Tag Archives: Historic Preservation

Preservation by Pencil

I often get asked if I’m ever going to write a book about Salem—and I always feel like the subtext of the question is or are you just going to keep dabbling on your blog? I always say no, as I’m not really interested in producing any sort of popular history about Salem and I’m not a trained American historian. I have a few academic projects I’m working on now and at the same time I like to indulge my curiosity about the environment in which I live, because, frankly, most of the books that do get published on Salem’s history tend to tell the same story time and time again. First Period architecture is the one topic that tempts me to go deeper: not architectural history per se (again, another field in which I am not trained), but more the social and cultural history of Salem’s seventeenth-century structures—especially those that survived into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. How do they change over time? Why do some get preserved and others demolished? What was their perceived value, at any given time? Why do some houses get turned into memorials/museums/”monuments” and others disappear, forever forgotten? And (here’s the blogging angle): why are some of these structures preserved for posterity in photographic and artistic form and others not? This is a rather long-winded contextual introduction to my focus today: the wonderful house renderings of the Anglo-American artist Edwin Whitefield (1816-1892). Whitefield was an extremely prolific painter of landscapes and streetscapes, flora and fauna, and I’m mentioned him here several times before, but I recently acquired my own copy of one of his Homes of our Forefathers volumes, and now I need to wax poetic. I just love his pencil-and-paint First Period houses: they are detailed yet impressionistic, simple yet structural, and completely charming. I can’t get enough of them.

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There are five Homes of our Forefathers volumes, published between 1879 and 1889, covering all of New England and a bit of Old England as well: Boston and Massachusetts are intensively covered in several volumes. Whitefield clearly saw himself as a visual recorder of these buildings and was recognized as such at the time (a time when many of these structures were doubtless threatened): An 1889 Boston Journal review of his houses remarked that “We cannot easily exaggerate the service which Mr. Whitefield has rendered in preserving them”. Even though the title pages advertised “original drawings made on the spot”, implying immediate impressions, Whitefield put considerable research and detail in his drawings, intentionally removing modern alterations and additions so that they were indeed the homes of our forefathers. His process and intent are key to understanding why Whitefield includes some structures in his volumes and omits others. He includes only two little-known Salem structures in Homes: the Palmer House, which stood on High Street Court, and the Prince House, which was situated on the Common, near the intersection of Washington Square South, East and Forrester Street. There were so many other First Period houses in Salem that he could have included–Pickering, Shattuck, Ruck, Gedney, Narbonne, Corwin, Turner-Ingersoll–but instead he chose two houses which were much more obscure, thus rescuing them from perpetual obscurity.

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Homes of our FF LC

Already-famous First Period houses in Salem, either because of their Hawthorne, witchcraft, or Revolutionary associations: the Turner-Ingersoll house before it was transformed into the House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original situation, the Shattuck House on Essex Street, a sketch of the Corwin “Witch House” and the Pickering House. Whitefield’s single postcard of the Witch House in its original incarnation (it was then thought to be the residence of Roger Williams, an association that was later disproven by Sidney Perley).

The Palmer and Prince houses are mentioned in the Pickering Genealogy (Palmer) and Perley’s Essex Antiquarian articles, and apparently there’s a photograph of the former deep in the archives of the Phillips Library, but without Whitefield’s sketches they wouldn’t exist. He was drawn to them, I think, by both their age and their vulnerability: both would be torn down, with little notice, in the same decade that his sketches were published.

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Preservation Awards 2017

Every May (which is Preservation Month in case you didn’t know it), Salem’s venerable preservation organization, Historic Salem, Inc., holds its annual meeting at which a slate of officers are elected and a slate of preservation awards announced–with the latter taking up considerably more time than the former. The awards are culled from nominations by HSI’s membership and the community, and generally include a variety of projects: private residences meticulously restored, adaptive re-use projects, large public projects that privilege preservation. I look forward to these awards every year, but for some reason I haven’t “covered” them in my blog:  I think it’s because annual meeting nights have fallen on teaching nights in years past and so I haven’t been able to attend, but that’s a poor excuse as I certainly could and should have featured the list in years past. These awards go to individuals (owners, developers, architects) but represent material and aesthetic contributions to the entire community as preservation is a public good. In any case, this year the HSI annual meeting fell on a Friday, but I would have attended regardless as (shameless full disclosure here) my husband’s firm received not one but two awards: for the Howard and Derby Street condominium projects through which a 1960s convent and the former Settlement House of the House of the Seven Gables were transformed into residential buildings. These projects were in good company: the newly-restored (and expanded) Essex Probate and Family Court (now the Thaddeus Buczko Building) the Notch Brewery & Tap Room, the Pickering House, the Baker’s Island Light Station, Old Town Hall, the former Klondike Building–turned-offices for the North Shore Community Development Corporation, and a beautifully-refurbished Victorian house in North Salem were also recognized on this past Friday night. Together, they represent the sheer variety of preservation work going on in Salem by individuals and institutions, efforts that are more important than ever in this era of bland new building.

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The 2017 HSI Preservation Award winners: Old Town Hall was recognized for the rehabilitation of its historic windows, and the Pickering House for its fence and balustrade. The Nursery Street Victorian sets the standard for meticulous restoration, inside and out. The second-floor North Shore CDC offices on Lafayette Street, also stunning. Seven Howard Street is a mid-century modern convent turned condominiums, and the former Settlement House of the House of the Seven Gables led many lives before its recent transformation into residences.

Looking forward to 2018: The Salem Maritime National Historic Site is in the process of restoring the windows of the Derby House, the old “Grimshawe House” on Charter Street (where Nathaniel Hawthorne courted his wife Sophia) is in the midst of a thorough rehabilitation, and I’m really hoping that my employer, Salem State University, not only saves but restores this historic bungalow on Loring Avenue.

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Loring Bungalow


Bring Back Bicycle Wheels….and Wooden Teeth

One of my favorite photographs of a Salem street shows a block of Essex adjacent to North in the 1890s: the three buildings in the picture are vastly preferable to those that occupy the space now, but what I really admire are the signs, particularly that single bicycle wheel sign in front of Whitten’s Bicycle Shop. Signs were just so much better then; I don’t know what happened. Well, probably cars, along with plastic and neon.

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Signs Essex Street Ugh.

Actually I kind of like that Bonchon building, and if you can see (it’s pretty small), this business features not only the standard facade or wall sign but also a small projecting blade sign—an absolutely necessity in the “walking city” that Salem claims to be. Salem does have some really nice blade signs, commissioned by creative and civic-minded business owners who are investing in the look and feel of the city as well as their own enterprises. But there are also too many plastic facade and sandwich board signs scattered about, projecting the message: we’re just here for the Halloween season. Washington Street is lined with blade signs, as is Front, but ye olde Essex—the ancient “highway” of Salem– could do a lot better, in my humble opinion.

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Signs Front Street

Signs Emporium

I suppose I am a sign snob: trade signs from a century or more ago just seem more creative to me in both their typography and their imagery. I particularly like symbolic signs in which bicycle wheels, keys, watches, boots, glasses, hats, and mortars & pestles advertise bicycle shops, locksmiths, jewelers, shoemakers, opticians, hatters and apothecaries. Key signs seem to be in every antique shop I go into, so they must have been a universal sign for that profession. I’ve seen lots of double-sided clock signs too, but the one below is particularly stunning.

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Wouldn’t a big white wooden tooth look great hanging from or instead of this Essex Street Dentist’s sign? (maybe the one of the left is a bit scary).

Sign collage 1Nineteenth-century trade signs from Skinner Auctions (key, bicycle wheel, smaller tooth); Architectural Anarchy at 1st Dibs (clock); Northeast Auctions (Hat and “We Defy Competition sign); and the American Folk Art Museum (large tooth).


Hotel Happening

And now for some good (re-)development news: the conversion of the 1895 Newmark’s Building on Essex Street into the new Hotel Salem, a 44-room boutique hotel complete with rooftop bar, ground-floor restaurant, and shuffleboard in the basement. The Hotel Salem will join The Merchant as the second Salem hostelry to be operated by Lark Hotels, which manages a string of unique properties in New England and California. The renderings invite one to imagine the Essex Street pedestrian mall actually working; in fact, Lark’s “chief inspiration officer” (what a great job title!) Dawn Hagin specifically referred to it last week in an article on the new hotel in Boston MagazineA lot of New England towns, or towns across America, don’t have pedestrian walking malls anymore, says Hagin. And the fact that it still exists in Salem, and this anchor store that used to be there—which was the heart of that—could be embraced and brought out today with what we are doing with the Hotel Salem—it is very exciting to us.  

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Well of course the pedestrian mall was a 1970s development, but no matter, Lark clearly chooses its properties for their unique place-specific character, rather than imposing some generic corporate vision on them: Hagan goes on to explain how the “bones of the building” and its mid-century department store vibe is going to influence the new hotel’s interiors. This building was at the “heart” of a very vibrant Essex Street, as a proliferation of postcards indicate (it’s the fourth building on the right in the c. 1910 view below). Even though everyone refers to it as the Newmark’s Building because of the ghost sign on the side and the long-standing art deco lettering in front, it was actually built for the Naumkeag Clothing Company in 1895–they moved from down the street and seem to have occupied the building for several decades until Newmark’s took up residence–and business.

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It’s really quite a building: I don’t think I ever really appreciated it because of the incongruous first-floor facade but now I can’t wait for its big reveal! This is a project that appears to be “opening up” to Essex Street–and Salem– rather than turning away.

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The future Hotel Salem, opening summer 2017 @ 209 Essex Street, Salem.


Developer-driven Design

Salem has been experiencing a building boom for the past several years and 2017 promises to intensify that trend with major projects rising on several ends of Washington Street, a new 40,000 square-foot wing on Essex Street for the Peabody Essex Museum, a new building on Lafayette Street adjacent to Salem State University, the completion of the Footprint power plant on Fort Avenue, and various other public and private developments around town. Given recent completion of the new courthouse addition and MBTA parking garage along Bridge Street, I think this is going to be the year that the “new” Salem almost overtakes the old when it comes to the downtown streetscape, and this makes me sad, because the new buildings do not live up to the standards of design and construction upheld by the old. This is a subjective opinion, of course, but I believe that it is shared by many people in Salem. None of us knows what to do about it, however: we are all, it seems, at the mercy of developer-driven design.

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The first and second (current) designs for the District courthouse site on Washington Street; the second is heralded as more “contextual” ; the former Essex County District Court building, which currently occupies the site, is slated for demolition soon.

I don’t mean to demonize developers: I’m sure they’re all lovely people (at least the ones I know are), but they are generally driven by economic factors rather than aesthetic ones unless they are steered towards the latter by some approving authority. Is this happening in Salem? I just don’t know. From my perspective it looks like the boards are tinkering with the generic designs submitted to them, making improvements where they can but never altering the basic bland box in any substantive way. We end up with a building that simply fills a space rather than enhancing a specific place: Salem. I’m dreading the construction of the condominium building on upper Washington Street (above) so much that I have become increasingly attached to the 1970s modernist building that presently occupies that space: at least it has a distinct design. As bad as the proposed new structure for this site is, it cannot compare to the building planned for further along Washington Street to the south: the Mill Hill/East Riley Plaza development, which will include a Hampton Inn. A great project but a dreadful design: I’ve yet to find a single fan: just “it’s better than what is there now” (which is just an empty space at present, so I’m not sure about that).

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The RCG LLC Mill Hill East Riley Plaza Development–I think this is the final plan, unfortunately.

I  do not discern a great deal of excitement about the Peabody Essex Museum’s new wing either: I’ve no doubt the design details and construction materials will be superior to the projects above but on paper it looks like a cube with little or no relation to the prominent building next to it: the stately East India Marine Building (1825). I’m going to reserve judgement for now, as this building has had a series of incongruous structures adjacent to it in its long history and sometimes the contrast between old and new can be striking, but I already miss the Japanese Garden, which is now a jobsite. I can’t help but think of the words of the architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who was so instrumental in saving Salem’s downtown from complete destruction during the wave of urban renewal in the early 1970s. Much later, in a retrospective interview about her career in the Boston Globe, Huxtable opined that she had had a major impact on Salem, where they were going to eliminate the beautiful Japanese garden next to the museum, and now that garden is gone.

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Renderings of the new PEM wing, © Ennead Architects; the jobsite last month and the East India Marine Hall in the 1890s by Frank Cousins.

The other day I was walking downtown along Federal Street and came upon another recent project: the massive curtain-walled and faux-columned J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center. My immediate thought, as always, was why it so big? But then I noticed, and again, not for the first time, the contrast provided by the juxtaposition of the former First Baptist Church, now a law library. I remember the citizen effort behind that building’s situation, just so, following the lines of the street and enhancing the adjacent (hulking) buildings’ placement here in Salem. Maybe all these new buildings will benefit from a similar effort, with positive results. And maybe not. But just imagine what it would look like if that old building was not there.

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Doorways to the Past

I remain absolutely enraptured with Frank Cousins (1851-1925), Salem’s great photographer-author-entrepreneur and pioneering preservationist, after countless posts on his life and work. Today I want to feature his debut publication, Colonial Architecture, Volume One: Fifty Salem Doorways (1912). The title indicates that there was going to be a Volume Two, but instead Cousins went on to publish The Woodcarver of Salem: Samuel McIntire, His Life and Work (with Phil Madison Riley, 1916) and The Colonial Architecture of Salem (1919) and through his art company, sell his prints to pretty much every architectural author of his era. Fifty Salem Doorways is a large quarto portfolio of Cousins’ photographs of doors representing all the historic neighborhoods of Salem: Chestnut, Essex and Federal, the Common, and Derby Street.There’s very little text, just doors. I’m not quite sure why I’m so fascinated with this volume, but I am: I pick it up and browse through it quite frequently, discovering some new little detail every time. Details of DOORS. Yesterday I was talking to a few of my students in the research seminar that I’m teaching this semester in an attempt to aid them in narrowing down and focusing their very broad topics (this is always a struggle), and I said you need to find a window–or a doorway–into this topic, a point of entry. I was talking about sources, but also perspectives. So maybe that’s why I like Cousins’ doors so much: they give me a point of entry into that Salem of a century ago. And of course it’s always nice to engage in some past-and-present comparisons, which is what I’ve done below.

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and one that got away: the entrance of the Francis Peabody Mansion formerly at 136 Essex Street (1820-1908).

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The House with Nine Lives

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

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

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

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

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


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