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Salem Savior

She was not the only hero(ine) in the story, but rather in good company:  still Ada Louise Huxtable played a big role in the prevention of the complete annihilation of historic Salem by the forces of urban renewal in the 1960s. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning architectural critic for The New York Times and The Wall Street Post, often referred to as the “dean” of American architectural criticism, died yesterday at the age of 91. The dominant themes of the obituaries that I am reading this morning are Mrs. Huxtable’s influence over both architectural criticism and the architecture of New York, but she shaped the architecture of Salem as well. So here is my little parochial appreciation.

Ada Louise Huxtable in her New York apartment, 1988.  Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

Ada Louise Huxtable in her New York apartment, 1988. Arnold Newman/Getty Images

Mrs. Huxtable. who summered in nearby Marblehead, heard of the urban renewal plans for Salem and was moved to write a rather passionate piece that the Times put on its front page on October 13, 1965: “Foes Fear Plans Will Mar Old New England Heritage; Urban Renewal Plan Threatens Historic Sites in Salem, Mass.” She reported on what was going on, but definitely put her own viewpoint in the article:  By setting up “design controls” for the new construction, the city guarantees itself, at best, “instant Georgian” (apparently she detested Colonial Williamsburg!) to replace the genuine example. The spurious product is a much better economic deal than the real thing…As things stand now, it will take some potent modern witchcraft to save Salem’s historic past.  A series of follow-up articles were published in the Times from 1967 to 1974, culminating, happily, with the latter year’s “How Salem Saved itself from Urban Renewal (September 29). During this period, local preservationists were galvanized to fight the demolition of 103 buildings in the city center in the name of “urban renewal”, and the plan shifted to the redevelopment and revitalization of Essex Street, Derby Square, and Front Street. Many buildings were lost, but not as many as would have been without the advocacy and inspiration of Mrs. Huxtable, I believe.

Many years later (1993), Mrs. Huxtable was interviewed by Robert Campbell, the architectural critic of the Boston Globe, and he asked her where in New England she thought she had had the most impact.  She replied:  I think I had more impact on Salem, because Salem had a hideous urban renewal plan. I remember going over it with the then-mayor and planner, and they were going to eliminate the beautiful Japanese garden next to the museum and they were planning roads that would take away whole blocks. So I went back to New York and sold it to the Times as a Page 1 piece … and that brought whoever was on the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Washington to Salem. “What are you doing here?” That resulted in the change of planners and the total change in the plan.

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Essex Street today:  a road does NOT run through the Japanese garden of the Peabody Essex Museum, but unfortunately the Brutalist parking garage with its first-floor shops did replace earlier commercial buildings.

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Front Street, revitalized not destroyed, a far more successful shopping district than the nearby Essex Street pedestrian mall, and the Ash Street house (built in 1811) of another preservation heroine, Bessie Munroe.  She fought urban renewal in the 1960s while she was in her 80s! Unfortunately the house now looks over a parking lot, and a very ugly modern building built on the site of jail where the accused witches were held in 1692.

Places, Past, Present

I’ve been thinking about a short little article by BBC “History of the World” presenter Andrew Marr about the five most historical places in world history quite a bit since I came across it a few days ago. I love lists, I love history, understanding and developing a strong sense of place has always been important to me (it’s one of the major themes of this blog), and I teach world history:  Marr has my rapt attention!

His choices are based on a world history perspective, but I think one of his historical places betrays his British bias, or maybe not:  I’ll discuss below. Here are his picks:

1. The Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa: where human civilization first emerged. A pretty predictable choice, and certainly one that is difficult to contest!

2. The Yellow River:  China’s “mother river”, where its first civilization emerged.  I’m not sure why Marr is privileging China above other world civilizations:  he does not have Mesopotamia, the western “cradle of civilization” on his list.

3. Athens, Greece:  symbol of the Classical Age. I suppose this is Marr’s concession to ancient western civilization, and I think he feels sorry for present-day Greece.  But it’s another obvious choice:  rational philosophy, democracy, theater, architecture, the Olympics–I could go on.

Ok, now we take a huge chronological jump:  from the 5th century BC to the eighteenth century. There is no amazingly significant place which has medieval (or as the world historians say, post-classical) relevance?  This seems like a very Renaissance view.

4. Berkeley, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom:  the birthplace of Dr. Edward Jenner (1749-1823), who discovered the vaccination for smallpox.  This is the only British place on the list (not London!) and Marr is a presenter for the BBC, so I thought it was a rather biased choice, but now I’m not so sure.  Smallpox was a terrible disease, which killed millions of people in the New World and remained an endemic plague in the Old, and Jenner’s vaccination was an amazing empirical breakthrough.  I think smallpox is the only disease in world history which has been completely eradicated, and that makes Jenner a towering figure both in the history of medicine and the history of civilization. Nevertheless, I think one of the five most important places in world history has to be more than the birthplace of just one person, however great he or she was.

5. Los Alamos, New Mexico, United States of America:  birthplace of the atomic bomb and the Atomic Age.  A great choice:  it’s sad that this is the American contribution to the list, but there you are. If you only have five places to choose of relevance in world history, you’ve got to go with the most consequential.

This is a great list but I think there are a few places I would change.  It’s so difficult to choose, because the list is short and the history is long–and complex.  Obviously there are countless historical places; in fact, every place is historical.  Choosing just five places is an exercise in frustration, but also one in prioritization, which is always useful. On my list, the Yellow River would be replaced by a city along the Silk Road that connected China and the Middle East and disseminated so many Chinese innovations, for better or for worse:  textiles, gunpowder, printing, the compass.  Maybe Samarkand or Bukhara, both currently in Uzbekistan, but symbolizing the West’s desire to obtain the knowledge and goods of the East.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan:  Silk Road “Port”.

I considered Istanbul, Venice, and Rome, ports along the western African “slave coast”, and New York, but dismissed them all on relative criteria–basically my western bias.  But I cannot dismiss Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world and a holy place for three world religions.  In my mind, there is no doubt that Jerusalem is one of the most important places in world history, so at least one of Marr’s places has got to go. What do you think?


Salem Sketches

It’s been difficult to focus on Salem these past few weeks with so much going on in the historical world:  the potential discovery of King Richard’s skeleton, the raising of a plague ship, a wife for Jesus (or maybe not)!  Then again, I’m not a fan of a parochial perspective; I’ve always felt that the present and the past and places are best viewed in the broadest context possible, so Salem is the world.  That said, occasionally I just want to act like a Victorian antiquarian and stay local. Today, I’ve got some very random sketches of Salem gathered from a variety of sources:  guide books, auction archives, historical societies, old books. Most are very vernacular and commercial, though a few are the works of well-know artists. They’ve been gathering virtual dust in my digital files for a while, so it is time to get them out there.

The sketches appear in chronological order, beginning with two charming drawings by the early nineteenth-century artist Michele Felice Cornè  (1752–1845), a Neapolitan who emigrated to the United States in 1800 and lived in Boston, Salem, and Newport. These drawings date from around 1810, when Cornè was living in Salem, enjoying the patronage of the Derby family. It takes a sketch to reveal little details like the toddler’s bassinet (cage?) below, details that would never appear in one of Cornè’s formal paintings of ships or houses. That’s what I like about sketches, as opposed to more formal compositions:  they give forth a seemingly-casual, and often more intimate, impression of daily life.

Cornè sketches, c. 1810, courtesy Newport Historical Society.

Lots of later nineteenth-century drawings of Salem exist, when both the city and its residents began to market “olde Salem”, first featuring architecture, and then (unfortunately) witchcraft. The sketches in Historical Sketches of the Old Houses of Salem (1870) display a bit of  (sometimes black) humor, as in Six Witches Will be Hung To-Day.  Come One! Come All! and our “Four Fathers”.  The decision to back the Witch City brand had not been made yet, in fact; this early guidebook looks like it is trying to offer up all of Salem’s attractions (including very big chimneys) at the same time.

The accomplished artist Eliza Pratt Greatorex (1819-1897), who was renown for her pen-and-ink sketches of American and European streetscapes, came to Salem to sketch (of course) the “Witch House” (more formally and correctly known as the Jonathan Corwin House) which she portrays as The Last of the Old Witch House.  Little did she know that it would endure as one of the centerpieces of the Witch City.

Eliza Pratt Greatorex, The Last of the Old Witch House, Salem, Massachusetts.  New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

More simplistic (and cheerful) sketches of Salem are in Lydia Louise Very’s Old Fashioned-Garden (1900) and What to See in Salem (1915), both published by the Salem Press Company. Very was part of the very interesting Very family of Salem, and sister of the transcendental poet Jones Very, for whom she cared during his long struggle with mental illness. Moving forward into the twentieth century, there is a pen-and-ink sketch of Chestnut Street that was published in several national newspapers in 1930.

No witches:  sketched views of Salem in 1900, 1915 & 1930.

Sketching continues, it just takes different forms in the present, like these characters from the new Salem video game by Ten Ton Hammer, featuring : Puritans, Permadeath, and Open PvP in a Fantastical New England. These guys remind me a bit of the “four fathers” of past sketches.

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