Tag Archives: Ada Louise Huxtable

Seven Women of Salem: the Preservationists

I’ve been rather depressed about the state of historic preservation in Salem: after a strong commitment in response to full scale urban renewal in the 1960s and early 1970s we seem to be awash in a sea of vinyl siding and shed dormers. I’m not sure what happened exactly, although rising property values and the corresponding desire of developers to cram as many units as possible into old structures, thereby transforming their architectural profile beyond all recognition, likely has something to do with it. But history always brings perspective, and in recognition of both this Centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage, my own #SalemSuffrageSaturday series, and the Preservation Month of May, I am focusing on seven women who really made an impact on the recognition, and preservation, of Salem’s material heritage. These women faced far greater obstacles than I am seeing now, and they should be celebrated. This post is partly repetitive, as I’ve featured several of these women before, but there are some new heroines as well, at least new to me.

In chronological order:

Caroline Emmerton (1866-1942): the founder of the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association, and a founding member of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). Much has been written about Caroline Emmerton (especially as she was a rather mysterious woman), so I don’t have too much to add here, but she deserves recognition not only for reconstructing and creating the House of the Seven Gables and its campus, but also reorienting Salem’s—and the nation’s—appreciation of its first-period past. The House of the Seven Gables, and Emmerton’s vision of her native city, remains a strong counterweight to the commercial cacophony of Witch City. Emmerton seems like a rather “creative” preservationist to me, but certainly an influential one!

Emmerton Collage (2)Caroline O. Emmerton, The Chronicles of Three Old Houses, 1935

Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958): As a du Pont, Mrs. Crowninshield was not from Salem, nor did she ever live here (although she summered in Marblehead), but she has to be included on any list of preservationists for her key efforts towards the preservation and interpretation of several Salem sites, including the Derby House of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Peabody Essex Museum’s Crowninshield-Bentley and Peirce-Nichols houses. She was also a board member of SPNEA, as well as of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum in Salem, and a founding trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You can read more about Louise in this post, in which I appeal to a potential successor to to emerge in contemporary Salem!

louise-du-pont-crowninshield1Louise duPont Crowninshield (center) surrounded by the ladies of the Kenmore Association in Virginia, one of her first preservation projects, Hagley Museum & Library.

Bessie E. Munroe (?-1975): Mrs. Munroe waited out urban renewal in Salem in her lovely Federal home on Ash Street, with demolition ongoing all around her. She was a widow in her 80s when the Salem Development Authority began implementing its 1965 urban renewal plan, which called for the demolition of 145 out of 177 buildings downtown, including her house! She was compelled to sell to the SRA in 1970, but fortunately the agency agreed to her life tenancy because of her age and health. And then a new Salem Redevelopment Authority emerged, more intent on preservation than demolition: at the time of Bessie’s death in 1975, her house—the last historic residence standing, facing a parking lot—was saved and sold to a preservation architect. It is now on the National Register.

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SAL_2431 (2)Seeing red (demolition) in 1965; 7 Ash Street, the Bessie Munroe House, today.

Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013): Another woman who never lived in Salem (but long summered in nearby Marblehead like Louise duPont Crowninshield) yet had a tremendous effect on the city’s material heritage largely through her passionate indictments of the 1965 urban renewal plan (see above) published in the New York Times from 1965. Sometimes I think crediting her exclusively for the demise of this plan minimized all the efforts towards that aim by preservationists here in Salem, but still, there’s no denying her powerful impact, as she occupied a strong position of power as the architectural critic for the Times. Ms. Huxtable was not a strict preservationist, but she believed that it could be a useful tool against generic, thoughtless development with no historical or aesthetic merit: sterilized nonplaces. She kept watch on Salem through its new redevelopment and credited its mix of old and new in later articles and her 1986 anthology Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger. In praising Salem for “renewing it right” she also asserted that “Salem’s results promise to be a stunning rebuke to every community that has ever thought the only way to revitalization lay through….mutilation of what was often a unique identity for shoddy-slick, newly jerrybuilt anonymity.” Every day I wonder what Ms. Huxtable would think of Salem’s newest buildings.

Ada 1965 NYTAda Louise Huxtable’s condemnation of Salem’s 1965 Urban Renewal Plan in October of that year, the first of several pieces published in the New York Times.

Elizabeth K. Reardon Frothingham (1923-1983): A Salem native descended from several notable Salem families, “Libby” Reardon was a passionate afficionado and student of early American architecture who went on to become a professional preservationist, shepherding Historic Salem Inc. though its most turbulent era and writing several detailed inventories for the City of Salem. All of her records, unfortunately, were donated to the PEM’s Phillips Library and therefore moved from the city to which she was so dedicated: you can read more about that here. Given the pandemic, I haven’t been able to access her records or reports up there, but newspaper accounts testify both to her discovery (as a mere “housewife”) of two camouflaged Salem first-period houses, the Gedney and Samuel Pickman (pictured in the Huxtable article above, as well as below) Houses, as well as to her steadfast defense of Salem’s material heritage in the 1960s and 1970s. She was a real preservation heroine, gone too soon: I can only imagine what she might have achieved in the 1980s or 1990s—or now!

Reardon Collage1965! What a year that must have been—-Salem’s preservationists had to have been functioning 24/7.

And speaking of gone too soon, I wanted to take this opportunity to recognize two women who were clearly effective administrators of their respective institutions as well as contributors to the preservation of Salem’s material heritage: Anne Farnam (1940-91) of the Essex Institute and Cynthia Pollack (1932-1992) of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Ms. Farnam served as Curator at the Institute from 1975 to 1983 and as its President from 1984 until 1991, while Ms. Pollack served as Superintendent of SMNHS from 1983 to 1992. I have no idea what their personal relationship was like, but they were clearly colleagues not only in advancing the missions of their institutions but also the stature of Salem as a heritage destination. Both were active in the Salem Project, the forerunner of the Essex National Heritage Area, and both worked towards a more layered and contextual interpretation of Salem’s history. When you study their careers, you can see how interpretation and preservation are integrated and complementary: as the chief administrator of an institution charged with the stewardship of eight historic houses, Ms. Farnam was by necessity a preservationist, but she also initiated the 1977 exhibition on “Dr. Bentley’s Salem: Diary of a Town” which seemed to have seamlessly merged textual and material history (I never saw it, but I do have the companion volume of the Essex Institute Historical Collections). Likewise, Ms. Pollack deserves high praise for her dedication to the restoration of Salem’s historic wharves, but at the same time worked to enhance Salem Maritime’s interpretive reach: as the tribute sign at the Visitors Center’s Cynthia Pollack Theater reads: There were stories to be told, and she wanted visitors to see, touch, smell, and feel the maritime spirit that the site embodies. We all have a lot to live up to, I think.

Women Preservationists CollageA Boston Globe (glowing) review for Ms. Farnam’s exhibition, Dr. Bentley’s Salem. Diary of a Town in 1977 and 1992 photograph of Ms. Pollack.


What would Ada think?

In honor of tomorrow’s symposium, Mightier than a Wrecking Ball: How Ada Louise Huxtable Saved Salem, jointly sponsored by Historic Salem, Inc., the Peabody Essex Museum, and Historic New England, I thought I would ask and consider what Ms. Huxtable (1921-2013) might have thought about the emerging streetscape of Salem in 2015, fifty years after her influential New York Times article “saved” Salem from the destruction of 100+ historic buildings and a four-lane highway running down its center in the guise of “urban renewal” in the fall of 1965. I think she would have abhorred the big glass-and-faux-brick boxes looming on our horizon both literally (now) and digitally (proposals for the future), but I don’t really know. She was certainly not an exclusive preservationist: such a stance would have been impossible in her capacity as the architectural critic for the Times. She seems to have detested “Williamsburging” nearly as much as the emergence of “slab cities” and heralded preservation as a bulwark against thoughtless development with little historical or architectural integrity. In an effort to answer my own question, I browsed through many of her articles in the archives of the Times: this took some time, primarily because she is such an amazing writer. I wanted to restrict myself to skimming, but her sharp observations and critiques (Albert Speer would love the Kennedy Center) kept me reading. Certain words and phrases kept popping up as architectural attributes: art, identity, variety, and the integration of new construction and preservation, and others as outcomes to be avoided at all costs. In this category, I would place the phrase sterilized non-place, which appears in her 1974 follow-up article “How Salem Saved Itself from Urban Renewal”.

Ada 1974 NYT

That phrase just says it all for me: sterilized non-place. And it makes me think that Ada Louise Huxtable, who summered right next door in Marblehead and would have taken a personal interest in all these new buildings going up in Salem, would not have viewed or reviewed them favorably. Lined up all together, as they are below, you can see an apparent generic uniformity on the one hand and a thoughtless, careless nod to Salem’s historic structures on another—just slap on some brick! So since we can never really know Ms. Huxtable’s opinion on these buildings, perhaps it is better to ask is Salem becoming a sterilized non-place?

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Washington at Derby RCG

Big Box Hotel

Big Box District Courthouse

Two existing developments (the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center-and RCG Corporation’s Washington at Derby building) and two proposals (the winning design to replace the existing District Courthouse and RCG’s proposed Mill Hill development further down Washington Street).


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