Tag Archives: Salem State University

From Corner Store to Colossus

There are no pretty pictures in today’s post (well, as usual, the historic one is relatively pleasing) but I feel the need to weigh in on yet another inappropriate development looming over Salem–in this case, threatening the view and the neighborhood I see from my office window at Salem State University. An assortment of tired twentieth-century shops grafted onto an older building in a rather awkward–but certainly not imposing–manner might possibly be replaced by a behemoth commercial structure more appropriate for a Route 128 office park, and if the developer doesn’t get this way, an apparently even larger building comprising 34 residential units. The developer in question is of course from nearby Marblehead, a town which has produced a long line of investors in Salem, hoping to either reap returns or assuage their suburban guilt over residing in a town that “celebrates diversity” but has none. He unabashedly proclaims his project “Lafayette Place” even though there is a lovely little street bearing the same name (for over a century) a few blocks down the road. Because he is also a former overseer of SSU, there are also concerns that this is another encroachment by the university into a residential neighborhood. I really hope that’s not the case and I tend to think it is not: the university is building big–very big–on its own campus but it is also the new tenant of an ambitious adaptive reuse project just down the road from the proposed “Lafayette Place” (and up the road from the real Lafayette Place) in which a Salem developer has transformed the former Temple Shalom into an academic building within its existing footprint.

Now brace yourself for the pictures: the corner of Lafayette and West Streets, present, past, future (?). The cute little A&P store that once occupied the site (you can still see its Colonial Revival “frame”) makes me very sentimental for corner grocery stores in general and A&Ps in particular, although I’m not sure I’ve even been in one! The scale of this building is still appropriate for its surrounding neighborhood.

Corner Store 002

Corner Store 005

Corner Store AP SSU

Corner Store Lafayette Place

Lafayette Place 2

The corner of Lafayette and West Streets present & past (Dionne Collection, SSU Archives and Special Collections), and renderings of the proposed “Lafayette Place”.  Jerome Curley, a great source for Salem’s visual history and history in general, has offered the picture below so you can appreciate the scale issue. On the immediate right is the Lafeyette/West corner, and all of those residential buildings on both sides of the street remain. (From his Salem through Time, co-edited with Nelson Dionne).

Lafayette West Corner


Cultural Costumes

If I could set aside the whole capitalizing-on-the-deaths-of-innocents thing, I might like Halloween in Salem a bit more if the costumes were more creative. I buy a cartload of candy, and have to jump up every minute, and what do I see? The same old witches, princesses and superheroes. Very few DIY costumes that display any sort of imagination or creativity. You do see some interesting adult outfits in the second wave that takes over after 8:30 or 9 (standing out in a sea of slutty costumes) but these people are walking right by my door (Thank God!) on their way to downtown. If we have to be the Halloween capital of the world  I think we should have higher sartorial standards.

I was looking around for some inspiration from the past, as usual, and most of the bespoke Halloween costumes I came across were a little creepy—bags over the head with slits for the eyes and mouth: ghost, scarecrow or Klansman? So I went to the treasure chest that is our university archives and found the cutest costumes ever–these kids are not dressed up for Halloween, but rather for some sort of cultural awareness educational activity at their school. I think they look adorable, though I imagine that dressing your kid up as an Eskimo today might be considered a bit politically incorrect–still, these are visual reminders that children in the past had to create and animate, rather than purchase or plug in.

SSU Horrace Mann

SSU 3

SSU 2

SSU 4

Children in costume at Salem State’s Horace Mann Laboratory School in the early 20th Century: an Eskimo, a little Dutch girl, Red Riding Hood, and characters from Alice in Wonderland, Salem State University Archives Flikr. Pretty imaginative backdrops too.


Convertible Campus

There are lots of ways to examine the history of an educational institution: curriculum, students, faculty and administration, physical presence. As a professor and incoming chair, I could certainly write quite a bit about the academic constituents, perhaps too much, so for my back-to-school post I’m going for the more accessible, and certainly the more visual, sign of institutional evolution: architecture. The evolution of Salem State University, where I have been teaching for quite some time, has been inextricably tied to the parallel development of the city of Salem since its foundation in 1854. The piecemeal construction of the Salem State campus has, for the most part, been a story of onward expansion, tempered with adaptation and accommodation. At least so far.

Salem State’s institutional history is easily divided into four different academic eras. It was founded as a teacher-training “Normal” school (normal referencing professional standards) for women in 1854, the tenth in the nation, and remained “Salem Normal School” or the “Normal School at Salem” until 1932 even after it began admitting men and extending and expanding its curriculum. It was Salem Teachers College from 1932 until 1960, after which it was briefly named the State College at Salem, Salem State College (1968-2010), and finally Salem State University. A key factor in the school’s founding was the financing (and lobbying) provided by the city of Salem, along with the Eastern Railroad and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: from the very beginning, the interests of city and college were linked.

This first set of images below are all from the Normal School era (1854-1932). For the first fifty years of the school’s existence, its one and only building was located on Broad Street, just behind where I live now. The foundation building was adapted and expanded in the 1870s to accommodate a larger influx of students, and then an entirely new building, with adjacent “campus” was built in the early 1890s in South Salem. The Sullivan Building remains the center of what is now referred to as the North Campus, and its (I think unfortunate) ginger brick facade set the tone for the development of the college over the next half century or so. The situation of Sullivan is rather commanding:  at the head of Lafayette Street looking back and down towards the center of Salem.

Salem State Normal School 1858

SSU First Building 1862

SSU Expansion 1871-2

SSU Broad Street

SSU 1900-01 Catalogue Sullivan Building

The State Normal School at Salem from the 1858, 1880, and 1900 Catalogs of the Instructors and Students in the State Normal School, Salem, Massachusetts; One Broad Street (Condominiums) today; 1865 photograph of the Broad Street building, Salem State University Archives Flikr.

Images of the new campus on Lafayette Street from the first few decades of the twentieth century portray a barren-then- bucolic setting, a bit less integrated with the city, especially after the great Salem Fire of 1914. The school’s main form of outreach was its students, and to facilitate its primary mission of teacher education several training schools were built, on Willow Avenue a few blocks away, in Marblehead (for “rural training”), and finally the new training school adjacent to the Sullivan Building on Loring Avenue, named after education advocate (and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s brother-in-law) Horace Mann.

SSU from Lafayette Street

SSU campus 1920

SSU Bertram School 19067

SSU Farm School Marblehead

SSU Horace Mann 1913

SSU Horace Mann

Lafayette Street with the Sullivan Building in the distance and the campus behind, from the 1920-21 Salem Normal School Catalog; the Bertram School on Willow Avenue, the Farm School in Marblehead, and images of the construction and completion of the Horace Mann Training School, Salem State University Archives Flikr.

The Horace Mann school, then called a training school and later a “laboratory school”, remains a Salem public school, probably the best and most continuous example of the partnership between the city and the university. Teaching right next door in the Sullivan Building, I have long been accustomed to hearing the gleeful sounds of children playing on the adjacent playground during their recess. Space is a bit tight though, and now there are discussions of moving the school to another location. The next-to-last picture above, of the construction of the Horace Mann School in 1913, is particularly striking because it forecasts what is going to come over the next century:  all that space you see in the distance is going to be filled in with buildings:  residences, college buildings, factories, and then more university buildings.

In terms of  space, the Salem Teachers’ College (1932-68) and Salem State College (1968-2010) eras are indeed characterized by the filling in of the main (North) campus (largely with square, uninspired, mid-century modern buildings made of orange brick) and the acquisition of additional, non-adjacent space for new construction and/or adaptive re-use. As the college’s curriculum became more comprehensive, its demand for physical space became more expansive, but open land was limited because of the coincidental development of its South Salem neighborhood. On the main campus, probably the most spectacular construction project became an equally spectacular failure: the massive Brutalist cantilevered library which opened in 1974 and closed in 2007. Scaffolding has surrounded the building ever since, and as our adjacent new library opens today the old one is coming down, piece by piece.

SSU Sullivan Building Library 1920s

SSU Library Construction 1971

SSU Library 19742007

SSU Library

Libraries at Salem State: the Sullivan Building library in the 1920s, the construction of the Lafayette Street library in 1971 (which reminds me of its DESTRUCTION now) and the completed building in the 1970s, Salem State University Flikr; the new Berry Library and Learning Commons, opening on September 3, 2013.

The two major expansion initiatives of the later twentieth century are illustrative of how Salem State’s interests intersected with those of the City of Salem, and they are also great examples of adaptive re-use. In the early 1970s, the college acquired the former campus of Ste. Chretienne’s Academy (1918-71), a parochial school for girls, which was quickly transformed into the South Campus. A quarter center later, the GTE-Sylvania lighting factory, which employed hundreds of workers during its heyday (1936-1989), was converted into the Central Campus. For the most part, these changes seem to have been well-received by the surrounding neighborhoods, though the construction of residence halls on both new campuses definitely caused some ripples in the relationship between town and gown (and will no doubt continue to do so), along with continuous traffic and parking concerns.

SSU Ste. Chretienne

SSU Ste Chretiennes Academy 1963

SSU Sylvania Ad

SSU Central Campus

Postcards of Académie Ste. Chrétienne from the 1930s and 1963, before it became the SSU South Campus (Salem State University Archives Flikr); an advertisement from Business Week (February 27, 1943) featuring the Salem Sylvania plant, and after its transformation into the SSU Central Campus.

There are plans for more expansion on the immediate horizon, including a badly-needed parking garage and another residential hall. Looking back on the past 150 years of institutional construction, Salem State seems to have handled the big projects well (with the exception of that brutal library and in spite of all that orange brick) but I hope that the smaller structures will not be forsaken in the inevitable march of progress. Several years ago, I was distressed to see one of the (then-college’s) little administrative bungalows swept away–in the space of a few days—to widen an access road. Its surviving mate remains, but is looking vulnerable. And I think everyone, both on campus and in greater Salem, is wondering what is going to happen to the university’s latest acquisition:  the venerable Salem Diner.

SSU Bungalow

SSU Salem Diner

Still Standing on Loring: a craftsman cottage and the Salem Diner.

APPENDIX: In the History Department at SSU, we try to look a local developments in a global context. While I was looking around for some interesting and unusual images from the Normal School era, I came across a photograph of the inscription below taken by Jo De Baerdemaeker, a typographical scholar and designer based at the University of Reading.  The Salem Normal School was one of many American educational institutions that contributed funds towards the rebuilding of the historic library at the Catholic University of Leuven, which was ravaged by German troops occupying Belgium during World War One. The new library, designed by the American architects Warren and Wetmore and also bearing the more strident inscription Furore Teutonico Diruta: Dono Americano Restituta (“Destroyed by German fury, restored by American generosity”) on its facade, sustained serious damage again in 1940 and was rebuilt after the war.

Leuven Inscription

Photograph by Jo De Baerdemaeker; you can see more lettering and examples of his work here.


Essex County Seats

Salem is the county seat of Essex County, which extends from north of Boston to the New Hampshire border, encompassing a great marsh, a rocky coastline, the Merrimack River,and what used to be fertile farmland in between. Now much,but not all, of it is residential, but because of its early development (just after Plymouth, to the south of Boston), the marsh, and some early conservation and preservation efforts there remains a seemingly-eternal landscape that is both natural and man-made. The county is full of long-established towns with clearly-defined centers and commons, even though progressive sprawl has blurred the lines of distinction among them. There are seventeenth-century, “First Period” houses in several Essex County towns (with Ipswich claiming the most) and eighteenth-century houses everywhere. When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, Essex County was just a place to drive through, between Boston and my hometown in southern Maine, but then I began turning off route 95 and exploring a little: first the old seaports, Salem, Gloucester, Newburyport, then the smaller coastal and inland towns between the ports and the highway, and then the Merrimack Valley, still bearing the structures of its early industrial revolution. Now that I live here, I still go exploring, and find new (old) houses, roads, and landmarks every time.

Over a century ago, Boston lithographer and publisher George H. Walker encouraged the exploration of Essex (and other) counties by issuing a series of  “driving maps”, birds’ eye views, and lithographs of the notable structures of the region: “stately” homes, factories, educational establishments, public buildings. A large collection of his Essex County lithographs was donated to the Archives of Salem State University earlier this summer, and they are now online, with great descriptions written by a former student of mine. Published in 1884, in the midst of an age of dynamic growth and industrialization, these images seem to harken back to an earlier Arcadian age. They are beautiful in a very idealized way: prancing horses dance about and even the factories are pristine. But as you can see below (in just a sampling of the entire collection), where I’ve managed to contrast a Walker lithograph with a standing structure, the architectural details are quite delineated.

Essex County Kernwood

Essex County Kimball

Silsbee House, Salem

Essex County Peabody

John Bertram House, Salem

Walker’s Salem Lithographs: the Kernwood Estate in North Salem (now radically reconstructed as the clubhouse of the Kernwood Country Club), the Kimball House (built by Nathaniel Silsbee and now the Knights of Columbus) & the George Peabody House (now the John Bertram House, a senior living community).

Essex County Appleton

Essex County Oak Hill

Two long-lost houses in nearby Peabody: the very eclectic Appleton estate, and Samuel McIntire’s “Oak Hill” shown in Victorian guise–now the site of the Northshore Shopping Center!

Essex County Peabody Beverly

Essex County Danvers

St. John's Prep administrative building

Another Peabody (family, not town) house: the summer residence at Light House Point in Beverly, where President Taft summered, and the Spring residence in Danvers, now the administrative building of St. John’s Preparatory School.

Essex County Elm Vale Cottage N Andover

Essex County Moulton Hill

The very charming Elm Vale Cottage in North Andover (I don’t know if this is still standing; I’ll have to go exploring), and the long-gone Moulton Castle in Newburyport, situated on the Castle Hill that is now part of Maudslay State Park.


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