I’m in the intense period of writing my book with a March 1 deadline looming, so posts are going to be very spotty over the next few weeks, but today, I needed a break from my ploughmen and practitioners. There’s a lost building in Salem with which I remain fascinated, one of several really. If I ever do write my Salem book, which I have titled “Dead History” in my mind, it will have one whole chapter on structures that were stripped of their amazing interior and exterior architectural detail, but remained standing for decades afterwards, often converted into unrecognizable commercial establishments which bore no resemblance to their glorious past. Then they were put out of their misery at some point in the twentieth century, that great century of destruction. Most, but not all, of these structures were on Essex Street, Salem’s main street from the seventeenth century, including the building I am spotlighting today, the Philip Saunders House, built in the mid-eighteenth century and demolished in 1965. Here’s a photograph of it from the early twentieth century—after it had been altered somewhat, with a lot more to come.
Sorry—I can’t attribute this photograph. I bought it on ebay several months ago, an unusual act for me (not buying on ebay, buying Salem photographs on ebay). Generally old Salem photographs for sale are just reprints of those freely available from their repositories, but the minute I saw this photograph I knew I hadn’t seen it before: this is 260 Essex Street, the Philip Saunders House. The two shops on its ground floor, The Salem Trimming Store and Mary E. Hayes, Hairdresser, were located there up until about 1920, and after that, a succession of shops until it was taken down by the City of Salem in 1965. In between, whoever was sourcing antiques for the Kennedy family purchased its spiral staircase and Georgian paneling, and transferred it to the main house of the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port just before the second World War. This happened to Salem houses constantly from about 1890 to 1950. The Saunders House was a unique three-story pre-revolutionary brick building, and there was resistance to its demolition from Historic Salem, Inc. and other organizations and individuals, but not enough, apparently. The preservationists of Salem had been putting our fires for some time in the 1960s, and it was about to get worse with the onslaught of urban renewal. You can almost hear the exhaustion in Elizabeth Reardon’s voice in the newspaper article below, and believe me, she was game.
Both Mrs. Reardon and other preservationists compared the Saunders House in Salem to the Ebenezer Hancock House in Boston, which was also threatened at the time, I think. But it survived: and when you look at it today you can’t help but think of what might have been in Salem.
The Ebenezer Hancock House (1767): in the mid 1970s, from a Boston Landmarks Commission Structures Report, and today.