Tag Archives: urban planning

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.


Let’s Restore (Some Semblance of) Norman Street

Norman Street was and is an important thoroughfare in Salem, one of the major connections from the major route north to the center of the city, and ultimately the harbor. The street was charming in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with substantial houses lining its brick sidewalks and TREES. Two of my favorite Salem Georgians were on Norman, the Jonathan Mansfield House and the Benjamin Cox House: details of the former show up in all sorts of early American architecture books in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Norman Street in the later nineteenth century (1880s-1890s), Phillips Library, Peabody 

Norman Street was essentially annihilated in the twentieth century: its charming houses demolished and replaced by generic business boxes, its width expanded for automobiles, its trees left to die. I can’t think of a street in Salem so utterly transformed. Its bleakness is all the more apparent by the fact that it’s basically an extension of mansion-lined Chestnut Street, so the contrast is striking: I sigh with relief when I pass over Summer Street and everything gets greener and more friendly. All the twentieth-century forces aligned to kill this street: a big public works project (the Post Office), the car, of course, and the worst architectural eras of the century, the 1930s and the 1970s-1980s. There are three crosswalks, but cars whip around the corner onto Norman so you have to be a rather audacious pedestrian to think about using them. The street is so bleak it can only be improved, but the one vacant lot now set for redevelopment is in a particularly conspicuous spot: on a corner, between two historic districts, and between a residential district and the beginning of the commercial downtown: this project has the potential to CONNECT so many constituent parts of Salem, and restore some structure (and dignity) to Norman Street at the same time. I have high hopes and great expectations, and I really hope the permitting boards of Salem do too.

So let me show you the current lot and the prospective building: I am taking these photos from the presentation that the developers (Kinvarra Capital) and Architects (Balance Architects) gave to a neighborhood group last week, before they go before the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) next week. This presentation was very thorough in its consideration of all of the challenges and context of this site, I thought. You can see the whole thing for yourself here. Let me say that I don’t have really strong objections to this building: compared to recent construction in Salem, and to what defines Norman Street at present, it’s an improvement. But I think it could be better. And I REALLY think that it should prompt a city-wide discussion about design rather than just a neighborhood discussion about parking.

Existing conditions looking north (top) and east (bottom): Chestnut Street is right behind you in this second photo. The city has decided to put a roundabout at this busy intersection, but they haven’t really committed and it’s too small a space, so everyone just drives over that yellow circle.

Same vantage points as above with the rendering of the new building. The bottom image also show the recently-approved “suburban” addition to the adjacent Georgian house by the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA), the same board that has jurisdiction over new Norman Street building.

So you see, a challenging site. I don’t envy the architects: should they take their contextual cues from the adjacent 1980s plaza, or the Georgian with its (insert adjective; I have no words) addition, or the 1930s Holyoke building across the street or the Federal and Italianate buildings which open Chestnut Street? You know me, I’m a traditionalist and a historian: I’d like to restore something of what was Norman Street in its glory days, perhaps along the lines of the Julia Row in New Orleans, without the wrought iron. But you can’t really recreate that: it would look cheap with today’s materials, and it wouldn’t fit in with the twentieth-century buildings of Norman Street. It’s not the entire composition but rather the depth of façade and detail I’m after, and in this case I was particularly attracted to the parapet end wall: if integrated into a new building on Norman, it could match the one at 2-4 Chestnut Street, establishing continuity and connection.

Julia Row, New Orleans; Chestnut and Norman Streets in the 1880s, Salem Picturesque, State Library of Massachusetts.

The New Orleans building is also too big, as is the proposed Norman Street building. What you don’t see in these photographs is the Crombie Street Historic District tucked away in back, with smaller-scaled buildings than any of the other adjacent structures. I looked at some recent developments in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in which new construction was integrated into existing historic neighborhoods and came up with a few favorites in terms of scale and also texture, which is missing in most of the new construction I see. The first is in Bay Village in Boston, a small historic neighborhood tucked away in the midst of downtown Boston. The scale and detail of of Piedmont Park Square is nice: it fits right into its quaint neighborhood on the storied site of the Cocoanut Grove, where a tragic fire occurred in 1942. The building “stitches” together townhouses—what could be more connective than that?

Piedmont Park Square in Boston’s Bay Village by Studio Luz Architects.

As I searched for semblances of things I’d like to see in this important new building, I was motivated by scale, detail, texture, integration, contextuality, and some sense of the past: the proposed rendering reads “industrial” to me, and Norman Street was never industrial, so I don’t understand the reference. I don’t think I found what I was looking for, but I really like the integration achieved by a recent infill development in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, below. Tucked in between an early 20th century mansion on the site of its fire-ravaged garage and a row of 19th-century townhouses, this structure fits in but still makes a statement with its variegated façade and roofline and so much texture! This seems like an even more difficult challenge than Norman Street. I like it, but my husband-the-architect does not and neither, apparently, do its neighbors. All architecture is paradoxical, but urban architecture particularly so: it is so very public, yet the public has so little power to influence what is built.

Renderings of 375 Stuyvesant Street, Brooklyn by DXA Studio


Renaissance and Reign of Terror

1904 was a big year in Salem’s commemorative history: it was the centennial of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birth, and his birthplace received both regional and national attention. This was squarely in the midst of the time when Witch City and Hawthorne/Colonial City were duking it out to see which one would define Salem’s identify going forward: the former won, of course. Hawthorne was born on July 4, so in the midsummer there were lots of stories on Salem in the Boston papers, with a notable focus on material culture: his houses, other storied Salem houses, Salem gardens, Salem streets. As Hawthorne was so often focused on the past, so too was his commemoration.

Homes and Gardens in Salem, Boston Daily Globe, July-August 1904.

Salem was also featured in a book on American architecture published in 1904: American Renaissance. A Review of Domestic Architecture by Joy Wheeler Dow, Architect. This first caught my attention because I assumed “Joy” was a woman architect, but it turns out that Joseph Wheeler Dow preferred to be called Joy. He was a prolific writer and critic around this time, publishing in several “shelter” periodicals, and had a very forthright style. I like opinionated authors, and even though Dow was very snobby, concerned when anyone who lacked a Harvard education was in any position of authority and using the term “Anglo-Saxon” a bit too much for my taste, he’s still fun to read. His concept of the material “Renaissance” was strictly Victorian but he detested Victorian architecture: his division of American architecture centered on a Renaissance of craftsmanship and style in the colonial and first half of the nineteenth century and a “Reign of Terror” thereafter in which too much money and fashion (as opposed to style) created objectionable buildings. He loved Salem and placed its building firmly in the era and style of the American Renaissance.

Dow’s captions are great, so I included a few of them above: if you want atmosphere and plenty of it, go to Salem! (exclamation point mine, as that is how he writes). We’re so fortunate to have all of the houses above still standing, and they still provide a wonderful context and atmosphere. I don’t share Dow’s opinion of Victorian architecture, either residential or commercial, and I think buildings from that era—and after—add context and atmosphere as well. If I were to divide Salem’s built environment into periods I would have a long “Renaissance” era extending up to the twentieth century, perhaps even to the Great Salem Fire of 1914, then a rebuilding/accommodating the car era (not sure what I’d name it) and the “Reign of Terror” would begin in 2000 or so: we are clearly in a Reign of Terror now. It’s hard to characterize all of Salem’s new buildings: several appear to have tried for some context in the details but ended up as plastic pastiche, others could have been built everywhere and anywhere. I can’t explain the first building below, Salem’s new Hampton Inn: I really have no words. I’m not really sure what to think about the Brix, a new condominium development built on the site of the former District Courthouse: it’s a big boxy building but its downtown location can support that, even as the transition to a side street, Church Street, is rather abrupt. I guess it’s just the roofline that bothers me: why the overhanging eaves? This is the third or fourth new Salem building with similar roofs: has there been some secret pact to transform Salem into an exemplar of a revived Prairie Style? Maybe that’s the new “atmosphere” we’re going for but it seems odd given Salem’s illustrious architectural past. Away from the downtown, but not too far, are the new Halstead Apartments, which manage to represent a shadow of Salem’s vibrant industrial past in a rather reassuring, even atmospheric, way.

Salem’s new multi-colored Hampton Inn (+apartments) and multi-style River Rock development on Goodhue/Boston Streets; The new Brix condominium building on Washington and Church Streets; the Halstead Apartments on Flint Street.


Digging Up Derby Square

I was researching Salem’s struggle with/against urban renewal in the 1960s when I came across a massive collection of photographs from the career collection of Edmund Bacon, the famous Philadelphia city planner who is sometimes referred to as representing a “third way” between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. I honestly don’t know if Bacon was a critic or a fan of urban renewal: his work looks a little plaza-centric to me. Apparently he captured urban renewal funds for the rehabilitation of Society Hill in Philadelphia, however, and that is certainly to his credit. The landscape architect who worked on Society Hill was another Philadelphian, John F. Collins, and when Bacon was brought in to consult on Salem’s redevelopment after some (not all) of the planned destruction through “renewal” was thwarted, he recommended Collins to implement the new Heritage Plaza East Plan in the 1970s. Collins’ efforts reshaped downtown Salem over the decade, and you can read (and see) more about them here. But back to Bacon (father of Kevin, by the way): after his retirement he turned all of his papers and photographs over to the Fisher Fine Arts Library of the University of Pennsylvania, which is currently digitizing and crowdsource-cataloguing them through a project called the Ed Bacon Photo Project: the photographs are an amazing window into twentieth-century urban planning, and include several scenes of Salem’s little Dig.

During and after: Derby Square is such an important center for downtown Salem, although I wish the City was as dedicated to the maintenance of all the hardscape features incorporated by Collins as Philadelphia has been with Society Hill. The Cultural Landscape Foundation notes that “Collins’ details–richly patterned brick sidewalks and walls, granite curbs and backless benches, alleys, street trees, site-specific light standards and bollards – combined with small courtyards and pocket parks peppered throughout the 120-acre neighborhood, unite the unique blend of historic and modern buildings and landscape features.” The space has served as the site of grocers’ and farmers’ markets for decades–until last year when Covid mandated another location with more space for social distancing: I hope it can return this year. And on quite another note, I’m sure everyone will be thrilled to hear that one of Salem’s key businesses, Vampfangs®, is expanding into Derby Square with “Maison Vampyre,” an “elegant and uniquely themed private space, located in the heart of Salem at One Derby Square. Guests are invited to experience personal or group psychic readings from members of the local Vampire community.”


Seven Women of Salem: the Preservationists

I’ve been rather depressed about the state of historic preservation in Salem: after a strong commitment in response to full scale urban renewal in the 1960s and early 1970s we seem to be awash in a sea of vinyl siding and shed dormers. I’m not sure what happened exactly, although rising property values and the corresponding desire of developers to cram as many units as possible into old structures, thereby transforming their architectural profile beyond all recognition, likely has something to do with it. But history always brings perspective, and in recognition of both this Centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage, my own #SalemSuffrageSaturday series, and the Preservation Month of May, I am focusing on seven women who really made an impact on the recognition, and preservation, of Salem’s material heritage. These women faced far greater obstacles than I am seeing now, and they should be celebrated. This post is partly repetitive, as I’ve featured several of these women before, but there are some new heroines as well, at least new to me.

In chronological order:

Caroline Emmerton (1866-1942): the founder of the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association, and a founding member of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). Much has been written about Caroline Emmerton (especially as she was a rather mysterious woman), so I don’t have too much to add here, but she deserves recognition not only for reconstructing and creating the House of the Seven Gables and its campus, but also reorienting Salem’s—and the nation’s—appreciation of its first-period past. The House of the Seven Gables, and Emmerton’s vision of her native city, remains a strong counterweight to the commercial cacophony of Witch City. Emmerton seems like a rather “creative” preservationist to me, but certainly an influential one!

Emmerton Collage (2)Caroline O. Emmerton, The Chronicles of Three Old Houses, 1935

Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958): As a du Pont, Mrs. Crowninshield was not from Salem, nor did she ever live here (although she summered in Marblehead), but she has to be included on any list of preservationists for her key efforts towards the preservation and interpretation of several Salem sites, including the Derby House of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Peabody Essex Museum’s Crowninshield-Bentley and Peirce-Nichols houses. She was also a board member of SPNEA, as well as of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum in Salem, and a founding trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You can read more about Louise in this post, in which I appeal to a potential successor to to emerge in contemporary Salem!

louise-du-pont-crowninshield1Louise duPont Crowninshield (center) surrounded by the ladies of the Kenmore Association in Virginia, one of her first preservation projects, Hagley Museum & Library.

Bessie E. Munroe (?-1975): Mrs. Munroe waited out urban renewal in Salem in her lovely Federal home on Ash Street, with demolition ongoing all around her. She was a widow in her 80s when the Salem Development Authority began implementing its 1965 urban renewal plan, which called for the demolition of 145 out of 177 buildings downtown, including her house! She was compelled to sell to the SRA in 1970, but fortunately the agency agreed to her life tenancy because of her age and health. And then a new Salem Redevelopment Authority emerged, more intent on preservation than demolition: at the time of Bessie’s death in 1975, her house—the last historic residence standing, facing a parking lot—was saved and sold to a preservation architect. It is now on the National Register.

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SAL_2431 (2)Seeing red (demolition) in 1965; 7 Ash Street, the Bessie Munroe House, today.

Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013): Another woman who never lived in Salem (but long summered in nearby Marblehead like Louise duPont Crowninshield) yet had a tremendous effect on the city’s material heritage largely through her passionate indictments of the 1965 urban renewal plan (see above) published in the New York Times from 1965. Sometimes I think crediting her exclusively for the demise of this plan minimized all the efforts towards that aim by preservationists here in Salem, but still, there’s no denying her powerful impact, as she occupied a strong position of power as the architectural critic for the Times. Ms. Huxtable was not a strict preservationist, but she believed that it could be a useful tool against generic, thoughtless development with no historical or aesthetic merit: sterilized nonplaces. She kept watch on Salem through its new redevelopment and credited its mix of old and new in later articles and her 1986 anthology Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger. In praising Salem for “renewing it right” she also asserted that “Salem’s results promise to be a stunning rebuke to every community that has ever thought the only way to revitalization lay through….mutilation of what was often a unique identity for shoddy-slick, newly jerrybuilt anonymity.” Every day I wonder what Ms. Huxtable would think of Salem’s newest buildings.

Ada 1965 NYTAda Louise Huxtable’s condemnation of Salem’s 1965 Urban Renewal Plan in October of that year, the first of several pieces published in the New York Times.

Elizabeth K. Reardon Frothingham (1923-1983): A Salem native descended from several notable Salem families, “Libby” Reardon was a passionate afficionado and student of early American architecture who went on to become a professional preservationist, shepherding Historic Salem Inc. though its most turbulent era and writing several detailed inventories for the City of Salem. All of her records, unfortunately, were donated to the PEM’s Phillips Library and therefore moved from the city to which she was so dedicated: you can read more about that here. Given the pandemic, I haven’t been able to access her records or reports up there, but newspaper accounts testify both to her discovery (as a mere “housewife”) of two camouflaged Salem first-period houses, the Gedney and Samuel Pickman (pictured in the Huxtable article above, as well as below) Houses, as well as to her steadfast defense of Salem’s material heritage in the 1960s and 1970s. She was a real preservation heroine, gone too soon: I can only imagine what she might have achieved in the 1980s or 1990s—or now!

Reardon Collage1965! What a year that must have been—-Salem’s preservationists had to have been functioning 24/7.

And speaking of gone too soon, I wanted to take this opportunity to recognize two women who were clearly effective administrators of their respective institutions as well as contributors to the preservation of Salem’s material heritage: Anne Farnam (1940-91) of the Essex Institute and Cynthia Pollack (1932-1992) of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Ms. Farnam served as Curator at the Institute from 1975 to 1983 and as its President from 1984 until 1991, while Ms. Pollack served as Superintendent of SMNHS from 1983 to 1992. I have no idea what their personal relationship was like, but they were clearly colleagues not only in advancing the missions of their institutions but also the stature of Salem as a heritage destination. Both were active in the Salem Project, the forerunner of the Essex National Heritage Area, and both worked towards a more layered and contextual interpretation of Salem’s history. When you study their careers, you can see how interpretation and preservation are integrated and complementary: as the chief administrator of an institution charged with the stewardship of eight historic houses, Ms. Farnam was by necessity a preservationist, but she also initiated the 1977 exhibition on “Dr. Bentley’s Salem: Diary of a Town” which seemed to have seamlessly merged textual and material history (I never saw it, but I do have the companion volume of the Essex Institute Historical Collections). Likewise, Ms. Pollack deserves high praise for her dedication to the restoration of Salem’s historic wharves, but at the same time worked to enhance Salem Maritime’s interpretive reach: as the tribute sign at the Visitors Center’s Cynthia Pollack Theater reads: There were stories to be told, and she wanted visitors to see, touch, smell, and feel the maritime spirit that the site embodies. We all have a lot to live up to, I think.

Women Preservationists CollageA Boston Globe (glowing) review for Ms. Farnam’s exhibition, Dr. Bentley’s Salem. Diary of a Town in 1977 and 1992 photograph of Ms. Pollack.


North Easton LOVE

In southeastern Massachusetts there exists a village that is both the ideal of a “company town” and a model for historic preservation and adaptive reuse of industrial structures: North Easton, shaped in so many ways by the prosperous Ames family in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but cared for with obvious appreciation by its current residents. I drove down on a brilliant February Saturday motivated to see one Ames Mansion—recently featured in Knives Out and the subject of one of my student’s capstone seminar paper—but saw so much more! I don’t know what took me so long to get down there; actually I think I’ve been both to Easton in general and North Easton in particular several times, but clearly I did not stop and look around. Now I can’t wait to go back again. It would make for a difficult commute to Salem–and my husband can never live away from his beloved ocean—but if not for those two factors I would move down lock, stock and barrel. I’m surprised at myself: I usually go for colonial towns—or Federal towns at the very latest—but North Easton is a nineteenth-century town through and through, and a late nineteenth-century town at that: a Henry Hobson Richardson town. But there is something about it………..

First up, the Ames Mansion at Borderland State Park: not exactly a beautiful house, but certainly a strident one. It was built in 1910 by Harvard botanist Oakes Ames and his wife Blanche, according to Blanche’s own design apparently, as no architect could fulfill their demands. Oakes was the son of a Massachusetts governor, and the great-grandson of the founder of the Ames fortune, Oliver Ames, Sr., who established the Ames Shovel Works in Easton. His sons and grandsons expanded the fortunes of the company, which supplied shovels to both forty-niners and railroad workers out west, as well as the prestige of the family through patronage and politics. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Ames mansion-building in Easton would begin, and continue up through the era of the great-grandsons like Oakes.

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The Ames Family Mansions, built in every conceivable architectural style! Queset House, currently under renovation is part of the Ames Free Library,  Langwater is still standing, Sheep Pasture was demolished in 1946, and the Stone House Hill House is now Donahue Hall of Stonehill College.

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Sheep-Pasture

Stone-HouseAll historical photos, Easton Historical Societyand Museum.

The foundation of all these mansions was the massive wealth generated by the Ames Shovel Works, a mid-19th century industrial complex built right in the center of North Easton in close proximity to Queset House and the Governor Ames Estate where Oakes Ames grew up. The buildings and “shops” of the complex have recently been converted into one of the most stunning housing developments I have ever seen, fulfilling the incessant demand for density in our region while also meeting (setting?) high standards for aesthetics and preservation. This project has won numerous preservation and design awards, and you can see more photographs on the website of its landscape architects.

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And finally H.H. Richardson: adjacent to the Shovel Works is Henry Hobson Richardson’s most utilitarian commission in North Easton, a perfect train depot which now houses the Easton Historical Society, and just across from it are his two most conspicuous buildings, the Ames Free Library and Oakes Ames Memorial Hall. A bit further afield is his stunning gate lodge, still in private hands and marking the entrance to the Langwater estate.

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What is so interesting about North Easton is the lack of housing segregation: interspersed among these monumental buildings are wooden houses which are quite humble in their scale, as well as larger residences. A century or so ago, everyone was working and living together in close proximity, in the midst of civic buildings which tied them together and represented an exuberant pride of place. And they still do.

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The End of Mill Hill?

Place names are a topic I have not explored much on this blog, which is odd, as they represent a major entry into the local past. There’s a great article in the old Essex Institute Historical Collections (Volume 31, 1894-95; it was also printed separately) by Essex Institute Secretary Henry Mason Brooks about Salem “localities”, featuring many names that are no longer with us and several that still are, including Carltonville, Blubber Hollow, and Castle Hill. Brooks weaves a historic narrative around most of his localities, but even though he references Mill Hill, he doesn’t have much to say about it. In his time, it was a relatively new route connecting central and South Salem, having only been “opened” or laid out in 1873-74. It is really just an extension of Salem’s central north-south thoroughfare, Washington Street, and a very short and shallow hill indeed. Yet despite its unimpressive size and scale, Mill Hill endured as a place name over the twentieth century. When I moved to Salem in the 1990s people would reference it often, and it took me quite a while to figure out where it was. A couple of years ago it was designated the site of a brand new development incorporating a Hampton Inn plus rental housing, but now that that prosaic structure sprawls across its base (and then some) I am wondering if this particular Salem locality has met its end.

Mill Hill Map 1897 (2) (1)

Mill Hill 1890s (3)

Mill Hill 1914 SSU

Mill Hill 1914 PC SSU

Mill Hill 1920s PEMSome different perspectives on Mill Hill beginning with the 1897 Atlas at the State Library of Massachusetts. The first view is looking NORTH, towards downtown Salem, the rest are looking SOUTH towards Lafayette Street. The Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth (NORTH), two post-fire scenes from the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections, and another Phillips Library view from about ten years later, after considerable post-fire reconstruction. Of course, the old St. Joseph’s–and the new St. Joseph’s–are long gone.

Ok, get ready for the view now, as it is a shocker: first, from my car, trying to take a photograph from the same location as the last photo above. What you see on the left is the side of the sprawling new Hampton Inn. And then: the front, supposedly the best face forward?

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This big boxy building features a conglomeration of materials over all of its facades: it actually looks pretty good from lower Lafayette/ Derby Street and the rear! Salem desperately needs a large commercial hotel to cater to its tourist traffic, but I can’t help but look upon this as a lost opportunity: more proliferation of plastic, or whatever that material is. I can’t understand why the City doesn’t work with chains to conform construction to some semblance of the architecture which made Salem Salem—at least a reflection, or even a nod. Washington Street just seems like a very different place now than when I first moved to Salem decades ago, with generic boxy buildings on every block and an uninspired train station at its head. It’s always been a busy, commercial thoroughfare in transition, but seems increasingly soul-less and place-less: and Mill Hill is clearly no more, as the new hotel is situated (as more than a few people have pointed out to me, so apparently “Mill Hill” does have resonance for Salem natives) at the corner of “Washington and Washington Streets”.

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Salem Picturesque

I don’t think the word “picturesque” could be applied to the city of Salem in 2020: certainly some residential neighborhoods, but the major arteries of the city, which both access and divide said neighborhoods, are increasingly lined with residential, commercial, and even public buildings of which no one could possibly ever state, much less believe, that aesthetics was the highest criteria of construction (or even a consideration). I have no idea what the priorities of Salem’s planning department might be besides more density, but I am sure that “it’s better than what was there before” is the sole aesthetic standard. The Spring semester starts this week, which means on my “commute” I have to find creative ways of avoiding the MONSTROUS new Hampton Inn rising and sprawling on lower Washington Street, which is now the street of banal buildings (and the Bewitched statue, of course). It’s too big, too impossible not to see, so I’ll just have to close my eyes (when walking, not driving). As usual, when the present is objectionable, I always retreat to the past, so obviously a title like Salem Picturesque is appealing! It’s a slim volume of just 23 photographs, published in the 1880s by the Lithotype Publishing Company in Gardner, Massachusetts. It features select “Public Buildings, Churches, and Street and Birds’ Eye Views” of Salem, Massachusetts”: to be fair to the present, Salem was a densely-settled industrial city in the later nineteenth century, so not every quarter was picturesque, and this book features only those that were. Also, and again: someone has been cleaning up after all those horses! Still, there was an apparent striving to make the public part of the city aesthetically pleasing at that time which is not present now, in terms of preservation, maintenance, and most especially new construction. I’m nostalgic.

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screenshot_20200114-154003_flickrSalem Common/Washington Square 

screenshot_20200114-154012_flickrLanding at the Willows

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screenshot_20200114-154213_flickrCourthouses on Federal Street

screenshot_20200114-154241_flickrThe City Almshouse

screenshot_20200114-154245_flickrPhillips Wharf: the Philadelphia & Reading Coal and Iron Company.

screenshot_20200114-154024_flickrCorner of Norman, Summer & Chestnut Streets

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screenshot_20200114-154018_flickrEssex Street

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screenshot_20200114-154233_flickrChestnut Street

screenshot_20200114-154136_flickrCorner of Flint and Warren Streets

screenshot_20200114-154143_flickrBroad Street

I’m also nostalgic to see pictures of houses lost to the Great Salem Fire in 1914 on Warren and Broad Streets—and the Bulfinch Almshouse. Salem Picturesque is just one of the interesting Flickr albums of the State Library of Massachusetts.


The Forest through the Trees

COURT HOUSES: constant scenes of dramatic Salem history, from the seventeenth century until today. At present, we have one court house being demolished, one recently refurbished in spectacular fashion, and two long sitting vacant, waiting for their redevelopment into something deemed acceptable by the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA). One of these warehoused courthouses, an amazing Romanesque structure which was built in several phases over the later nineteenth century, has by all accounts an equally amazing interior library with a huge walk-in fireplace: for some reason I have never been able to make it inside but everyone I know who has raves about it. The other looks like a very pure Greek Revival structure, but again, by all accounts, it has been gutted inside. Because the interior of the Romanesque former Superior Court is so beautiful, several of the proposals for its redevelopment want to preserve areas for public space, which is of course great. And while their ideas for public access have merit conceptually, I am begging the SRA to just say no. While “The Museum of Justice of New England” and “a regional children’s museum that is themed around the Parker Brothers historical presence in Salem” (I’m quoting a September 4 article in the Salem News by Dustin Luca) sound like nice ideas with place-based rationales, the last thing Salem needs is another niche “museum”; what Salem needs, of course, is a Salem Museum, and this scenario offers up likely the last opportunity to make that happen.

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img_20190914_150104_773The Superior Court House even has turrets!

Every professional historian, whether working in academic fields or more public positions, along with every well-traveled visitor whom I have squired around Salem, always asks the same question: where is the History Museum? They all notice the commercialism, and the lack of context, and the two are related. We cannot see the forest through the trees. If you have a Salem Witch “Museum” (insert quotes around all the following “museums” please–the first four exist and its only a matter of time before the last surface), and a Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, and a Salem Witch “History” Museum, and a Salem Witch Board Museum, and a Salem Witch Ball Museum, and a Salem Witch Broom Museum, and a Salem Witch Hat Museum, and a Salem Witch Cat Museum, and a Salem Witch Spoon Museum, and a Salem Witch Pin Museum, and a Salem Witch Cauldron Museum, and a Salem Witch Wart Museum, and a Salem Witch Herb Museum, and a Salem Witch Wand Museum then you’re not going to understand anything about the cumulative origins, role and impact of the Salem Witch Trials in context. Likewise, if you go to the Pirate Museum, the Halloween Museum, and the “Lost Museum”, you’re not going to understand anything about Salem’s vast and complex history at all. There are only bits and pieces out there, trees, with Salem’s two professional museums, the House and the Seven Gables and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, attempting to show Salem’s many visitors some semblance of a forest.

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Court House Costello BPLBits and Pieces of seldom-seen Salem history: Salem printer Ezekiel Russell’s July 1776 Declaration of Independence, the Holyoke family coat-of-arms by Salem artist Benjamin Blyth, a letter from Alexander Hamilton to Salem tax collector Joseph Hiller, Nathaniel Bowditch’s presidential badge from the East India Marine Society, c. 1820, the “Gerrymander” in the Salem Gazette, Salem’s bicentennial banner, Nathan Read’s steam engine, and letters from Salem and Alexander Graham Bell; a photograph of Jessie Costello leaving the Superior Court in Salem after having been found innocent of poisoning her firefighter husband in an absolutely sensational trial in 1933, Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The few images above represent the tip of an iceberg: I could post thousands of pictures of Salem images, stories, “facts”, and events—in fact, I have: that’s my blog! In each post I try to provide context but there is no context for the whole Salem story, and so everything is lost, except for a few well-worn tales about the Salem Witch Trials, and (thanks to Salem Maritime and the Gables) some of the key aspects of its dynamic maritime trade and the work and life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. All those Salem soldiers, in so many wars, forgotten, along with so many Salem artists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and just everyday people, leading their ordinary and extraordinary lives. Could we learn more about legal history and the Parker Brothers? Yes, absolutely, but not in isolation, but rather as part of a larger Salem story. Examples abound, from towns and cities which also draw significant numbers of tourists but seem much more intent on presenting their comprehensive history in an accessible and professional manner. Of course, a comprehensive Salem Museum in this space would have to be a collaborative effort, and it would have an impact on other institutions in the city. All of the court house redevelopment proposals stress the “point of entry” feature of their site, located just across from the train station: the new Salem Museum could also serve as an orientation center, freeing up the Salem Maritime National Historic Site to do their own programming and exhibits at the current Visitors Center on Essex Street.  The new Peabody Essex Museum may be planning historic exhibits in the former Phillips Library buildings, or it may not, but its present and future mission certainly does not include providing the comprehensive and chronological introduction to the Salem story that both our residents and our tourists deserve. There are powerful and influential people in our city who could make this happen, and they should.

pixlr-3A few of my favorite local history museums: the Newport Historical Society Museum, the Concord Museum, and the City of Raleigh Museum in North Carolina. Concord is a perfect role model for Salem: it has a historic national park, and several smaller house museums, but grasped the necessity of establishing a central historical museum for the general public in the 1970s.


Six Hours in Salem

At the end of the nineteenth century, Salem was a mecca for architects-in-training, who came individually and collectively—most notably through the “summer school” of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s pioneering architecture program—to measure and draw details and outlines of its storied houses. Their work was published occasionally in the the American Architect and Building News as well as in a series of beautiful portfolios titled The Georgian Period. In volume III of the latter, published in 1899, the Rochester-based architect Claude Fayette Bragdon, a fascinating man of many interests including mathematics, set and lighting design, the occult, as well as architectural theory and practice, visited Salem for an afternoon, and rendered his impressions in both text and images. He acknowledges Salem’s two other major draws, the witch trials and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and then gets right into his categorization of Salem architecture: To the mind of an architect the buildings of Salem arrange themselves naturally into three classes: first, those very old houses, built by early settlers in the most primitive times, possessing all the dignity and simplicity and withal, the barrenness of the Puritan character, and around which cluster many strange, true histories and curious traditions; second, those built in later Colonial and Revolutionary days, usually by rich merchants and shipowners, when Salem had become a principal port of entry, and an important commercial centre, and in which the Colonial style is exhibited in its very flower, and third, those purely modern structures—confused, chaotic—which have sprung up in profusion in some part of the town, like weeds in an old fashioned garden. CONFUSED, CHAOTIC WEEDS! If this is Bragdon’s characterization of “modern” architecture in 1899, imagine what he would say now!

Six Hours 3Pickering

Six Hours 5Pingree

Six Hours 4 CH

It’s not entirely clear why Bragdon’s illustrated essay is included in The Georgian Period: he was not affiliated with MIT nor was he was particularly reverent of colonial architecture. But I am very happy to be introduced to him via Salem, as he was a very interesting, multi-faceted man, who wrote several books on theoretical architecture and seems to have worked in every single genre of the decorative arts. He strikes me as a modern Renaissance Man, and I’m looking forward to learning more about him.

Bragdon CollageJust three of Bragdon’s works on architecture, in its widest possible sense.

Bragdon’s essay is included in a volume of select reprinted Georgian Period essays published in 1988 entitled The Spirit of New England, and MIT Summer School drawings and Frank Cousins photographs are added to round out his presentation—but of course that means the presentation is no longer his. But his words are there, as well as his drawings of “old colonial work”, including an interesting rendering of an Eagle-less Hamilton Hall. Missing McIntire? That’s pretty curious. Well, no matter, I’m still struck by Bragdon’s exuberant writing style. At the end of his six hours in Salem, he is reluctant to leave this veritable mine of architectural wealth but his impressions are “permanently” formed of an exceedingly quaint and picturesque old town, striving here and there to be “smart” and modern, like some faded spinster who has seen better days, who mistakenly prefers our shoddy fabrics to the faded silks and yellow lace and other heirlooms of an opulent past. I can see that, still, especially the bit about the mistaken preference for shoddy fabric.

Bragdon collage 2

Bragdon Drawings 2

Bragdon HH


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