Tag Archives: urban planning

Hotel Happening

And now for some good (re-)development news: the conversion of the 1895 Newmark’s Building on Essex Street into the new Hotel Salem, a 44-room boutique hotel complete with rooftop bar, ground-floor restaurant, and shuffleboard in the basement. The Hotel Salem will join The Merchant as the second Salem hostelry to be operated by Lark Hotels, which manages a string of unique properties in New England and California. The renderings invite one to imagine the Essex Street pedestrian mall actually working; in fact, Lark’s “chief inspiration officer” (what a great job title!) Dawn Hagin specifically referred to it last week in an article on the new hotel in Boston MagazineA lot of New England towns, or towns across America, don’t have pedestrian walking malls anymore, says Hagin. And the fact that it still exists in Salem, and this anchor store that used to be there—which was the heart of that—could be embraced and brought out today with what we are doing with the Hotel Salem—it is very exciting to us.  

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Well of course the pedestrian mall was a 1970s development, but no matter, Lark clearly chooses its properties for their unique place-specific character, rather than imposing some generic corporate vision on them: Hagan goes on to explain how the “bones of the building” and its mid-century department store vibe is going to influence the new hotel’s interiors. This building was at the “heart” of a very vibrant Essex Street, as a proliferation of postcards indicate (it’s the fourth building on the right in the c. 1910 view below). Even though everyone refers to it as the Newmark’s Building because of the ghost sign on the side and the long-standing art deco lettering in front, it was actually built for the Naumkeag Clothing Company in 1895–they moved from down the street and seem to have occupied the building for several decades until Newmark’s took up residence–and business.

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It’s really quite a building: I don’t think I ever really appreciated it because of the incongruous first-floor facade but now I can’t wait for its big reveal! This is a project that appears to be “opening up” to Essex Street–and Salem– rather than turning away.

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The future Hotel Salem, opening summer 2017 @ 209 Essex Street, Salem.


Developer-driven Design

Salem has been experiencing a building boom for the past several years and 2017 promises to intensify that trend with major projects rising on several ends of Washington Street, a new 40,000 square-foot wing on Essex Street for the Peabody Essex Museum, a new building on Lafayette Street adjacent to Salem State University, the completion of the Footprint power plant on Fort Avenue, and various other public and private developments around town. Given recent completion of the new courthouse addition and MBTA parking garage along Bridge Street, I think this is going to be the year that the “new” Salem almost overtakes the old when it comes to the downtown streetscape, and this makes me sad, because the new buildings do not live up to the standards of design and construction upheld by the old. This is a subjective opinion, of course, but I believe that it is shared by many people in Salem. None of us knows what to do about it, however: we are all, it seems, at the mercy of developer-driven design.

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The first and second (current) designs for the District courthouse site on Washington Street; the second is heralded as more “contextual” ; the former Essex County District Court building, which currently occupies the site, is slated for demolition soon.

I don’t mean to demonize developers: I’m sure they’re all lovely people (at least the ones I know are), but they are generally driven by economic factors rather than aesthetic ones unless they are steered towards the latter by some approving authority. Is this happening in Salem? I just don’t know. From my perspective it looks like the boards are tinkering with the generic designs submitted to them, making improvements where they can but never altering the basic bland box in any substantive way. We end up with a building that simply fills a space rather than enhancing a specific place: Salem. I’m dreading the construction of the condominium building on upper Washington Street (above) so much that I have become increasingly attached to the 1970s modernist building that presently occupies that space: at least it has a distinct design. As bad as the proposed new structure for this site is, it cannot compare to the building planned for further along Washington Street to the south: the Mill Hill/East Riley Plaza development, which will include a Hampton Inn. A great project but a dreadful design: I’ve yet to find a single fan: just “it’s better than what is there now” (which is just an empty space at present, so I’m not sure about that).

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The RCG LLC Mill Hill East Riley Plaza Development–I think this is the final plan, unfortunately.

I  do not discern a great deal of excitement about the Peabody Essex Museum’s new wing either: I’ve no doubt the design details and construction materials will be superior to the projects above but on paper it looks like a cube with little or no relation to the prominent building next to it: the stately East India Marine Building (1825). I’m going to reserve judgement for now, as this building has had a series of incongruous structures adjacent to it in its long history and sometimes the contrast between old and new can be striking, but I already miss the Japanese Garden, which is now a jobsite. I can’t help but think of the words of the architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who was so instrumental in saving Salem’s downtown from complete destruction during the wave of urban renewal in the early 1970s. Much later, in a retrospective interview about her career in the Boston Globe, Huxtable opined that she had had a major impact on Salem, where they were going to eliminate the beautiful Japanese garden next to the museum, and now that garden is gone.

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Renderings of the new PEM wing, © Ennead Architects; the jobsite last month and the East India Marine Hall in the 1890s by Frank Cousins.

The other day I was walking downtown along Federal Street and came upon another recent project: the massive curtain-walled and faux-columned J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center. My immediate thought, as always, was why it so big? But then I noticed, and again, not for the first time, the contrast provided by the juxtaposition of the former First Baptist Church, now a law library. I remember the citizen effort behind that building’s situation, just so, following the lines of the street and enhancing the adjacent (hulking) buildings’ placement here in Salem. Maybe all these new buildings will benefit from a similar effort, with positive results. And maybe not. But just imagine what it would look like if that old building was not there.

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Locals Lean In

It seems to me that there has always been a correlation between dissatisfaction with the Federal (or central) government, in general or focused on a particular branch, and action, manifested not only by large protest marches with lots of speeches but also by intensifying local engagement and activity: the latter does not loom as large on the radar screen as the former but is just as important, if not more so. It is these smaller, community initiatives that make me feel hopeful just now, although Salem has been a rather engaging and engaged place for as long as I’ve lived here. The city government is progressive and multi-layered, with the usual planning boards supplemented by committees made of citizens striving to make Salem beautiful, “no place for hate”, bicycle-friendly, and greener. There are venerable philanthropic organizations–mostly initiated and administered by women–that are still alive and well today in Salem, more than a century after their inception. Every cultural and/or historic organization has its dedicated band of volunteers. And then there are the newer, very focused initiatives, oriented for the most part on the livability of the city. Even though Salem is a small city, it’s still a city with visible urban problems, including most prominently litter, traffic, and crumbling hardscape. Even though I’d love to see its historic downtown cemeteries roped off altogether, I still applaud the efforts of the newly-formed Friends of Salem’s Historic Downtown Cemeteries whose mission is to advocate “for the protection and preservation of the Old Burying Point, Howard St and Broad St Cemeteries”. The city of Salem has a Cemetery Commission but it’s not enough; these well-trodden downtown cemeteries need more. Our other public spaces need advocates too, which is why I also applaud the Salem Public Space Project,  a “collective effort to engage residents in understanding and reimagining local public spaces”, and the Collins Society, which focuses on highlighting and preserving the work of Philadelphia landscape architect John F. Collins, who took over after urban renewal was abandoned in Salem in the early 1970s. The Society maintains a lovely website with some great images, and seeks to improve and preserve the urban streetscape (including fountains, plazas, planters and cobblestone paths) of downtown Salem, for “landscape architecture…should be preserved with the same dedicated passion as architecture”. Last but certainly not least, I really applaud the daily efforts of FireballsofSalem to cleanse the city of its constant supply of nip bottles and other annoying forms of litter. Valiant, hopeful initiatives all.

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The Old Burying Point on Charter Street and and Lafayette Park, a public space that needs some attention and will be getting it in 2017; The plazas and pathways of John F. Collins in central Salem: why are cars parking on those cobblestones on the left which are clearly not parking spaces? Fireballs are the preferred “fleur de Salem” of the Fireballs initiative but I’ve been finding more of these little green Dr. McGillicuddy bottles recently: I think they were specially priced for the holidays.


Municipal Monsters

In what has become a pattern for me, I was looking for something quite particular, when I came across something that diverted me from my path altogether, this time in the online catalog of the American Antiquarian Society. The item in question was an image–a political cartoon from circa 1845 which depicts a gluttonous Boston consuming the smaller cities of Massachusetts, including Salem–and it immediately commanded my attention, not just because of the Salem reference but also because the “insatiable [urban] monster” depicted reminded me of an underlying perception in early modern Europe, if not before, of the emerging city consuming the countryside. You can easily understand this allegory, given the conspicuous growth of cities in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, paired with an equally conspicuous urban death rate. Apparently this was an issue in America too: though the sentiment seems more economic than demographic on this side of the Atlantic, on both continents it was not only about consumption, but also corruption.

monster-boston-1845 ‘A Nightmare Dream of a Patriotic Politician of the Interior’, c. 1845, American Antiquarian Society

I’ve never been able to find a great image of the emerging “Londonopolis” in the seventeenth century when that term was first used (in the title term of James Howells’ Londinopolis an historicall discourse or perlustration of the city of London, the imperial chamber, and chief emporium of Great Britain, 1657). London more than doubled its population over the seventeenth century, but only later do any “monstrous” depictions appear. Southern England, with London at its center, is the sea monster supporting Great Britain in the late eighteenth-century maps created by Robert Dighton and published under the title “Geography Bewitched”.

municipal-map-london-geography-bewitched-bmRobert Dighton, ‘Geography Bewitched or, a Droll Caricature Map of England and Wales‘, published in London by Bowles & Carver, 1793, British Museum.

It is not overwhelmingly obvious unless you make several connections, but the depiction of a country gentleman apparently escaping that “Sinners Seat”, Whitehall Palace, whose inhabitants ended up in a monstrous hell, captures the moral divide between rural/urban and virtue/vice. The sheer corruption of city hall (the American Whitehall Palace) was never more accentuated than in the anti-Tammany Hall cartoons in wide circulation in the later nineteenth century, in which Tammany is either an octopus or a tiger, preying on the people of New York City and state.

V0047997 A Stuart gentleman is standing before Whitehall, entitled "S

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monster-tammany-tiger-lc‘Sinners Seat’, published: Rob. Walton[London] (At the Globe and Compasses at the west end of St. Paules church & Bon. Church Yard), Wellcome Images; J.S. Pughe, Boss Croker as an octopus consuming City Hall and beyond, Puck Magazine, 1901; S.D. Ehrhart, ‘The Tiger’s Prey’, Puck Magazine, 1913, both Library of Congress.


Escape from Salem, part II: Portsmouth Parallel

I was up in my hometown (York, Maine) this past weekend, and spent Saturday morning in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a favorite old and perennial haunt. One of the reasons I moved to Salem long ago is that it reminded me of Portsmouth: both are historic port towns with vibrant downtowns (now, not always), well-preserved historic districts, and a wealth of cultural institutions. Salem has many advantages that Portsmouth does not have: a major museum (the Peabody Essex), a university (well, you could make an argument that Salem State is either an advantage or a disadvantage I suppose; oddly Portsmouth feels more like a “college town” than Salem to me), proximity to Boston, a National Park, a Common! Portsmouth has at least one distinct advantage over Salem: it has retained its status as a “market town” over the centuries as it hasn’t faced the commercial competition that has challenged Salem’s commercial center (and pushed it towards becoming “Witch City”). Portsmouth has always worked towards the development of a stable, year-round commercial economy rather than a seasonal one, and it shows: it is a city that is oriented towards residents more than tourists. Portsmouth has also experienced the same building boom as Salem over the past decade or so, but they have handled it much better in my opinion: with the exception of a few big boxy buildings past and present have been merged more harmoniously in its center. Salem has a larger, more densely-settled population than Portsmouth and much more intensive traffic as it is situated at a crossroads, whereas Portsmouth is a destination unto itself: this makes Salem a noticeably busier place, exponentially so in October. So it was nice to drive easily into Portsmouth on Saturday morning and walk around the very clean (another big difference) city: the shops and restaurants were full of people even though it was not Halloween-central, imagine!

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portsmouth-collage Above: Past and Present  on Portsmouth streets; below–alleys and secondary roads were transformed into pedestrian malls in Portsmouth, not a main street like Salem’s Essex Street. Portsmouth has no Common, but it has some great, well-kept parks—Aldrich Park is below. LOVE the signage, especially the inclusion of former buildings on the site along with biographical information.

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There are so many great houses in Portsmouth: below are just a few, downtown and skirting Strawbery Banke. I didn’t even make it over to the South End. Fewer “Salem Federals” than in Salem of course, but there are some…this first house below, which looks like it is a private residence now, was a restaurant called Strawberry Court when I was high school, and this is where we went to dinner before my junior prom!

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I had family responsibilities, so I didn’t have much time for shopping or a stop at the Book & Bar (can you imagine a better place?), but I did get waylaid by the amazing African Burying Ground Memorial.

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I had seen the Memorial, In Honor of those Forgotten, before, very briefly, but I spent more time immersed in it Saturday morning: immersed is the word, as it does not consist of merely a few statues, but an entire installation, woven together by the words of the 1779 “Petition for Freedom” sent to the New Hampshire legislature by Portsmouth slaves and figures representing both those same slaves and the atoning Portsmouth community, today. Very powerful.

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The First Day of Fall

The First Day of Fall was much like the last day of Summer: warm, sunny, dry. But it was not humid, for which everyone was thankful, I’m sure. It certainly was a long hot summer, and a season of discontent for many. Fall always brings fresher air and perspectives, and in Salem, larger crowds: the city is already busy, and will get busier with every passing day through Halloween. I took a long walk when I got back from school looking for the new and notable, both of which are easy to find these days. There was definitely a calm-before-the-storm feeling in the air: I plan on hiding in my house or getting out of town for most of October (following this event, which looks like fun, and is long overdue) after my full immersion last year, so this felt almost like a last walk on a first day.

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fall-doors-church Lots of color around town, even though the leaves haven’t turned yet….

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fall-window-leaves  Still green…..

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Old and New courthouses; can’t wait for the new “Hotel Salem” on Essex Street with its rooftop bar–finally an aesthetically appealing design!

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Odd Fellows Hall; Emporium show window; the Salem Farmers’ Market in full swing.


Craftsman Confidence

As part of my recent immersion in early nineteenth-century design trends, I browsed through digital volumes of The Craftsman over its 1901-1916 run, every issue readily accessible at the University of Wisconsin’s wonderful Digital Library of the Decorative Arts and Material Culture. This was not a difficult task, as Stickley’s magazine is so interesting: such a heady mix of practicality, philosophy, and politics! How can you not enjoy a magazine with article titles like “Was Jesus a Carpenter?”, “The Century of Ugliness” (which was of course the 19th century from their point of view–when craftsmanship was compromised by industrialization), and “A Plea for True Democracy in the Domestic Architecture of America”?  In the end though, I came away feeling sad, as the editors and authors were so very hopeful for their new century, and their hopes were not fulfilled–the most anachronistic aspect of the magazine is its strident optimism. Everything can be reformed and everything is “civic”: not just education and urban planning, but also architecture and horticulture, even clothing. Birds are just as essential as bookcases, as the magazine espouses an integrated doctrine of conservation, craftsmanship, and community. The persistent quest for everything that is simple and “true” does get a bit pedantic as time goes on, even though I would like to live in their well-crafted and orderly world much more than in our disposable and disorderly one! But as soon as I saw Kaiser Wilhelm II depicted in a rather romantic fashion by the “new” German artist Arthur Kampf my browsing grew increasingly melancholy: I knew that the twentieth century would obliterate all opportunities for “Craftsman World”, and transform all those hand-crafted bungalows into cookie-cutter ranches.

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Images from The Craftsman, 1901-1916, including the first cover and Stickley’s device, “Als Ik Kan” underneath a joiner’s compass, borrowed from Jan Van Eyck (Flemish for “All that I can do”), a Craftsman door and two-family house, “affording an opportunity for economy of construction without loss of architectural beauty”, living room, dresses “designed for comfort with a purpose in their ornamentation”, hexagonal urban planning, bookcases, urban villages, 1914 cover, and the foreboding Kaiser.


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