There is nothing, nothing, that is worse than neglect, of anything that is in your care. I am always material-minded so I’m going straight to architecture: demolition by neglect infuriates me. It’s expensive to own an old house: I have a long list of tasks that my house needs and I wish I could spend the money that I’m going to spend on the house on travel, or a Sheraton sofa, or lustreware from the 1820s, but I can’t: I bought this house and I therefore I must be a responsible steward of it. I work hard to maintain it in the condition that it demands, as does my husband. The down payment for this house came from money I inherited from my grandfather, who also worked long hours to provide for his extended family; his father came over on a boat from southern Italy all alone at age 10 and worked as a tailor to send all four of his American-born children to college (even the girls) and leave them legacies which they passed down to their children. My legacy is my house, and I would never neglect it: it would be an insult to my family as well as my community. So when I see families of much more ancient American lineage, with the possessions to prove it, exhibiting carelessness at best, and neglect at worst, towards their properties, I get mad. Such is the case with a beautiful brick Federal house overlooking the Ropes Garden, left to rot for years by a family that first arrived in Salem in the seventeenth century, and only recently undergoing renovation. This house will be saved, at long last, but its owner has applied for permission to demolish the mansard-roofed carriage house in the rear of the property. The Historical Commission rules through the granting of certificates: non-applicability, appropriateness, hardship. The owner of this carriage houses seeks the latter, but this is clearly a case of willful neglect over many, many years, initiated by a man who is called, incomprehensibly, “an outspoken champion of historic preservation” in his obituary and carried on by his heirs.
As you can see from the photographs (the black-and- white is a Frank Cousins view from the 1890s and the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum), the Victorian carriage-house doesn’t exactly go with the Federal house adjoining it: it was built as an outbuilding of the Italianate George. C. Shreve house fronting Federal Street and only purchased by our “outspoken champion of historic preservation” in the late 1960s, I believe. The Shreve House was converted to condominiums a while ago, and its residents are probably very tired of having this derelict building looming over their parking lot. But what a loss: of a once-elegant structure, of historical texture and fabric, of opportunity. It’s not difficult to find examples of Victorian carriage houses transformed into residences of all kinds, and just when the City of Salem is seeking to expand its inventory of “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) in response to an intensifying housing shortage in our region, the impending demolition of this likely candidate seems even more tragic.
Larry Kupferman, VictorianCarriageHouse, Carnegie Museum of Art; the converted carriage house at A Cambridge House Inn, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I’m really glad that I’ve made my blog relatively apolitical, and I’m equally grateful that I am not an American historian: I wouldn’t want to be in a position to explain what happened yesterday. Hopefully my words and images can serve as a distraction for some, as they do for me. Along with history in general, I’ve always found historical architecture comforting in times of stress: older buildings seem like testaments to both what we have achieved and what we can endure. Yesterday was a beautiful and bright election day, when anything seemed possible. After my husband and I voted in the parish hall of one Salem Catholic church (St. John the Baptist) we made our way down Federal Street (past the newly-refurbished Probate Court, which was quite literally shining in the sun) to another parish, St. James, where he is working on the restoration and conversion of the former rectory and convent into condominiums. The rectory building is unique in that it was built (in 1889) by the parish priest, the Reverend John. J. Gray, for his residence and then later donated to the archdiocese. As you can see it is a huge Italianate building which has been taken down to the studs: the banisters, mantles, and floors are all wrapped up in protective materials and the doors and windows are all being restored to their original condition. Lots of Eastlake details. The same developers have purchased the 1878 building across the street, which served as a convent for the Sisters of Notre Dame, an order that joined the parish in 1864. I could only explore the front foyer of this huge building, which appears to have been stripped of much of its interior detail (not to mention its radiators) as it was utilized in an institutional capacity in recent years. It is also Italianate (which must have been Father Gray’s favorite style–I certainly came away with a lot of admiration for his ability to expand his parish’s physical presence during his tenure), with a mansard roof.
The newly-published Probate Court and Registry of Deeds building on Federal Street, and further down, nos. 161 (the Rectory) and 162 (the Convent).
Sometimes I worry that too many of Salem’s historic buildings have been carved up into condominiums, but not with these two structures, as they are very large in scale and physical space–much too big for one family or even two or three in the case of the rectory and four or more in the case of the convent–and quite neglected. The units built within both will be comparatively large, and through their conversion both buildings will (hopefully) endure for many more years to come.
Inside the Rectory: first, second, and third floor views, and an exterior side door to the basement.
The Convent: front foyer, looking up–hope to get into the rest of the building at a later time. I love radiators.
One of the latest looming commercial developments in Salem is a proposal for a new showroom facility by the F.W. Webb Company, a large distributor of plumbing and HVAC parts, on an abandoned lot adjacent to its large brick building on Bridge Street. The lot was long occupied by the Universal Steel and Trading Company, which stored and processed scrap metal on the site, creating a contaminated cauldron from which they simply walked away, leaving the City to clean up the mess. Once the site was cleaned up–a process that took several years–the City put the parcel up for sale, and F.W. Webb was the only bidder. The public process by which the City divests itself of the site and the Webb proposal is reviewed by various city boards commenced last week, and consequently both the big picture and the little details are starting to emerge. Regarding the former, the jury’s still out for me–of course the proposed new building appears blandly “modern” and appears to have no connection to the existing Webb building–but this section of Bridge Street is not distinguished by structures of great architectural integrity. Where the terraced gardens of Federal Street houses once sloped down to the North River used car lots have more recently and characteristically occupied a filled-in Bridge Street, so you can argue that anything is an improvement. There are two “details” that do concern me at this point in the process, however: 1) the not-so-veiled threat inherent in the F.W. Webb proposal documents: this new building will allow us to remain in Salem and; 2) the loss of venerable public “way”called Beckford Way. This public path once accessed the riverfront but is now a trail to nowhere; nevertheless, it is still public property and will cease to be if the Webb proposal is approved.
NOW: The current Webb building on Bridge Street and the adjacent lot, now cleaned and paved, on which the company wants to build a new showroom building; rendering of the proposed new building and Beckford Way alongside the lot. A current map of Salem, with no Beckford Way.
I looked into the history of Salem’s public ways a bit, primarily by examining maps of the city in 1820, 1851, 1903 and 1916 in the Norman B. Leventhal collection at the Boston Public Library. It was an interesting exercise, through which you could clearly see the disappearance and/or transformation of myriad ways, courts, and even streets by projects that were both public and private. The nineteenth century privileged the train while the twentieth century was all about the car; the pedestrian lacked advocacy in both centuries. Sewall Street, once lined with houses, became a parking lot for the YMCA and adjacent developments; Liberty Street was absorbed by the Peabody Essex Museum just a decade ago. Now all of Salem’s “ways” exist only in condominium developments built out on Highland Avenue: they’re not even really part of the city.
THEN: Jonathan Saunders map of Salem, 1820, clearly indicating Beckford Street’s access to the North River, Boston Public Library Leventhal Map Center; a map of the terraced gardens of Federal Street (a bit further west from the Webb property) before the River was filled in for the railroad and Bridge Street extension, HABS, Library of Congress.