Tag Archives: urban planning

The Year of Lost Archives

I must interrupt my festive holiday posts to mark a somber anniversary today: a year ago a representative of the Peabody Essex Museum admitted that there were no plans to reopen the long-shuttered Phillips Library in Salem, and that its archives and texts were soon to be relocated to a consolidated Collection Center in Rowley, in response to questions from members of the Salem Historical Commission. This admission was historic in a dual sense: it concerned history, the collected history of generations of Salem’s families and institutions, entrusted to an institution which couldn’t even be bothered to announce their removal, and it marked a moment in which Salem’s historic identity could now be cast in considerable doubt. It also triggered a series of responses and events which revealed so much to me about how history–and access to history—is perceived and valued in Salem. I was going to write an anniversary post anyway, just to wrap up this dismal year, but then an extraordinary coincidence manifested itself, and now I have a comparative format for my retrospective review. It happens that not only has my adopted hometown lost its archives, the hometown of my youth is on the verge of losing its as well! I feel like the personification of some powerful archival curse.

York Archives

Essex Institute IncorporationMr. James Kences of York, Maine protesting the imminent removal of Old York’s archives to a collections center in nearby Kittery, utilizing the same by-law precedent that we’ve employed here in Salem. Photo of Mr. Kences by Rich Beauchesne/Seacoastonline.

This may seem like an apples and oranges comparison with the only link being my personal interest, as the Peabody Essex Museum is a large, multi-faceted and well-endowed institution of international stature and the Museums of Old York constitute a local heritage organization with far fewer resources, but I think there are some interesting contrasts, particularly in the words and actions of the interested parties. Salem (1626) and York (1624) are also both venerable colonial settlements, with historical influence beyond their municipal boundaries. The Old York move is mandated by the sale of an old bank building in the center of town for redevelopment: not only have Old York’s plans been completely transparent since the publication of its strategic plan in 2015, but its Director, Joel Lefever, publicly acknowledged that York residents had the right to “raise questions” about the relocation of the archives out of town and even applauded the colorful protest of Mr. Kences. Compare this attitude and these statements to those of the now-retiring PEM Executive Director Dan Monroe: There was an expectation by a number of people that we had a responsibility to consult with them about what would be done with the Phillips collection…an expectation we didn’t particularly share or understand (Boston Globe, January 13, 2018).

Salem Hex

Old York’s decision to sell a downtown administrative building to focus resources on its historic buildings further afield was dictated by economic necessity and made in collaboration with the Town of York, which is embarking on a York Village revitalization project; the PEM’s decision to relocate the Phillips Library was a choice, not a necessity, made in isolation and opacity. Several organizations which had placed items on deposit in the Library, including the Salem Athenaeum and the Pickering House, were not even notified that their materials were to be relocated out of Salem. It was also revealed during the many hearings before the Historical Commission following the December 6 admission that the PEM had failed to file a master plan with the city of Salem, contrary to municipal regulations. While Salem residents are always in the dark when it comes to the PEM; I do hope our Planning Department knows more!

PEM Expansion PlanA romantic rendering of what might have been—if the PEM had fulfilled its promises to develop the Salem Armory and preserve the Phillips Library: not sure about the new situation of the John Ward House but it’s been moved once before. Not sure of the source or date either–I found it unlabeled on social media. Obviously the PEM went in quite a different direction.

There has also been a stark contrast in the reactions of municipal officials in York and Salem. Apparently there is no avenue to avoid the relocation of York’s archives to Kittery for the short term, but both the Town Manager and Board of Selectmen seem committed to finding a way for them to return. In an article in the York Weekly by Deborah McDermott, Town Manager Steve Burns allowed that there was no place suitable for the archives in York at present, But long term, the town I believe has an obligation to the heritage of the town to see if we can do something. This does not satisfy the passionate Mr. Kences, but I would be thrilled to hear a similar sentiment spoken in Salem: an obligation to the heritage of the town. For her part, Mayor Kimberley Driscoll never questioned publicly either the preservation-in-Rowley vs. decomposition-in-Salem scenario sold by PEM or its place-detached vision of history, and celebrated the Museum’s “investment in history” at the opening of the Collection Center in Rowley this past July. I do hope that the Museum makes a considerable investment in Salem’s history in the forms of library staff and digitization: at present (and as has been the case for some time) its most essential materials on commercial and cultural encounters in East Asia, so very valuable for the understanding of both local and world history, are accessible only behind a very expensive paywall at the digital publisher Adam Matthew and so inaccessible to Salem’s residents—and Salem students. While Salem’s history has been packaged as a digital “product”, the old Essex Institute buildings which once housed it remain dark and empty.

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There are also some interesting comparisons to be made regarding the quest for institutional and municipal vitality: the goal of both the PEM and Old York as well as their host communities. Old York’s archives are just that, historical archives, whereas the Phillips Collections of PEM constitute a large and multi-dimensional library, constituting myriad print and manuscript materials. It’s a bit difficult to see how the former collection could foster the development of a lively cultural community in York Village, but a Phillips Library returned to its original location could enhance Salem’s already vibrant cultural scene in many ways and expand its own community in the process. Libraries are meant to be used, and library collections are different than curatorial collections: the consolidation of both in a remote Collection Center–inaccessible via public transportation–may make sense from an administrative point of view, but it can only handicap the former in terms of its essential function. Just as I hope for more digitization of Phillips materials, I also hope that researchers are flocking to Rowley, but as yet I don’t see any evidence of the sorts of activities that are associated with other research libraries like those of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and (most familiar to me) the Folger Shakespeare Library: exhibits, events, brown bag talks, teacher workshops, crowdsourced transcription projects. It is early days for Rowley’s Phillips Library, so maybe these will come, but I believe such engagement would evolve far more easily in Salem’s Phillips Library, enlightening a dark stretch of Essex Street in the process.

Phillips last december

Anniversary 5In my open letter to the Trustees of the Peabody Essex Museum from nearly a year ago, I focused on Nancy Lenox Remond, because I wanted to emphasize the connection between place and history. I couldn’t imagine a better example of someone whose history was made by Salem and who made Salem’s history in return! Mrs. Remond and her husband John were the resident caterers at Hamilton Hall and also operated several other businesses in downtown Salem. There were organizing members of Salem’s African-American church and abolitionist societies, and they advocated successfully for the desegregation of Salem’s schools. They raised eight children in Salem, among them the prominent abolitionists Charles Lenox Remond and Sarah Parker Remond, for whom a seaside park in Salem is named. Here’s a photograph of Mrs. Remond and the Lafayette plaque at Hamilton Hall–which references a famous banquet which she and her husband John prepared. I didn’t understand a year ago, and I still don’t understand now, why the records of the lives and work of these extraordinary people, and all of the extraordinary people who made Salem, have to be located in Rowley.


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 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

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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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