Salem has quite a few intersections named “squares” but very few square squares. Its most conspicuous one is Derby Square, which was carved out of the growing city 200 years ago. This month’s Derby Square FLEA Salvage ART Market, coming up tomorrow, is marking the Square’s Bicentennial with a special theme and ribbon-cutting, and so I thought I’d examine this early example of urban planning in Salem. The basic background is well-known: John Derby III and Benjamin Pickman, Jr., scions of wealthy Salem families, business partners and brothers-in-law, offered the land on which the majestic and short-lived Derby Mansion formerly stood to the town of Salem in 1816 with the provision that a suitable civic building be built–civic in this context clearly implying both public and commercial functions. The city accepted the offer, and so the new Derby Square was developed over 1816-1817 with the new Town Hall/Market House at its center. It is clearly visible on Jonathan Saunders’ 1820 Plan of the town of Salem in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, from actual surveys, made in the years 1796 & 1804; with the improvements and alterations since that period as surveyed, marked as the #1 improvement and/or alteration to the town.
In the tradition of both European cities from the late medieval period onward and urban centers in colonial America, the centerpiece of Derby Square was designed to be a combination town hall and market, with an open arcade on the ground floor and meeting space on the second. Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Old State House had similar dual–even multiple–functions, as had Salem’s first town hall, built in 1636. There does not seem to be agreement on just who was the architect of the new town hall, although Bulfinch is mentioned in some sources, but Joshua Upham built the structure at a cost of $12,000. The lower story opened in late fall of 1816 and the second story was “christened” by visiting President James Monroe on July 8, 1817. The new Town Hall served in that capacity for only 20 years, and became the Old Town Hall with the construction of the Greek Revival structure on Washington Street in 1837-38; thereafter it was principally known as the “Market House”. Derby and Pickman had a vision that extended beyond just one building however, however: they determined the structure, scale, and composition of Derby Square by building several buildings surrounding Old Town Hall themselves and selling adjacent lots with deed restrictions specifying brick or stone construction. This was waterfront property in the early eighteenth century, and Derby and Pickman also donated a way to the water to the town of Salem with the condition that it remain a fish market in perpetuity: the “Derby Deed” lost some of its restrictive strength over the years, resulting in a Salem Marketplace that offers more than fish.
There are a lot of images of Derby Square out there, so I went to the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections to see if I could find some views that were a bit more fresh. Among the stereoviews, ephemera, and pamphlets of the Dionne collection I was able to find quite a few Derby Square-related materials–if I had more time to spend in the victualler records, I doubtless could have found much more. Clearly Market Square/Derby Square operated as a seasonal and regional food market over much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, just as it does now on the summer Thursdays of the Salem Farmers’ Market.
Two G.K Procter stereoviews of Derby or Market Square, summer and winter (cropped in half), c. 1861-1882; and two stereoviews of the Square by J.W. and J.S. Moulton Photographers of Salem, who operated from 1873-1881, all from Nelson Dionne Collection of Salem Images at Salem State University Archives and Special Collections. Below: a few billheads, also from the Dionne collection, which represent the dominance of the victualling trade in the Market and the inconsistent use of “Derby Square” and “Market Square”.
And from a private collection, here is an undated photograph of the Square which is quite unusual in its relative emptiness–it was among some Frank Cousins photographs so it could be one of his, but I just don’t know. In any case, I love it!
How has Derby Square fared in the age of the automobile? The visual evidence indicates that its integrity was challenged in the third quarter of the twentieth century, given its location in the center of the urban renewal storm. Yet this same (central) location, combined with its classical design and steadfast (central) function, determined that it would not only survive but also stand as a symbol of Salem’s revived prosperity.
Derby Square and Salem Marketplace in the 1960s and 1970s: how horrified John Derby III and Benjamin Pickman Jr., would have been by the Budweiser sign! Below: more sentimental views from early and late twentieth-century postcards.