Tag Archives: Big Boxes

The End of Mill Hill?

Place names are a topic I have not explored much on this blog, which is odd, as they represent a major entry into the local past. There’s a great article in the old Essex Institute Historical Collections (Volume 31, 1894-95; it was also printed separately) by Essex Institute Secretary Henry Mason Brooks about Salem “localities”, featuring many names that are no longer with us and several that still are, including Carltonville, Blubber Hollow, and Castle Hill. Brooks weaves a historic narrative around most of his localities, but even though he references Mill Hill, he doesn’t have much to say about it. In his time, it was a relatively new route connecting central and South Salem, having only been “opened” or laid out in 1873-74. It is really just an extension of Salem’s central north-south thoroughfare, Washington Street, and a very short and shallow hill indeed. Yet despite its unimpressive size and scale, Mill Hill endured as a place name over the twentieth century. When I moved to Salem in the 1990s people would reference it often, and it took me quite a while to figure out where it was. A couple of years ago it was designated the site of a brand new development incorporating a Hampton Inn plus rental housing, but now that that prosaic structure sprawls across its base (and then some) I am wondering if this particular Salem locality has met its end.

Mill Hill Map 1897 (2) (1)

Mill Hill 1890s (3)

Mill Hill 1914 SSU

Mill Hill 1914 PC SSU

Mill Hill 1920s PEMSome different perspectives on Mill Hill beginning with the 1897 Atlas at the State Library of Massachusetts. The first view is looking NORTH, towards downtown Salem, the rest are looking SOUTH towards Lafayette Street. The Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth (NORTH), two post-fire scenes from the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections, and another Phillips Library view from about ten years later, after considerable post-fire reconstruction. Of course, the old St. Joseph’s–and the new St. Joseph’s–are long gone.

Ok, get ready for the view now, as it is a shocker: first, from my car, trying to take a photograph from the same location as the last photo above. What you see on the left is the side of the sprawling new Hampton Inn. And then: the front, supposedly the best face forward?

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This big boxy building features a conglomeration of materials over all of its facades: it actually looks pretty good from lower Lafayette/ Derby Street and the rear! Salem desperately needs a large commercial hotel to cater to its tourist traffic, but I can’t help but look upon this as a lost opportunity: more proliferation of plastic, or whatever that material is. I can’t understand why the City doesn’t work with chains to conform construction to some semblance of the architecture which made Salem Salem—at least a reflection, or even a nod. Washington Street just seems like a very different place now than when I first moved to Salem decades ago, with generic boxy buildings on every block and an uninspired train station at its head. It’s always been a busy, commercial thoroughfare in transition, but seems increasingly soul-less and place-less: and Mill Hill is clearly no more, as the new hotel is situated (as more than a few people have pointed out to me, so apparently “Mill Hill” does have resonance for Salem natives) at the corner of “Washington and Washington Streets”.

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Blank Buildings

Periods and events of the past are generally identified after they are over: history is about remembrance, and imposing order and meaning on what has happened. There’s no better way to convey this essential point than to reference wars: obviously people in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Seven Years’ War had no sense that these were the historic events in which they were participating or enduring! Often historical and cultural eras overlap, and that means that styles are identified well after their expression: medieval, colonial, Victorian. But there are also cultural descriptions detached from precise historical periods: Gothic and Palladian come to mind but I suppose any “revival” style could fall into this category. This long preamble is just my mind wondering how people of the future will categorize Salem’s current architectural style: in a city long identified by its architecture, how will the buildings of the early 21st century be branded? I think we are turning a corner with the latest downtown building slated for construction—a condominium development on the site of the District Courthouse on Washington Street–but I’m not sure where this turn will take us.

Blank Architecture 1 Coming Soon on Washington Street via Building Salem.

The style–or perhaps I should say form–of this rendering is familiar: similar buildings have been built in the last decade on Federal and Lafayette Streets. But what is it? I am architecturally naive, but it looks like a Prairie-esque type design on steroids, shorn of craftsmanship and charm. I’ve often heard Frank Lloyd Wright characterized as the most influential architect of the last century, both for better and for worse. All I see when I look at these buildings are the shallow or flat roofs with their overhanging eaves, sometimes slanted and sometimes straight, and their bulk. They look vaguely Italianate, vaguely “Mediterranean”, vaguely Prairie, and like they could belong anywhere and everywhere, and as more of them are built in Salem, Salem becomes less and less Salem-esque.

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Blank Architecture 5Ten Federal and 135 Lafayette; I think this “style” started with the Ruane Judicial Center nearly a decade ago, on the far right: it is very bulky with a conspicuous overhang. The panorama of courthouses on Federal Street makes quite a statement!

My title is a double entendre: I really don’t know what this architectural style is called or what architectural era we are in so I am inviting readers to fill in the blank______, but I also think that this architecture is blank: empty, soulless, devoid of any connection to its surroundings. We could do so much better; inspiration is all around us. A building in Lynn caught my eye just as I was driving back from the airport this morning: it features some of the very details that characterize these stark buildings in Salem but is clearly a composition rather than just a composite. It has texture, ornamentation, depth, craftsmanship: its builders were obviously proud to cast their mark on it, and mark its time, as it was built to last.

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Blank Architecture 8The Loraine Apartment Building in Lynn’s Diamond District, designed by architect Samuel Rogers.


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