Tag Archives: Architecture

Is Purity Possible?

Architectural purity, I mean: there’s no philosophical, spiritual or political rumination going on here. My house is such an assemblage of Federal, Greek Revival and eclectic Victorian styles that I often find myself craving architectural purity: it was “transitional” when it was built in 1827 and it became even more so as it was expanded and remodeled over the next century. A whole rear elbow ell of outbuildings was attached and then shorn off. Inside straightforward Federal mouldings were replaced with rounded Italianate ones; a simple staircase was replaced with one much more detailed and made of mahogany, and 1920s etched glass was inserted into the original doors. Even its “classic” exterior with flushboard facade was altered: with the customary bay window that pops out nearly everywhere in the later nineteenth century and an elaborate doorway below, and some curvy trim attached to the first-floor windows, now long disappeared. I like my house, but occasionally I think I might want to live in the perfect First Period house, the perfect Georgian house, or the perfect Greek Revival house. However, I’m just not sure any of these houses exist, and if they do, whether they are the products of recreation or preservation. More likely than either is the organic and utilitarian evolution that most houses experience which robs them of their untouched purity but enhances both their livability and their accessibility (and occasionally their charm).Arch Purity 1

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My house features a “progression” of nineteenth-century interior mouldings, but even the all-First Period William Murray House on Essex Street in Salem experienced some evolution. 

Two cases in point are some houses I am currently “realestalking”: another 1827 house which just came on the market in Salem, and a First Period house in Ipswich which I’ve had my eye on for a while. I’ve always admired the Samuel Roberts House on Winter Street, but it’s hardly “pure” with its modified entry, addition (s), and twentieth-century garage. Yet somehow it all works (I would probably sacrifice the garage for more garden, but I think those mid-century garages are protected). The Ipswich house was built in 1696 and expanded considerably in 1803; I imagine the window came a bit later.

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I am always thinking about the evolution of houses, but this particular thread started when I was researching yet another lost seventeenth-century Salem structure: the Benjamin Marston House, which was built in the later seventeenth century and demolished around 1870. Unfortunately it was not photographed before its demolition (to my knowledge, and I looked everywhere) but the ever-dependable Sidney Perley made a drawing for one of his Essex Antiquarian articles. Through his deed research, he was also able to trace the ownership of the house as well as its increasing size, and what emerges is an image of a true hybrid house, with a First-period back and a Federal front! I wish I could see this house, even in photographic form, and I imagine the streets of Salem were full of these composite structures in the nineteenth century. The Marston house was replaced with a more imposing structure that remains pretty “pure” today: the imposing Second Empire Balch-Putnam House, sometimes known as “Greymoor”.

Benjamin Marston House, Salem, Massachusetts

Salem Map 1851

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Sidney Perley’s c. 1900 illustration of the Benjamin Marston House; the location of the house (*) on Henry McIntire’s 1851 map of Salem, and the house on that site today.


A Tudor House in Salem

How did I miss it? Here I am, a sixteenth-century English historian living in Salem, and I never knew about a reproduction sixteenth-century house built right here in 1927 by a mason named James H. Boulger. I’ve posted on “English” houses in Salem before, and often lamented the lack of Tudors in town, all the while blind to the existence of this interesting little house in South Salem. While I was researching the “Electrical Home” in this same neighborhood (with streets named for U.S. Presidents), I came across a story entitled “Salem Home and Garage Built in 16th Century English Style” in the November 21, 1927 edition of the Boston Globe. Yesterday I walked down from my office at Salem State to see this very house, hoping that it was still standing and bore some semblance of its sixteenth-century self and had not been turned into a ranch, or even worse, a “Colonial”. But as I walked down Cleveland Road and saw its pitched roof approaching, I got more excited, and there it was: an adorable, obviously well-maintained and well-loved, Tudor cottage.

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My only basis of comparison is the grainy newspaper photograph, but it looks like the major alteration to Boulger’s original house is the integration of the originally-freestanding garage. I’m not sure my photographs capture the scale of the house and the interesting pitch of its roof: to me, (and again, for the thousandth time, I’m just an architecture buff) the house looks more Tudor than Tudor Revival. According to the article, all plans were by Mr. Boulger, who is a native of Manchester Eng, and a mason by trade. In designing the building, he was aided by a picture printed in a magazine showing a farmhouse in England during the 16th century. Like many English architects of centuries back, the designer has secured the typical English charm that marked the early, simple, unpretentious homes in England. 

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I made a limited search for the precise photograph that might have been Mr. Boulger’s inspiration, but contemporary periodicals in America are full of Tudor Revivals and those in Britain tend to feature either “great” Tudor structures or townhouses, like the famous Seven Stars pub in Mr. Boulger’s native Manchester, now sadly long gone. He seems to have invested as much effort into the interior as the exterior, as the Globe article goes into considerable detail about the “outstanding features” of the new/old house: an ‘English box seat’ window, a combination dining room and parlor, natural finished woods, low, wide arches leading to the various rooms, low situated windows and the ‘cold box’, so-called, where vegetables and wines were kept by the English farmer….. Mr. Boulger plans to install old-fashioned furniture in keeping with the exterior of the building. And no doubt he did.

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I’m sure that the Seven Stars, widely heralded as one of England’s oldest pubs in its day, was not Mr. Boulger’s inspiration, but wanted to inject a bit of old Manchester here!


Hotel Happening

And now for some good (re-)development news: the conversion of the 1895 Newmark’s Building on Essex Street into the new Hotel Salem, a 44-room boutique hotel complete with rooftop bar, ground-floor restaurant, and shuffleboard in the basement. The Hotel Salem will join The Merchant as the second Salem hostelry to be operated by Lark Hotels, which manages a string of unique properties in New England and California. The renderings invite one to imagine the Essex Street pedestrian mall actually working; in fact, Lark’s “chief inspiration officer” (what a great job title!) Dawn Hagin specifically referred to it last week in an article on the new hotel in Boston MagazineA lot of New England towns, or towns across America, don’t have pedestrian walking malls anymore, says Hagin. And the fact that it still exists in Salem, and this anchor store that used to be there—which was the heart of that—could be embraced and brought out today with what we are doing with the Hotel Salem—it is very exciting to us.  

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Well of course the pedestrian mall was a 1970s development, but no matter, Lark clearly chooses its properties for their unique place-specific character, rather than imposing some generic corporate vision on them: Hagan goes on to explain how the “bones of the building” and its mid-century department store vibe is going to influence the new hotel’s interiors. This building was at the “heart” of a very vibrant Essex Street, as a proliferation of postcards indicate (it’s the fourth building on the right in the c. 1910 view below). Even though everyone refers to it as the Newmark’s Building because of the ghost sign on the side and the long-standing art deco lettering in front, it was actually built for the Naumkeag Clothing Company in 1895–they moved from down the street and seem to have occupied the building for several decades until Newmark’s took up residence–and business.

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It’s really quite a building: I don’t think I ever really appreciated it because of the incongruous first-floor facade but now I can’t wait for its big reveal! This is a project that appears to be “opening up” to Essex Street–and Salem– rather than turning away.

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The future Hotel Salem, opening summer 2017 @ 209 Essex Street, Salem.


Developer-driven Design

Salem has been experiencing a building boom for the past several years and 2017 promises to intensify that trend with major projects rising on several ends of Washington Street, a new 40,000 square-foot wing on Essex Street for the Peabody Essex Museum, a new building on Lafayette Street adjacent to Salem State University, the completion of the Footprint power plant on Fort Avenue, and various other public and private developments around town. Given recent completion of the new courthouse addition and MBTA parking garage along Bridge Street, I think this is going to be the year that the “new” Salem almost overtakes the old when it comes to the downtown streetscape, and this makes me sad, because the new buildings do not live up to the standards of design and construction upheld by the old. This is a subjective opinion, of course, but I believe that it is shared by many people in Salem. None of us knows what to do about it, however: we are all, it seems, at the mercy of developer-driven design.

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The first and second (current) designs for the District courthouse site on Washington Street; the second is heralded as more “contextual” ; the former Essex County District Court building, which currently occupies the site, is slated for demolition soon.

I don’t mean to demonize developers: I’m sure they’re all lovely people (at least the ones I know are), but they are generally driven by economic factors rather than aesthetic ones unless they are steered towards the latter by some approving authority. Is this happening in Salem? I just don’t know. From my perspective it looks like the boards are tinkering with the generic designs submitted to them, making improvements where they can but never altering the basic bland box in any substantive way. We end up with a building that simply fills a space rather than enhancing a specific place: Salem. I’m dreading the construction of the condominium building on upper Washington Street (above) so much that I have become increasingly attached to the 1970s modernist building that presently occupies that space: at least it has a distinct design. As bad as the proposed new structure for this site is, it cannot compare to the building planned for further along Washington Street to the south: the Mill Hill/East Riley Plaza development, which will include a Hampton Inn. A great project but a dreadful design: I’ve yet to find a single fan: just “it’s better than what is there now” (which is just an empty space at present, so I’m not sure about that).

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The RCG LLC Mill Hill East Riley Plaza Development–I think this is the final plan, unfortunately.

I  do not discern a great deal of excitement about the Peabody Essex Museum’s new wing either: I’ve no doubt the design details and construction materials will be superior to the projects above but on paper it looks like a cube with little or no relation to the prominent building next to it: the stately East India Marine Building (1825). I’m going to reserve judgement for now, as this building has had a series of incongruous structures adjacent to it in its long history and sometimes the contrast between old and new can be striking, but I already miss the Japanese Garden, which is now a jobsite. I can’t help but think of the words of the architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who was so instrumental in saving Salem’s downtown from complete destruction during the wave of urban renewal in the early 1970s. Much later, in a retrospective interview about her career in the Boston Globe, Huxtable opined that she had had a major impact on Salem, where they were going to eliminate the beautiful Japanese garden next to the museum, and now that garden is gone.

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Renderings of the new PEM wing, © Ennead Architects; the jobsite last month and the East India Marine Hall in the 1890s by Frank Cousins.

The other day I was walking downtown along Federal Street and came upon another recent project: the massive curtain-walled and faux-columned J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center. My immediate thought, as always, was why it so big? But then I noticed, and again, not for the first time, the contrast provided by the juxtaposition of the former First Baptist Church, now a law library. I remember the citizen effort behind that building’s situation, just so, following the lines of the street and enhancing the adjacent (hulking) buildings’ placement here in Salem. Maybe all these new buildings will benefit from a similar effort, with positive results. And maybe not. But just imagine what it would look like if that old building was not there.

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Salem Interiors, 1896

I came across a book I had never seen before the other day at the wonderful Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture (beware, serious rabbit-hole potential here) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison: Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, published in 1896. I was doing something rather tedious so of course I put that aside and dug in. The book is not great in terms of information, and there were some pretty serious flaws that even an mere buff such as myself could spot immediately (such as referring to Samuel McIntire as James) but it is a treasure trove of plates, including many photographs of Salem interiors I had never seen before. These photographs are fascinating to me because many of them feature rooms decorated in a mishmash style that preceded the pure period room. Look at the east parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house below, for example: looking quite cluttered and Victorian rather than serenely Federal, with the exception of that beautiful fireside chair. Elwell wants to focus on the period furniture, but his photographs can’t always hide all the contemporary details of its setting.

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The sheer (and quite casual) display of Salem furniture from the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is a little overwhelming: some of the pictures seem to be taking us into attics (or the storage area of the Essex Institute) where tables and sideboards are lined up in a random fashion. The chair that is featured in the second photograph above, of the mantel of the west parlor of the Peirce-Nichols house, is one from a set of eight crafted by McIntire, one of which sold at a Christie’s auction last week for $15,000 (which seems like a bargain to me, no?) But the 1890s was a key decade in the development of a Colonial Revival consciousness that was both very national and very local: a key decade for the identification of  “Olde Salem”. Consequently along with the eclectic vignettes which mix periods and styles, there are also some “typical colonial” Salem rooms in Elwell’s book, forerunners of the period rooms of the next decades.

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Plates from Newton Elwell’s Colonial Furniture and Interiors, 1896.


Doorways to the Past

I remain absolutely enraptured with Frank Cousins (1851-1925), Salem’s great photographer-author-entrepreneur and pioneering preservationist, after countless posts on his life and work. Today I want to feature his debut publication, Colonial Architecture, Volume One: Fifty Salem Doorways (1912). The title indicates that there was going to be a Volume Two, but instead Cousins went on to publish The Woodcarver of Salem: Samuel McIntire, His Life and Work (with Phil Madison Riley, 1916) and The Colonial Architecture of Salem (1919) and through his art company, sell his prints to pretty much every architectural author of his era. Fifty Salem Doorways is a large quarto portfolio of Cousins’ photographs of doors representing all the historic neighborhoods of Salem: Chestnut, Essex and Federal, the Common, and Derby Street.There’s very little text, just doors. I’m not quite sure why I’m so fascinated with this volume, but I am: I pick it up and browse through it quite frequently, discovering some new little detail every time. Details of DOORS. Yesterday I was talking to a few of my students in the research seminar that I’m teaching this semester in an attempt to aid them in narrowing down and focusing their very broad topics (this is always a struggle), and I said you need to find a window–or a doorway–into this topic, a point of entry. I was talking about sources, but also perspectives. So maybe that’s why I like Cousins’ doors so much: they give me a point of entry into that Salem of a century ago. And of course it’s always nice to engage in some past-and-present comparisons, which is what I’ve done below.

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and one that got away: the entrance of the Francis Peabody Mansion formerly at 136 Essex Street (1820-1908).

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Nuts-and-Bolts Bankers

I love everything about this little pamphlet I picked up the other day commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Merchant’s National Bank of Salem in 1911: In the Year 1811. The graphics, the format, the paper, the fonts. The whole point of the pamphlet is to show how much changed from 1811 to 1911, and how integral the Merchants National Bank was to that change. Everything is so much better in the latter year, everything is so modern, and to illustrate this modernization, in both words and pictures, the pamphlet privileges the practical side of life over the big political events that shaped the century: transportation, heating, cooking, lighting, clothing, and commerce, of course. There is one sentence referencing the wars of the century, and presidents are referenced only by their age at the time of the incorporation of the bank. 

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There are several references to Salem’s notable architecture, but again, it’s really all about the bank, which showcases its new headquarters on Essex Street, “colonial in architecture and absolutely fire-proof in construction. The walls are of brick; roof and floors of concrete. There is nothing to burn; the city might be swept by a conflagration, and the building of the Merchants Bank would still stand”. Of course this strikes one as a very prescient statement, as Salem would  be “swept by a conflagration” in only three short years: the Great Salem Fire of 1914. The new bank building stood tall, but primarily because the fire did not reach downtown. Samuel McIntire is not mentioned in the pamphlet, despite the fact that 1811 was the year of his death.

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The new bank building on Essex Street, the Old Witch House, and a representative Salem porch.

I think the illustrator of most (certainly not all) of the charming sketches in the pamphlet are the work of Salem-born artist George Elmer Browne, based on the illustration of Salem’s first Eastern Railroad depot, which is attributed to Browne elsewhere. Everyone is familiar with the great Gothic Revival structure that was built in the 1840s and unceremoniously demolished in the 1950s, but this was its less imposing predecessor. Now that was a big change!

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Browne’s illustrations of the First E.R. Depot in Salem, in Francis B.C. Bradlee’s The Eastern Railroad: A Historical Account of Early Railroading in Eastern New England (1917) and the second depot in 1911-12 Report of the Salem Plans Commission.


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