Tag Archives: Salem Redevelopment Authority

Mansard Mania!

So the developers of a large lot on Norman Street, a major artery in Salem which connects the downtown to one of the city’s major residential/historic districts and also serves as a primary gateway, have come up with their third schematic rendering for the site. We first saw a rather brutalist box, then an industrial-esque box, and now we have a mansard box. I wrote about their challenge here, and despite my lack of enthusiasm for their projections, I do believe that they have a very challenging site: Norman Street was once an absolutely charming street of residences and shops of diverse style and size, but it was ravaged by a perfect storm of an unleashing of all the infrastructural forces of the twentieth century. This is the design that will be presented to the Salem Redevelopment Authority this week:

Proposed design for 38 Norman Street, Salem.

This is a site that is not only very conspicuous, but also situated directly between two historic streets: Crombie and Chestnut (where I live), so both scale and historical context are issues for consideration. Frankly, based on its judgements over the past year or so, I don’t think the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) is particularly concerned about either of those criteria, but the developers met virtually with several neighborhood groups and I’m sure they were notified of such concerns. So I think this mansard addition must be in response to these meetings, although I’m at a loss to explain how that particular roofing style fits into the streetscape. While it is known for its Federal architecture, Salem actually has some great mansard-roofed buildings, but they are overwhelmingly residential rather than commercial or institutional, and none are in the immediate vicinity of this lot. The original Salem Normal School building on Broad Street is the only mansard-roofed institutional building that comes to mind. I really, really hope that these developers were not inspired by the ghastly River Rock residences on Boston Street, but why wouldn’t they be? This project was approved, and thus serves as a practical precedent for aspiring Salem developers.

River Rock Residences.

Whatever the inspiration, this new rendering gave me an excuse to read all about mansard roofs, past and present. There was a lot to read: people really have a lot to say about mansard roofs, not so much the original early modern examples or even those revival mansard roofs from the third quarter of the nineteenth-century, but the “neo-mansard” trend of the 1960s and 1970s. There are blogs and opinion pieces galore explaining that phenomenon from a range of perspectives—but generally more horrified, sarcastic, and whimsical than complimentary. The original mansard was a tax-dodge tactic: in the seventeenth century French houses were appraised according to the number of floors below the roofline, and the mansard style thus enabled the addition of a non-taxable floor (I suspect space is the primary motive of the “historical” addition to the Norman Street proposed development as well.) The Second Empire of Napoleon III and the Hausmannization of Paris inspired the second wave of mansard mania, which swept across the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, despite the fact that wooden “French” roofs were blamed for turning the Great Boston Fire of 1872 into a conflagration: Henry Ward Beecher even called mansard roofs “conflagration caps.” I’m wondering if this is the reason I can’t find many larger mansard-roofed building in Salem.

I couldn’t find any mansard-roofed commercial buildings among the Frank Cousins’ photographs from the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth, but Salem has lots of cute mansard cottages from the post-Civil War era.

As you can tell from the detailed photos of the mansard roofs above, it’s all about the details: most modern mansard-roofed buildings lose something in the translation because they don’t attend to those details. A great example is the Hotel Commonwealth in Boston, built in the early 2000s to liven up Kenmore Square and link it to the Back Bay through its Second Empire style. The Boston Redevelopment Authority approved the renderings, but “when workers took the shroud off [in 2002] ….. officials and neighbors were aghast. To save money, the elegant building depicted in renderings had been replaced with one featuring a plastic-looking facade and garish two-dimensional window bays seemingly lifted off a B-movie set.” [Boston Globe, 27 October, 2014: “Framing the Proposal”] The developers were ordered to overhaul the building’s exterior before it even opened, and replaced the building’s value-engineered (and apparently bright yellow?) fiberglass panels with precast stone, as well as all “cosmetic” features, to the tune of $5 million. Even though I was right here in Salem, I don’t remember this episode at all, so I read about it in the Globe: both letters and articles typically used the words hideous and disastrous in reference to the Hotel, and one piece was entitled “Yellow Alert.”

Hotel Commonwealth rendering, Boston University, and in 2015, Boston Herald photo by Angela Rowlings.

That’s quite a spectacular rendering above and obviously the more humble proposed design of 38 Norman Street doesn’t set itself up for failure quite so conspicuously, but Salem appears to have developed a propensity for plastic so I’m wary, even still. The Hotel Commonwealth seems to be in the midst—or at the end?—of a third wave of mansard mania that was noted by the eminent architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, otherwise known as the “woman who saved Salem” due to her exposure of Salem’s cataclysmic urban renewal plan to a national audience in the 1960s. A decade later, she wrote about “Mansard Mania” in the New York Times, and was not complimentary: all is fake tops and false nostalgia, regardless of use, size or scale. I think she was referring to structures like those featured in all the “neo-mansard” blogs, an example of which is below, but still I wonder: why do we need mansard-style roofs or prairie-style roofs? Why can’t we have Salem roofs?

1970s mansard-roofed structure from The Neomansard: “trying to embrace the style without irony.” Just a great site.


The Privateer’s House

On this very day in 1776, the Continental Congress authorized private vessels commissioned with “Letters of Marque and Reprisal” to “make captures of British Vessels and Cargoes” and Salem’s shipowners and shipmasters responded enthusiastically: 158 privateering vessels originated from Salem during the Revolution, capturing 458 prizes and the largest prize tonnage of any single American port. It seems appropriate to feature what once was the home of a particular (and particularly active) privateer today: a structure that long stood on Lynde Street downtown and is now in the process of being “transformed” into a much enlarged building in a Georgian-esque style, complete with a built-in garage. I don’t know how much is left of the James Barr House, actually, but a brief history of its most celebrated occupant and record of its evolution are below.

James Barr was born several years before his father, also named James, built the family homestead at 25 Lynde Street, but he spent most of his childhood and adulthood in the house and died in it in 1848, at age 93. His was a full and long life, on sea and on land. Fortunately we have a wonderful and accessible source: his grandson James Barr Curwen published Barr’s “Reminiscences,” including his Revolutionary War commissions, in the Historical Collections of the Essex Institute in 1890 (Volume 27). Barr spent the war in service: on the Black Snake as First Lieutenant in 1777 and as Captain of the Oliver Cromwell, the Rover, and the Montgomery thereafter. He took prizes and was taken prisoner: he spent several months onboard the infamous British prison ship Jersey in New York Harbor and was also transported by the British to Barbados: nevertheless he always seemed to be able to extricate himself and find another ship. Unfortunately his grandson includes more details about the terms of his commissions than his escapes. After the war, Barr became a merchant mariner in partnership with his brother John: their copper-bottomed ship Hope was apparently one of the speediest Salem ships to the East Indies. Mr. Curwen assesses his grandfather’s retirement as “quiet”: “in early days he was a staunch Federalist and later a Whig, but he never took a conspicuous part in politics. He lived a strictly honest and conscientious life and died respected by all who know him at the age of ninety-three years, four months, twenty-one days.” James Barr’s “Reminiscences” also include a portrait commissioned in Leghorn for East India Hall and a very rare photograph of the old captain in the year before his death.  Photographs of Revolutionary-war veterans have been the subject of several studies over the past few years and I’m not sure this particular one is well-known: what a record!

In another town, a famous privateer’s house might be preserved and celebrated: but that’s not the Salem way. The Barr house, built on the storied site of Salem’s first fort in 1759, left the family’s possession in the early twentieth century and its downtown location rendered it vulnerable to commercial and multi-residential use. Much of Salem’s downtown is under the jurisdiction of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) rather than the Salem Historical Commission: those identifying adjectives are apt. Here is the visual evolution of the house over more than a century: from Curwen ownership in the 1890s (captured in Frank Cousins photographs from the Phillips Library and Digital Commonwealth) to a MACRIS photograph from 2016, to the day it lost its gambrel roof last week, to this morning, and a rendering of its completed form encompassing however many condominiums were approved by the SRA.

And here’s the description from the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s 2016 MACRIS inventory by Neil Larson and Walter R. Wheeler: The Barr house is one of a diminishing number of mid-18th century vernacular wood frame dwellings in Salem. Although it has experienced minor alterations and significant additions over time, the original outline of the dwelling remains clearly readable; it retains its original form, feeling and materials, and continues to embody the distinctive characteristics of a mid-18th century side passage gambrel-roofed dwelling. 

 


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