Tag Archives: urban planning

A Converted Convent

Disclosure of shameless showcasing of husband’s work! On a beautiful Indian Summer day, with the sun streaming in through the large windows throughout, I toured the former Convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame on Federal Street yesterday with my husband, the architect responsible for its conversion into eight residential units. The convent was built in 1878 for the Sisters, who joined St. James Parish in 1864 and served as instructors in the large parochial school next door. Ten years later, a regional Catholic directory records 14 sisters living in the building, with their Mother Superior, Sister Mary Felicitas, and the school office on the first floor (the Sisters were real educational heroines, who opened parochial schools all over the state, but particularly in its industrial cities: they arrived in Salem in 1854 to join the Parish of Immaculate Conception right in the midst of the Know-Nothing frenzy and then later came over to St. James—you can read much more about the Massachusetts Sisters here). I honestly don’t know how long the building has been vacant, but it is part of a large complex on Federal Street built because of the initiatives of Father John J. Gray, including his Italianate rectory across the street (also converted to residences), and the school and “new” (1891) church next door. The St. James Parish, Salem’s second Catholic parish, has now been merged with its first, Immaculate Conception, as Mary, Queen of the Apostles. The sale and conversion of archdiocesan buildings is a huge trend here in Eastern Massachusetts: this is my husband’s second convent conversion in Salem. With sensitive architectural adaptations we can all continue to enjoy these well-built buildings for quite some time. As you can see from the photos I ran around snapping, this particular building is BIG, with wide, long corridors and very high ceilings on both the first and second floors, but there are nooks and crannies as well (particularly on the third floor) and a finished basement. In back, there is a HUGE parking lot (very precious in Salem) right next to the brand-new new Community Life Center on Bridge Street. As the building was restored with Massachusetts Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits, the units will be rented for a period of five years and then converted to condominiums.

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Convent 8Looking out these windows to the east and west, you see Old Salem in the form of the parochial school, which will also be converted into residences, and New Salem in the form of the Community Life Center and River Rock housing development beyond.


Saratoga September

We were in Saratoga Springs for a big family wedding this past weekend, one of four (or did I hear six?) that the city absorbed effortlessly: by all appearances Saratoga has its tourism game down and seems to be just as accommodating and entertaining to its permanent residents. Everything about it speaks to careful planning and “showcasing” for lack of a better word: wide boulevards, strong commercial and residential architecture (in close proximity), a Visitor’s Center and History Museum both in the city center within a beautifully-maintained park (+carousel), a performing arts center a bit further out in the Saratoga Spa State Park, an intact Armory transformed into a military museum, a mixture of commercial and boutique hotels, uniform, aesthetically-pleasing SIGNS (including iron markers for every neighborhood), public art that both reflects and enhances its streetscape, a seasonless economy, and clean sidewalks. Saratoga Spring has been a city of attractions for a long time, offering up a succession of healing waters, potato chips, horse racing, gaming, and a variety of arts to its many visitors over a century and a half, and its experience—and pride–shows.

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Saratoga past and present

Saratoga past and present 2Horses and ballet slippers (a nod to the New York City Ballet’s summer residence at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center) abound on Saratoga’s main streets as do markers; the Saratoga History Museum in the former Canfield Casino has both permanent and rotating exhibits and tours; two views of old and new—I really liked this gallery floor made up of scanned postcards of all Saratoga’s great hotels. AND now for some houses: this is just a sampling, as there are MANY to see, mostly different varieties of Victorian and some early twentieth-century styles. You could take a walking tour focused entirely on variations of the Italianate.

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What might have been: a Salem Tragedy

Things become crystal clear when you find yourself in a parallel universe and are able to discern what your universe lacks. Almost exactly a year ago, the Peabody Essex Museum notified researchers that the temporary Phillips Library location in Peabody would close for several months in order to move to a “new” location: this was confusing to many, as the Phillips had been relocated for the renovation of its historical buildings in Salem with PEM promises to return. But now this venerable library, constituting Salem’s major archive, was to move somewhere entirely new! Where? When? We didn’t know, but they of course did, and in December the admission finally came: the Phillips Library would be consolidated within a massive “Collection Center” in a former toy factory in Rowley, about a half hour to the north. Almost-unbelievable tone deafness on the part of the PEM leadership accompanied this………….removal every step of the way: here you can read the tale of the big move by a member of the Museum’s Collection Management Department who admits that for well over a year before it began, it took over her daily life. She knew, I guess everyone in the Museum knew, but no one bothered to tell the people of Salem.

PEM Collection Center Great HallThe “Great Hall” of the PEM Collection Center in Rowley.

So that leaves Salem archive-less, with no professional, nonprofit museum dedicated to collecting and interpreting its history, and a main street that is increasingly subdivided between the imposing architecture of PEM (yes, more space is needed for all those visiting exhibitions—that’s why Salem stuff must be dispensed to the north) and monster/vampire/witch wares. It’s kind of an odd juxtaposition really, made more apparent to me when I was home (in York Harbor) on vacation a few weeks ago. I’m not really a beach person, so I spent most of my time prowling around nearby Portsmouth, and one morning, my father and I were treated to a basement-to-attic tour of the Portsmouth Athenaeum by the Keeper of its collections, Tom Hardiman.

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Athenaeums are essentially private membership libraries which circulate books old and new among their members and highlight their collections through exhibitions and programs: the Salem Athenaeum certainly plays a central role in the cultural life of the North Shore doing just that. But over its long history, the Portsmouth Athenaeum evolved into something much more: its active collection policy transformed it into an historical society which serves not only its membership but also its community. It’s an archive, a research center, a library and a museum, all at the same time. Keeper Hardiman assured me that the Athenaeum collects the history of the region (except for materials related to communities like York, which have active historical societies) and consequently space is in short supply and a satellite location might be necessary at some point, but of course the Athenaeum will remain right where it has always been: in Market Square, in the center of Portsmouth. He showed me the Athenaeum’s very first book, and its most valuable, along with charters, newspapers, photographs and objects (including the the axe wielded by Louis Wagner in the terrible 1873 Smuttynose murders, which is kept in a closed cabinet), as well as all sorts of places–public and private—that revealed its inner historical-society workings. Throughout, in both words and places, I discerned respect and even reverence for the resolve of its donors and benefactors.

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Portsmouth Ath 8 Bookplates and books, newspapers, cyclists, and a working bulletin board at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

It was a wonderful tour which I enjoyed immensely but I came away feeling sad, as I realized that so many of the corresponding items that the Athenaeum was holding for Portsmouth were lost to Salem. Certainly the book collection of the Salem Athenaeum is impressive but it is not, and has never been, a historical society: it didn’t have to be. That’s what the Essex Institute, one of the predecessors of the PEM, was: for well over a century. This is a role that is denied steadfastly by the leadership of the PEM but decades of library acquisitions reports and articles in the Bulletins and Historical Collections of the Essex Institute contradict this opinion. The case is moot, however, as these collections, in the form of the Phillips Library, have been removed from Salem and I’m sure that the PEM is in the midst of purchasing stacks of non-Salem, non-historical titles so to obliterate the foundational nature of the Library forever. I could go on and on for quite some time about the tragic nature of this obliteration, but I’ve already done that for a year: what we need at this time is a constructive takeaway. I began this post with a discussion of disclosure because my time in Portsmouth highlighted the importance of planning and coordination for me, and the trigger effect that one institution’s actions can have on others. In the mitigation following the PEM’s disclosure that the Phillips Library would not be returning to Salem, it was revealed that, contrary to city regulations, the Museum had not submitted a Master Plan. This is an institution that withdrew from its commitment to the Salem Armory Headhouse in the 1990s, ultimately determining its demolition, and swallowed a city street whole in the next decade: didn’t we need to know what it was going to do next? Don’t we need to know what it is going to do next? Salem trembles with the PEM’s every move, and Salem’s institutions could have compensated for its historical withdrawal if they knew it was coming: but they did not. Imagine a real historical museum in Salem just like that projected in the Salem Maritime National Historic Site’s Site Plan and Environment Assessment published in 1991, the year before the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum into the Peabody Essex Museum. Though just one of several alternative proposals for the site, I’m sure that this “Derby Wharf Museum” failed to get much support because everyone thought Salem already has a maritime museum, but now that museum is gone—and so much more.

Derby Wharf Museum collage

Salem Willows Portsmouth AthenaeumSalem Maritime’s proposed “Derby Wharf Museum” in its 1991 Site Plan, one of several proposed alternatives for the Site which you can see here; there are even a few Salem items among the digitized photographs in the Portsmouth Athenaeum’s collection.


Is it better than a Junkyard?

Read this paragraph: ___________ is changing rapidly. Some of the changes have been good: the burgeoning art scene, the museum-building boom, the explosion in restaurants and the whole Napa-of-craft-beer thing, not to mention legalized marijuana. But there have also been some bad changes: the terrible traffic, the litter and pet waste everywhere, the sky-high rents and the swelling ranks of the homeless, not to mention legalized marijuana. It could be describing Salem at the moment! But it’s not: fill Denver in that blank space, a city that is dealing with far more growing pains than Salem, given its much bigger size. Denver’s building boom has given rise to a very boisterous public discussion about the merits and demerits of all the new structures appearing on its horizon, and this particular quote is from an article by art historian and writer Michael Paglia titled “Denver is Drowning in a Sea of Awful Architecture”. This just one of a sea of articles and posts expressing disdain for Denver’s “fugly” architecture: also see here, here, and here; there are also a good measure of constructive articles seeking a more aesthetic way forward for the Mile High City. Why am I writing about Denver? Well, when I did a Google image search of a planned housing development on Salem’s North River hoping for some sort of architectural context, the closest match I could find was one of Denver’s identified ugliest buildings. Here we are: one of five buildings consisting of 48 condominiums with underground parking proposed by the Salem development firm Juniper Point Investment Co. LLC for 16-18 Franklin Street right on the North River, a very visible “gateway” property.

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To be honest, I am unsure of the status of this proposed design: it was submitted to the Salem Planning Board at its last meeting on February 15 (after many continuances apparently) and those minutes are not yet available. And to be fair, the site of this proposed development is a junkyard: the long-lived Ferris Junkyard. So anything could be better, right? Well, NO. Too often in Salem I hear: it’s better than what was there before as a rationale for begrudging approval. This large waterfront property, which is adjacent to a park and another prominent property slated for redevelopment, deserves serious consideration of design and context. This is an amazing historic opportunity, as this site has been industrial-zoned for well over a century, but sits on the edge of a beautiful residential neighborhood and right across from Salem’s downtown.

Junkyard Salem News

Ken Yuszkus/ Salem News Staff Photo

Junkyard collage

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North River 1912The site, and the North River coastline near the bridge, 1851, 1890s and 1912, when the first City Plans Commission report asserted that the river “needed to be redeemed”.

Given the long industrial usage of the property, it might be hard to find context, but can’t there be some feature—architectural or material—to indicate that these buildings will be located in Salem, Massachusetts and not Florida or California or anywhere else where flat roofs rule? Tanneries, coal sheds and the famous Locke Regulator Company (above): any inspiration there? Slightly to the north, North Salem was a botanical paradise—can’t this land be reclaimed as such? We need pear trees in honor of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle Robert Manning, a famous pomologist whose orchard was in the midst of Northfields, and whose residence remains on Dearborn Street. Perhaps some inspiration can be found in the work of Salem-born and -raised architect Philip Horton Smith (1890-1960), who really distinguished himself as a preservation architect in his Salem commissions but also designed a lot of new buildings, including the Hawthorne Hotel, the Salem Post Office, and the neighborhood of brick duplexes further along Franklin Street for the Salem Rebuilding Trust after the Great Fire of 1914. Smith was a true Colonial Revival architect, and I’m certainly not advocating for brick veneers on every new building in Salem, but just a bit more attention to place, as shaped by both the past and the present. I am certain that the neighbors have been waiting for something special to be situated in this particular place for quite some time; indeed we all have.

Salem Rebuilding Trust North Salem Philip Horton Smith’s  Franklin Street “low rent brick cottages”, 1915.


Anchor Away?

As if it is not enough to bury the archives of a historical seaport in an inland warehouse 45 minutes away, rumor has it that one of the prominent symbols of Salem’s maritime heritage will also be removed: the large anchor that stood sentinel in front of the East India Marine Hall for over a century. I don’t like to trade in rumor, but given the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum’s propensity to avoid announcements until their intended actions have become faits accomplis, I think I should. We’re all scrambling to save as much of Salem’s historic fabric as we can. But I have a question mark in my title and am ready, indeed eager, to issue a retraction. Looking at the latest renderings for the addition that is rising on the western side of hall, however, I fear that that won’t be necessary.

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Anchors NS MAG EssexStreetLookingEastatNight-ba45be61East India Marine Hall and its milieu, 1912-the near future? As you can see, the anchor—clearly maritime kitsch that would spoil the sleek streetscape envisioned—is not there. Below we have a livelier, anchor-centric rendering from Rich Mather Architects: unfortunately Mather died and the PEM looked elsewhere, although his colleagues and successors at MICA Architects carried on with the rest of his commissions.

Anchors Aweigh Rich Mather Landscape Architect

To be fair, the anchor has not been in front of the East India Marine Hall from the date of its erection, but only since 1906. It was a gift from Theodore Roosevelt’s short-lived Secretary of the Navy Charles Bonaparte, of the “American Bonapartes” descended from the little Emperor’s younger brother Jerome. Secretary Bonaparte seems to have been a remarkably tone-deaf official, as almost immediately upon his appointment, in response to solicitations for funds to restore the venerable USS Constitution, he asserted that Old Ironsides should be towed out to sea and used as target practice! This caused an uproar in Boston, as you can imagine: the Boston Transcript opined that “to New England sailors, firing on the Constitution would be almost as offensive as bombarding Bunker Hill Monument or Plymouth Rock” and the national press ran stories under the headline “Secretary Bonaparte’s Collision with New England Patriotism”. There were Save the Constitution fairs and petitions, as the combined forces of the Daughters of the War of 1812 and the Massachusetts Historical Society shepherded a movement which forced Bonaparte to back down. He wisely did so, and in his second (and last) annual report he called for patriotic celebrations in Massachusetts’ seaport towns, in recognition of the Bay State’s maritime heritage. This was the compensatory initiative that brought a hand-forged c. 1820 anchor to rest before the East India Marine Hall in 1906. As long-time Peabody Museum treasurer and trustee John Robinson noted in his 1921 pamphlet The Marine Room at the Peabody Museum of Salem,“as an anchor is the emblem of the Salem East India Marine Society, for whom the building was erected in 1824, the placing of this large, old-time anchor at its front is very appropriate”. Apparently not now.


Small Business Saturday in Salem

There were lots of shoppers out and about in Salem yesterday for Small Business Saturday, a warm and sunny day which encouraged the pedestrian procurement that the city offers. Front Street is clearly the hub of Salem shopping, even though (or because) Essex Street is a pedestrian mall, but there were quite a few people at Pickering Wharf and in several other spots around the city as well. I try to buy all of my Christmas presents in Salem, which is getting easier with every year, as new shops like Mark Your Spot on Lafayette and Oak + Moss on the corner of Washington and Front (the very latest venture of the power duo who brought Roost to Salem years ago) open up. There’s been an interesting movement of Etsy and Instagram shops like Witch City Wicks and Hauswitch into brick-and-mortar buildings in Salem, and I find the two “institutional” shops, Waite & Pierce at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Peabody Essex Museum’s shop to be extremely reliable sources of gift-giving. And as Salem is a foodie town, with more restaurants than I can count at present and more coming, it makes sense that it’s also a great place to buy food and drink gifts: at the Cheese Shop of Salem, the venerable Pamplemousse and even more venerable Harbor Sweets, among other purveyors.

Just a few Salem shops and wares: the newly-opened Oak + Moss which is full of gorgeous housewares, Salem “maps” at Hauswitch, pigs at Roost (+ a Thank You sign), ornaments at Curtsy, Mark Your Spot on lower Lafayette, packed with an eclectic variety of vintage merchandise, books at the Marble Faun, which has moved to Pickering Wharf from Essex Street, a PEM window and silhouettes, mead at Pamplemousse, absinthe set-ups at Emporium 32 on Central Street, candles and cards at Witch City Wicks, and a very local pillow at Grace & Diggs on Artists Row.

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New Developments on Essex Street

I was going to title this post “the good, the bad, and the ugly” but decided to stay a bit more neutral, and yet here I am leading off with this hackneyed phrase! That’s my preview, so beware. Essex Street, Salem’s venerable main street, ever in transition, is experiencing big changes yet again. First the very good: Salem’s newest hotel, the Hotel Salem, just opened in the old Newmark building at 209 Essex Street. It is a sparkling mix of mid-century modern decor superimposed on what feels like an earlier 20th-century building (it was actually built for the Naumkeag Clothing Company in 1895), complete with a marble staircase and a soda fountain-esque restaurant (called The Counter, not quite open) in the first-floor lobby (as well as a seasonal rooftop bar!). The entire hotel is oriented towards the street and all about embracing its bustling commercial past: it’s a great addition to Salem.

Hotel Salem Best

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Now for the not-so-good. Say you’re sitting at that counter in the Hotel Salem lobby, drink nearby, peering outside onto Essex Street and planning where you’re going to go Christmas shopping next–the Counter will be open before Christmas I am informed. You probably can’t quite see it, but right next door is a great little independent bookstore, Wicked Good Books (above), which is a good start, but then where? You’re new to Salem: you don’t know that there is in fact good shopping a bit further down Essex Street in both directions, and on Central and Front Streets. All you see on one side is the Witch History “Museum” (quotations mine), more witch kitsch across the street, and on the other corner of Essex and Derby Square a vacant building that will house Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery come March. Not a lot of shopping possibilities there I would imagine, even when it is open. And then it gets uglier: as you look out of through the wide windows of the Hotel Salem in the other direction, beyond the old Almy’s clock, your eyes cannot avoid the hulking Museum Place Mall, recently rechristened the Witch City Mall. What happened to this building? The photographs from the 1970s show a rather imposing structure but at least one with some semblance of architectural integrity, later lost through artless adaptations and poor maintenance.

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Witch City Mall collageThe old Naumkeag Trust Bank Building (1900), soon to be Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery; Museum Place (Witch City Mall) shops and signs, today and in the 1970s (MACRIS and Bryant Tolles’ Architecture in Salem).

All I can say is ugh, but I’m not through with this block yet: across the way from the Mall the new Peabody Essex Museum building is rising and I am finding that my reactions to it are not what I thought they would be. It’s going to be very boxy, but I like the restoration of the streetscape: though lovely, the Japanese garden which was previously located on this site didn’t quite fill the space. It’s just a frame, so maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now the structure seems to emphasize the street qualities of old Essex (like the hotel), as opposed to the pedestrian plaza of the 1970s. Time will tell.

Essex Street PEM addition

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