I stumbled across the “first annual” Report of the Salem Plans Commission the other day, and read it with rapt attention. This was issued at the end of 1912, a time when the city’s population had experienced rapid growth and housing was in short supply, the waterfront was “decayed”, and downtown (trolley) traffic was at a standstill. There were startling parallels to Salem 2016 in the Report, starting with its opening assertion that Salem is known quite literally with a single tolerable entrance or exit and (possibly excepting Loring Avenue) we must admit that this is quite literally true, whether we travel by foot, carriage, automobile, trolley, train or boat. While the Commission asserts that Salem’s entrance corridors, called “gateways” in the report (a timely term now) all needed work, they are clearly advocating for more immediate attention to the city’s key transportation network: the combination of trains and trolleys that drove external and internal traffic. Salem’s main gateway was identified as the Boston & Maine Depot, and the arteries that commenced from there were apparently in dire need of widening and expansion in the forms of a”ring road”, a “shore drive”, and a street system. The entire report calls for a more systematic Salem in every conceivable way: roads, parks, housing, zoning.
Salem’s Gateway, 1912
The commissioners write with a very strong voice, one voice, and express stark opinions throughout their report: the congested wooden housing in The Point is a “fire menace” (a prescient observation, given it would be leveled by the Great Salem Fire in two years) which evolved through “selfish gain driven by public indifference”, the waterfront must be “redeemed”, the North River is a “stinking open sewer”. They are so assertive that what one would think would be a rather dry text makes for riveting reading!
The “Stinking” North River and “Billboard Adornment” on Bridge Street.
In order to achieve their vision for Salem, the Commissioners include lots of detailed recommendations which are both utilitarian and aesthetic. They are aware of the significance of Salem’s material heritage but I would not call them preservationists: if an old building is interfering with trolley traffic on a narrow street it’s got to go! They seem particularly focused on Central and Lynde streets as problematic for traffic flow, and their recommendations seem to be the inspiration for the consolidation of the former Elm and Walnut Streets into a widened Hawthorne Boulevard.
From above: Central Street looking towards Essex; the intersection of Washington and Lynde Streets; two views of the intersection of North and Lynde Streets; a trolley turning onto Federal Street; Elm and Walnut Streets.
I think Commissioner Harlan P. Kelsey was the author of the report, but I can’t confirm this as it was simply published by the “Plans Commission”. Kelsey was a really prolific landscape architect who lived in Salem (at One Pickering Street–this was the house that distracted me from Kelsey’s story to that of its architect, Ernest Machado) and, in addition to his landscape and planning practices, also maintained two profitable nurseries in his native North Carolina and adopted city. I’ve read his writing on plans and parks elsewhere, and it sounds familiar, and the last part of the Report is devoted to the shoddy condition of Salem’s shade trees—another timely topic!
Two Salem streets which the Commissioners actually LIKED for both their width and their trees: Broad and Lafayette. Both would be half-leveled by the Great Salem Fire in 1914.
All photographs from: City Plans Commission, First Annual Report to the Mayor and City Council, December 26, 1912. Salem: Newcomb & Gauss, 1913.