Tag Archives: Salem’s Centuries

Olmsted Central

I have felt vulnerable all summer long, while working on my contributions for our Salem book: my chapters relate to academic fields for which I have no professional preparation, including African-American history (John Remond), art history (the Colonial Revival) and urban planning (Salem’s 20th-century development). I read widely and had support from my colleagues, and all the chapters will be peer-reviewed, so I don’t think I’ll embarass myself in the end, but I’m still a bit anxious. I’m co-writing the last referenced chapter, on Salem’s development from the Great Salem Fire of 1914 to the present, with my co-editor for the entire book, and after I plowed through rebuilding and urban renewal I simply dumped it on him, just done with it! It wasn’t fun to write and I needed some distance to reflect. So that’s what I have been doing for the last two weeks or so, trying to read histories of urban planning for pleasure. This is a field that intersects with the history of landscape design and garden history—and as the latter is more familiar to me I found a comfort zone. So I got some grounding and feel ready to go back into this chapter with some different perspectives and questions. I also realized I needed to cap off my weeks of reading with a visit to what must be the Mecca of landscape history: the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts.

So Chestnut Hill, a beautiful section of Brookline which extends over into Newton, was my weekend destination. This is where Boston Brahmins established their country seats in the later nineteenth century, and because of these considerable investments in land the area still retains its pastoral feel despite its proximity to Boston. At the height of his pathfinding career in 1883, Frederick Law Olmsted purchased an early 19th century farmhouse and several acres of land from two elderly spinster sisters who were reluctant to move: he built them a house next door. Another neighbor was Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose “Green Hill” summer house was built by Salem ship captain Nathaniel Ingersoll earlier in the century. Olmsted did not intend for his new house, named Fairsted, to be a seasonal showplace: it became the center of his business and his practice, as well as a center for the emerging new discipline of landscape architecture. This is the focus of the site’s interpretation: on the practice rather than the personal. The farmhouse was expanded in all directions, most conpicuously in the office addition which served as the headquarters of the Olmstead Brothers after the Frederick Law’s retirement in 1895. The firm endured (as the Olmsted Associates) until 1980, the same year that the National Park Service acquired Fairsted. As you can see from the photographs above, the orginal farmhouse its garden addition are not in the best shape: a planned and funded restoration has stalled due to the quality of the workmanship, and is delayed until the next funding process (but private donations can be made here). The interior of the farmhouse is pristine, and (again) dedicated to telling the story of the Olmsted practice. The office addition is like a time capsule of a 1920s-1930s architecture firm: with a drafting room, a photography room, a blueprint-printing room, a shipping room, and a vault, where all the Olmsted plans are archived.

In the main house: very few personal items, it’s all about the firm. I was primarily interested in the urban planning inititatives of the Olmstead firm as my chapter on Salem’s 20th century development begins with Harlan Kelsey’s 1912 City Plans Commission report. Because the Olmsted projects are so extensive, both in sheer number and geographically, the firm’s archives are always in demand and consequently the NPS has completed a major digitization project and also furnished researchers with an invaluable research guide to the collections. I found five Salem projects, the most important of which is the subdivision of the famous Pickman/Loring farm c. 1900: this was Salem’s first planned neighborhood, and I didn’t include it in my draft chapter (but I’m certainly going to do so now)!

The Olmsted site offers two tours, both of which were given by enthusiastic and articulate interns: one on the cultural landscape, the other on the office and practice. In the first, we learned all about Olmsted’s design philosophy (naturalistic and anti-Victorian, not particulaly interested in PLANTS, “borrowed view”) and the second focused primarily on how the firm was run during the era of the Olmsted sons/brothers. I just loved the office tour: forget AI and digital “reality”: this was immersion!

The Olmsted office wing: photography library with project #s (all materials are preserved in the vault now), drafting room, planting specifications, blueprint-printing room (and a very strange blueprint drying machine), shipping room, little cubbyhole office outside the vault.


Some Salem News and Views

A whirlwind of a week! Or should I say a rollercoaster, from my personal perspective. Against the backdrop of finishing the semester, grading and graduation was Salem’s special mayoral election, as our previous Mayor ascended (?) to the office of Lieutenant Governor in last fall’s election. The first new Mayor in 17 years: an exciting and momentous occasion, especially given all that’s happened over those years, particularly the intensification of both development and Haunted Happenings. I was with the candidate who expressed some concerns about both trends, and he lost to the candidate who served as our former mayor’s right-hand man, so I assume that both trends will continue unabated. A disappointing outcome for me, but not nearly as disappointing as the turnout: a miserable 28% of the electorate. Both candidates were out there, there was was spirited debate, and signs everywhere, but as they say, signs don’t vote, and neither did the vast majority of Salem people. So I had a day to process that disheartening development, and then the clouds cleared when my co-editor and I received word that Temple University Press was extending a contract to us for our proposed book on Salem history tentatively titled Salem’s Centuries: New Perspectives on the History of an Old American City, 1626-2026! This is a project we put together for Salem’s coming 400th anniversary in 2026, and I couldn’t be more pleased and excited that it will materialize.

As soon as you know you’re going to get a book published, you think about the cover! Or at least I do. One of the major reasons I started blogging is my interest in historical imagery: I’m always matching words and pictures in my head. I’ve always liked past and present blended photographs, so I made one for our big announcement, but my co-editor and colleague Brad Austin chose a crop of Salem artist George Ropes’ Salem Common on Training Day (Peabody Essex Museum) for our proposal image. I love this painting too, but I think it’s been used too much over the last decade so I’d like to find something else for our cover: I have a digital file of all my favorite Salem images and I’m sure I’ll be creating various compilations, collages and compositions over the next year or so, particularly when I’m struggling to write! I also welcome all suggestions. Whatever we choose will need to feature Salem people, as our book is first and foremost a social history of Salem: early Salem settlers and those who lived on the land before it became Salem, traders, farmers, and the accused and the enslaved, soldiers from Salem who served in the Revolutionary, Civil, and World Wars, entrepreneurs and privateers, Salem expats in the East, Salem families, Salem African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, French Canadian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, Salem antiquarians and reformers, Salem students, Salem men and Salem women, as individuals and as members of the community, the parish, and the neighborhood. Another photograph which we featured in our proposal was of the dedication ceremony for the “Mourning Victory” statue erected in Lafayette Square in 1947 to honor the men and women of St. Joseph’s Parish who served in both World War I and World War II. Contrast this with a more recent photograph of the crowd at the dedication (I think that’s the wrong word)/ revealing of the Bewitched statue in June of 2005: what a difference! Unity and division, service and entertainment, but both Salem.

The dedication of “Mourning Victory” in September 1947; the unveiling of the Bewitched statue in Town House Square, photograph from the June 16, 2005 edition of the Lynn Daily Item.

I plan to write the concluding chapter of Salem’s Centuries on the evolution of the square in which Samantha stands, formally known as Town House Square as this is where Salem’s first meeting house was built as well as the site of other notable buildings, from the seventeenth century to the present. I’m also writing several other chapters, as well as the introduction with my colleague and co-editor Brad Austin, but the remaining chapters will be written by our colleagues at Salem State (and also several of our grad students who have gone on to Ph.D. programs) according to their fields and expertise. We have an amazing department: we’ve been together for a while and we have a very united front when it comes to teaching and our role in the university, but we also have very different research fields so this project represents a unique opportunity to work together. This makes me very happy, and you should be happy too, dear readers, especially those of you who have been following along for a while, because the strident, snippy and snarky writer of recent years, clearly and consistently frustrated by the state of historical affairs in Salem, will retreat! The reason that I have been so frustrated with Salem’s arbitrary heritage initiatives is their inability to engage: both the past in meaningful ways, and the public in representative ways. Select committees of “stakeholders” (one of our former Mayor’s favorite words, along with “hip”) responded to the Peabody Essex Museum’s removal of Salem primary historical resource and repository, the Phillips Library, oversaw a plan (with some very expensive consultants) to move Salem’s Colonial Revival Pioneer Village, beloved by many people in our city) to Salem Willows, plotted out Salem’s “new” Heritage Trail, and are currently planning Salem’s 400th anniversary celebrations. I have learned that there’s no way to penetrate the structure of these select stakeholder committees, so I’m delighted that I will be engaged in a more constructive activity from now on. I do wonder if this restricted access to civic heritage, along with its commodification, has had some impact on declining civic engagement in Salem? I think that question is beyond the bounds of our book, but it’s something to consider.

I tried! It’s great that we have Remond Park, but there’s no association of place and the sign is incorrect: a “large population of African Americans” did not live in the vicinity; I can’t find one African-American resident of this neighborhood. I presented my evidence to the powers that be years ago: no response– the inclusive moment had passed. There ARE two Salem neighborhoods which were quite cohesive in terms of African-American communities at different times in the nineteenth century: neither are recognized by the City, and one is in imminent danger of being overshadowed and overwhelmed by a proposed over-sized development. We will have several chapters on Salem’s African-American history in the Salem’s Centuries and some smaller pieces too: we’ve got an interesting format which will feature longer academic chapters and shorter topical “interludes” which we hope will attract a range of readers.


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