Tag Archives: North River

Is it better than a Junkyard?

Read this paragraph: ___________ is changing rapidly. Some of the changes have been good: the burgeoning art scene, the museum-building boom, the explosion in restaurants and the whole Napa-of-craft-beer thing, not to mention legalized marijuana. But there have also been some bad changes: the terrible traffic, the litter and pet waste everywhere, the sky-high rents and the swelling ranks of the homeless, not to mention legalized marijuana. It could be describing Salem at the moment! But it’s not: fill Denver in that blank space, a city that is dealing with far more growing pains than Salem, given its much bigger size. Denver’s building boom has given rise to a very boisterous public discussion about the merits and demerits of all the new structures appearing on its horizon, and this particular quote is from an article by art historian and writer Michael Paglia titled “Denver is Drowning in a Sea of Awful Architecture”. This just one of a sea of articles and posts expressing disdain for Denver’s “fugly” architecture: also see here, here, and here; there are also a good measure of constructive articles seeking a more aesthetic way forward for the Mile High City. Why am I writing about Denver? Well, when I did a Google image search of a planned housing development on Salem’s North River hoping for some sort of architectural context, the closest match I could find was one of Denver’s identified ugliest buildings. Here we are: one of five buildings consisting of 48 condominiums with underground parking proposed by the Salem development firm Juniper Point Investment Co. LLC for 16-18 Franklin Street right on the North River, a very visible “gateway” property.

Ghastly development

Ghastly 2

To be honest, I am unsure of the status of this proposed design: it was submitted to the Salem Planning Board at its last meeting on February 15 (after many continuances apparently) and those minutes are not yet available. And to be fair, the site of this proposed development is a junkyard: the long-lived Ferris Junkyard. So anything could be better, right? Well, NO. Too often in Salem I hear: it’s better than what was there before as a rationale for begrudging approval. This large waterfront property, which is adjacent to a park and another prominent property slated for redevelopment, deserves serious consideration of design and context. This is an amazing historic opportunity, as this site has been industrial-zoned for well over a century, but sits on the edge of a beautiful residential neighborhood and right across from Salem’s downtown.

Junkyard Salem News

Ken Yuszkus/ Salem News Staff Photo

Junkyard collage

Junkyard DC

North River 1912The site, and the North River coastline near the bridge, 1851, 1890s and 1912, when the first City Plans Commission report asserted that the river “needed to be redeemed”.

Given the long industrial usage of the property, it might be hard to find context, but can’t there be some feature—architectural or material—to indicate that these buildings will be located in Salem, Massachusetts and not Florida or California or anywhere else where flat roofs rule? Tanneries, coal sheds and the famous Locke Regulator Company (above): any inspiration there? Slightly to the north, North Salem was a botanical paradise—can’t this land be reclaimed as such? We need pear trees in honor of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle Robert Manning, a famous pomologist whose orchard was in the midst of Northfields, and whose residence remains on Dearborn Street. Perhaps some inspiration can be found in the work of Salem-born and -raised architect Philip Horton Smith (1890-1960), who really distinguished himself as a preservation architect in his Salem commissions but also designed a lot of new buildings, including the Hawthorne Hotel, the Salem Post Office, and the neighborhood of brick duplexes further along Franklin Street for the Salem Rebuilding Trust after the Great Fire of 1914. Smith was a true Colonial Revival architect, and I’m certainly not advocating for brick veneers on every new building in Salem, but just a bit more attention to place, as shaped by both the past and the present. I am certain that the neighbors have been waiting for something special to be situated in this particular place for quite some time; indeed we all have.

Salem Rebuilding Trust North Salem Philip Horton Smith’s  Franklin Street “low rent brick cottages”, 1915.


Salem 1912

I stumbled across the “first annual” Report of the Salem Plans Commission the other day, and read it with rapt attention. This was issued at the end of 1912, a time when the city’s population had experienced rapid growth and housing was in short supply, the waterfront was “decayed”, and downtown (trolley) traffic was at a standstill. There were startling parallels to Salem 2016 in the Report, starting with its opening assertion that Salem is known quite literally with a single tolerable entrance or exit and (possibly excepting Loring Avenue) we must admit that this is quite literally true, whether we travel by foot, carriage, automobile, trolley, train or boat. While the Commission asserts that Salem’s entrance corridors, called “gateways” in the report (a timely term now) all needed work, they are clearly advocating for more immediate attention to the city’s key transportation network: the combination of trains and trolleys that drove external and internal traffic. Salem’s main gateway was identified as the Boston & Maine Depot, and the arteries that commenced from there were apparently in dire need of widening and expansion in the forms of a”ring road”, a “shore drive”, and a street system. The entire report calls for a more systematic Salem in every conceivable way: roads, parks, housing, zoning.

Salem Train Depot 1912Salem’s Gateway, 1912

The commissioners write with a very strong voice, one voice, and express stark opinions throughout their report: the congested wooden housing in The Point is a “fire menace” (a prescient observation, given it would be leveled by the Great Salem Fire in two years) which evolved through “selfish gain driven by public indifference”, the waterfront must be “redeemed”, the North River is a “stinking open sewer”. They are so assertive that what one would think would be a rather dry text makes for riveting reading!

Salem 1912 North River

Salem 1912 Billboards on Bridge Street The “Stinking” North River and “Billboard Adornment” on Bridge Street.

In order to achieve their vision for Salem, the Commissioners include lots of detailed recommendations which are both utilitarian and aesthetic. They are aware of the significance of Salem’s material heritage but I would not call them preservationists: if an old building is interfering with trolley traffic on a narrow street it’s got to go! They seem particularly focused on Central and Lynde streets as problematic for traffic flow, and their recommendations seem to be the inspiration for the consolidation of the former Elm and Walnut Streets into a widened Hawthorne Boulevard.

Salem 1912 Central Street to Essex St

Salem 1912 Washington and Lynde Streets

Salem 1912 North and Lynde Streets

Salem 1912 Lynde Street from North St

Salem 1912 North and Federal Streets

Salem 1912 Elm and Walnut From above: Central Street looking towards Essex; the intersection of Washington and Lynde Streets; two views of the intersection of North and Lynde Streets; a trolley turning onto Federal Street; Elm and Walnut Streets.

I think Commissioner Harlan P. Kelsey was the author of the report, but I can’t confirm this as it was simply published by the “Plans Commission”. Kelsey was a really prolific landscape architect who lived in Salem (at One Pickering Street–this was the house that distracted me from Kelsey’s story to that of its architect, Ernest Machado) and, in addition to his landscape and planning practices, also maintained two profitable nurseries in his native North Carolina and adopted city. I’ve read his writing on plans and parks elsewhere, and it sounds familiar, and the last part of the Report is devoted to the shoddy condition of Salem’s shade trees—another timely topic!

Salem 1912 Broad ST

Salem 1912 Lafayette Two Salem streets which the Commissioners actually LIKED for both their width and their trees: Broad and Lafayette. Both would be half-leveled by the Great Salem Fire in 1914.

All photographs from:  City Plans Commission, First Annual Report to the Mayor and City Council, December 26, 1912.  Salem: Newcomb & Gauss, 1913.


Losing our Way?

One of the latest looming commercial developments in Salem is a proposal for a new showroom facility by the F.W. Webb Company, a large distributor of plumbing and HVAC parts, on an abandoned lot adjacent to its large brick building on Bridge Street. The lot was long occupied by the Universal Steel and Trading Company, which stored and processed scrap metal on the site, creating a contaminated cauldron from which they simply walked away, leaving the City to clean up the mess. Once the site was cleaned up–a process that took several years–the City put the parcel up for sale, and F.W. Webb was the only bidder. The public process by which the City divests itself of the site and the Webb proposal is reviewed by various city boards commenced last week, and consequently both the big picture and the little details are starting to emerge. Regarding the former, the jury’s still out for me–of course the proposed new building appears blandly “modern” and appears to have no connection to the existing Webb building–but this section of Bridge Street is not distinguished by structures of great architectural integrity. Where the terraced gardens of Federal Street houses once sloped down to the North River used car lots have more recently and characteristically occupied a filled-in Bridge Street, so you can argue that anything is an improvement. There are two “details” that do concern me at this point in the process, however: 1) the not-so-veiled threat inherent in the F.W. Webb proposal documents: this new building will allow us to remain in Salem and; 2) the loss of venerable public “way”called Beckford Way. This public path once accessed the riverfront but is now a trail to nowhere; nevertheless, it is still public property and will cease to be if the Webb proposal is approved.

Path 009

Webb Building

Path 001

Beckford Way

Bridge Street 2016 MA Boating and Fishing Access

NOW: The current Webb building on Bridge Street and the adjacent lot, now cleaned and paved, on which the company wants to build a new showroom building; rendering of the proposed new building and Beckford Way alongside the lot. A current map of Salem, with no Beckford Way.

I looked into the history of Salem’s public ways a bit, primarily by examining maps of the city in 1820, 1851, 1903 and 1916 in the Norman B. Leventhal collection at the Boston Public Library. It was an interesting exercise, through which you could clearly see the disappearance and/or transformation of myriad ways, courts, and even streets by projects that were both public and private. The nineteenth century privileged the train while the twentieth century was all about the car; the pedestrian lacked advocacy in both centuries. Sewall Street, once lined with houses, became a parking lot for the YMCA and adjacent developments; Liberty Street was absorbed by the Peabody Essex Museum just a decade ago. Now all of Salem’s “ways” exist only in condominium developments built out on Highland Avenue: they’re not even really part of the city.

Salem 1820 BPL

Bridge Street Before LC HABS

THEN: Jonathan Saunders map of Salem, 1820, clearly indicating Beckford Street’s access to the North River, Boston Public Library Leventhal Map Center; a map of the terraced gardens of Federal Street (a bit further west from the Webb property) before the River was filled in for the railroad and Bridge Street extension, HABS, Library of Congress.


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