Tag Archives: Salem Common

It Happened on Salem Common

Increasing concern that the City might locate a commercial carnival on Salem Common during Haunted Happenings has brought me out of my seventeenth-century reverie: the present interrupts the past! The Common has been the site of concessions and children’s activities for quite some time, but the carnival, adopted over a decade ago to enhance the family-friendliness of Salem’s long Halloween season, was situated on a vacant lot on Derby Street. This lot is presently in the process of being transformed into a waterside park, so the hunt is on for a new location. This first came to the public attention just last month: I think many people in Salem–myself included—simply assumed that we were done with the carnival but apparently that is not the case. As with everything else related to Haunted Happenings, commercial concessions and “attractions” are somehow translated into a public good, and this is the rationale for the location of a private enterprise in a very public place: the beautiful Salem Common.

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Common 1863Salem Common in 1836 and 1863: Historical Collections of Massachusetts by John Warner Barber; Fitz Hugh Lane for Moore’s Lithography, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It’s not a done deal yet: there is actually a municipal ordinance specifically prohibiting mechanical rides or amusements, including carnivals and circuses on the Common, as well as general guidelines stating that that activities on the Common should not interfere or disturb the peace and enjoyment of all the citizens of the city and protecting it from adverse wear and tear. Of course having a carnival on the Common runs contrary to all of these codes, but the necessities of Haunted Happenings are paramount, and the City Council can waive these restrictions. There was a public hearing last week which I could not attend, but from what I’ve heard there was considerable resistance but also support for the idea. Those in the latter camp make a consistent argument that the Common has always been a busy place, and they are correct: just a casual glance at the historical record reveals a succession of military drills, pageants, rallies, baseball games and bicycle races, as well as balloon ascensions, firemen’s musters, and concerts—with some events drawing very large crowds. Every year about this time there were huge festivals marking the end of the playground season during which children from all of the neighborhood parks in the city would gather, compete and perform: I’m wondering when this tradition ended? The Common was a refuge for those displaced by the Great Salem Fire in 1914, the venue for the 700-cast-strong pageant performed for the Salem Tercentenary celebrations in 1926, and the scene of many triumphs–and also a few tragedies.

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Common 1961All newspaper articles from the Boston Globe: playground festivals in 1916 and 1923, a film for the troops in 1918, a farmer’s market in 1920 (Historic New England), the celebration of the opening of the Hawthorne Hotel in 1925 and the stage for the Tercentenary pageant in 1926, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; a protest against the processing tax during the Depression, and an unfortunate death on Salem Common.

There is one thing that these very diverse events have in common: they were all public events. I’ve heard tales of sad circuses in more recent days, but for the most part Common events were held for the common good or were an expression of the common will. Even without taking into account the potential damage to the Common, or the noise, or the length of time involved (3 weeks?) it’s hard to see how a private carnival meets this criteria, but then again there is that very public portrayal of Haunted Happenings.  Another way of examining the civic perception of the Common is to look at projects, events and/or installations which were declined, and my favorite example of these is a statue proposed for the Common by millionaire Fred E. Ayer in tribute to his Southwick ancestors, who were persecuted intensely by Salem Puritans for their Quaker beliefs. In 1903 Ayer commissioned the very prominent sculptor J. Massey Rhind (who would later craft the statue of Joseph Hodges Choate at the corner of Essex and Boston Streets), who came up with a model depicting a Tiger, representing voracious Puritanism, about to devour his Quaker victims. After several years of deliberation, Salem’s Council said NO to the statue’s placement on the Common, the most treasured plot of ground in Salem, in the words of Alderman Alden P. White.

Salem Common 1906


Snowy Salem Saturday

A welcome snow day today, imposing calm on everyone–or at least me! I’ve always enjoyed winter, but the SuperWinter of two years ago, in which something like 11 feet of snow was dumped on us in February, tempered my appreciation for this particular season considerably. The snow was all around the house, the snow was in the house, and I plodded to work every day in tunnels of yellow snow. I felt a little vulnerable, especially when I woke up in the morning to see the latest damage inflicted on my plaster ceilings by ice dams. But all of that is fixed now, and we spent last year, with its relatively light winter, rebuilding our chimneys, sealing our windows, and putting on a new roof. Now I feel impenetrable, at least for this first snow storm. I’m sure hardly anyone agrees with me, but I think winter is Salem’s best season actually–I like to see the city return to a car-less state: it’s as close as you can come to seeing it in its glorious past. There’s a timeless quality to a snowy day, and the contrast of nature and structure is never more apparent. Here’s a few photographs I took as I walked around a very calm city this afternoon.

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Chestnut Street, Essex Street, and the Common.

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Two notable Salem houses in varying stages of restoration.

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Gambrel roofs embellished by snow.

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Some contrast; Trinity does not really care for snow.


Christmas in Salem 2016

stellar Christmas in Salem tour around Salem Common this past weekend, featuring all the things that I love about Salem houses and Salem people. The combination of generous and creative homeowners, perfect clear and crisp December weather, and myriad magical details made for a very special experience. Here’s just a short list of attractions (I really could go on and on): a McIntire spiral staircase, beautiful views of the Common (as seen through very clean windows–the first thing I noticed when I got home was how dirty mine are), an artist’s atelier/bedroom, an alpine-decorated deck, kitchens extraordinaire, an architectural dollhouse, exceptional artwork and collections. To be honest, I barely noticed the Christmas decorations as I was so focused on the architecture and interior design. I was a bit pressed for time, so I skipped the three institutional stops on the tour–the PEM’s Andrew Safford House, the Bertram House, and St. Peter’s Church–and went right for the private homes, all along the Common and a few adjacent side streets. It seemed to me that the tour was curated for contrast: of scale (larger institutional or single-family homes contrasted with smaller structures and condominiums), of architectural style (everything was built in the nineteenth century but what a difference between the Federal, Greek Revival, Victorian and Colonial Revival!), of design (very modern and more traditional), of embellishment (very decorated and more minimalistic), and above all, of expression: the homeowners expressed themselves in various ways: through their own art or design, or through their collections, or both!

I was fortunate to obtain a press pass so I could take photographs of the houses, but 1) I am not a professional photographer and 2) I got completely overwhelmed by all I had to see/ “capture”, so please go on over to Creative Salem  or to Historic Salem for more polished and comprehensive portfolios: it was really all too much for me, in the best possible way!

Let’s start with a sampling of beautiful rooms, and then I’ll try to present some of the details that caught my eye–just some, because there was so much to see.

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Let there be light! This  was a very enlightened tour, in more ways than one:

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Myriad Mantles……..

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Dazzling Details…….of collections, an amazing restoration, and all sorts of embellishment, including an historic Salem gallery wall, an exterior Christmas tablescape (set up by the homeowner of a beautiful condo, who felt that she need to offer a “bit more”), and the ultimate dollhouse.

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It was impossible for me to capture the complete creativity of Salem artist Thomas Darsney’s stunning home/gallery: his canvases were luminous but the entire home was in fact a canvas, with no surface or detail unconsidered. 

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Just a few exterior shots because again, the light was so beautiful on Sunday……

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Why not tie everything up with a big red bow?

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Christmas on the Common

I am very excited about the 37th annual Christmas in Salem tour, which returns to the Salem Common neighborhood this year. The major fundraiser for Salem’s venerable preservation organization, Historic Salem, Incorporated, the walking tour of decorated homes and buildings rotates from the McIntire Historic District to the Common quite regularly and has also been centered on both North and South Salem, Derby Street, and the Willows. Each and every tour is great, but I’ve always liked the Common tours particularly for a variety of reasons: the mix of very stately and smaller, cozier homes, the focal point of the Common (no s!), and the ability to pop easily into the Hawthorne Hotel’s Tavern for a drink (you can also get your tickets at the Hotel on Saturday and Sunday). In any case, the Common deserves to be showcased this particular year: much restoration work has been done on its cast iron fence, its reproduction McIntire Washington Arch is looking good, and there have been several notable restorations in the neighborhood. Having gone through this myself several times, I am so very grateful to all the homeowners who are opening their doors: it is a generous gesture worthy of all of our support and praise.With the spotlight on the Common, I thought I’d take this opportunity to showcase some of my recent stereoview discoveries as well, so we can have a past-and-present perspective on a great public space: scene of militia drills and musters, hot-air balloon demonstrations, circuses, athletic competitions, concerts, rallies, demonstrations, bike races, Sunday strolls and Christmas walking tours.

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Salem Common yesterday, in a 1920s (doctored) Maynard Workshop postcard, and in two later-nineteenth-century stereocards showcasing the cast iron fence, built in 1850, from two directions. The bottom card, showing the Andrew Safford House at right, is by G.M. Whipple & A.A. Smith, and courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society. Fence details today below, and the newly-restored Washington Arch.

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Overlooking the Common, one of my very favorite doorways in all of Salem, belonging to the White-Lord House at the corner of Washington Square and Oliver Streets. Frank Cousins loved to photograph it, and I do too (not to raise myself to his photographic level, but just so we can appreciate its constant ability to captivate!)

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Look at this new-to-me stereoview! (No, I do not think that is President Lincoln on the Common). It was published by Charles G. Fogg and I do not have a date.

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Returning to the present, just some of the decorations from yesterday; no doubt more will be on display this weekend, both outdoors and behind doors.

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Christmas in Salem: Carol on the Common, a Christmas walking tour to benefit Historic Salem, Inc., Dec. 2-4: more information here


Political Poplars?

I suspect that most of my colleagues who teach American history dislike Thomas Jefferson. I don’t really get into it with them; I prefer to play naive and impressionistic when it comes to American history (because I am), but I have heard and seen disparaging words and glances on more than one occasion. Their opinion was shared by Salem’s Federalists over two centuries ago, who cast Jefferson as a licentious Jacobin even before the disastrous Embargo Act of 1807. But there was one Jeffersonian “policy” that was popular in Salem, at least for a while: the planting of (Lombardy) Poplar trees on the Common and along several streets. Jefferson loved these stately trees, and had them planted not only at Monticello but also in Washington, along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. His poplar advocacy spread north, and in one of my favorite Salem paintings (actually it’s everyone’s favorite Salem painting), George Ropes’ Salem Common on Training Day, the newly-planted poplars are very prominent. Apparently they were also planted along the Newburyport “turnpike”, now Highland Avenue, and a few other new streets.

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Poplars lining Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., early nineteenth century, Library of Congress; Poplars in Rufus Porter’s “Boston Harbor” wall mural from the Prescott Tavern in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; George Ropes, Jr., Salem Common on Training Day, 1808, Peabody Essex Museum. 

As attractive as they were (or as Ropes made them), the Common poplars would soon be gone, replaced by maples and elms and more pedestrian trees. Was their disappearance due to nature (the “Great September Gale” of 1815 or their unsuitability to Salem’s climate and/or soil) or politics? I ask this question because of a provocative little passage in one of Sidney Perley’s early articles in the Essex Antiquarian (1911): Political feeling was so strong in the old Jeffersonian days that these poplars were condemned by the Federalists on account of Jefferson having been instrumental in producing them. Some of the Republicans planted these trees in front of their residences to show their allegiance to Jeffersonian principles, and the enraged Federalists were guilty of injuring and destroying them. This was true in Salem in 1801 in several instances, the mischief being of course done under cover of darkness. Captain Samuel Very, who lived at Buffum’s Corner, offered a reward of twenty dollars for the conviction of the person or persons who injured the trees before his house. Very interesting! It sounds like poplars were conspicuous targets, and the grove on the Common must have been offensive to Salem’s Federalists: did they mount an attack? To answer this question, I turned to one of Perley’s contemporaries and the authority on horticultural Salem a century ago, John Robinson, who wrote a great little book on Salem’s trees titled Our trees : a popular account of the trees in the streets and gardens of Salem, and of the native trees of Essex County, Massachusetts : with the location of trees, and historical and botanical notes (1891). A man of science, Robinson discounts political explanations for the disappearance of Salem’s poplars in favor of botanical ones: The stiff Lombardy Poplar (Populus dilatata) once grown everywhere, is now but rarely seen except in a state of decay. Our Common was originally planted with these trees in 1802 from nurseries on the northern side, in the vicinity of Winter Street. But, fifteen years later, the trees were found to be of little value for ornament and they were replaced by elms. There are wrecks of Lombardy poplars on Loring Avenue, beyond the Marblehead branch railroad crossing, near the Willows, and on the Newburyport turnpike in various places……….it turns out that Lombardy Poplars just didn’t “take” in Salem’s soil. There are certainly no Poplar “wrecks” on the Common today, but I think I found a few relics in the Howard Street cemetery, still standing guard.

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Apparently NOT a poplar, but an upright English oak!


Two Days of Sun

Two days of sun has resulted in nearly (but not absolutely) all of the snow disappearing from the streets of Salem, so finally I am able to show you colors other than white. It is an early New England spring, so the predominant color out there is brown, and there remain several hills of dirt-covered snow out at the Willows–a striking reminder of just how much of the white stuff we received in February. It will be interesting to see when those hills actually melt: I’m thinking June! But I’ve decided not to show you those: they are impressive, but so dirt-covered they look like actual hills emerging from a muddy parking lot–not pretty. This was a pretty weekend, so I want to capture it by showing pretty (and very random) pictures of things I saw around town as I was simply walking around in the sun, like everyone else, noticing things I had not seen for months. First–one last image of predominate white: it was definitely a cats-seeking-sun kind of weekend.

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Spring First Muster Salem Common

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A Federal Street cat and rope wreath; the First Muster commemoration on Salem Common, colorful houses off the Common and Bridge Street; the view from a Salem Willows house.


A Big Week at the Hawthorne

It must have been a very interesting week for the staff of the Hawthorne Hotel: early on it was a film set, this weekend a paranormal conference called Salem Con 2015 is on site. Strange bedfellows indeed: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and a convention of ghost hunters. Jennifer and Bradley have been in Salem before–or at least their director, David O. Russell was: filming scenes for American Hustle in and around the courthouses on Federal Street. This film, called Joy, will tell the story of “Miracle Mop” founder Joy Mangano (Lawrence) and her rise to fame and fortune, with the help of a Home Shopping Network executive (Cooper). Another Russell favorite, Robert DeNiro, plays Mangano’s father, and I think he was filming here as well. This is really nothing new for the Hawthorne, which has served as the temporary home for a succession of Salem-visiting celebrities for years, from its opening in 1925 to the present. The hotel even had a starring role of sorts, as the stucco-clad “Hawthorne Motor Hotel”, in two episodes of Bewitched in 1970: Samantha and Darrin drive right by the real hotel, turn the corner, and park outside of the Hollywood Hawthorne.

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Still scenes from “The Salem Saga”, Season 7 of Bewitched (1970-71).

No fake Hawthorne for Russell: he was filming in the real thing, although I’m sure the name will not make it into the movie outside of the credits. As is always the case, movie-making requires a lot of stuff, so equipment vans and trucks clogged the Common neighborhood surrounding the hotel. Descending well down the ladder of celebrity—to the very bottom if not below the ground–next up for the hotel is this weekend’s “Salem Con 2015” , at which attendees can“meet some of your favorite paranormal celebrities, see and purchase some of the latest “gadgets”, and investigate beside them [the gadgets?] during the celebrity “Ghost Hunt”. I think I’ll let this event speak for itself, with that line and its lovely poster: such a subtle use of the noose! I have just one closing question: WAS THERE EVER AN EVENT SO APTLY-NAMED?

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All in a week at the Hawthorne Hotel: Day for night on this past Tuesday, KEN YUSZKUS/Staff photo, Salem News; charming poster for Salem Con 2015.


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