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.