trend of the 1960s and 1970s. There are blogs and opinion pieces galore explaining that phenomenon from a range of perspectives—but generally more horrified, sarcastic, and whimsical than complimentary. The original mansard was a tax-dodge tactic: in the seventeenth century French houses were appraised according to the number of floors below the roofline, and the mansard style thus enabled the addition of a non-taxable floor (I suspect space is the primary motive of the “historical” addition to the Norman Street proposed development as well.) The Second Empire of Napoleon III and the Hausmannization of Paris inspired the second wave of mansard mania, which swept across the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, despite the fact that wooden “French” roofs were blamed for turning the Great Boston Fire of 1872 into a conflagration: Henry Ward Beecher even called mansard roofs “conflagration caps.” I’m wondering if this is the reason I can’t find many larger mansard-roofed building in Salem.

I couldn’t find any mansard-roofed commercial buildings among the Frank Cousins’ photographs from the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth, but Salem has lots of cute mansard cottages from the post-Civil War era.

As you can tell from the detailed photos of the mansard roofs above, it’s all about the details: most modern mansard-roofed buildings lose something in the translation because they don’t attend to those details. A great example is the Hotel Commonwealth in Boston, built in the early 2000s to liven up Kenmore Square and link it to the Back Bay through its Second Empire style. The Boston Redevelopment Authority approved the renderings, but “when workers took the shroud off [in 2002] ….. officials and neighbors were aghast. To save money, the elegant building depicted in renderings had been replaced with one featuring a plastic-looking facade and garish two-dimensional window bays seemingly lifted off a B-movie set.” [Boston Globe, 27 October, 2014: “Framing the Proposal”] The developers were ordered to overhaul the building’s exterior before it even opened, and replaced the building’s value-engineered (and apparently bright yellow?) fiberglass panels with precast stone, as well as all “cosmetic” features, to the tune of $5 million. Even though I was right here in Salem, I don’t remember this episode at all, so I read about it in the Globe: both letters and articles typically used the words hideous and disastrous in reference to the Hotel, and one piece was entitled “Yellow Alert.”

Hotel Commonwealth rendering, Boston University, and in 2015, Boston Herald photo by Angela Rowlings.

That’s quite a spectacular rendering above and obviously the more humble proposed design of 38 Norman Street doesn’t set itself up for failure quite so conspicuously, but Salem appears to have developed a propensity for plastic so I’m wary, even still. The Hotel Commonwealth seems to be in the midst—or at the end?—of a third wave of mansard mania that was noted by the eminent architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, otherwise known as the “woman who saved Salem” due to her exposure of Salem’s cataclysmic urban renewal plan to a national audience in the 1960s. A decade later, she wrote about “Mansard Mania” in the New York Times, and was not complimentary: all is fake tops and false nostalgia, regardless of use, size or scale. I think she was referring to structures like those featured in all the “neo-mansard” blogs, an example of which is below, but still I wonder: why do we need mansard-style roofs or prairie-style roofs? Why can’t we have Salem roofs?

1970s mansard-roofed structure from The Neomansard: “trying to embrace the style without irony.” Just a great site.


A Derby House in Medfield

I busted out of Salem yesterday and took a road trip to Norfolk county in Massachusetts, southwest of Boston, and drove through a string of towns beginning with M: Medfield, Millis, Medway, Milford, Mendon. My “destination” was a first-period house with Derby connections in the first M town, the Dwight-Derby House, but really I just wanted to drive around. And I did—but I also found Medfield absolutely charming so I stayed awhile. Sometimes I think I could write the whole blog about and around Salem’s Derby family: their money, connections, and influence end up everywhere. In this case, however, neither their money, connections or influenced really impacted the history of a lovely first-period house overlooking Medfield’s Meetinghouse Pond. John Barton Derby, a grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, who profited immensely from Salem’s emerging East India trade and thereby became America’s first millionaire, did not stay in Medfield for long but his descendants lived in what became known as the DwightDerby House until the middle of the twentieth century.

John Barton Derby, grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, married Mary Townsend, whose family owned the Medfield house, in 1820. Rumors swirl around about John Barton and his brother Hasket, in contrast to the other children of John and Sarah Derby of Salem. The major clues to their outcast status are the facts that they were seldom in Salem and always in need of money. When John Barton married Mary Townsend, his deceased first wife (from Northampton, which is like Derby Siberia) had not been in her grave for very long, and he was apparently disowned by his father. He was practicing law in Dedham, and had been given a letter of introduction to Mary’s father by his uncle Benjamin Pickman, Jr., but that was about it for respectability. John and Mary remained together for about of 27 months and produced two children, Sarah and George Horatio, and then he was gone. I’m going to let Nehemiah Cleaveland and Alpheus Spring Packard, authors of the History of Bowdoin College with Biographical Sketches of its Graduates, from 1806 to 1879, Inclusive (1882) tell the rest of John’s story, but they are leaving out time spent as a recluse in the wilds of New Hampshire and as a patient at what later became known as McLean Hospital, which opened in the year of John Barton’s graduation from Bowdoin.

“JOHN BARTON DERBY, born in 1793, was the eldest son of John Derby, a Salem merchant. In college he was musical, poetical, and wild. He studied law in Northampton, Mass., and settled as a lawyer in Dedham. His first wife was a Miss Barrell of Northampton. After her death he married a daughter of Horatio Townsend. They soon separated. A son by this marriage, Lieut. George Derby of the United States army, became well known as a humorous writer under the signature of ‘John Phoenix.’ For many years before his death Mr. Derby lived in Boston. At one time he held a subordinate office in the custom-house Then he became a familiar object in State Street, gaining a precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares. He was now strictly temperate, and having but little else to do, often found amusement and solace in those rhyming habits which he had formed in earlier and brighter years, His Sundays were religiously spent — so at least he told me — in the composition of hymns The sad life which began so gayly came to a close in 1867.” What a poignant scenario: the grandson of a millionaire, with his “precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares” on the streets of Boston. No wonder the charming sign outside of the Dwight-Derby House features John Barton’s and Mary’s dashing son, George Horatio Derby, who served in the Mexican-American War, went on to a journalistic career in California and died at the young age of 38. You can read much more about the Townsends and the Derbys and the history of the house in a great little book that integrates both very well: Medfield’s Dwight-Derby House. A Story of Love and Persistence by Electa Kane Tritsch.

George Horatio Derby, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.

The Dwight-Derby House was purchased by the town of Medfield in 1996, and went through an intensive restoration before it was opened to the public, joining the town’s more famous colonial structure, the Peak House, as a period museum. And there’s lots more in Medfield: some beautiful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century private houses, a small historical society, and a “mobile history tour” using QR code plaques on utility boxes, signs, and murals. I fell in love with the eighteenth-century Clark Tavern, even (or perhaps because of) its state of extravagant decay, and was very relieved to discover that it has just sold and can only be restored to include TWO dwellings (despite being much bigger than the poor Barr house into which many more are being stuffed), or perhaps even to its original use.

I can’t wait to go back to Medfield to see the interior of the Dwight-Derby House, and the renovation of the old Clark Tavern. But there’s lots of history to see and read now at the Peak House (with its revised chronology) and along the town’s streets and sidewalks.


The Privateer’s House

On this very day in 1776, the Continental Congress authorized private vessels commissioned with “Letters of Marque and Reprisal” to “make captures of British Vessels and Cargoes” and Salem’s shipowners and shipmasters responded enthusiastically: 158 privateering vessels originated from Salem during the Revolution, capturing 458 prizes and the largest prize tonnage of any single American port. It seems appropriate to feature what once was the home of a particular (and particularly active) privateer today: a structure that long stood on Lynde Street downtown and is now in the process of being “transformed” into a much enlarged building in a Georgian-esque style, complete with a built-in garage. I don’t know how much is left of the James Barr House, actually, but a brief history of its most celebrated occupant and record of its evolution are below.

James Barr was born several years before his father, also named James, built the family homestead at 25 Lynde Street, but he spent most of his childhood and adulthood in the house and died in it in 1848, at age 93. His was a full and long life, on sea and on land. Fortunately we have a wonderful and accessible source: his grandson James Barr Curwen published Barr’s “Reminiscences,” including his Revolutionary War commissions, in the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute in 1890 (Volume 27). Barr spent the war in service: on the Black Snake as First Lieutenant in 1777 and as Captain of the Oliver Cromwell, the Rover, and the Montgomery thereafter. He took prizes and was taken prisoner: he spent several months onboard the infamous British prison ship Jersey in New York Harbor and was also transported by the British to Barbados: nevertheless he always seemed to be able to extricate himself and find another ship. Unfortunately his grandson includes more details about the terms of his commissions than his escapes. After the war, Barr became a merchant mariner in partnership with his brother John: their copper-bottomed ship Hope was apparently one of the speediest Salem ships to the East Indies. Mr. Curwen assesses his grandfather’s retirement as “quiet”: “in early days he was a staunch Federalist and later a Whig, but he never took a conspicuous part in politics. He lived a strictly honest and conscientious life and died respected by all who know him at the age of ninety-three years, four months, twenty-one days.” James Barr’s “Reminiscences” also include a portrait commissioned in Leghorn for East India Hall and a very rare photograph of the old captain in the year before his death.  Photographs of Revolutionary-war veterans have been the subject of several studies over the past few years and I’m not sure this particular one is well-known: what a record!

In another town, a famous privateer’s house might be preserved and celebrated: but that’s not the Salem way. The Barr house, built on the storied site of Salem’s first fort in 1759, left the family’s possession in the early twentieth century and its downtown location rendered it vulnerable to commercial and multi-residential use. Much of Salem’s downtown is under the jurisdiction of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) rather than the Salem Historical Commission: those identifying adjectives are apt. Here is the visual evolution of the house over more than a century: from Curwen ownership in the 1890s (captured in Frank Cousins photographs from the Phillips Library and Digital Commonwealth) to a MACRIS photograph from 2016, to the day it lost its gambrel roof last week, to this morning, and a rendering of its completed form encompassing however many condominiums were approved by the SRA.

And here’s the description from the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s 2016 MACRIS inventory by Neil Larson and Walter R. Wheeler: The Barr house is one of a diminishing number of mid-18th century vernacular wood frame dwellings in Salem. Although it has experienced minor alterations and significant additions over time, the original outline of the dwelling remains clearly readable; it retains its original form, feeling and materials, and continues to embody the distinctive characteristics of a mid-18th century side passage gambrel-roofed dwelling. 

 


Windows into the Past

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 Machado Silvetti 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: Reimagining a Ruin, 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.


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


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