Tag Archives: urban planning

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!

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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.

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Requiem for a Carriage House

There is nothing, nothing, that is worse than neglect, of anything that is in your care. I am always material-minded so I’m going straight to architecture: demolition by neglect infuriates me. It’s expensive to own an old house: I have a long list of tasks that my house needs and I wish I could spend the money that I’m going to spend on the house on travel, or a Sheraton sofa, or lustreware from the 1820s, but I can’t: I bought this house and I therefore I must be a responsible steward of it. I work hard to maintain it in the condition that it demands, as does my husband. The down payment for this house came from money I inherited from my grandfather, who also worked long hours to provide for his extended family; his father came over on a boat from southern Italy all alone at age 10 and worked as a tailor to send all four of his American-born children to college (even the girls) and leave them legacies which they passed down to their children. My legacy is my house, and I would never neglect it: it would be an insult to my family as well as my community. So when I see families of much more ancient American lineage, with the possessions to prove it, exhibiting carelessness at best, and neglect at worst, towards their properties, I get mad. Such is the case with a beautiful brick Federal house overlooking the Ropes Garden, left to rot for years by a family that first arrived in Salem in the seventeenth century, and only recently undergoing renovation. This house will be saved, at long last, but its owner has applied for permission to demolish the mansard-roofed carriage house in the rear of the property. The Historical Commission rules through the granting of certificates: non-applicability, appropriateness, hardship. The owner of this carriage houses seeks the latter, but this is clearly a case of willful neglect over many, many years, initiated by a man who is called, incomprehensibly, “an outspoken champion of historic preservation” in his obituary and carried on by his heirs.

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As you can see from the photographs (the black-and- white is a Frank Cousins view from the 1890s and the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum), the Victorian carriage-house doesn’t exactly go with the Federal house adjoining it: it was built as an outbuilding of the Italianate George. C. Shreve house fronting Federal Street and only purchased by our “outspoken champion of historic preservation” in the late 1960s, I believe. The Shreve House was converted to condominiums a while ago, and its residents are probably very tired of having this derelict building looming over their parking lot. But what a loss: of a once-elegant structure, of historical texture and fabric, of opportunity. It’s not difficult to find examples of Victorian carriage houses transformed into residences of all kinds, and just when the City of Salem is seeking to expand its inventory of “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) in response to an intensifying housing shortage in our region, the impending demolition of this likely candidate seems even more tragic.

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CARRIAGE-HOUSE-2Larry Kupferman, Victorian Carriage House, Carnegie Museum of Art; the converted carriage house at A Cambridge House Inn, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Losing our History? Two Years Later……Where are We with the PEM?

Two years ago tomorrow,  the temporary location of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum shut down rather abruptly with a succinct notice of when it would be reopening but no reference to where. As the Library is the primary repository of documents relating to Salem’s history, there were concerns among scholars (including a friend of mine who was writing her dissertation based on materials in the Phillips and was quite suddenly shut out), but I don’t think the general public was too concerned: increasing inaccessibility in terms of hours–and then location—had been the trend for about a decade. I had never really depended on the Phillips for research or teaching (only this blog) so this was a big wake-up call for me:  I started thinking, what if it is not coming back? And then a few months later, in early December: the big non-announcement at a meeting of the Salem Historical Commission. The Phillips Library of Salem was no more: all of its holdings would be deposited in a giant Collection Center in Rowley, a half hour to the north. The special library—consolidated from collections of both the Peabody Museum and Essex Institute and housed in the spectacular purpose-built Plummer Hall on Essex Street—would now be part of a much larger modern warehouse of texts and objects located on a commercial strip of Route One. An Indiana Jones image formed in my mind, and the contrast between the genteel, accessible Plummer Hall and the post-modern former toy factory seemed too cruel, even discounting the distance factor.

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Early 2018 was all about resistance and defense: there was a very dramatic public forum at the Museum during which then-PEM CEO Dan Monroe justified his decision according to the priority of preservation: it was impossible to house these materials in Salem due to the deficiencies of the Plummer and adjoining Daland buildings and there was no other sufficient space in the city.  The “preservation vs. location” argument is still authoritative: with no discussion of why the PEM did not use the substantial monies donated to it for the library to improve and expand these facilities in Salem. Also still with us is the conflation of objects and texts, justifying the move to the Rowley storage center; the Phillips Library literally gets lost in this configuration. There was lots of press coverage in January, 2018: in both the Salem News and the Boston Globe, where a front-page story included the quote below from Mr. Monroe of which I just can’t let go. A “Friends of the Phillips Library” group, established right after the December 2017 Historical Commission meeting, expanded its presence on Facebook and eventually launched its own website, which remains the essential archive of this story.

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The official way forward seemed to be through a “working group” established by the Mayor of Salem, Kimberley Driscoll, and Mr. Monroe and including members of the city’s heritage organizations, most of which (with the exception of Historic Salem, Inc. and the Salem Athenaeum) were silent during the uproar and remain so. Almost immediately the PEM announced a compromise: a reading room would be reinstated in Plummer Hall (although what would actually be in this reading room is still unknown), a Salem history exhibit installed next door, and rotating exhibits of Phillips Library materials would be installed in the main museum buildings down and across Essex Street. I don’t think we’ve really moved much beyond this agreement, but there were also discussions about digitization, as the focus on the historical collections revealed just how far behind the PEM was in such initiatives, despite misleading news stories to the contrary. Once the library collections were moved to Rowley, digitization of some of the Phillips’ most popular items began, and consequently we can now see Frank Cousins’ photographs of Salem in the 1890s at the Digital Commonwealth and a variety of interesting texts at the Internet Archive. I give all credit for this ongoing development to Collections chief and Library Director John D. Childs, as I remember him stating that digitization was a priority at the January 2018 forum, while Dan Monroe would only offer that it was “expensive”.

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Witch of New EnglandEntrance to the George Peabody Estate, “Kernwood”, in North Salem, Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives at the Phillips Library via Digital Commonwealth; just one Phillips text at the Internet Archive.

And that brings us to the biggest development in these two years: the retirement of Dan Monroe, effective this past July. The new director of the PEM, Brian Kennedy, is not only an experienced museum administrator, but also a scholar, who began his first day at the Museum with a staff meeting in East India Hall referencing the vision of the founders of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum. This was encouraging to those of us on the outside, as the founders were overwhelmingly Salem men who believed that they were contributing to a repository of Salem history and culture, but we must remember that Mr. Kennedy is learning the lay of the land and that only one trustee on the PEM’s Board is a resident of Salem. The will of the founders—and successive donors—has always been the most pressing factor in my mind: I asked Mr. Monroe about “donor intent” at the January 2018 forum but he expressed no concerns. However, I’ve heard many, many, many concerns here (and in emails) from many of you. Both founder and donor intent can rise to the level of legal action, of course, and are administered within the purview of the office of the Attorney General. Very soon after the “non-announcement” of the move, we found the Essex Institute’s incorporation charter from 1821, which asserted specifically that its “cabinet” be situated in Salem. We assumed that this article was made null and void years ago, or at the very least through the merger of the Institute and Peabody Museum in 1992, but apparently that is not the case.

Essex Institute Incorporation

And so at the invitation of Mr. Michael Harrington, former Congressman and present owner of the Hawthorne Hotel who has taken a very active interest in this “case”, a group of concerned citizens, heritage professionals, and local political leaders met with Attorney General Maura Healey and her staff this past eventful July. It was a great meeting to which I was privileged to be invited. Ms. Healey listened intently to us over several hours, and explained the process by which the PEM has to petition the court to be released from the above article, a process that is overseen by her office. Apparently the PEM has not initiated this process (at least formally) yet, but can at any time, and presumably will (although they haven’t indicated that they were bound by any restrictions to date, so I’m wondering if things will just continue as they are). I voiced all of the concerns I’ve written about and heard here at this meeting, as well as my belief that the removal of the Phillips Library will cause economic harm to Salem over the long run, as the city has no professional historical society or museum to take its place. When history is only for sale, money determines everything: the topic, the take, the truth.

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I’m not sure what will happen now; obviously the Attorney General’s office is invested in this issue but it has been for some time. The Peabody Essex Museum is focused, with good reason, on opening its brand new wing at the end of September and branding itself as the #newpem. No doubt Mr. Kennedy is preoccupied with that, and with learning all about his new institution. Not only has the new wing been completed recently but substantive renovations to both the interiors and exteriors of the Plummer and Daland buildings are ongoing: the 1960s “stacks” addition has been shorn off, and many wonder where the Phillips materials could be housed if they were returned to Salem. The PEM had a viable plan for the expansion of the Phillips Library in these buildings and in Salem, but that plan was abandoned in favor of the new wing and Collection Center in Rowley.

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So I think that’s where we are, but any good summary should also include what remains to be seen, or what I still don’t understand. After two years of immersion in this very singular issue: these are the concerns, problems, and questions that still linger in my mind:

  1. I don’t understand why the City didn’t try harder to retain our history. It’s been dawning on me for some time that this entire proceeding reveals more about the City of Salem than the Peabody Essex Museum. Recently I’ve heard that the City’s tourism office, Destination Salem, plans to focus on genealogy or “roots” tourism over the next few years. This makes sense on one level, as this is the most dynamic trend in the tourism industry currently and Salem is Ellis Island for many Anglo-Americans, but it makes no sense on another, as Salem has no genealogical records because they are all in Rowley.
  2. I don’t understand how the Phillips Library is going to survive as a library in Rowley: a real library, with regular patrons, events, talks, exhibits and a sense of community. I can understand how it will exist as a repository, but not a library. Every research library I’ve ever worked in–the Folger, Houghton, the Massachusetts Historical Society—is an active gathering place, but I can’t see people gathering at that sterile place in Rowley. It’s a professional operation to be sure, and researchers will go there to do their research, but that’s about it. I guess that’s what the PEM wants, as the promise to offer exhibitions of Phillips collections is being kept, with a Hawthorne exhibition opening next month in the new wing, in Salem.
  3. Speaking of comparable research libraries, I don’t understand why a “Harvard Depository” system cannot be utilized with the Phillips Library, retaining the offsite Collection Center as a storage facility from which materials can be retrieved and brought to the MAIN Library, which could be reinstated in the Plummer and Daland buildings on Essex Street in Salem. This would solve the storage issue and retain the traditional space, place, and role of the Phillips Library, and it could be operated as an accessible facility that would serve researchers and the general (curious) public. I’m sure there’s a reason why this can’t happen, but I wish I knew what it was, as it seems like the reasonable solution to a layperson like me, and one which would benefit all parties: the PEM, the City of Salem, and the Phillips Library itself.

Salem’s Newest Park

Salem’s newest public space was recently unveiled, situated in the former gas station/carnival lot at 289 Derby Street along the South River. The reaction has been a bit mixed, I would say. I think some people were expecting more of a green space, but it is not really that kind of park; it’s more of a concrete (plaza? court? square?) built for activity rather than rest and contemplation. Some people are critical of its cost, particularly of the land. It’s also been identified as a homeless magnet, which strikes me as an unjustified criticism as it is a public space after all. I first went down to see it on a bright sunny day and it did seem a bit inhospitable as it is primarily a bright swath of concrete, but I returned at night and found it much more inviting. I’ve decided that I like it: the swings, the topographical “maps”, and particularly the lighting around the perimeter.

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As you can see, it’s built for movement (and sound), to be a happening place rather than a tranquil one, so when things start happening we will see how the space works. We have been invited to name the new park but restricted in our choices: South River Park, Charlotte Forten Park, Nathaniel Bowditch Park, 289 Derby, Naumkeag Park. While I’d love to see something in Salem named after Charlotte Forten, the first African-American teacher in the Salem Public Schools and a graduate of Salem State, this is not the place: I can’t see how it has anything to do with her, spatially, thematically, or aesthetically. Same with Bowditch; the other names are bland and generic. Because this is a playful place, I propose moving the dreadful Samantha statue from Town House Square (where she does not belong) to this new park and naming it Bewitched Park. People seems to think that a few days of shooting that show on location here in 1970 somehow saved Salem by enabling it to realize its full potential as Witch City, so naming rights seem in order.


There is Light

A large part of the frustration many in Salem felt at the removal of Salem’s archival heritage contained in the collections of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library in 2017 was due to the fact that so little of these materials had been digitized: a tiny fraction, with no guarantees of more to come. I do think it was surprising to many just how far behind comparable institutions the PEM was in the process of increasing access to its collections, and this vulnerability certainly made it easy for nattering nabobs like me to criticize their complete, non-compensated removal. But a few months ago we began to hear of some major digitization initiatives, and yesterday was a truly joyous day, as the PEM uploaded its newly-digitized collection of glass plate negatives by the Salem photographer Frank Cousins (1851-1925) to the Digital Commonwealth site, enabling access to thousands of historic images of streets, houses, objects and people in Salem and other towns and cities from c. 1890-1920, just like that. I’ve been waiting for these images for a decade, browsing the printed catalog of negatives regularly, knowing exactly what was there, and what I could not see, what we all could not see. And then suddenly we could.

Cousins TeamThe Frank Cousins “Team”/ Employees’ carriage in the Columbus Day parade in Salem, 1892, Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum: Frank Cousins Collection of Glass Plate Negatives via Digital Commonwealth.

It was a little overwhelming going through these images, which include several cities (lots of Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and quite a few New England towns—Cousins was a publisher of both books and photographs with his own art company as well as his retail store, the Bee-Hive, on Essex Street, and he was also an early preservation consultant), but of course I was only interested in the Salem images. Oddly, I became a bit……anxious, even tearful, going through them, both because it was so amazing to see structures and streets I had only imagined, and then I realized what we had lost: both to the Great Salem Fire of 1914 (on this very day!) and later “redevelopment”. My friend, former student, and fellow blogger Jen Ratliff, a fierce archivist who is just as invested in all of this as I am, was a bit overwhelmed as well, so we decided to conduct a little cross-blogging experiment so that we could focus: we each chose our top ten Cousins images and are linking to each other’s posts: so you (and I!) can see her picks at History by the SeaI’m very curious to see if we have some common choices–or completely divergent ones! [update: they are totally different]

So here are my top ten Frank Cousins images from the Phillips Library Collection of his glass plate negatives, accessed through Digital Commonwealth (I’m not counting the Cousins Team above, that’s a freebie):

One. Lost houses and a lost street, named after a lost creek, with a lost church (the South Church on Chestnut Street, which burned down in 1903) in the background:  Creek Street, c. 1890.

Cousins_00461 Creek Street

 

Two. Norman Street, a street which has been obliterated by redevelopment and traffic—what is left of it is still being obliterated by the latter now. This is an astonishing image if you are familiar with the present-day Norman Street.

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Three. The amazing Doyle House at 33 Summer Street, right next to Samuel McIntire’s house, both destroyed for the horrible Holyoke Mutual Building that was built in the 1930s and still stands on the block that extends from Norman to Gedney along Summer Streets. Look at how many additions this house had! Love the plank walks and garden layout too.

Cousins_02453 33 Summer Street

 

Four. The Pease and Price Bakery at 13 High Street, which was destroyed by fire on June 25, 1914, along with over 1300 other structures. This marks an important fire boundary—all the structures on the other side of High Street were saved: it’s very apparent when you walk down this street today.

Cousins_00463 13 High Street Pease and Price Bakery

 

Five. Photographs of lower Federal Street are hard to find: love these houses at 13-15, long gone. Their site is a parking lot now, of course.

Cousins 13 Federal

 

Six. A storefront window of Cousins’ own shop, the Bee-Hive, on Essex Street. I zoomed in a bit (this is another freebie, not #7!) so you could see what was for sale: shirtwaists and more, the Great Sale of Ladies Cotton! The Essex House, also long-gone, was right next door.

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Seven. A Jacobean Monk table and chair. (plus unidentified man). Cousins photographed the collections of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum as well: for the former, furniture was dragged out to the street where I presume there was better light. I love all of these “posing furniture” shots.

Cousins_03011 Jacobean Monk Table and Chair

 

Eight. 51 Boston Street, “The Senate”. The people, the signs, the cobblestone streets……another lost building, this time to the Fire, as it was situated just about at the center of its outbreak.

Cousins_01258 51 Boston Street the Senate

 

Nine. The Clifford Crowninshield House on lower Essex Street (on the left)–my only survivor among these images! This house has been a favorite of mine for quite some time, and it’s a bit run-down, so it’s nice to see it in better condition. I knew there must have been a window in that center entrance gable!

Cousins_00147 Clifford Crowninshield House

 

Ten. Laying the cornerstone for St. James Church on Federal Street, August 31, 1892. Just a great shot: Cousins was more of a documentarian than an artistic photographer but this image has both qualities.

Cousins St. James Church laying cornerstone

 

It was very tough to limit my choices to ten, but I’m sure more photographs from this amazing and now-accessible collection will work their way into my blog in the future: now go over to Jen’s blog for her picks!

Update: Now we also have the top ten Cousins picks of another friend, former student, and fellow Salem blogger, Alyssa Conary.


Portuguese Pavement

Like everyone else in the world, I admire Portuguese sidewalks, paved in mosaic patterns of polished white and black limestone, hand-cut and hand-laid: calçada Portuguesa is definitely an important part of Lisbon’s municipal identity, with a bronze installation of two pavers (calceteiros) at work situated in one of its central squares. We had great weather last week, but I’ve been on these sidewalks in the rain before, and I know that they are definitely slippery when wet. Consequently they have their critics, but I think the more serious threat to their continuing existence comes from the production side, as low wages, arduous work, and long hours have diminished the number of calceteiros working in Lisbon in recent decades. One article asserts that there are a mere ten pavers in Lisbon today, compared with 400 in the eighteenth century. I saw several pavers working while I was there, and they looked just like this bronze pair below: craftsmanship from time immemorial, still very evident along the streets of Lisbon.

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Even the beautiful store Vista Alegre was inspired enough by Portuguese sidewalks to design and produce an entire line of dinnerware with some traditional motifs: just stunning. It was hard to resist these plates but I was worried about breakage: and now I see I can buy them here!

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City of Seven Hills

I’m just back from a wonderful vacation to Lisbon during which I took hundreds of photographs, so advance warning to those who are more interested in local history and culture: this is definitely going to be a “streets of Lisbon” week! I’ve been to Portugal several times before, but my last visit was quite a while ago, and I never spent more than a few days in the capital so there were many discoveries: plus Lisbon is incredibly photogenic as it is so full of texture and color. I walked everywhere so I could capture every little detail, only popping on a yellow tram near the end of a long day when I was looking up at yet another hill (there are seven, just like Rome) which had something I had to see at its top. We had wonderful weather, and Lisbon appeared very bright and shiny, with its multichromatic buildings, both tiled and color-washed, contrasting with its black and white sidewalks and squares. Yellow popped out particularly, not just on the trams but also on private and public buildings and even the cranes which hovered over sections of the city. Like so many other cities, Lisbon appears to be having a building boom, encompassing both the construction of new structures and the “renewal” of others. It’s a city that has always embraced the new and cherished the old in a particularly effective way, certainly since the devastating earthquake of 1755 and no doubt well before, as it is an ancient settlement. I’ve got my favorite photos from the trip today, and my next posts will focus on the sidewalks and shops of Lisbon, then I’ll get back to some Salem stuff (though I think I have enough photos to feature Lisbon for some time).

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Yellow Lisbon 2The arch of the Praça do Comércio, the Square of Commerce, is the proper entry to Lisbon, from the sea, but it’s a nineteenth-century construction after the rebuilding of the square following the earthquake of 1755. A great mural in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga shows the pre-1755 square. The Church of The Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, the ruins of the Cormo Convent (another memorial to the losses of 1755), the interior of Lisbon Cathedral, just another beautiful church square, and a quote by the 18th century Jesuit father Antonio Vieira “Para nascer, Portugal. Para morrer, o mundo” testifying to the still-evident Portuguese pride in its global reach.

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Yellow Lisbon Castle

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Yellow City 3I’m trying to show the integration and proximity of new and old with these pictures, which include several streetscapes, views from the Castelo de S. Jorge, the Church of São Vicente of Fora, and a shot of the botanical garden, but they also present a lot of yellow, a very conspicuous color in Lisbon.

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Yellow Lisbon CarriageBelem: site of the iconic Manueline Jerónimos Monastery and Belem Tower + tarts and the maritime history and coach museums, and a very strident 20th-century monument to the discoveries. 

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PharmacyMuseums:  so many! History museums and museums of every conceivable form of art: “ancient” (pre-1850), modern, decorative, TILES, marionettes. The famous Gulbenkian collection and several less well-known house museums: I was blown away by the CasaMuseu Medeiros e Almeida in particular. I have a new appreciation for Portuguese artists of the Renaissance (Gregório Lopes in particular: look at that Martyrdom of St. Sebastian). And I couldn’t leave without visiting the Museu da Farmácia, of course. 


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