Tag Archives: Development and Redevelopment

The Last Summer of White Court

The century-old Classical Revival mansion in nearby Swampscott which served as the “Summer White House” for Calvin and Mrs. Coolidge in 1925 is not long for this world, as just last week the Swampscott Historical Commission agreed to reduce the requisite demolition delay ordinance period to just 90 days in return for its purchasers’ agreement to salvage and reproduce significant architectural elements as they transform the estate into 18 condominiums. Looking at all of the old photographs of White Court, which was designed by architect Arthur Little and built near his family’s summer home on Little’s Point, “reproduction” seems unlikely; I can’t speak to salvage. In any case, the mansion will be demolished, and along with it will go a material reminder and symbol of a notable era in Swampscott’s history, a golden era when the residence of the President drew many eyes to this seaside town.

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White Court Arrival

Coolidge firstWhite Court in 1900, Bain News Service, Library of Congress; The arrival of President and Mrs. Coolidge at White Court in Swampscott in June of 1925, and the pair with one of their white collies (either Rob Roy or Prudence Prim ) at the estate during the summer, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries Special Collections and University Archives Alton H. Blackington Photograph Collection, ca. 1920-1963.

The Coolidges were welcomed warmly and seen about Swampscott and surrounding towns occasionally: according to the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation blog, the President worked from an office in Lynn, sailed on the presidential yacht Mayflower docked in Marblehead, and attended services with Mrs. Coolidge every Sunday at the Salem Tabernacle Congregational Church. There was not a lot of entertaining, as the Coolidges had lost their sixteen-year-old younger son, Calvin Jr., just a year previously. There were many strolls around the six-acre seaside property, white collie alongside, apparently: we only get to see one such stroll, right after the Coolidges arrive when the press were clearly on hand to see them settled into their summer home. Their smiles come and go; this is a dutiful walk—I’d like to see them on a more casual stroll but I’m glad the photographers were not enabled to intrude for too long. We have many photographs of their activities off the estate however: this was a well-documented presidential vacation!

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Coolidges White Court Leslie Jones Close Up

White Court SalemLeslie Jones photographs of President and Mrs. Coolidge at White Court, Swampscott, 1925, Boston Public Library; the Coolidges attend the Tabernacle Church in Salem, July 1925, Blackington Collection, University of Massachusetts.

I felt like I was intruding yesterday morning when I drove over to Little’s Point to see the condemned mansion, which was very much in the midst of a construction zone. It didn’t seem possible to walk down its long entry lane (which was also marked private) to snap a photograph, so I have no “now” to contrast with all of my “then”. The last time I was on the premises was a couple of years ago, when the mansion was the main building of Marian Court College, a Catholic commuter college operated by the Sisters of Mercy from 1964 to 2015. There were institutional additions to its exterior, and I did not see the interior, but the core of the building looked pretty much the same as it did in that spotlight summer of 1925. But apparently its foundation has deteriorated beyond repair, and so White Court must cease to exist, come September.

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White Court Leslie Jones BPL The drawing room of White Court in its residential era, Historic New England; an exterior view by Leslie Jones, Boston Public Library.

Appendix: Thanks to Jonathan for informing me that White Court was the site of Northshore Magazine’s “Best of the North Shore” awards just last year: great photographs of the mansion below and more here. Also, in return for their reduced demolition delay period, the developers have agree to document the house thoroughly, so we will (at least) be able to see detailed architectural photographs at some point.

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Is it better than a Junkyard?

Read this paragraph: ___________ is changing rapidly. Some of the changes have been good: the burgeoning art scene, the museum-building boom, the explosion in restaurants and the whole Napa-of-craft-beer thing, not to mention legalized marijuana. But there have also been some bad changes: the terrible traffic, the litter and pet waste everywhere, the sky-high rents and the swelling ranks of the homeless, not to mention legalized marijuana. It could be describing Salem at the moment! But it’s not: fill Denver in that blank space, a city that is dealing with far more growing pains than Salem, given its much bigger size. Denver’s building boom has given rise to a very boisterous public discussion about the merits and demerits of all the new structures appearing on its horizon, and this particular quote is from an article by art historian and writer Michael Paglia titled “Denver is Drowning in a Sea of Awful Architecture”. This just one of a sea of articles and posts expressing disdain for Denver’s “fugly” architecture: also see here, here, and here; there are also a good measure of constructive articles seeking a more aesthetic way forward for the Mile High City. Why am I writing about Denver? Well, when I did a Google image search of a planned housing development on Salem’s North River hoping for some sort of architectural context, the closest match I could find was one of Denver’s identified ugliest buildings. Here we are: one of five buildings consisting of 48 condominiums with underground parking proposed by the Salem development firm Juniper Point Investment Co. LLC for 16-18 Franklin Street right on the North River, a very visible “gateway” property.

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To be honest, I am unsure of the status of this proposed design: it was submitted to the Salem Planning Board at its last meeting on February 15 (after many continuances apparently) and those minutes are not yet available. And to be fair, the site of this proposed development is a junkyard: the long-lived Ferris Junkyard. So anything could be better, right? Well, NO. Too often in Salem I hear: it’s better than what was there before as a rationale for begrudging approval. This large waterfront property, which is adjacent to a park and another prominent property slated for redevelopment, deserves serious consideration of design and context. This is an amazing historic opportunity, as this site has been industrial-zoned for well over a century, but sits on the edge of a beautiful residential neighborhood and right across from Salem’s downtown.

Junkyard Salem News

Ken Yuszkus/ Salem News Staff Photo

Junkyard collage

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North River 1912The site, and the North River coastline near the bridge, 1851, 1890s and 1912, when the first City Plans Commission report asserted that the river “needed to be redeemed”.

Given the long industrial usage of the property, it might be hard to find context, but can’t there be some feature—architectural or material—to indicate that these buildings will be located in Salem, Massachusetts and not Florida or California or anywhere else where flat roofs rule? Tanneries, coal sheds and the famous Locke Regulator Company (above): any inspiration there? Slightly to the north, North Salem was a botanical paradise—can’t this land be reclaimed as such? We need pear trees in honor of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle Robert Manning, a famous pomologist whose orchard was in the midst of Northfields, and whose residence remains on Dearborn Street. Perhaps some inspiration can be found in the work of Salem-born and -raised architect Philip Horton Smith (1890-1960), who really distinguished himself as a preservation architect in his Salem commissions but also designed a lot of new buildings, including the Hawthorne Hotel, the Salem Post Office, and the neighborhood of brick duplexes further along Franklin Street for the Salem Rebuilding Trust after the Great Fire of 1914. Smith was a true Colonial Revival architect, and I’m certainly not advocating for brick veneers on every new building in Salem, but just a bit more attention to place, as shaped by both the past and the present. I am certain that the neighbors have been waiting for something special to be situated in this particular place for quite some time; indeed we all have.

Salem Rebuilding Trust North Salem Philip Horton Smith’s  Franklin Street “low rent brick cottages”, 1915.


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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The House with Nine Lives

One of the projects that my husband’s architectural firm has been working on is coming to a close, so I took advantage of a holiday open house to go in and see how the much-altered former Home for Aged Men/Sons of Poland/ Emmerton Hall of the House of the Seven Gables was being transformed into six condominiums. I like my title, so I’m keeping it–but it is incorrect: 114 Derby Street is actually a building on the cusp of leading ten lives (if you count all the new units individually). It was built in 1806 for Salem sea Captain Joseph Waters, and remained a single-family residence until 1877 when the great philanthropist John Bertram purchased it for his newly-established Home for Aged Men. After the Bertram Home moved to the Common (where it remains), the Sons of Poland transformed 114 Derby Street into a fraternal headquarters and social club, and it continued to serve in the latter function, essentially, when the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association purchased it in 1966 and renamed it after its founder, Caroline O. Emmerton. As envisioned by Emmerton, the Gables was an institution that was founded to realize the joint goals of preservation and settlement, and its social activities had outgrown the constraints main campus across the street. Everyone in Salem consequently refers to this building as the “Settlement House”, though that identity was relatively short-lived in the context of its entire history. The Frank Cousins photograph below, taken in the early twentieth century when the house was the Bertram Home for Aged Men, shows some semblance of its original Federal appearance.

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The Waters House c. 1912 (Urban Landscape Collection, Duke University Library) and today. Third-floor ghost windows on both the main house and the 1983 addition of 114 Derby Street are reminiscent of the house’s Federal past.

Every “life” brought major architectural changes to the old Waters House, but it appears that the twentieth-century alterations were particularly extensive: the building’s exterior and interior were completely transformed by the Sons of Poland in the 1930s, and the Gables added the present addition to the back and side in 1983 (which everyone I know disdains but now looks pretty cool). The mission of the Gables has evolved over the last decade or so, and consequently its trustees made the decision to sell the building last year.This last (maybe!) evolution of 114 Derby Street has been pretty speedy, and the six (sold-out) residences should be ready for occupancy this spring.

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The addition s) and all those institutional uses mean that the new condominiums all (I think all!) have their own entrances.

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Old stairwells and New spaces being carved out of the Waters/Settlement House: as you can see, the units are quite large (1-3 bedrooms with expansive living/dining spaces) and include parking out back. 


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