There are more and more and more witch shops in Salem, or perhaps I better loosen up that description to goth shops or macabre markets? In any case, our local chronicler had to reassure his readers that there were, in fact, places downtown where socks could be purchased. But sneakers? I think not. It is concerning as many of these shops are only open “in season,” producing a deadening effect downtown in the “off-season.” [Somewhat off-topic tangent: I often think that Salem’s planners are going for a “15–minutecity” but I don’t understand how that goal is compatible with Witch City—I’ll follow up in a later post] In the downtown, there is oversight for these shops’ signs and exteriors, and Salem is a constantly-evolving city, so I’m not inclined to get too perturbed about this darkening trend, unless said shops alter an historic interior radically, perhaps permanently: and that’s the case with the former Merchants National Bank, a much-heralded 1908 Little & Browne Colonial Revival structure on Essex Street now transformed into a local outlet of Blackcraft Cult, a Goth fast-fashion retailer based in California. The creative vision of this store is simple: paint it black, all black, walls and trim, ceiling and much of the floor. All is black except for a red witch descending from the center dome, replacing the gilded eagle that overlooked everything previously. Witch kitsch displaces classicism: I don’t think you can find a better visual metaphor for what’s happened to Salem over the last decade or so.
Once an Eagle……now the former Merchants National Bank building on Essex Street is home to Salem’s largest witch! In the vicinity are more seasonal shops, closed on this beautiful & sunny February afternoon.
This building was the fourth headquarters of the Merchants National Bank in Salem, founded in 1811. It received quite a bit of attention after it opened for business in 1908: in national architectural publications and local periodicals, as well as the Bank’s own centennial anniversary publication which tied its history and success to Salem’s history and success. There’s so much craftsmanship and detail and sheer abundance in Salem’s traditional architecture that we take it for granted: I wish I had spent more time in this building considering its now-darkened detail, and I wonder if Salem’s preservationist organization, Historic Salem, Inc., is considering a more agressive policy of seeking interior preservation restrictions and covenants. Perhaps it is time, before everything goes black.
Images of the Bank from 1911: in the Brickbuilder, its centennial anniversary booklet “In the Year 1811,” and an unsigned watercolor, Bull Run Auctions.
I knew that students in the pioneering professional architectural program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came to Salem to measure and draw interior and exterior details of notable Salem houses in the 1890s and after, but I did not know that the “Salem as laboratory” role extended well into the twentieth century for both architecture and urban planning students at MIT: recently I browsed through an archive of MIT Masters’ theses and saw several Salem studies among them as graduate students considered the waterfront, how to integrate historic and modern architecture (a perennial problem), public art, and the logistics of tourism, among other spatial topics. These were interesting to read as we seldom have debates about public spaces in Salem that are intellectual or contextual or even public: projects are simply announced and implemented. The most interesting thesis for me was one of the oldest, entitled “A new Peabody Museum for Salem, Massachusetts,” written by M.Arch candidate Donald H. Panushka in 1951. The thesis of Mr. Panushka’s thesis was that the Peabody Museum of Salem, especially its beautiful East India Marine Hall, was both detached from the waterfront and crowded in by commercial development on Essex Street, so that it should be removed to the Derby Wharf campus of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site (SMNHS). As you can on his map below, several other waterfront sites were considered, but ultimately he chose the large lot adjacent to the wharf in what was solely an academic exercise: I don’t think Mr. Panushka even consulted the SMNHS, but he did include some striking photographs and renderings to make his case. So it’s an interesting “what if” scenario, visually presented. I’m not sure the mid-century buildings placed alongside the relocated Hall would have weathered well, but knowing what we know about the development of Witch City in the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it’s tempting to think about how a more robust interpretation of Salem’s maritime heritage might have countered that trend—-and we could have had a ship decades before the Friendship. But again, it was all academic.
The first generations of architectural students at MIT were a bit more focused on architectural practice than planning: several “summer schools” in the 1890s produced measured drawings of Salem houses that were published in the the American Architect and Building News and later the successive volume of the Georgian Period published by William Rotch Ware. Details, details: including those of several Salem houses which, unfortunately, no longer exist in a material sense as well as those which fortunately do.
The streetlight right near my house has been out since January, so lower Chestnut Street is bathed in darkness every night. There are some benefits to this, as this light shines right into my bedroom window when operational, but I still hope it gets fixed soon: the residents of our street purchased period-esque streetlights over a decade ago and I like my light. Because it’s been so dark–and I can see walking-tour leaders walking by with lanterns—I’ve been thinking about both historical darkness and the coming of light onto the streets of Salem, and then the other day I found a cache of cool photographs illuminating the latter era from the General Electric Company archive at the Museum of Innovation and Science (MiSci) via Google Arts & Culture. Salem definitely has electrical credentials: Moses Farmer illuminated a room in his Pearl Street house every July night of 1859, an early “All-Electric” home on Loring Avenue drew headlines and crowds when it was first opened in 1924, and just down the street, the GTE-Sylvania plant employed hundreds of workers during its heyday (1936-1989). The source of these photographs, however, is the even larger General Electric River works plant in nearby Lynn, which featured a large street lighting department. A 1916 GE catalog titled The Splendor of Well Lighted Streets showcases the company’s latest streetlights and observes that in the vicinity of Lynn are sections of streets and roads lighted in every different fashion to demonstrate in actual practice the differences in units and types of lighting: Salem clearly provided an effective demonstration setting, offering all sorts of opportunities to showcase GE’s newest lighting and traffic-signal products. The photographs below date from 1916 to 1931.
Essex Street, 1918-1927(including a new Novalux light decorating for Christmas), the Hawthorne Hotel, 1926 (showcasing streetlight AND stoplight) and Bridge Street, General Electric Company Archives, MiSci: the Museum of Innovation and Science.
Lafayette Street, the intersection at West, Loring, and Lafayette, and (I think???) the road to Marblehead.
Interior Lighting at the Almy, Bigelow & Washburn and William G. Webber stores on Essex Street.
Washington Street during World War I: the new Masonic Temple building and the illuminated war chest; floodlights at a trapshooting competition somewhere in Salem.
I was going to title this post “the good, the bad, and the ugly” but decided to stay a bit more neutral, and yet here I am leading off with this hackneyed phrase! That’s my preview, so beware. Essex Street, Salem’s venerable main street, ever in transition, is experiencing big changes yet again. First the very good: Salem’s newest hotel, the Hotel Salem, just opened in the old Newmark building at 209 Essex Street. It is a sparkling mix of mid-century modern decor superimposed on what feels like an earlier 20th-century building (it was actually built for the Naumkeag Clothing Company in 1895), complete with a marble staircase and a soda fountain-esque restaurant (called The Counter, not quite open) in the first-floor lobby (as well as a seasonal rooftop bar!). The entire hotel is oriented towards the street and all about embracing its bustling commercial past: it’s a great addition to Salem.
Now for the not-so-good. Say you’re sitting at that counter in the Hotel Salem lobby, drink nearby, peering outside onto Essex Street and planning where you’re going to go Christmas shopping next–the Counter will be open before Christmas I am informed. You probably can’t quite see it, but right next door is a great little independent bookstore, Wicked Good Books (above), which is a good start, but then where? You’re new to Salem: you don’t know that there is in fact good shopping a bit further down Essex Street in both directions, and on Central and Front Streets. All you see on one side is the Witch History “Museum” (quotations mine), more witch kitsch across the street, and on the other corner of Essex and Derby Square a vacant building that will house Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery come March. Not a lot of shopping possibilities there I would imagine, even when it is open. And then it gets uglier: as you look out of through the wide windows of the Hotel Salem in the other direction, beyond the old Almy’s clock, your eyes cannot avoid the hulking Museum Place Mall, recently rechristened the Witch City Mall. What happened to this building? The photographs from the 1970s show a rather imposing structure but at least one with some semblance of architectural integrity, later lost through artless adaptations and poor maintenance.
The old Naumkeag Trust Bank Building (1900), soon to be Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery; Museum Place (Witch City Mall) shops and signs, today and in the 1970s (MACRIS and Bryant Tolles’ ArchitectureinSalem).
All I can say is ugh, but I’m not through with this block yet: across the way from the Mall the new Peabody Essex Museum building is rising and I am finding that my reactions to it are not what I thought they would be. It’s going to be very boxy, but I like the restoration of the streetscape: though lovely, the Japanese garden which was previously located on this site didn’t quite fill the space. It’s just a frame, so maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now the structure seems to emphasize the street qualities of old Essex (like the hotel), as opposed to the pedestrian plaza of the 1970s. Time will tell.
There have been several Salem houses—houses that are no longer standing—that have haunted me; I get almost desperate to find out as much as I possibly can about them and if and when I do I’m done. If they remain inscrutable, they remain with me. There is one house that I’ve been thinking about for years: I’ve learned quite a bit about it but not enough: I’m not sure I’ll ever learn everything I want to know (at least not now, while I can’t get into the Phillips Library!). I’m posting on this house today just so I can stop thinking about it for a while.
The house in question is (was) the Colonel Benjamin Pickman house, built in either 1740 or 1750 or sometime in the decade between depending on the source, right on Essex Street, adjacent to where the Peabody Essex Museum’s East India Marine Hall now stands. Its former site was the Museum’s Japanese garden, recently transformed into a construction site–which is why I’ve been thinking about the Pickman House: have the workers found any material remains? Or does it just survive on paper–and in pieces? This is a house that was famous in its day, and well after. It was designed by an English architect–previously unknown but possibly identified as Peter Harrison, who also possibly designed the Cabot-Low-Endicott House further along Essex Street and the “King” Hooper Mansion in Marblehead. Whoever the architect or builder was, all agree that it was the client, the Colonel himself, who had carved and gilded codfish affixed to every riser of the house’s central stairway in acknowledgement of the source of his wealth and position, thus inspiring that perfect phrase, “Codfish Aristocracy”. Its elegant furnishing were much commented upon by contemporary observers and diarists, as was its rusticated wooden siding, meant to mimic stone. There’s a long list of prominent diners at the house, including Alexander Hamilton: on June 20, 1800. The house was successively celebrated, lithographed, photographed, obscured, picked-apart, measured and drawn, and ultimately demolished in 1940 or 1941.
All representations of the Pickman House are based on the c. 1830 lithograph published by Pendleton’s Lithography which shows the house in its pristine eighteenth-century state (courtesy Boston Athenaeum); an amped-up Pickman codfish from Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: a Biography of the Fish that Changed the World; A Frank Cousins photograph of the enclosed doorway which Samuel McIntire added to the house c. 1800.
We can’t see this famous house for most of its life, which only adds to its air of mystery (and vulnerability). Charles Webber and Winfield Nevins, the authors of Old Naumkeag: An Historical Sketch of the City of Salem and the Towns of Marblehead, Peabody, Beverly, Danvers, Wenham, Manchester, Topsfield and Middleton (1877) inform us that a certain “Mrs. LeMasters” constructed several low shop buildings in front of the house in the 1870s, and so we only see dormer windows peaking out from above in all the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century views of Essex Street and the East India Marine Hall. The Pickman family had moved west–into the residential McIntire District–away from the increasingly-busy downtown. A correspondent from the Philadelphia Inquirer who visited Salem in September of 1918 to see all the old storied mansions noted that the charming old house next to to the Peabody Museum has been all but obliterated by the shop front built out over its first and second stories…the gambrel roof, with its picturesque dormer windows, may still be seen overlooking the horrid shops, but all the inside fixtures have been destroyed. Progress is painful!
You can see the Pickman House dormer windows peaking out from above the storefront on the right of the two postcards and just above the P&Q shop, c. 1920s. These images were sourced for me from the Salem State Archives and Special Collections by Jen Ratliff–thanks! The house is completely invisible in the street- view photograph above from the late 1800s and the Phillips Library–it’s just behind the shops on the left, beginning with the “Importers of Crockery” storefront.
We do get to see the the unobstructed house (or what’s left of it), as a team of architects and photographers from the Historic American Building Survey went in to document it on the eve of its demolition–no doubt inspired by a succession of architects who had made the pilgrimage to Salem to measure and sketch this house, beginning with Arthur Little in 1877. As you can see, the storefronts didn’t just obstruct the house, they cut into it on the first and second stories. From that point on it must have been open season for house parts: an archway and a golden cod went to the Essex Institute, and all the other codfish went to a Pickman descendant’s Newport mansion: I think this one (where there is also a reproduction McIntire summer house) but I’m not certain.
Arthur Little sketch of the Pickman House parlor, EarlyNewEnglandInteriors (1878); William Martin Aiken sketch of Pickman architectural elements, 1883, Lowcountry Digital Archive; HABS MA-332 photographs and drawing, Library of Congress.
I’m not just interested in wood or architecture; I’m also interested in Colonel Pickman–but he remains pretty inscrutable too. Ultimately the only way to get to know him is through material remnants (like the silver he left to the First Church) or his family: his son Benjamin Pickman Jr. (whom I’ve written about here and here), was a Loyalist who left Salem during the Revolution but managed to easily assimilate into its social and political society upon his return–hence the dinner with Hamilton at the house! The more patriotic Colonel had died in 1773, so he doesn’t figure very prominently in the edited volume of his son’s diary and letters published in 1928. There is a beautiful portrait of the elder Benjamin by John Greenwood in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, but I’ve never seen it on display–nor the fluted archway and golden cod that is all that is left in Salem of the beautiful house that was once next door.
One of my favorite photographs of a Salem street shows a block of Essex adjacent to North in the 1890s: the three buildings in the picture are vastly preferable to those that occupy the space now, but what I really admire are the signs, particularly that single bicycle wheel sign in front of Whitten’s Bicycle Shop. Signs were just so much better then; I don’t know what happened. Well, probably cars, along with plastic and neon.
Actually I kind of like that Bonchon building, and if you can see (it’s pretty small), this business features not only the standard facade or wall sign but also a small projecting blade sign—an absolutely necessity in the “walking city” that Salem claims to be. Salem does have some really nice blade signs, commissioned by creative and civic-minded business owners who are investing in the look and feel of the city as well as their own enterprises. But there are also too many plastic facade and sandwich board signs scattered about, projecting the message: we’re just here for the Halloweenseason. Washington Street is lined with blade signs, as is Front, but ye olde Essex—the ancient “highway” of Salem– could do a lot better, in my humble opinion.
I suppose I am a sign snob: trade signs from a century or more ago just seem more creative to me in both their typography and their imagery. I particularly like symbolic signs in which bicycle wheels, keys, watches, boots, glasses, hats, and mortars & pestles advertise bicycle shops, locksmiths, jewelers, shoemakers, opticians, hatters and apothecaries. Key signs seem to be in every antique shop I go into, so they must have been a universal sign for that profession. I’ve seen lots of double-sided clock signs too, but the one below is particularly stunning.
Wouldn’t a big white wooden tooth look great hanging from or instead of this Essex Street Dentist’s sign? (maybe the one of the left is a bit scary).
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 BostonMagazine: A 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.
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.
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.
The future Hotel Salem, opening summer 2017 @ 209 Essex Street, Salem.
A welcome snow day today, imposing calm on everyone–or at least me! I’ve always enjoyed winter, but the SuperWinter of two years ago, in which something like 11 feet of snow was dumped on us in February, tempered my appreciation for this particular season considerably. The snow was all around the house, the snow was in the house, and I plodded to work every day in tunnels of yellow snow. I felt a little vulnerable, especially when I woke up in the morning to see the latest damage inflicted on my plaster ceilings by ice dams. But all of that is fixed now, and we spent last year, with its relatively light winter, rebuilding our chimneys, sealing our windows, and putting on a new roof. Now I feel impenetrable, at least for this first snow storm. I’m sure hardly anyone agrees with me, but I think winter is Salem’s best season actually–I like to see the city return to a car-less state: it’s as close as you can come to seeing it in its glorious past. There’s a timeless quality to a snowy day, and the contrast of nature and structure is never more apparent. Here’s a few photographs I took as I walked around a very calm city this afternoon.
Chestnut Street, Essex Street, and the Common.
Two notable Salem houses in varying stages of restoration.
Gambrel roofs embellished by snow.
Some contrast; Trinity does not really care for snow.
The practice and study of genealogy is supposed to be about people of course, but some of the genealogical tomes that I have consulted over the years seem to be almost as interested in houses, both family homesteads and the impressive residences of offspring. I’m not over-familiar with genealogical literature (I like a bit more context in my history), so I’m not sure whether this is a unique feature of Salem genealogies or not but many of the nineteenth-century histories of Salem’s venerable families feature plates of houses as well as portraits of the family members who lived in them. The best example, by far, is the weighty genealogy of the Pickering family and its many branches: The Pickering genealogy : being an account of the first three generations of the Pickering family of Salem, Mass., and of the descendants of John and Sarah (Burrill) Pickering, of the third generation by Harrison Ellery and Charles Pickering Bowditch, published in three volumes in 1897. The first volume is a veritable treasure trove of Pickering houses, most of which are still with us, others long gone. The second and third volumes follow the family through the nineteenth century and include lots of photographic portraits but few houses, as if to say we’ve built our houses for generations in true Yankee fashion–or perhaps we don’t like Victorian architecture. It seems to me as if the houses are presented as part of the foundation of the family, its very rootedness, as well as its thrift.
Pickering Houses no longer standing:
The James Diman House on Hardy Street, the Jonathan Haraden House on Charter Street, and the Benjamin Goodhue House at 403 Essex Street (I’m not sure of the dates of demolition of any of these houses, but I assume the Goodhue house was consumed by the Great Salem Fire of 1914).
Pickering Houses still standing, with the exception of the Phippen House, all in the vicinity of upper Essex and Chestnut Streets:
The Clarke, Silsbee, and Barnard Houses on Essex Street, the Pickering double house on Chestnut, and the Phippen House on Hardy and the grounds of the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association.
Over the years I have encountered people who were opposed to historic districts for a variety of reasons, prominently property rights and the sense that such building restrictions created homogeneous “museum neighborhoods”. I appreciate both arguments: I’m a bit of a libertarian myself and I have lived in historic districts since my 20s primarily because I like to look out the window when I get up every morning and look at historic buildings. But when I walk around Salem’s historic districts, I don’t see homogeneity, I see diversity: of building materials, of size, and even of style. Though Salem is renowned for its Federal architecture, there are many buildings in the downtown historic districts that pre-date and post-date this era, and I am always struck by how many houses were built in the later nineteenth century in styles that are far from “Victorian”: these are Colonial Revival structures melding into the streetscape, for the most part. You definitely notice the differences when you view “Colonial” and “Colonial Revival” side by side–and there are many opportunities to do this in Salem. Everything is a little bigger and bolder in the later houses: windows, window panes, dormers, especially entrances. Of course, the Colonial Revival era is long (most authorities seem to date if from 1880 to 1955) and encompasses several sub-styles (Classical Revival, Georgian Revival, Dutch Colonial), but one particular feature I notice in several of Salem’s more prominent houses built in the last decade of the nineteenth century are semi-circular projecting bays on the front facade–these houses are literally bursting out of line–but still complementary to the older structures surrounding them.
ABOVE: On upper Essex Street in Salem, the Clarence Clark House (built 1894) stands side by side the Captain Nehemiah Buffington House (built 1785) and across the street, the David P. Ives House features a very detailed Colonial Revival facade adhered to a much older (c. 1764) building.
BELOW: just a little further down (or up) Essex Street, I think the Emery P. Johnson house was the inspiration for all these bow fronts! It was built slightly earlier (1853) and thus is more Italianate than Colonial Revival, and was raised up on its mound in the early 20th century. It contrasts quite a bit with its colonial neighbors, but in a good way, I think.
Beckford Street below: the section of Beckford Street between Federal and Essex is a real mash-up of Colonial and Colonial Revival! I love the juxtaposition of the very old and charming Joseph Cook House (c. 1700-1733) with the very high-style Georgian Revival William Jelly House (c. 1905) right behind it–and then the George Beckford House (c. 1764) next to the Jelly House. And there was a cat in a window, too.
And at the end of Chestnut Street, my favorite contrast of Colonial and Colonial Revival: William Rantoul’s Colonial Revival adaptation of the Georgian Richard Derby House on Derby Street and the Kimball-Fogg House on Flint.
What I difference a year makes! It was a warm day yesterday, nearly 60 degrees when I was taking these pictures. By sharp contrast, this is the same Chestnut-Flint Street corner a year ago: