Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

Slavery Siege in Salem

The occupants of a house on Bryant Street in North Salem, British emigre Thomas Spencer, his wife and mother, both named Mary, and their houseguests, experienced a very scary night in late October of 1835, and I am not referencing Halloween. For this Preservation Month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has selected the theme (or charge) of telling the full story, encouraging people across the country to dig deeper as they explore the histories of their built environment. I try to do that all the time here, as there are so many layers to Salem’s history, and this particular house is a perfect case in point: all at the same time it represents triumph over adversity, triumph over inequality, triumph over discrimination, triumph over terror, and candy. 

First the house, 17 Bryant Street, then the backstory, then the terrible night: Halloween Eve, 1835.

17 Bryant Street, the Thomas Spencer Homestead, built c. 1800. Here pictured in 1904 (Essex Institute Historical Collections), 1979, 1986 and yesterday. As the Macris inventory indicates, this Federal house has been “altered beyond recognition”.

The backstory: much as been written about the Spencers, yet there is still quite a bit of confusion about the essential facts of their lives, both in Britain and in Salem. I used some genealogical and British records to come up with my summary, but I still have questions. I think I can do better than the standard Salem tale, however, which is basically “poor shipwrecked soul (Mary Sr.) is washed up on the North Shore penniless and gifted a barrel of sugar which she transforms into a miraculous hard candy called Gibralters and sells on the front steps of the First Church and the streets of Salem from her ever-recognizable buggy (make sure to add one or more exclamation marks to the closing phrase:) which is in the collection of the PEM!!! This candy is still being made and sold in Salem, at the Ye Olde Pepper Candy Company on Derby Street near the House of the Seven Gables.

I really don’t have much to add about the candy: that seems covered. But there’s a lot more to say about the Spencers. Mary Smith (Spencer) was born in Nottinghamshire in 1759: I really don’t know how she became a Spencer. Nearly every record I tracked down seemed to confuse the “Thomas Spencer” who was supposedly her husband with the “Thomas Spencer” who actually was her son, who was born in 1792 or 1793 in Coventry. She booked passage on the New York ship Jupiter which left London in March of 1805: it hit an iceberg off Newfoundland and was shipwrecked. There were many reports in the eastern newspapers, including the Salem Register, identifying the 27 passengers who drowned, along with the captain and most of the crew, but the survivors are not named. These “persons preserved” in the Jupiter’s longboat ended up in Marblehead, and later, Salem, Mary Spencer among them. There are also newspaper reports of the charity extended to these survivors, including, the sugar that was reportedly granted to Mary Spencer by the benevolent ladies of Salem, enabling her to become the enterprising confectioner of  lore and legend.

Salem Register; the iconic image of Mrs. Spencer, from Early Personal Reminiscences in the old George Peabody mansion in Salem, Massachusetts by Clara Endicott Sears. 

I don’t think Thomas was with Mary; I believe he came over in the 1820s and eventually took over his mother’s business. He was married to Mary Robinson in England in 1817: their two sons, Franklin and John Kirby, were both born in Salem. Thomas remained in Salem, very much part of the community, until 1837, when he was bequeathed a considerable amount of property in the villages of Sturton and Bransby in Lincolnshire by the Reverend John Kirby, the namesake of his younger son. There was no “title,” as some of the Salem accounts suggest, but some very nice properties nonetheless. In various letters sent back to some of his friends in Salem, Thomas writes that he is finally doing what he always wanted to do: farming. He left his mark in Salem, however: as an entrepreneur, as part of the Quaker community, as a naturalist (a topic he spoke on regularly at the Salem Lyceum), and above all, as a abolitionist. Both Thomas and Mary R. Spencer were devoted Quakers, and a big part of the expression of their faith was an equally strong commitment to the transatlantic abolitionist cause. Thomas was one of the founders of Salem’s Anti-Slavery Society in 1834, and he and Mary attended a series of abolitionist conventions over the next few years, but the peak of their commitment to the cause was clearly their shelter and protection of their fellow English abolitionist George Thompson and his family in late October of 1835.

Salem Gazette; George Thompson in the 1830s, National Portrait Gallery.

Following the passage of the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833, which granted enslaved persons in many (but not all) of the colonies of the British Empire their freedom after a five-year period of “transition” and compensation to the slave-owners rather than those who were enslaved, British abolitionists focused on the immediate abolition of slavery in the empire—and the world. One of their most effective missionaries, George Thompson, was commissioned to undertake a series of lectures in the United States in 1834-1835 in collaboration with the American Anti-Slavery Society. It’s very clear that Thompson’s tour, or Thompson himself, was a lightening rod: while he was instrumental in inspiring the formation of more than 300 local abolitionist societies, he faced constant criticism (even in Northern newspapers) as well as threats of mob violence in all the major cities he visited, including Boston and Salem. The general criticism was along the lines of “who is this infamous foreign scoundrel who deigns to lecture the citizens of the United States on their domestic duties?” It was nativist, xenophobic, and nationalistic, with slight variations in each locale. When Thompson came to Salem on the last leg of his tour, he quite naturally stayed at the large Federal home of his countryman and fellow abolitionist Thomas Spencer, a bit removed from the city center. On the morning of October 30, this is the handbill that circulated around town: The Citizens of Salem, the friends of order, who are desirous to preserve the quiet of families, and the peace of town by driving from our society the foreign pest, who is endeavoring to agitate the country with his doctrines and to destroy the Union of State by his fanaticism, are earnestly requested to meet at the Town Hall, this afternoon, at 3 o’clock to adopt measures to effect this object. Salem, October 30, 1835. The main “measure” implemented was essentially the formation of a large mob, which surrounded Spencer’s North Salem house that very night, even though Thompson had fled. The Boston papers reported on “symptoms of violence” the next day, but Spencer was more forthcoming in a letter he wrote to one of Thompson’s sponsors, the Glasgow Ladies Auxiliary Emancipation Society.

Boston Morning Post; Thomas Spencer reports to the Glasgow Ladies Auxiliary Emancipation Society, 1835, in Three Years’ Female Anti-Slavery Effort, in Britain and America: Being a Report of the Proceedings of the Glasgow Ladies’ Auxiliary Emancipation Society.

Well obviously there’s a lot here: a mob of 400 men! The xenophobia (“one Englishman is as good as another” ) and the anti-Quaker expressions as well: shades of seventeenth-century Salem. Because of some notable abolitionist individuals and institutions like the Remonds and the Female Anti-Slavery Society, we are accustomed to thinking about Salem as a center of progressive abolitionism, but my Americanist colleagues remind me that only a small percentage (1-3%) of urban dwellers in antebellum cities identified as Abolitionists. Spencer writes about “Southerners from Boston” (which is a funny expression–do you think he means actual Southerners or did Salem people look upon Bostonians as “Southerners”?) as well as pro-Slavery men of Salem. His mother, the famous Mary Spencer, is obviously still alive, but I think she died that very year. His wife, the other Mary Spencer, has a “new-born babe” in her arms, but I can’t find any record of that child. Is it any wonder that Thomas Spencer sold everything in Salem and departed for England two years later after coming into his inheritance from the Reverend Kirby? And shouldn’t we be talking about a bit more than candy when we consider Mary and Thomas Spencer and the Salem in which they lived?

Home in Englanda special photograph of Thomas and Mary Spencer in front of their home in Bransby, Lincolnshire, in 1867 from the Sturton & Stow History Society. They both died in 1876.


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.


Circa 1775

For Patriots Day, I endeavored to find Salem houses built in 1775, but it turned out to be a bit more involved task than I envisioned. I was just going to walk around and look at the Historic Salem, Inc. plaques, then I decided to consult the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s MACRIS database, which gave me a very workable list. The former overruled the latter for many of the houses I encountered however, so “circa 1775” is the best I can do. Salem houses are sometimes tricky to date just by apparent style: there is a conservatism that dominates the quarter century after the Revolution when it comes to you average dwelling (as contrasted to the Federal mansions which rose at the same time). Several “Georgian” cottages were built in 1806 or even 1826. So these houses are very “circa” for the most part, in the most flexible sense of the word, and I’m not really going to be able to answer the question behind this post: how many people in Salem were confident enough to build a house after five+ years of escalating conflict and tension over representation and sovereignty in British America?”

First up is the Wendt House on Crombie Street: this house has been the object of consternation for decades. First it was threatened my Holyoke Mutual Insurance Company, which threatened to demolish it for parking spaces, then it was saved by Historic Salem, Inc. (HSI), now it is threatened again (not so much its form but its LIGHT) by a large apartment building proposal. Below, Summer, Cambridge and Hight Street Houses: 51 Summer Street is dated 1771 by Historic Salem, followed 6 Cambridge Street and 8, 14 and 21r High Street.

And over on the other side of town: a Briggs Street house which MACRIS dates to c. 1775 but for which HSI has a more precise history, a Daniels Street House which is a great example of the “conservative” trend I spoke of above, and 19-21 Essex Street, which has been through many transformations. Such a cool house, and pretty substantial even without its later additions, indicating that even though the political times were turbulent, the economic future perhaps looked a bit more promising from the perspective of 1775.

19-21 Essex Street in 1985, MACRIS.


A Derby House in Medfield

I busted out of Salem yesterday and took a road trip to Norfolk county in Massachusetts, southwest of Boston, and drove through a string of towns beginning with M: Medfield, Millis, Medway, Milford, Mendon. My “destination” was a first-period house with Derby connections in the first M town, the Dwight-Derby House, but really I just wanted to drive around. And I did—but I also found Medfield absolutely charming so I stayed awhile. Sometimes I think I could write the whole blog about and around Salem’s Derby family: their money, connections, and influence end up everywhere. In this case, however, neither their money, connections or influenced really impacted the history of a lovely first-period house overlooking Medfield’s Meetinghouse Pond. John Barton Derby, a grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, who profited immensely from Salem’s emerging East India trade and thereby became America’s first millionaire, did not stay in Medfield for long but his descendants lived in what became known as the DwightDerby House until the middle of the twentieth century.

John Barton Derby, grandson of Elias Hasket Derby, married Mary Townsend, whose family owned the Medfield house, in 1820. Rumors swirl around about John Barton and his brother Hasket, in contrast to the other children of John and Sarah Derby of Salem. The major clues to their outcast status are the facts that they were seldom in Salem and always in need of money. When John Barton married Mary Townsend, his deceased first wife (from Northampton, which is like Derby Siberia) had not been in her grave for very long, and he was apparently disowned by his father. He was practicing law in Dedham, and had been given a letter of introduction to Mary’s father by his uncle Benjamin Pickman, Jr., but that was about it for respectability. John and Mary remained together for about of 27 months and produced two children, Sarah and George Horatio, and then he was gone. I’m going to let Nehemiah Cleaveland and Alpheus Spring Packard, authors of the History of Bowdoin College with Biographical Sketches of its Graduates, from 1806 to 1879, Inclusive (1882) tell the rest of John’s story, but they are leaving out time spent as a recluse in the wilds of New Hampshire and as a patient at what later became known as McLean Hospital, which opened in the year of John Barton’s graduation from Bowdoin.

“JOHN BARTON DERBY, born in 1793, was the eldest son of John Derby, a Salem merchant. In college he was musical, poetical, and wild. He studied law in Northampton, Mass., and settled as a lawyer in Dedham. His first wife was a Miss Barrell of Northampton. After her death he married a daughter of Horatio Townsend. They soon separated. A son by this marriage, Lieut. George Derby of the United States army, became well known as a humorous writer under the signature of ‘John Phoenix.’ For many years before his death Mr. Derby lived in Boston. At one time he held a subordinate office in the custom-house Then he became a familiar object in State Street, gaining a precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares. He was now strictly temperate, and having but little else to do, often found amusement and solace in those rhyming habits which he had formed in earlier and brighter years, His Sundays were religiously spent — so at least he told me — in the composition of hymns The sad life which began so gayly came to a close in 1867.” What a poignant scenario: the grandson of a millionaire, with his “precarious living by the sale of razors and other small wares” on the streets of Boston. No wonder the charming sign outside of the Dwight-Derby House features John Barton’s and Mary’s dashing son, George Horatio Derby, who served in the Mexican-American War, went on to a journalistic career in California and died at the young age of 38. You can read much more about the Townsends and the Derbys and the history of the house in a great little book that integrates both very well: Medfield’s Dwight-Derby House. A Story of Love and Persistence by Electa Kane Tritsch.

George Horatio Derby, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.

The Dwight-Derby House was purchased by the town of Medfield in 1996, and went through an intensive restoration before it was opened to the public, joining the town’s more famous colonial structure, the Peak House, as a period museum. And there’s lots more in Medfield: some beautiful seventeenth- and eighteenth-century private houses, a small historical society, and a “mobile history tour” using QR code plaques on utility boxes, signs, and murals. I fell in love with the eighteenth-century Clark Tavern, even (or perhaps because of) its state of extravagant decay, and was very relieved to discover that it has just sold and can only be restored to include TWO dwellings (despite being much bigger than the poor Barr house into which many more are being stuffed), or perhaps even to its original use.

I can’t wait to go back to Medfield to see the interior of the Dwight-Derby House, and the renovation of the old Clark Tavern. But there’s lots of history to see and read now at the Peak House (with its revised chronology) and along the town’s streets and sidewalks.


The Privateer’s House

On this very day in 1776, the Continental Congress authorized private vessels commissioned with “Letters of Marque and Reprisal” to “make captures of British Vessels and Cargoes” and Salem’s shipowners and shipmasters responded enthusiastically: 158 privateering vessels originated from Salem during the Revolution, capturing 458 prizes and the largest prize tonnage of any single American port. It seems appropriate to feature what once was the home of a particular (and particularly active) privateer today: a structure that long stood on Lynde Street downtown and is now in the process of being “transformed” into a much enlarged building in a Georgian-esque style, complete with a built-in garage. I don’t know how much is left of the James Barr House, actually, but a brief history of its most celebrated occupant and record of its evolution are below.

James Barr was born several years before his father, also named James, built the family homestead at 25 Lynde Street, but he spent most of his childhood and adulthood in the house and died in it in 1848, at age 93. His was a full and long life, on sea and on land. Fortunately we have a wonderful and accessible source: his grandson James Barr Curwen published Barr’s “Reminiscences,” including his Revolutionary War commissions, in the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute in 1890 (Volume 27). Barr spent the war in service: on the Black Snake as First Lieutenant in 1777 and as Captain of the Oliver Cromwell, the Rover, and the Montgomery thereafter. He took prizes and was taken prisoner: he spent several months onboard the infamous British prison ship Jersey in New York Harbor and was also transported by the British to Barbados: nevertheless he always seemed to be able to extricate himself and find another ship. Unfortunately his grandson includes more details about the terms of his commissions than his escapes. After the war, Barr became a merchant mariner in partnership with his brother John: their copper-bottomed ship Hope was apparently one of the speediest Salem ships to the East Indies. Mr. Curwen assesses his grandfather’s retirement as “quiet”: “in early days he was a staunch Federalist and later a Whig, but he never took a conspicuous part in politics. He lived a strictly honest and conscientious life and died respected by all who know him at the age of ninety-three years, four months, twenty-one days.” James Barr’s “Reminiscences” also include a portrait commissioned in Leghorn for East India Hall and a very rare photograph of the old captain in the year before his death.  Photographs of Revolutionary-war veterans have been the subject of several studies over the past few years and I’m not sure this particular one is well-known: what a record!

In another town, a famous privateer’s house might be preserved and celebrated: but that’s not the Salem way. The Barr house, built on the storied site of Salem’s first fort in 1759, left the family’s possession in the early twentieth century and its downtown location rendered it vulnerable to commercial and multi-residential use. Much of Salem’s downtown is under the jurisdiction of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) rather than the Salem Historical Commission: those identifying adjectives are apt. Here is the visual evolution of the house over more than a century: from Curwen ownership in the 1890s (captured in Frank Cousins photographs from the Phillips Library and Digital Commonwealth) to a MACRIS photograph from 2016, to the day it lost its gambrel roof last week, to this morning, and a rendering of its completed form encompassing however many condominiums were approved by the SRA.

And here’s the description from the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s 2016 MACRIS inventory by Neil Larson and Walter R. Wheeler: The Barr house is one of a diminishing number of mid-18th century vernacular wood frame dwellings in Salem. Although it has experienced minor alterations and significant additions over time, the original outline of the dwelling remains clearly readable; it retains its original form, feeling and materials, and continues to embody the distinctive characteristics of a mid-18th century side passage gambrel-roofed dwelling. 

 


Windows into the Past

With warmer weather and the completion of my manuscript, I’ve been out on the Salem streets more, but every time I’m on a lovely walk I see some horrible structure that makes me run home: it’s not just the new big buildings but also the small old ones, purchased by developers so they can “save” them from rot and decay by gutting their interiors and blowing them out in every possible direction so they can shove five or six or more units into their then-unrecognizable structures, thus solving our housing crisis at the same time! Maybe we might be left with some semblance of a “historical” facade but that’s about it. I’m sure you can tell I’m not happy, but it’s a lovely spring Saturday and I’d like to focus on more pleasant and interesting things, like a really cool preservation/education project at an 18th century plantation ruin in Virginia. But beware: monster preservation (or lack thereof) post coming up: I’m gathering steam and data!

But for today: Menokin, the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It is a beautiful ruin in the Northern Neck of Virginia, once the center of prosperous Tidewater plantation. Despite its ruined status, Menokin is one of the best documented Georgian houses in America: the original plans exist, and a comprehensive inventory was created by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1940. It was left to decay for most of the twentieth century, and then a tree fell on it in the 1960s, nearly reducing it to rubble. Now it is under cover, and its owners, the Menokin Foundation, are in the process of “restoring” it in an innovative and transparent way—literally. Those portions of the house which are intact will be preserved and stabilized, while missing walls, floors, and sections will be replaced with glass, thus revealing its fabric and construction over time. The phrase dynamic preservation is used by those who envisioned the project: their goal is tell the story of Menokin through the process of reconstruction, “not as a snapshot in time but as a continuing narrative.” The “Glass House Project,” designed by architect Machado Silvetti in collaboration with glass engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan and landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand, began last summer and is scheduled to be completed in 2023. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Neither Ruin nor Relic,” Michael J. Lewis called the Menokin Glass House Project “the first postmodern restoration” and a “cannonball flung between the feet of the historic preservation community.”

Menokin in 1940 (HABS, Library of Congress), after the destructive tree fall, at present and envisioned.

A cannonball indeed! It will be interesting to see what the professional historic preservation community thinks of this project. I’m no professional, and I’m torn, but the educator in me is impressed by the Menokin Foundation’s obvious commitment to transforming the house and its surrounding 500 acres into a teaching tool. The Foundation’s interpretive arm, Menokin: Reimagining a Ruin, is very active, with a series of presentations on both material and human history. The complex topic of slavery is the focus of ongoing initiatives and discussions centered on its Remembrance Structure, built with historical techniques above the archaeological remains of one of the dwellings where the plantation’s enslaved laborers lived. The Foundation clearly has no interest in reconstructing the house according to the constraints of one moment in its history, and dressing up guides in pre-revolutionary or antebellum costumes to give tours to visitors about what once was. Its focus on evolving construction will facilitate more substantive discussions about how and why rather than just when.

Remembrance Structure at night; interior rendering.


Let’s Restore (Some Semblance of) Norman Street

Norman Street was and is an important thoroughfare in Salem, one of the major connections from the major route north to the center of the city, and ultimately the harbor. The street was charming in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with substantial houses lining its brick sidewalks and TREES. Two of my favorite Salem Georgians were on Norman, the Jonathan Mansfield House and the Benjamin Cox House: details of the former show up in all sorts of early American architecture books in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Norman Street in the later nineteenth century (1880s-1890s), Phillips Library, Peabody 

Norman Street was essentially annihilated in the twentieth century: its charming houses demolished and replaced by generic business boxes, its width expanded for automobiles, its trees left to die. I can’t think of a street in Salem so utterly transformed. Its bleakness is all the more apparent by the fact that it’s basically an extension of mansion-lined Chestnut Street, so the contrast is striking: I sigh with relief when I pass over Summer Street and everything gets greener and more friendly. All the twentieth-century forces aligned to kill this street: a big public works project (the Post Office), the car, of course, and the worst architectural eras of the century, the 1930s and the 1970s-1980s. There are three crosswalks, but cars whip around the corner onto Norman so you have to be a rather audacious pedestrian to think about using them. The street is so bleak it can only be improved, but the one vacant lot now set for redevelopment is in a particularly conspicuous spot: on a corner, between two historic districts, and between a residential district and the beginning of the commercial downtown: this project has the potential to CONNECT so many constituent parts of Salem, and restore some structure (and dignity) to Norman Street at the same time. I have high hopes and great expectations, and I really hope the permitting boards of Salem do too.

So let me show you the current lot and the prospective building: I am taking these photos from the presentation that the developers (Kinvarra Capital) and Architects (Balance Architects) gave to a neighborhood group last week, before they go before the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) next week. This presentation was very thorough in its consideration of all of the challenges and context of this site, I thought. You can see the whole thing for yourself here. Let me say that I don’t have really strong objections to this building: compared to recent construction in Salem, and to what defines Norman Street at present, it’s an improvement. But I think it could be better. And I REALLY think that it should prompt a city-wide discussion about design rather than just a neighborhood discussion about parking.

Existing conditions looking north (top) and east (bottom): Chestnut Street is right behind you in this second photo. The city has decided to put a roundabout at this busy intersection, but they haven’t really committed and it’s too small a space, so everyone just drives over that yellow circle.

Same vantage points as above with the rendering of the new building. The bottom image also show the recently-approved “suburban” addition to the adjacent Georgian house by the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA), the same board that has jurisdiction over new Norman Street building.

So you see, a challenging site. I don’t envy the architects: should they take their contextual cues from the adjacent 1980s plaza, or the Georgian with its (insert adjective; I have no words) addition, or the 1930s Holyoke building across the street or the Federal and Italianate buildings which open Chestnut Street? You know me, I’m a traditionalist and a historian: I’d like to restore something of what was Norman Street in its glory days, perhaps along the lines of the Julia Row in New Orleans, without the wrought iron. But you can’t really recreate that: it would look cheap with today’s materials, and it wouldn’t fit in with the twentieth-century buildings of Norman Street. It’s not the entire composition but rather the depth of façade and detail I’m after, and in this case I was particularly attracted to the parapet end wall: if integrated into a new building on Norman, it could match the one at 2-4 Chestnut Street, establishing continuity and connection.

Julia Row, New Orleans; Chestnut and Norman Streets in the 1880s, Salem Picturesque, State Library of Massachusetts.

The New Orleans building is also too big, as is the proposed Norman Street building. What you don’t see in these photographs is the Crombie Street Historic District tucked away in back, with smaller-scaled buildings than any of the other adjacent structures. I looked at some recent developments in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in which new construction was integrated into existing historic neighborhoods and came up with a few favorites in terms of scale and also texture, which is missing in most of the new construction I see. The first is in Bay Village in Boston, a small historic neighborhood tucked away in the midst of downtown Boston. The scale and detail of of Piedmont Park Square is nice: it fits right into its quaint neighborhood on the storied site of the Cocoanut Grove, where a tragic fire occurred in 1942. The building “stitches” together townhouses—what could be more connective than that?

Piedmont Park Square in Boston’s Bay Village by Studio Luz Architects.

As I searched for semblances of things I’d like to see in this important new building, I was motivated by scale, detail, texture, integration, contextuality, and some sense of the past: the proposed rendering reads “industrial” to me, and Norman Street was never industrial, so I don’t understand the reference. I don’t think I found what I was looking for, but I really like the integration achieved by a recent infill development in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, below. Tucked in between an early 20th century mansion on the site of its fire-ravaged garage and a row of 19th-century townhouses, this structure fits in but still makes a statement with its variegated façade and roofline and so much texture! This seems like an even more difficult challenge than Norman Street. I like it, but my husband-the-architect does not and neither, apparently, do its neighbors. All architecture is paradoxical, but urban architecture particularly so: it is so very public, yet the public has so little power to influence what is built.

Renderings of 375 Stuyvesant Street, Brooklyn by DXA Studio


Renaissance and Reign of Terror

1904 was a big year in Salem’s commemorative history: it was the centennial of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birth, and his birthplace received both regional and national attention. This was squarely in the midst of the time when Witch City and Hawthorne/Colonial City were duking it out to see which one would define Salem’s identify going forward: the former won, of course. Hawthorne was born on July 4, so in the midsummer there were lots of stories on Salem in the Boston papers, with a notable focus on material culture: his houses, other storied Salem houses, Salem gardens, Salem streets. As Hawthorne was so often focused on the past, so too was his commemoration.

Homes and Gardens in Salem, Boston Daily Globe, July-August 1904.

Salem was also featured in a book on American architecture published in 1904: American Renaissance. A Review of Domestic Architecture by Joy Wheeler Dow, Architect. This first caught my attention because I assumed “Joy” was a woman architect, but it turns out that Joseph Wheeler Dow preferred to be called Joy. He was a prolific writer and critic around this time, publishing in several “shelter” periodicals, and had a very forthright style. I like opinionated authors, and even though Dow was very snobby, concerned when anyone who lacked a Harvard education was in any position of authority and using the term “Anglo-Saxon” a bit too much for my taste, he’s still fun to read. His concept of the material “Renaissance” was strictly Victorian but he detested Victorian architecture: his division of American architecture centered on a Renaissance of craftsmanship and style in the colonial and first half of the nineteenth century and a “Reign of Terror” thereafter in which too much money and fashion (as opposed to style) created objectionable buildings. He loved Salem and placed its building firmly in the era and style of the American Renaissance.

Dow’s captions are great, so I included a few of them above: if you want atmosphere and plenty of it, go to Salem! (exclamation point mine, as that is how he writes). We’re so fortunate to have all of the houses above still standing, and they still provide a wonderful context and atmosphere. I don’t share Dow’s opinion of Victorian architecture, either residential or commercial, and I think buildings from that era—and after—add context and atmosphere as well. If I were to divide Salem’s built environment into periods I would have a long “Renaissance” era extending up to the twentieth century, perhaps even to the Great Salem Fire of 1914, then a rebuilding/accommodating the car era (not sure what I’d name it) and the “Reign of Terror” would begin in 2000 or so: we are clearly in a Reign of Terror now. It’s hard to characterize all of Salem’s new buildings: several appear to have tried for some context in the details but ended up as plastic pastiche, others could have been built everywhere and anywhere. I can’t explain the first building below, Salem’s new Hampton Inn: I really have no words. I’m not really sure what to think about the Brix, a new condominium development built on the site of the former District Courthouse: it’s a big boxy building but its downtown location can support that, even as the transition to a side street, Church Street, is rather abrupt. I guess it’s just the roofline that bothers me: why the overhanging eaves? This is the third or fourth new Salem building with similar roofs: has there been some secret pact to transform Salem into an exemplar of a revived Prairie Style? Maybe that’s the new “atmosphere” we’re going for but it seems odd given Salem’s illustrious architectural past. Away from the downtown, but not too far, are the new Halstead Apartments, which manage to represent a shadow of Salem’s vibrant industrial past in a rather reassuring, even atmospheric, way.

Salem’s new multi-colored Hampton Inn (+apartments) and multi-style River Rock development on Goodhue/Boston Streets; The new Brix condominium building on Washington and Church Streets; the Halstead Apartments on Flint Street.


Digging Up Derby Square

I was researching Salem’s struggle with/against urban renewal in the 1960s when I came across a massive collection of photographs from the career collection of Edmund Bacon, the famous Philadelphia city planner who is sometimes referred to as representing a “third way” between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. I honestly don’t know if Bacon was a critic or a fan of urban renewal: his work looks a little plaza-centric to me. Apparently he captured urban renewal funds for the rehabilitation of Society Hill in Philadelphia, however, and that is certainly to his credit. The landscape architect who worked on Society Hill was another Philadelphian, John F. Collins, and when Bacon was brought in to consult on Salem’s redevelopment after some (not all) of the planned destruction through “renewal” was thwarted, he recommended Collins to implement the new Heritage Plaza East Plan in the 1970s. Collins’ efforts reshaped downtown Salem over the decade, and you can read (and see) more about them here. But back to Bacon (father of Kevin, by the way): after his retirement he turned all of his papers and photographs over to the Fisher Fine Arts Library of the University of Pennsylvania, which is currently digitizing and crowdsource-cataloguing them through a project called the Ed Bacon Photo Project: the photographs are an amazing window into twentieth-century urban planning, and include several scenes of Salem’s little Dig.

During and after: Derby Square is such an important center for downtown Salem, although I wish the City was as dedicated to the maintenance of all the hardscape features incorporated by Collins as Philadelphia has been with Society Hill. The Cultural Landscape Foundation notes that “Collins’ details–richly patterned brick sidewalks and walls, granite curbs and backless benches, alleys, street trees, site-specific light standards and bollards – combined with small courtyards and pocket parks peppered throughout the 120-acre neighborhood, unite the unique blend of historic and modern buildings and landscape features.” The space has served as the site of grocers’ and farmers’ markets for decades–until last year when Covid mandated another location with more space for social distancing: I hope it can return this year. And on quite another note, I’m sure everyone will be thrilled to hear that one of Salem’s key businesses, Vampfangs®, is expanding into Derby Square with “Maison Vampyre,” an “elegant and uniquely themed private space, located in the heart of Salem at One Derby Square. Guests are invited to experience personal or group psychic readings from members of the local Vampire community.”


Cabot Constructions: Salem’s Lost Georgians

I am of two minds when it comes to genealogy: the professional historian in me thinks it is a bit antiquarian and lacking in context, but the local historian in me is very grateful to genealogists past, especially those who produced major family histories around the turn of the twentieth century, complete with lots of photographs of the old manses built by first, second and third generations. The other day I was looking for something other than the sources missing from my almost-completed manuscript’s endnotes, in other words, procrastinating, and somehow I found myself in the midst of the very comprehensive Cabot family genealogy: History and genealogy of the Cabot family, 14751927 by L. Vernon Briggs. The Cabots are a famous Yankee family, primarily associated with Boston now I think, but like so many Brahmin families—they started out in Salem. Some branches stayed, but most left: for Beverly, for Brookline, and for Boston. Everywhere they went they built great houses, and some of their best houses were right here in Salem. Unfortunately, only one survives: the Cabot-Endicott-Low House on Essex Street. I had read about the others, but never seen them, and in this great old genealogy, there they were! The Cabots had it all: ships and land and great country and city houses, but I only had eyes for these Salem Georgians.

The first Cabot house in Salem, built in John Cabot in 1708 at what is now 293 Essex Street; demolished in 1878: this is a great photo because you can see how commercial architecture imposed on Salem’s first great mansions on its main street.

Moved to Danvers! No time to run over there and see if it is still standing right now, but will update when I know.

Oh my goodness look at this Beverly jog! Built by second-generation Dr. John Cabot in 1739. Church Street was destroyed by urban renewal and is a shadow of its former self.

A familiar corner at the 299 Essex Street and North Streets: this Cabot house was built in 1768 by Francis Cabot and later occupied by Jonathan Haraden.

Survived! The Cabot-Endicott-Low House was built in 1744 by merchant Joseph Cabot and remains one of Salem’s most impressive houses. Its rear garden used to extend to Chestnut Street, and crowds would form every Spring to gaze upon it.


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