Tag Archives: Heritage Tourism

My Salem Heritage Trail

I’m still frustrated with our city’s “revisioned” “heritage” trail: its blatant commercialism, its yellow color (the exact same shade as the lines in the middle of the road; tour guides have told me that their tourists ask if they have to keep right on the sidewalk which actually might not be a bad idea with the crowds at this time of year), the missed opportunities it represents. None of the promised streamlined signage is up yet so all we have is a yellow line superimposed right on top (or sometimes beside) the still-visible objectionable red line. Any criticism is met with a chorus of “it’s not finished yet!” from all involved, but it’s hard to have confidence going forward when the “product” is so obviously flawed, in terms of both presentation and content.

I’ve laid out my concerns about the latter in detail in an earlier post, but after walking the yellow line a few times I have another complaint: it’s not telling a story. It’s just a string of places, with no connecting narrrative or theme. Maybe this is coming too, but it’s not here yet. There seems to be a mismatch between narrative history and the built environment in Salem: you can have one or the other but not both. I’m sure the countless private tour guides are out there telling stories because that’s what successful, marketable walking tours do, but they are handicapped by Salem’s overwhelming focus on the Witch Trials. If you’re trying to present place-based history, the Trials don’t offer you a lot of options for Salem as there are only two actual material places associated with them: Judge Corwin’s House or the “Witch House” on Essex Street and the Witch Trials Memorial/Old Burying Point on Charter Street.  A few “sites of” are fine for a walking tour but ten or more? It’s difficult to conjure up 1692 while standing in a parking lot. The combination of the emphasis on the Trials and the relative absence of structures from that era has placed an emphasis on performances in commercial interpretations, and ghosts, of course. But Salem has a wealth of historical structures, and they can and should tell stories too. My alternative Salem Heritage Trail is built primarily around buildings, and inspired by the Creating or Building walking tours you see in many cities, tours which are designed by heritage professionals to present a comprehensive and materialistic history of urban development. It’s a stripped-down version of tours I give to family and friends, and following the example of Toronto’s exemplary tour, Creating Toronto: the Story of the City in 10 Stops, I limited myself, with great difficulty, to ten sites.

Trail Sites/Stops: My trail starts at the Pickering House on Broad Street and ends at Salem Common. I’ve chosen the sites along the way because they are beautiful and important buildings and spaces, but also because they represent a number of events and themes in the “making of” Salem: they have to do double or triple or more interpretive duty! I’m aiming for 400 years of history through 10 buildings or sites, on a tour that should take about 90 minutes. It’s definitely a work in progress.

The Pickering House: Salem’s oldest house is a marvel visually and historically. It can represent both the first wave of European settlement and because of its conspicuous and active family, also a series of events and relationships that shaped Salem: King Philips’s War and relations between European and native populations, transatlantic trade, the Revolutionary War. As the house evolves, so does Salem. From the vantage point of the house, one can see the outskirts of Salem’s first African-American section as well as its Italian-American neighborhood, and the line at which the Great Salem Fire ended in 1914.

Hamilton Hall: Built on former Pickering land, along with the rest of Chestnut Street, Hamilton Hall represents the dynamic civic culture of Salem following the Revolution as well as the singularly Federal style of Samuel McIntire and the range of reform and entrepreneurial activities of Salem’s most prominent African-American family, the Remonds. It is also an important site of women’s history, as so many philanthropic events organized by Salem women were held at the Hall: from Abolitionist and soldiers’ aid events in the middle of the nineteenth century, to Red Cross efforts during World War I to the creation of the Hamilton Hall Ladies’ Committee after World War II.

The First Church: It’s the First Church, so it has to be on the tour even though its not in its original location—we’ll pass by there later. The history of the congregation should be prioritized over the history of the building: the transition from Puritanism to Congregationalism to Unitarianism, Hugh Peter & Roger Williams, the religious aspects of the Trials, Leslie’s Retreat, and then Salem’s (19th century, as opposed to today’s) Gothic phase (with a tie-in to the Pickering House).

The Witch House: The home of Witch Trial Judge Jonathan Corwin is the authentic witch-trial site in Salem, but also a place that can represent and illustrate the commercialization of the trials in the nineteenth century as well as the increasing role of historic preservation in the twentieth. This is a good spot to start the discussion of the legal aspects of the trials, but the next stop is better.

Court Houses on Federal Street: These courthouses are a great illustration of Salem as “shire town” or county seat, a very important part of its history and identity. When I was on History Alive’s “Charlotte’s Salem” tour a few weeks ago, Charlotte explained some of the legal aspects of slavery which were causing her anguish in 1857 right in front of the courthouses, and I thought it was the perfect spot, particularly because it was so quiet on a busy Saturday night. The Witch Trials were of course, trials, so this seems like a good spot to address their legal aspects, as well as the famous “witch pins” and several other important Salem trials. The different architectural styles of the court houses evoke their eras in Salem’s history.

Old Town Hall: The terrain between the court houses and Old Town Hall is full of important sites……that are no longer there: the actual 1692 court house, Town House Square, the site of Salem’s first meeting house, and the former sites of conspicuous residents like Judge John Hathorne and Lady Deborah Moody. I guess that dreadful Bewitched statue is part of the “creation” of Salem but I prefer to look at it as an abberation and I don’t want it in my story/tour. So we’ll just skip through Town House Square to the Old Town Hall or walk down Church Street past the Lyceum and cut over to Essex Street. Old Town Hall (long known as the “Market House”) and Derby Square remains a very busy place, so it’s the perfect space to represent the extremely dynamic and diverse commercial history of Salem. It’s also a great place to focus on food food: Salem seems like a foodie designation now but I think it always has been, and Derby Square and adjacent Front Street was a restaurant row. I guess it’s been reduced to an Instagram stage now, which seems appropriate since Instagram photos are one of Salem’s major products.

Old Burying Ground/ Witch Trial Memorial: The last three stops of my trail consider Salem’s evolving public presentation of history, along with other themes and events associated with each site. From the later nineteenth century on, as the City focused increasingly on tourism, there were three major draws: the Witch Trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and maritime history. For me, the Salem Witch Trials Memorial represents the triumph of the Trials: the City could go forward into full-fledged witchcraft tourism now (in 1992) as it had erected a memorial and pledged itself to toleration going forward. The more recent restoration of the adjacent Old Burying Ground and addition of the first-period Pickman House as a welcome center for both seems to me an admission that Witch City needed a bit more regulation: Salem has always taken care of its cemeteries.

The Salem Maritime National Historical Site. Carved out of Salem’s Polish neighborhood along Derby Street, Salem Maritime is also an illustration of history in the public sphere: it is a rebuilding and reframing of the City’s glorious maritime past, almost like a maritime memorial. Standing on Derby Street looking out onto Salem Harbor, we can consider both Salem’s maritime history as well as the historical and ongoing effort to preserve and showcase Salem’s maritime history, especially as the Custom House is closed for restoration. With its streetside shop on one side of the Derby House and garden out back, it is also a good place to consider Salem’s Colonial Revival influences and impact.

And on to Salem Common: where we could tell the entire history of Salem, from rope walks to food trucks! I think it would be interesting to end the trail with a consideration of what is “public” and what is not as it pertains to the Common and the myriad events that have happened there over the centuries. So many events: military musters and drills, neighborhood playground competitions, baseball games, concerts and films, speeches and protests, carnivals and circuses, commemorations. Just this past weekend, I was walking around the Common while a large food truck festival which apparently had no local vendors was happening, on “common” land.

What I left out. Many places! The ten-stop limit really challenged me. And of course, there will be no “suffering mannequins” on my tour. I left out both the Peabody Essex Museum and the House of the Seven Gables because these institutions are independent draws which also feature their own audio tours: both are obviously central to Salem’s urban and identity development. The PEM’s new Salem Witch Trials Walk looks like a good introduction to the Trials and there are also “PEM Walks” audio “postcards” for each of the Museum’s historic houses. Both Salem Maritime and the House of the Seven Gables also offer excellent audio tour options. So there’s really no need to follow that yellow line; indeed, no need for any paint on the sidewalks of Salem.


Open House in Essex County

It occurred to me the other day that during the long life of this blog I have never spotlighted Trails and Sails, a calendar of dedicated events and openings throughout Essex County in September organized by the Essex National Heritage Area. I feel remiss; I have friends and former students who work for Essex Heritage, and I myself am a commissioner! These folks know what heritage is and are able to discern it from tourism, and so they connect and cast light on institutions and areas which represent this region’s cultural and material legacy in meaningful ways. Trails and Sails is a 10-day extravaganza of free events throughout our region, beginning next weekend. I’ve picked my events, and my participation will pretty much revolve around visiting old buildings, but don’t let my game plan (mis-) inform yours: there are plenty of events that involve much more outside action like walking, paddling, biking, apple-picking, cider-making, birding, and even “forest bathing” (whatever that is) right here in Salem. So go to the website, or download the digital guide, and chart your course. Note that many (but not all) events and openings are recurring and some require reservations.

Saturday, September 17I’ve got to get into the glorious Grand Army of the Republic Hall in Lynn, so that will be my first stop. I’ve wanted to see this hall for about five years. From Lynn, I’ll drive over to Danvers to tour the 1670 Judge Samuel Holten House, another building which I’ve long admired and never been inside. Same with the Platts-Bradstreet House in Rowley, so that’s next, then back to Salem for a walking tour of Charlotte’s (Forten) Salem by History Alive, Inc.

Lynn’s GAR Hall, two seventeenth-century houses, and Charlotte Forten about to lead us around Salem!

Sunday, September 18: I know that I will have to do some lecture and presentation prep on this day but I am still going to the Open House at the Rocks Village Handtub Building and Toll House Museum on the Merrimack as I love that building and (again) have never been inside. I might as well go to the Brocklebank Museum on Georgetown as it’s on the way home.

Rocks Village,Georgetown, and the Jackman-Willet House in Newbury.

The following week, unfortunately, is super busy and I have my own presentation on Saturday the 24th, so that leaves Sunday the 25th, when I’ll go up to Newbury and see the seventeenth-century Jackman-Willet House and anything else that is happening in that part of the county. I feel like I’m missing out on some great events, particularly Fletcher Steele and Frederick Law Olmsted tours and a view of Gloucester from its grandiose city hall. But there’s always next year: Trails and Sails is an established tradition. As I was looking at the schedule, thinking about where I would like to go, and reflecting upon my past summer, it was just houses, houses, houses! I love visiting old open houses, but I think I must be an outlier among heritage tourists today. I’ve been talking to a few museum professionals over the summer, and they all tell me that house museums just aren’t as popular as they used to be. This might explain why so many in Salem are closed, including all of the Peabody Essex Museum’s houses save the Ropes Mansion and Salem Maritime’s Derby House (well, save the ell). But everywhere I have gone this summer—in New York, and all the New England states—there have been good-sized parties touring houses with me so it makes me feel like there are still some old-house afficionados out there! An anecdotal view, I know, but a hopeful one. Perhaps I should finally admit, however, that my essential childhood bedside book, Samuel Chamberlain’s Open House in New England, might have been a bit odd.


Hooked on Kinderhook

I made a very quick trip out to the Hudson River Valley at the beginning of last week to visit my brother and brother-in-law, and despite its brevity I still made some discoveries, including the delightful Columbia County town of Kinderhook. I always try to find new places when I’m out there, so on the way home I headed north from Rhinebeck, where they live, before turning east towards Massachusetts. It was supposed to be an hour-long diversion to see the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site before I headed home, but there was so much to see in Kinderhook I lingered, and did not get to Salem until well after dark. The President’s house did not disappoint, but downtown Kinderhook blew me away: beautiful houses and gardens, so much history, a stunning art gallery. The picture-perfect historytown: well worth a weekend trip if you’re within driving distance (or a longer one if you’re not). For some reason, I expected Lindenwald, which Martin Van Buren purchased after his presidential term was over, to be a bit dull and dowdy but it was on my list: when I got there I found it neither. I’ve been on a Gothic Revival kick all summer long, but this house is more than that: it’s a late Georgian mansion house transformed into a Gothic Revival mansion with an Italianate tower! Quite a melange: and Zuber & Cie wallpaper inside. The house was built by Judge Peter Van Ness in 1797, and inherited by his son William, who was Aaron Burr’s second in the 1804 duel which fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton. After Van Buren was defeated (on a Whig ticket) in the 1840 presidential election he retreated to Lindenwald, but following another defeat in the election of 1848 (on the Free Soil Party ticket) he was ensconced there for the remainder of his life. In 1849 he hired architect Richard Upjohn (who must have been THE Gothic Revival architect as he designed my two favorite houses in that style: the Rotch House in New Bedford and Kingscote in Newport) to expand and transform it.

Exterior and interior views of Lindenwald, including the tower stairwell and first-floor parlors. The entire center of the house is one big dining hall with the restored Zuber paper: for some reason it was difficult for me to photograph so refer to the site’s website! Not sure what this little house was for but it is cute.

This was the last day of a week-long heat wave so I really wanted to stay in my car, but once I got into downtown Kinderhook I had to get out of it. There were so many beautifuly houses, I would just stop, run out and take a photograph, and run right back into the air conditioning. But this was happening so often and the houses were in such close proximity to one another that it was getting a bit comical, so I finally stopped and took a walk. There was a strong presence of history: I had the image in my mind of the Continental Army marching down the main street victoriously after the (Second) Battle of Saratoga in the fall of 1777, especially as I passed the house where the captive General Burgoyne was entertained which was very close to the house where the wounded Benedict Arnold was taken. Earlier in the war, General Henry Knox passed through Kinderhook on his heroic quest to deliver cannon from Ticonderoga to General Washington in Boston. There are all these beautiful brick houses—both Dutch and English. There were details on the wooden houses I had never seen before. I was a puddle after my walk through Kinderhook but it was worth it!

The Luykas Van Alen House, 1747, which is owned and operated by the Columbia County Historical Society, as is the James Vanderpoel “House of History,” built in 1810. (The Van Alen house had several front porches with these built-in benches you see on Dutch Colonial houses built in the 20th century). Some houses which caught my eye in Kinderhook Village–I could have included many more. House where General Burgoyne was entertained and Major General (Turncoat) Arnold was attended to.

It was so hot in the Van Buren house that our guide passed out these cool fans! Perfect keepsake and advertisement for all this region has to offer. New York State takes its history very seriously: there are markers everywhere (maybe even TOO many–a big statement from marker afficionado me), every town has an official historian, and no opportunity goes unutilized to showcase it.


The Golden Goose

Last week Salem’s new Heritage Trail, or at least the foundation thereof, was revealed with a report to the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) and the launch of a new website. The outgoing “Red Line” has long been the object of derision, as it was a play-to-play route which made no meaningful distinction between the Salem Maritime National Historical Site and the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum. Concerns about the sign pollution which plagues downtown Salem and the now-common understanding that “redlining” refers to housing segregation apparently inspired the city’s tourism agency, Destination Salem, to put together a working group comprised of “stakeholders” representing Salem’s organizations, institutions, businesses and local government (but not, notably, neighborhood groups) to reconfigure the existing trail as something “new.” The end result will be a gold line running through downtown Salem, and very nice signs which will mark the stops along the way, including……………….the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum.

Believe me, I’m pretty tired of screaming into the void about how Salem values (or doesn’t) its long and notable history. I also realize that the people who have transformed a small subsection of this history into a valuable commodity have clearly won the day, as many of Salem’s heritage organizations, including Historic Salem, Inc., the Salem Historical Society, the Essex Heritage National Commission, and even the Salem Maritime National Historic Site had representative members in this working group, so are clearly supportive of this new trail. But this is a really important time for Salem, with its 400th anniversary only a few years away and so many of its historic houses shuttered, including the entire Essex Street Block campus of the Peabody Essex Museum. So I have a few things to say, of course! I’ll try to be as succinct and straightforward as possible: after some consternation I have limited and organized my thoughts (which might take the form of pleas) into three main points:

      1. Forprofit sites cannot be heritage. Salem’s heritage is a public good, not a private commodity. Packaging an historical event into a dramatic presentation creates an “attraction,” not a museum. Packaging a tragic historical event into an attraction is troubling if not enacted with great care, and the dated figures employed by the The Salem Witch Dungeon Museum and the Salem Witch Museum evoke more mockery than empathy. These attractions have no place on an officially-sanctioned “Heritage Trail”; I don’t think any for-profit site does. Call the trail something else: my friend Joe suggested the “Tourism Trail.” I would have no problem with that: it’s the equivalency of an actual historic site like the House of the Seven Gables or the Charter Street Cemetery or the East India Marine Hall (all sites on the trail) with a manufactured attraction that troubles me, especially as the latter are so obviously exploitative. The creators and consultants of the new Heritage Trail realize that there is an issue here, so they have come up with criteria that Salem sites which hope to be listed on the trail as it expands must meet. Here they are, included as Appendix B in the “Salem Heritage Trail Recommendation and Project Recap” report prepared by the consultant company MuseumTastic for Destination Salem and presented to the SRA:So, much of this seems fine, certainly the themes are great (more on them below), and the criteria professional. I’m having some difficulty envisioning the logistics of the vetting process, but will leave that to the experts. What does concern me, however, is the disassociation of “site” and “building” as referenced in #3 on. As you see in my graphic above, the Salem Witch Museum, the most profitable of the for-profits, is referred to as the former East Church, which is presumably how it made the cut. Why the East Church is deemed “historic” is beyond me, aside from its imposing Gothic Revival style: certainly it is no more historic than the nearby houses of ultra-philanthropist George Peabody and Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, or the birthplace of the illustrious Benson brothers across the Common. When I asked why and how the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, also located in a former church (built by the Christian Scientists and not the East Church parishioners), was included on the trail, I got this response from the Executive Director of Destination Salem: The Witch Dungeon Museum and Lynde Street are the site of early fortifications. English settlers knew that their presence in Salem immersed them in a web of global conflicts. Fearing reprisals from the indigenous people they were displacing and attacks from other colonial powers, the colony of Massachusetts erected a fort near this spot in 1629. Samuel Sharpe came from London with cannons to assume command of the militia. The first fort was probably made of tall wooden palisades, with extensions jutting out to prevent flanking. In the following decades, further fortifications were built along the Salem coast and a palisade was built along the western end of town. The early, feared attacks never happened. The East Church built a chapel on Lynde Street in 1897 and The Witch Dungeon Museum opened in the building in 1979. Visitors can watch a live-action reenactment of a witch trial and tour a recreation of the grim prison where the accused were kept. So basically: because a long-gone fort was once on the site of the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, it qualifies for the trail? I don’t think I need to spend too long discussing the implications of this “standard.” In a city as old as Salem, every structure downtown was built on the site of something else: there are layers and layers and layers. The Witch Dungeon Museum’s storefront sister “museum” on venerable Essex Street, the Salem Witch History Museum, could claim that it sits on the site of Salem’s first printing house or any number of historic structures and thus qualify for the new Heritage Trail. Perhaps the cumulative criteria above could mitigate against this, but it does not appear to have done so with the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum: I think we need to be honest about where we are leading people—and why.

        Mannequin City: mid-20th century interpretive “technology” reigns in Salem’s for-profit witch “museums” which have no incentive to innovate, as the City delivers visitors right to their doors; Witch Dungeon Museum hanging mannequins.

      2. The Trail is too restricted geographically. Salem has been a tourist destination for over a century, and there are previous incarnations of the Red Line, which was stamped on the City in the 1980s. (People seem to think that the big turning point in Salem’s tourism history is the filming of the television show Bewitched in 1970s, or at least that’s the story the rationalizes the placement of the Samantha statue in Salem’s most historic town square. But that’s clearly not true: it was the Haunted Happenings festival, initiated by the Salem Witch Museum in the early 1980s, that created our modern Witch City). All the pre-1980 trails were much longer, and included more Salem neighborhods and sites, including the entire McIntire District showcasing architecture, South Salem showcasing Pioneer Village and many more sites in the Downtown and Derby Street districts. If it really is going to tell Salem’s story in a comprehensive and authentic way (and accomodate all those themes!) the Trail has to branch out considerably. One of the reasons I find it so objectionable to direct people to a witch business on the basis of a seventeenth-century fort that is no longer there is the fact that Salem has a seventeenth-century fort that has been left to rot on Winter Island.
      3.  Salem tourism brochures from the 1950s through the 1980s: not until the last decade was the Heritage Trail restricted to downtown and the “story” increasingly restricted to witches. Love the sentiment of “traveling through history in Salem.”
      1. 3. A Plea for Authenticity & Creativity: I don’t really have enough to go on to speak to technology or  interpretive issues, but from what I can read I am struck by the relative conservatism in terms of the conceptualization of the entire trail: I expect more from a process of “strategic revisioning;” I don’t see any revisioning at all actually. Maybe that’s coming? This trail could have been recast as a “walking museum” as some cities have done (Memphis!), and thus accomodate both heritage and for-profit sites (in a pop culture category: the history of witchcraft tourism in Salem IS part of our heritage unfortunately) as well as the Peabody Essex Museum’s shuttered sites which are outfitted with “PEM Walks” interpretive audio “postcards“: why not integrate this ready-made interpretation into the Trail? Salem doesn’t have a history museum so a thoughtfully-constructed walking museum could really compensate for this deficiency: this approach could also add some chonological development to the trail, which is completely missing. Authenticity is everything in this digital, virtual age, which is why it is imperative to emphasize the unique geography and history of Salem with real places rather than artifical ones: besides the for-profit sites, I am also troubled by the selection of the new Charlotte Forten Park on Derby Street as a location to highlight Salem’s African-American history: African-Americans (including Charlotte Forten) did not live or work anywhere near it! And as I’ve written about before, the park has been “colonized” effectively by the Real Pirates Museum, which tells the story of pirates (some real, some not) from Cape Cod. More appropriate places to tell the stories of Salem’s African-Americans are Derby Square (which is on the Trail) where a variety of vibrant black businesses were located, and Hamilton Hall, where Salem’s Remond family lived and worked. Actually, a wonderful interpretive location for interpreting African-American history would be Higginson Square, which runs parallel to Derby Square: to tell the truth, the Remonds spent at least as much time at 5 Higginson Square as Hamilton Hall, and Charlotte spent considerable time there too. There could be some kind of creative installation there, which brings to my last point/question: why is Salem’s very dynamic creative community so absent from this revisioning project? My very favorite urban heritage trail is actually that of Asheville, NC, in which stories of the city’s past residents, both well-noted and not-so well-known, are woven together through public art, including commissioned sculptures and pre-existing artifacts. Lke all the best heritage trails, Asheville’s was a process of considerable community engagement: it is a work in process that is still engaging the community. That could happen here too, but only with the realization that all of Salem’s residents are “stakeholders” in our city’s Heritage Trail.
      2.  Higginson Square, 1893, Nelson Dionne History Collection, Salem State Archives and Special Collections. A big flatiron to highlight Asheville’s Flatiron building. It begs the question: no Parker Brothers site for Salem’s new Heritage Trail?

So those are my three main points but I do want to say a bit about the “future” of Salem’s heritage, which is kind of a funny phrase: isn’t heritage about the past and how can it have a future? Well, heritage has a past, a present and a future: we’re dealing with the present now. After the Executive Director of Destination Salem gave her presentation to the SRA last week, there were a few questions from the board (which only has authority over signage downtown, not content, so I was suprised to see this engagement), including, “why so much witch stuff?” (I am paraphrasing). She answered: (I’m still paraphrasing but this is very close) “well, 85% or our visitors come for the witch trials so we have to give them what they want.” I have no doubt that this is true, because we don’t have a heritage trail that showcases our Samuel McIntire mansions or our Revolutionary resistance or our 445 Revolutionary privateers or our industrious inventors or our treasure- (and history-) hunting Mormons or our dashing Civil War officers or our zealous abolitionists and suffragists or our amazing artists and craftsmen or our brave warriors on both the battle and home fronts or any of our immigrant communities as far as I can see. Maybe all that is coming, but it is clear to me that witchcraft-based tourism is only going to become even more pervasive in Salem if some sort of structural change does not occur because it is self-perpetuating. Destination Salem has always been a thoroughly professional, accessible and effective tourism office, but I’ve never understood how it came to be in charge of heritage, because for me, tourism and heritage are not necessarily the same thing. But in Salem, I guess they are. I suspect that the same old scenario which governed the creation of the first Heritage Trail was present here: the City did not invest enough effort or money, and so left it to the business owners, who quite logically advanced their own interests. So let’s just call it the Tourist Trail, or take advantage of this (golden) opportunity to do something more—and better.


Roseland Cottage

In the last week of June I drove down to the “quiet” northeastern corner of Connecticut to see a house that was a major presidential July 4th destination in the later nineteenth century, Roseland Cottage, Historic New England’s sole property in the Nutmeg State. Home to several generations of the prosperous Bowen family from its construction in 1846 until its acquisition, fully furnished, by Historic New England in 1970, Roseland Cottage is a perfect Gothic Revival summer cottage located on one of the most picturesque roads in New England, Route 169 (the old Norwich-Worcester Turnpike), across from the Woodstock common which could accomodate the crowds that accompanied the first presidential visit of Ulysses S. Grant in 1870. Successive July 4 celebrations grew in size mandating their relocation to nearby Roseland Park, but three more presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley, still stayed at the “cottage” and its outbuildings include both a presidential “two-seater” outhouse and a bowling alley built for Grant. When you read the accounts of these post-1870 Independence Day celebations you kind of get the feeling that this was a “July 4th is back” moment after the turmoil and division of the Civil War and its aftermath. I’d like to think that we are in a similar moment now, post-Covid, but I don’t think we are quite there (though it was nice to see the Pops last night). Roseland, however, is much more than a presidential pink palace: it feels very much like a family home, centered, but at the same time, out of time, as if it sprung from a fairy tale.

Roseland Cottage, built in 1846 for Mr. and Mrs. Henry C. Bowen: downstairs parlor, presidential bedroom, and outbuildings (including a carriage house bowling alley built for President Grant’s visit).

Because of its distinct style (even the furniture was custom-built for the house in Carpenter Gothic style, which foreshadowed Frank Lloyd Wright according to our guide), the house feels like a stage set in some ways, but also like we’ve just stepped in to a family home moments after its inhabitants have left as there are so many personal items remaining: Mr. Bowen’s commendations and commissions (he was a stalwart progressive Rebublican, which meant pro-abolition and suffrage in addition to pro-temperance, and also the founder and publisher of The Independent newspaper), Mrs. Bowen’s wedding dress and the Gothic Revival crib in which she rocked nine of their children (she died giving birth to their tenth and Mr. Bowen remarried a local girl), family photographs, books, prints, games, and decorative objects. I like to think that the pink china below was her preferred shade of her favorite color: Roseland has apparently been 13 shades of pink over its history and is now quite salmony-pink.

The other contradictory feeling is formality and SUMMER: Roseland Cottage is bordered by lush box-bordered gardens (which used to enclose roses but now mostly annuals, I believe), lawn, and Woodstock green so vivid green surrounds you inside, along with the bright colors of the stained-glass diamond-paned windows and the flowers outside. There are some fancy woolen carpets, but also thin matting under foot, and all of the soft furnishings are cotton florals and lace. Such a contradition, this house: dark and light, formal and fairytale-ish, solid and airy, sunshine and shadow.

My “HNE booties” and the grounds, displaying another contradiction: I wonder why there is a Greek Revival folly among all this GOTHIC Revival?


Can’t We Copy Concord?

The Concord Museum has been one of my favorite local history museums for some time, but I haven’t been there since the completion of a major expansion and reinterpretation initiative during the Covid years. Late last week I found myself with some free time and so off to Concord I went. I was impressed with the update, but just like the last time I visited, I could only really see the Concord Museum through the prism of a missing Salem Museum: I walked through the exhibits, which manage to be both chronological and thematic, sweeping yet very focused, thinking: Concord had this, but Salem had more of this, and also that! Salem did that first! OMG I can imagine a perfect Salem exhibit just like this Concord one, just change the names. And ultimately: can’t Salem just copy Concord? Why can’t Salem have a Concord Museum?  This is really not fair to the Concord Museum, which should be viewed on its own merits rather than comparatively, but lately (well, not so lately) I’ve become obsessed with the idea of a comprehensive Salem Museum which lays out ALL of Salem’s history in a chronological yet thematic, sweeping yet focused way: from the seventeenth through the twenty-first century, first encounters to Covid. It should be accessible and inclusive in every way, downtown of course, and it must be a collaboration between the City and the Peabody Essex Museum, because the latter possesses the greater part of Salem’s history in textual and material form. Really lately, I’ve come to think of Salem as experiencing an invasion of the body snatchers scenario, in which all of its authentic history has been detached to another town, only to be replaced by stories that are not its own: real pirates from Cape Cod, vampires who could be from anywhere and everywhere. Can’t we tell the real story, and the whole story?

So, with apologies to the Concord Museum, I’m turning it into a sort of template while also (I hope!) presenting its exhibits in some interpretive and topical detail. The museum lays out an essentially chronological view of Concord’s history, while first identifying Concord’s most prominent historical role, as a center of the emerging American Revolution, and both acknowledging and examining its regional indigenous history. Then we stroll though Concord’s history, which is told through both texts and objects, and lots of visual clues asking us to look closely.

Indigenous regions & English plantations: the Concord Museum explores the land negotiations in detail.[Salem also posseses a 17th century land-transfer document, held at City Hall. The 1686 “Original Indian Deed” of Frank Cousin’s photograph below features many more signature marks of Native Americans, testifying to a more complicated negotiation? I don’t really know: it’s not part of Salem’s public history.]

“Original Indian Deed” at Salem City Hall, c. 1890, Frank Cousins Collection at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth.

You walk through the Concord Museum viewing exhibits in chronological order, but there are necessary tangents, and the biggest stand-alone exhibit is devoted to the events of one day: April 19, 1775. This is a new permanent exhibit, and it utilizes all the latest technology of visual storytelling while at same time focusing on the personal experiences of those involved. The famous Doolittle images, rendered dynamic, rim the perimeter of the exhibition room and a large digital map illustrates the events of the day. There’s a lot of movement in this room! We also hear from some of the participants and see the texts and objects which highlight their experience. How does one get ready for a Revolution? How does war affect daily life?

[Obviously, in a Salem Museum, one permanent exhibit would have to be devoted to the Witch Trials: interpreted not only as a story but as a collective and contextual experience. Apart from 1692, Salem should be paying a lot more attention to its Revolutionary role(s): not just Leslie’s Retreat, but also its brief role as a provincial capital and those of all of its privateers! Real Salem privateers.]

There is a continuous emphasis on how individuals experienced and shaped their world in the Museum’s exhibits, encompassing both big events, pressing issues, and daily life. We learn about the African-American experience in Concord through both official documents and the lives of two black families in town: the Garrisons and the Dugans, whose members were acquainted with both enslavement and freedom. Thomas Dugan’s probate inventory is posted, alongside a display of the possessions listed thereon. Concord’s dynamic abolitionist movement is another window into the institution of slavery, but it is not the only one. As would certainly be the case with a Salem presentation, abolition provides an opportunity to showcase female agency, and the Museum’s exhibits do not disappoint. But again, all I could think of was: Salem’s Female Anti-Slavery Society predates Concord’s Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society by several years, AND it was desegregated because it was an extension of the first female abolitionist society in Salem, which was founded by African-American women.

The Museum’s exhibits on slavery and abolition: Mary Merrick Brooks was a particularly active member of the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, and because her husband did not support its efforts, she sold her own tea cakes; “potholder quilts” were made up of squares like this one, which were also sold at Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Fairs in Concord (as well as Salem).

[The Histories of Slavery and Abolition illustrate the Salem problem really well, as there has been lots of research into both over the past few years by several institutions, including the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Peabody Essex Museum, and Hamilton Hall. But their efforts are all SILOED, and this prevents the diffusion of a comprehensive history of both to residents and visitors alike. Salem Maritime has developed walking tours and a research guide into African-American history in Essex County, the PEM is currently exhibiting an examination of school desegregation in Salem, and Hamilton Hall has had lots of materials and texts pertaining to the Remond Family on its website for several years, but are all these resources really getting out there? A common space and place for historical collaboration and exhibition would amplify all of these efforts considerably. We have so much information, from Salem’s 1754 Slave Census entry (below), to the recently-rediscovered 1810 Census for Salem, to the digitized records of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (credit to the PEM’s Phillips Library for getting both the Census and the SFASS records out there), to the abolition petitions digitized by Harvard: but it’s not being used to tell a cohesive and comprehensive story! The Concord Museum has an Uncle Tom statue which once belong to Henry David Thoreau, but the Salem Museum could display an Uncle Tom’s Cabin card game manufactured by the Ives Brothers in 1852.]

There were 83 enslaved persons in Salem in 1754 according to the Massachusetts Slave Census of that year.

Like Salem, Concord has many heritage sites, so I imagine the Concord Museum serves as an orientation center from which people can go on to visit the Alcott’s Orchard House, Minute Man National Historical Park, or Walden Pond (among other places!) The Museum has reproduced Ralph Waldo Emerson’s parlor—while the actual room is just across the way–and utilized digital technology to enhance its interpretation. There’s also a great exhibit on Henry David Thoreau, but Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne seem a bit short-changed—maybe there’s an evolving emphasis? A Salem Museum would have a host of public intellectuals to juggle as well. Lots of material objects “made in Concord” or purchased in Concord and we also get to learn about the town’s conspicuous visitors—some of whom stayed at the famous Old Middlesex Hotel. [it would be so much fun to research an exhibition on who stayed at Salem’s equally famous Essex House.]

Details from the Concord Museum’s Emerson and Thoreau rooms—the star is one of several placed by Concord antiquarian Cummings E. Davis, whose collection is essentially the foundation of the Museum, along a trail in Walden Woods to lead people to Thoreau’s cabin. Loved this image of the Old Middlesex Hotel which seems to have played a hospitality role similar to that of the Essex House in Salem, below (an 1880 photograph).

I’m skipping over a lot, as there was a lot to see, so you’ll have to go to the Museum yourself, but I did want to mention its engagement with Concord’s storied history as well as the documented past. Concord is a famous place, just like Salem, and so there is an obligation not only to present the past but also to address how the past has been presented, to take on “Paul Revere’s Ride” as well as April 19th. I really liked how the Museum presented the process of commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord a hundred years later, chiefly through the commission of Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue. A photograph of a group of disenfranchised Concord women surrounding the statue at its unveiling on April 19, 1875 makes a big statement, especially as Louisa May Alcott, present on that day, later noted that women could not march in the grand parade unescorted or even sit in the stands to listen to speeches of the day (maybe this was a blessing).


Skirting Witches and Pirates in Salem

Walking is my preferred form of transportation in Salem, but I tread carefully: I want my path to be lined with beautiful old houses, colorful shops and lovely green (or white) spaces. Attractions exploiting the terrible tragedy of 1692 and out-of-town-yet-territorial pirates cloud my view and dampen my day. I’m happy to meet real witches and pirates on my walkabouts, but kitschy parodies annoy me. If you are of like mind, there are many routes you can take in Salem on which you will not cross paths with anything remotely touristy, but if you are venturing downtown you must tread carefully too. Avoid the red line at all costs and follow my route below, which I have superimposed on an old map of the so-called “Heritage Trail”: I’m starting at my house on lower Chestnut Street and making a witch-less circle.

Across from my house is Chestnut Street Park: this is not a public park but a private space, owned by all the homeowners of Chestnut Street. It was once the site of two churches in succession: a majestic Samuel McIntire creation which lasted for almost exactly a century and was destroyed by fire in 1903 and a stone replacement which was rather less majestic and lasted about half as long. The gate is usually open to everyone, but not for reseeding time as you can see by the sign. I walk down Cambridge Street by the park and across Essex into the Ropes Mansion Garden, not looking great now but an amazing high summer garden. Then I walk down Federal Court and across Federal Street to the Peirce-Nichols House which is owned, like the Ropes Mansion, by the Peabody Essex Museum. Unlike the Ropes, I can’t remember when the Peirce-Nichols was last opened to the public: it’s been decades. It has a lovely garden in back which was always open, and my favorite place to go at this time of year because of its preponderance of Bleeding Hearts. The gate to the back of the house has been closed for a couple of years now, but it is latched and not locked, so I entered and went into the rear courtyard, passing the memorial stone dedicated to the memory of Anne Farnam, the last director of the Essex Institute before it was absorbed into the Peabody Essex Museum on my right. I never knew Anne but I’ve learned a lot from her articles in the Essex Institute Historical Collections so I always pay tribute. The gate to the garden in back was latched and locked, so I presume the museum does not want us to venture in there. I hope it was ok to go that far! While I am grateful for these pem.org/walks recordings I’m always wondering why these houses are never open.

Continue down Federal Street past the courthouses: you must avoid Lynde Street and Essex Street where witch “attractions” abound. I take a left after Washington street onto a street that no longer exists: Rust Street. I like the juxtaposition of the newish condominiums and the old Church and Bessie Monroe’s brick house on Ash Street on the right: a symbol of the opposition to urban renewal in Salem. Then it’s on to St. Peter Street, past the Old Jail and the Jailkeepers’s House (below), right on Bridge, and then right again, onto Winter Street.

Winter Street

As you approach Salem Common, you must bear left and head for the east side, as the west side is the territory of the Salem Witch “Museum.” There are some side streets with wonderful houses between the Common and Bridge Street which might be a bit more pleasant to traverse than the latter but you will be cutting close to the “Museum”: that’s why I always go with Winter. Once there, go straight by the Common on Washington Square East : you will pass the newly-renovated Silsbee Mansion, which long served as the party palace Knights of Columbus and has been converted into residential units with a substantive addtion and exterior restoration, and one of my favorite houses on the Common, the Baldwin Lyman House.

On Washington Square East.

Washington Square East will take you right to Essex Street: cross and go down the walkway adjacent to the first-period Narbonne House into the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. No witches or pirates here: you’re safe! I love the garden behind the Derby House: I think it is probably at its best in June when the peonies are popping but it’s a great place to go all spring and summer and even in the fall. On Derby Street, you can turn left and go down to the House of the Seven Gables or go straight down Derby Wharf: I went to the end of the wharf on this particular walk. The Salem Arts Association is right here too, but beware: there is a particularly ugly witch on its right so shade your view lest your zen walk be disturbed.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Salem Arts Association.

Back on Derby. Adjacent to the Custom House is a wonderful institution: the Brookhouse Home for Women, established in 1861! The Home is located in the former Benjamin Crowninshield Mansion, and it is very generous with its lovely grounds, which provide my favorite view of Derby Wharf. I always stop in here, and then I work my way back up to Essex Street on one side street or another. Essex Street east and west are wonderful places to walk, but the pedestrian-mall center is witch-central: a particularly dangerous corner is Essex and Hawthorne Boulevard, where the Peabody Essex’s historic houses face some of the ugliest signs in town. It’s a real aesthetic clash: gaze at the beautiful Gardner-Pingree House, but don’t turn around! If you want to go to the main PEM buildings or the Visitors’ Center further down Essex, approach from Charter Street north on another “street” that no longer exists: Liberty Street.

From the Brookhouse Home to the PEM’s row of historic houses on Essex Street. Memorial stone in the Brookwood garden: Miss Amy Nurse, RN, an Army Nurse (1916-2013).

Charter Street is the location of Salem’s oldest cemetery, the Old Burying Point, recently restored and equipped with an orientation center located in the first-period Pickman House, which overlooks the Witch Trials Memorial. So this is a wonderful, meaningful place to visit, but beware: just beyond is the “Haunted Neighborhood” or “Haunted Witch Village” (whatever it is called)  situated on the southern end of the former Liberty Street, abutting the cemetery. This is a cruel juxtaposition during Haunted Happenings, when you literally have a party right next to sacred places, but not too noticeable during the rest of the year, because for the most part witchcraft “attractions” create dead zones. But the tacky signage can still spoil your walk so avert your gaze as much as possible. Charter Street feeds into Front Street, Salem’s main shopping street, and from there you can find the path of least (traffic) resistance back to the McIntire Historic District, which is very safe territory. Broad, Chestnut, upper Essex and Federal Streets are lined with beautiful buildings, as are their connecting side streets, so take your pick. I usually just walk around until I get in my 10,000 steps: on this particular walk I ended up on Essex.

Charter, Front & upper Essex Streets.


Salem as Historyland

For the most part, this blog has been an academic release for me rather than academic engagement: I consider most of the history I’ve offered up here more pop-up than professional. But there is one academic field with which I have been engaging (mostly in the form of learning) continuously: the history of tourism. This is a relatively new field, emerging in the 1990s, but also a very interdisciplinary and important one, involving social, cultural, and economic factors interacting at local, regional, and global levels. There’s a Journal of Tourism History, several academic book series, and an emerging taxonomy: the general category of Heritage Tourism, for example, can be broken down into more specialized endeavors: literary tourism, thanatourism (also called Dark Tourism, focused on visitation to sites of death and suffering), legacy (genealogical) tourism. Salem became a tourist designation in the later nineteenth century, and from that time its projections have included all of these pursuits. With the bicentennial of the Salem Witch Trials in 1892, witches started appearing everywhere, but Nathaniel Hawthorne represented stiff competition in the opening decades of the twentieth century, particularly after the centennial commemoration of his birth in 1904 and the opening of the House of the Seven Gables in 1910. Over the twentieth century Hawthorne waned and the witches ultimately triumphed, but at mid-century there was a relatively brief span when Salem and its history were both perceived and presented more broadly, as an essential “historyland” which one must visit in order to understand the foundations of American civilization. The major periodicals of the 1940s and 1950s, including Time, Life, American Heritage and National Geographic, presented Salem not only as a Puritan settlement, but also as an “incubator” of both democracy and capitalism with the events of 1692 subsumed by those larger themes.

I think I need to explain and qualify my use of the term “historyland” before I continue, as I’m not using it in the perjorative way that it has come to be used in recent decades: idealized history theme park where one can escape the present and have fun! The “American Way of History” in the words of David Lowenthal. Its meaning evolves, but I am using it first (more later) as it was initially applied: to a region in which much happened and much remained as material legacy to what happened. It emerges in the 1930s as a very specific reference to the area encompassing Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia: I believe a section of Virginia’s Route 3 is still called the “Historyland Highway.” Virginia was so great at marketing itself as Historyland (an example is upper left in the above graphic—some chutzpah to claim that the “nation was preserved” in Virginia!) that other states, like nearby Maryland and North Carolina, started using the term as well. I’m sure that every state on the eastern seaboard was jealous, and the term was extended geographically, chronologically, and conceptually when a Historyland living history park focused on the logging industry opened in Wisconsin in 1954. In the next decade, National Geographic started using the term more generally in reference to national landmarks, in the succession volumes to its popular Wonderlands guides. I don’t want to romanticize the word or its meaning too much: the history that characterized these historylands was overwhelmingly European, narrative, and a bit too focused on colonial costumes for my taste, but at least it was place-based. I can imagine that the civic authorities would have been just a bit wary about the impact of for-profit attractions peddling a story that was not Salem’s in the 1950s and 1960s, especially with the presence of so many non-profit local history museums like the Essex Institute, the Peabody Museum, Pioneer Village, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Clearly that is not a concern now. In characteristic fashion, National Geographic focused on the site-specific aspects of Salem’s past and present in its September 1945 issue, focused on the Northeast. Its industrial base has created some “drabness,” but “this prosaic, utilitarian present is more than matched by an extraordinarily insistent and romantic past. Salem is literally a treasure house of early American landmarks, relics, articles, and documents of historic interest, all easily accessible and within a small area. The little city is fairly haunted by these still-visible evidences of its illustrious position, first as progenitor of the great Massachusetts Bay Colony, and later as a mistress of the seas. Unlike some larger cities of venerable age, in which population grew apace, it was unnecessary for Salem to tear down and rebuild: thus a larger proportion of memorable objects remains undisturbed.” Wow: a city which retains its treasures, was focused on preservation, and haunted by its still visible-past rather than made-up ghosts! What we have lost.

Photographs of Salem from the September 1945 issue of National Geographic, obove, and from America’s Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty (1962) below: the Witch House, secret staircase at the House of the Seven Gables, and Pioneer Village.

This total package, “treasure house” characterization continued to define Salem’s representation in national periodicals over the next two decades, during which Life, Time, and even Ladies Home Journal came to the city to take it all in: the Custom House and Derby Wharf, the House of the Seven Gables, Pioneer Village, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, the Court House with its pins, the YMCA with its small Alexander Graham Bell display (see above), the recently-restored Witch House, and Chestnut Street. (And everything was open all the time! Peirce-Nichols, Derby, all those houses we can seldom enter today).  But change was coming, to they ways and means by which we interpreted the past as well as to Salem. From the late 1960s, the meaning of “historyland” took on a more negative meaning and associated “living history” attractions began to fall out of fashion, a trend that culminated with Disney’s disastrous Virginia pitch in the early 1990s. And then Samantha and her Bewitched crew came to Salem, allegedly showing it the way forward: tell one story rather than many and focus on private profits rather than civic pride. The Salem Witch Museum demonstrated that that path could be very successful, and so everybody else jumped on board: the public sanction of “Haunted Happenings” eventually transformed Salem into a full-time Witch City and undermined those institutions which were trying to tell other, or more complicated stories. Many of Salem’s textual treasures have been transferred to Rowley, but I guess we are compensated by the real pirate’s treasure from the Whydah? In recent years, the city’s tourism agency, Destination Salem, has attempted to broaden its appeal by taking advantage of the popularity of genealogical research/travel with its Ancestry Days (next week: see schedule of events here) but I wonder how far that initiative can go when most of Salem’s genealogical assets are in Rowley. Perhaps no structure represents Salem’s transition into a modern historyland, with all of its current connotations, better than the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ropes Mansion, once merely an “early home on an old street” and now the Hocus Pocus house. If I were a true historian of tourism, I could explain this transition in social, cultural, and economic terms, but I’m not there yet. Nevertheless, Salem is the perfect subject for this dynamic field: we’ve already seen some great studies, and I’m sure we’ll see more.

The Ropes Mansion in the May 16, 1958 issue of Life Magazine, and October 2021.


A Peaceful Thanksgiving from Plymouth

In full disclosure, as I write this, I am not in Plymouth: I’m actually in New Jersey, soon to go back to Massachusetts for a spell and then to Vermont for Thanksgiving. But last weekend I was in Plymouth, which was getting everything ready for the 400th anniversary of the very first Thanksgiving, in 1621. The weather was beautiful and my husband and I visited all the spots: the newly-renamed Plimoth Patuxet Museums, the Plimoth Grist Mill, and the Mayflower of course. We walked by Plymouth Rock with a passing glance which is pretty much all it deserves, but there was a small crowd gathered round, as usual. Even though Plymouth was getting ready, it was still calm and peaceful, and a welcome refuge from Salem which has been anything but for months. When we took a break for lunch we first tried a relatively new and seemingly hip place down on the water, but it was so noisy and crowded we walked right back out; I said to myself (or maybe out loud, I can’t remember): that’s like a Salem restaurant. We ended up in local sports bar, perfectly happy. Everything was just so easy in Plymouth. There were fewer reenactors at Plimoth Patuxet than I had ever seen before, but for me, this just heightened the starkness and impression of the landscape, a reproduced one for sure, but still quite effective in transporting one back.

In downtown Plymouth, the reproductions (the Grist Mill, the Mayflower) are merely small parts of an authentic, living town with old and new structures, going about its business, a town where you can actually buy basic necessities like socks and shoes (along with violins!) from shops that are open all year round. There’s a real history museum and a historical society. As you can tell, I just can’t help but compare Salem and Plymouth: I’ve done it before and I’m doing it now. They are both old Massachusetts settlements which have become tourist towns with claims to fame based on holidays: but Plymouth clearly seeks to set its holiday in a comprehensive historical context while also preserving daily livability for its residents, while Salem, after reducing and contorting its own history to fit its chosen holiday, seems focused only on throwing an escalating party. And as we all know, parties are more fun for the guests than the hosts (or at least that’s my experience).

Happy Thanksgiving from Plymouth!

Update: Heather Wilkinson Rojo is your source for all things Mayflower in general and Mayflower 400th commemoration in particular: see all of her lovely links here: https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/p/mayflower-400th.html?spref=tw


Envisioning Salem, 1962

Salem is currently in the midst of implementing another urban renewal plan under the supervision of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA), the board that was created by the city’s first urban renewal plan in the 1960s. The story of the implementation of that plan is a pretty established narrative: over-ambitious SRA orders destruction of much of downtown and advocates for the construction of a highway into central Salem to increase access for shoppers lured away by the North Shore Shopping Center in Peabody until concerned citizens’ protests and the New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s extremely influential article brought national attention to the imminent destruction of Old Salem, shifting “renewal” towards redevelopment and preservation. Well, obviously I’m simplifying a much more complex process with many players: I’m starting to go through some of the sources which documented this process so I can understand it a bit better. I thought I would start with the early 1960s vision, as expressed by a series of reports issued by Blair and Stein Associates of Providence, RI, a planning firm hired by the City. Blair and Stein supposedly produced seven reports for the Salem Planning Board: I have found only three so far and the “Central Business District” report the most interesting: Salem, Massachusetts : central business district / prepared by Blair and Stein Associates in cooperation with the Salem Planning Board and the Massachusetts Department of Commerce (1962).

This study and its recommendations was not as focused on “tear it all down” as I expected: there are definitely recommendations for clearances, but also for preservation. Blair & Stein believed that the North Shore shopper, who is always referred to as “she,” could be lured back to downtown Salem if “blight” was cleared away and access improved. There are many references to urban blight, which was perceived as both decay and the reign of “inappropriate” facades and signs: after those were removed the state and fate of the stripped building should be considered. Because the emphasis is on renewing Salem’s shopping district above all, parking is very important, as is the overall design of pedestrian avenues around the downtown. Thus they gave us a pedestrian mall on Essex Street, Salem’s main street, but also on secondary routes leading into it. Salem would become an outdoor mall, with a mix of old restored buildings and new complementary structures: complementary not “imitative,” which is what I think most people would like to see now. It’s just annoying when advocates of sub-standard new construction accuse anyone who argues for higher standards of trying to turn Salem into a faux Federal city: I like the language below emphasizing scale, texture, character and “spirit” of new construction and did not expect to find it in a document of this nature and vintage.

Interesting spelling of “aesthetic” but these are goals I wish we were shooting for now!

Apart from the concerns about blight, parking and aesthetics, the major difference between this plan and the current one relates to housing: Blair and Stein envisioned a distinct shopping and cultural district and did not advocate for the expansion of residential buildings downtown, while that is a major planning goal at present. While they referenced tourism, they clearly saw it through a regional focus rather than a national one, and they don’t even mention Halloween. Salem would be a city of day trippers and day shoppers, returned to regional hub status.

Deed restrictions prevented all that planned Front Street parking, and inspired Artists’ Row, here pictured in 1978, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

The schematic sketches are just that, clean and orderly, and now I am seeking the specifics of how this rather vague plan turned into the scary plan of action recorded in the Boston Regional Office of HUD several years later: The Heritage Plaza East project advanced from the planning stage to the execution stage in February 1968. About 40 structures in the area will be rehabilitated, 140 will be razed, and 75 families will be relocated in the process of clearing the area. CLEARED OUT. The records of the SRA, which for some reason are deposited in the Phillips Library, will certainly shed light on the “progress” from planning to execution.

Appendix:  Historic Salem, Inc. has prepared a “Citizens Guide to the Downtown Renewal Plan” for those who wish to engage with its implementation, available here.