Tag Archives: urban planning

Signs, Signs, everywhere a Sign

This summer I have given several thematic walking tours around Salem to various groups and have found myself looking at the city as a tourist might. One gets the impression of a very busy place, not just in terms of activities and traffic on the streets (which are nearly all torn up!) but also because of superfluous signage: I think Salem has a mild case of sign pollution. Recent efforts to streamline and standardize signs have resulted in some very nice “official” signs throughout the city, but many of the older signs from a more haphazard era still remain, and then we have the customary cases of Witch City exemptions. Here is a great illustration of what I mean: I took this photograph, but it was 100% inspired by a Salem Instagrammer who often captures interesting perspectives.

sign 2

A mixture of private and public signs on one Salem corner, and on one Salem street sign!

Attempts at sign conformity, emphasizing both information and aesthetics,are represented by the “Great Stories Begin Here” banner signs scattered throughout the city–which enable advertising through sponsorship–and the official signs which direct visitors to established heritage locations and neighborhoods.I think these stand out for the most part, except at certain locations where there are simply too many signs in close proximity.

Sign 8

sign

Sign 7

The worst cases of sign pollution by far are when public street signs have signs for private institutions affixed to them, as in the first photograph above. What are the signs for the Salem Witch Dungeon (which again, for the 99th time, I feel compelled to point out is not situated on the actual location of the former Witch “Dungeon” or jail) and the Gallows Hill Museum/Theatre (which is neither located on Gallows Hill or a “museum” or fully-functioning theatre) doing on public street sign? This is the Witch City exemption of which I spoke above: apparently witch “attractions” are allowed to affix their signs anywhere.

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A lot of information here, but we always know that all of the streets of Salem lead to the Salem Witch Museum!

Apart from these unfortunate mishmashes, there are quite a few notable business signs in Salem, which is perhaps a topic for another post. But I’ll leave you with my favorite old and (relatively) new signs, for Bunghole Liquors on Derby Street and Turner’s Seafood on Church Street. The Bunghole sign reminds me of days gone by, when a sign was the only way for businesses to draw businesses in, and subtlety was not an option.

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Witch City Vulcanizing Company 1917 SSU

Bunghole and Turner’s Seafood signs in Salem today, and the Witch City Vulcanizing Company on lower Lafayette in 1917, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.


24 Hours in Richmond

Just back from an abbreviated visit to Richmond, Virginia for a family event: shortened by the wild weather down there which grounded us in Boston on the evening of our departure. So everything was compressed: family time, touring time, time in our amazing hotel, The Jefferson, a monumental Italianate (its style is described alternatively as “Spanish Baroque” and eclectic; it seemed Italianate to me) palace in the heart of the city. Designed by the well-known architectural firm Carrere and Hastings, it opened in 1895 with all the modern conveniences, including complete electrical, heating, and plumbing systems for all of its 324 rooms, service telephones, and elaborate lobbies for both ladies and gentlemen. Alligators roamed these lobbies as late as 1948. The Jefferson is nearing completion of an extensive renovation: there was still scaffolding in the gentlemen’s lobby but our room was lavishly luxurious. I was particularly impressed by its scale and furnishings; while my husband was wowed by the television embedded in the bathroom mirror! I ran around and took pictures in my limited time, and then spilled out into the neighborhood the following morning: very early, before it got too hot.

Richmond Lobby

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Jefferson Collage

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Richmond 31 Main St Entrance

The Jefferson Hotel, Richmond: main lobby with statue of Thomas Jefferson by Edward V. Valentine and lobby ceiling; the gentlemen’s lobby from two perspectives; memorabilia; Franklin Street entrance day and night with alligator statue; Main Street entrance to the gentlemen’s lobby. 

Snapshots which comprise a literal snapshot of one small section of Richmond are below: historic preservation is definitely a priority, but I also got the impression from my quick tour of downtown that the city is open to more modern structures as well. Preserved row houses in that soft brown Virginia brick co-exist with more colorful and stark structures: I saw none of the boxy pastiches now plaguing Salem in this particular section of Richmond! I was also struck by how well Virginia Commonwealth University was integrated into the city: such a lost opportunity for Salem that Salem State is confined to a residential section into which it doesn’t quite fit. I’m really looking forward to returning to Richmond so that I can explore the designated historic districts…and more: I picked up a copy of Garden and Gun (a great magazine, but kind of an incongruous name, no?) to read on the plane ride home which featured an article on an ongoing community effort to rescue the overgrown African-American cemeteries of the city and now I must see these too.

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Richmond Collage

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Richmond Crozet House 1814

A short walk on a few streets of downtown Richmond on a hot July morning: LOVE these last two houses with their amazing entrances and windows: the latter one is the Crozet House, built in 1814.


More Harmonious Hamptons

There are no flourishes or deep dives in today’s post; I’m simply offering up some alternatives to the new Hampton Inn that will open in a dreadful building to be built at the southern end of Washington Street in Salem, in a thoroughly commercial zone. There’s no preservation issue here–this building will replace a rather dilapidated one-story commercial strip built in the twentieth century–but there are “suitability” questions, which the general public never seems to have the opportunity to weigh in on: of size, scale, use, design. This is the latest in a series of big boxy buildings built in downtown Salem that are transforming its architectural character in a rather alarming manner.

Hampton Inn Salem MA

Dodge Street Hotel Salem News 2014

Rendering and model of the recently-approved  five-story, 178,000-square- foot, $50 million-dollar building-complex to be built on an entire city block between Washington and Dodge Streets and Dodge Street Court in Salem, Salem News.

The Hampton Inn will comprise only part of this monstrous complex, which is being developed by RCG, a real estate development company headquartered in Somerville, MA which has an ever-increasing profile in Salem. The generically ghastly Tavern in the Square building (which everyone refers to as the TITS building), located just a few yards down Washington Street from the Hampton Inn site, is proudly posted on their corporate website, and indeed the first design for the latter looked very much like the former. Apparently it was “improved” in the planning and design review process, so it is “better” now, both “better” than what was there before and better than the original design. The potential economic benefits of this project are considerable, so its design is a secondary (tertiary? inconsequential?) consideration: it is “better” so it will be built. As I indicated above, the Hampton Inn is only one component of this project, but that is the component which can offer some comparisons, so I went searching for some. There’s been some criticism of a chain hotel coming to Salem, but I don’t share that view: I think we are losing out to the chains proximate to Route 128 if we don’t have something comparable in our city. But we don’t need to accept a standardized design: it seems clear to me that Hilton Worldwide will conform to local settings for their Hampton Inns (actually now I think they are called Hampton by Hilton) brand, but apparently setting is not a consideration in Salem.

A subjectively-selected showcase of urban Hampton Inns: first new construction, then adaptive reuse, which is not an option for the Salem site.

hampton-inn-suites-savannah

Hampton Inn Savannah Savannah

Hampton Inn Alex VA Alexandria, Virginia

hampton-inn-new-orleans-st-charles-ave-garden-district-hotel-front New Orleans/Garden District

Hampton Inn Baltimore Baltimore

Adaptive reuse:

Hampton Inn Providence downtown Providence

Hampton_by_Hilton_Kansas_City_Downtown_Financial_District_Exterior_HR Kansas City

Hampton Inn Ogden Ogden, Utah

Hampton Inn Cincinnatti Cincinnati


Rededicating Derby Square

Salem has quite a few intersections named “squares” but very few square squares. Its most conspicuous one is Derby Square, which was carved out of the growing city 200 years ago. This month’s Derby Square FLEA Salvage ART Market, coming up tomorrow, is marking the Square’s Bicentennial with a special theme and ribbon-cutting, and so I thought I’d examine this early example of urban planning in Salem. The basic background is well-known: John Derby III and Benjamin Pickman, Jr., scions of wealthy Salem families, business partners and brothers-in-law, offered the land on which the majestic and short-lived Derby Mansion formerly stood to the town of Salem in 1816 with the provision that a suitable civic building be built–civic in this context clearly implying both public and commercial functions. The city accepted the offer, and so the new Derby Square was developed over 1816-1817 with the new Town Hall/Market House at its center. It is clearly visible on Jonathan Saunders’ 1820 Plan of the town of Salem in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, from actual surveys, made in the years 1796 & 1804; with the improvements and alterations since that period as surveyed, marked as the #1 improvement and/or alteration to the town.

1820 Map of Salem BPL

Jonathan Peel Saunders, Plan of the town of Salem in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, from actual surveys, made in the years 1796 & 1804; with improvements and alterations since that period surveyed, 1820. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

In the tradition of both European cities from the late medieval period onward and urban centers in colonial America, the centerpiece of Derby Square was designed to be a combination town hall and market, with an open arcade on the ground floor and meeting space on the second. Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Old State House had similar dual–even multiple–functions, as had Salem’s first town hall, built in 1636. There does not seem to be agreement on just who was the architect of the new town hall, although Bulfinch is mentioned in some sources, but Joshua Upham built the structure at a cost of $12,000. The lower story opened in late fall of 1816 and the second story was “christened” by visiting President James Monroe on July 8, 1817. The new Town Hall served in that capacity for only 20 years, and became the Old Town Hall with the construction of the Greek Revival structure on Washington Street in 1837-38; thereafter it was principally known as the “Market House”. Derby and Pickman had a vision that extended beyond just one building however, however: they determined the structure, scale, and composition of Derby Square by building several buildings surrounding Old Town Hall themselves and selling adjacent lots with deed restrictions specifying brick or stone construction. This was waterfront property in the early eighteenth century, and Derby and Pickman also donated a way to the water to the town of Salem with the condition that it remain a fish market in perpetuity: the “Derby Deed” lost some of its restrictive strength over the years, resulting in a Salem Marketplace that offers more than fish.

There are a lot of images of Derby Square out there, so I went to the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections to see if I could find some views that were a bit more fresh. Among the stereoviews, ephemera, and pamphlets of the Dionne collection I was able to find quite a few Derby Square-related materials–if I had more time to spend in the victualler records, I doubtless could have found much more. Clearly Market Square/Derby Square operated as a seasonal and regional food market over much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, just as it does now on the summer Thursdays of the Salem Farmers’ Market.

Derby Square Stereo Procter Crop

Derby Square Winter Procter

Derby Square Stereo Moulton

Derby Square Stereoview Moulton crop

Two G.K Procter stereoviews of Derby or Market Square, summer and winter (cropped in half), c. 1861-1882; and two stereoviews of the Square by J.W. and J.S. Moulton Photographers of Salem, who operated from 1873-1881, all from Nelson Dionne Collection of Salem Images at Salem State University Archives and Special Collections. Below: a few billheads, also from the Dionne collection, which represent the dominance of the victualling trade in the Market and the inconsistent use of “Derby Square” and “Market Square”.

Derby Square Billhead

Derby Square billhead 1885

And from a private collection, here is an undated photograph of the Square which is quite unusual in its relative emptiness–it was among some Frank Cousins photographs so it could be one of his, but I just don’t know. In any case, I love it!

Derby Square nd

How has Derby Square fared in the age of the automobile? The visual evidence indicates that its integrity was challenged in the third quarter of the twentieth century, given its location in the center of the urban renewal storm. Yet this same (central) location, combined with its classical design and steadfast (central) function, determined that it would not only survive but also stand as a symbol of Salem’s revived prosperity.

Derby Square 1960s SSU

Derby Square Salem Marketplace SSU

Derby Square and Salem Marketplace in the 1960s and 1970s: how horrified John Derby III and Benjamin Pickman Jr., would have been by the Budweiser sign! Below: more sentimental views from early and late twentieth-century postcards.

Derby Square PC SSU2

Derby Square PC 1913 SSU

Derby Square PC Higginson SSU

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Salem in the 1770s

For this year’s July Fourth commemoration, I have gathered some Salem structures built in the 1770s so we can see some semblance of the city during that revolutionary decade. Salem has quite a few extant colonial structures, but not as many as you would imagine: it has long been a city, and also a relatively prosperous place, and economic development is a major impediment to historic preservation. I try to qualify every statement that I make about Salem’s history with the caveat I am not an American historian, but my constant consideration of the city’s built landscape has convinced me that the narrative that Salem entered a prolonged period of economic decline following the War of 1812 is mythology: many, many structures were built after 1820, after 1850, after 1870. Salem is more of a later nineteenth-century city than a Federal one, though its Federal architecture remains conspicuous. As for its colonial architecture, it seems to me that there are more structures from the mid-eighteenth century rather than the later part of the century, though there was definitely a mini-boom in the 1790s. Colonial houses are found on Salem’s side streets rather than its main thoroughfares, though Essex Street, Salem’s original “highway”, features several: it is definitely the most historically diverse street in the city. There are many colonial houses in the streets around Derby Street, a neighborhood that does not have the status or the protection of an historic district, consequently debacles like this can and will happen. I found quite a few houses from the decade of the 1770s thought nothing that was built in 1773 or 1778, and no structure survives from that very busy year of 1776 either, though there was definitely one big construction project that year: Fort Lee.

1770: Federal and Turner Streets.

1770 River Street

1770 Hardy Street

1771: Federal, Summer & Turner Streets.

1771 Federal Street

1771 Summer

Turner Street

1771 Turner Street

1772: Derby Street

1772 Derby Street

1772 Derby Street 2

1774: Broad Street

1774 Broad Street

1775: Cambridge Street

1775 Cambridge

1776: Fort Lee on Salem Neck

Fort Lee

1777: Essex and River Streets

1777 Essex

1777 River

1779: Turner and Beckford Streets

1779 Turner Street

1779 Beckford

By no means an exhaustive list!


Fossil Factories

For me, the most haunted place in Salem is not a cemetery or anything to do with the Witch Trials (though it is quite near Harmony Grove Cemetery and Gallows Hill): it is Blubber Hollow, a site of intensive manufacturing and industrial activities from the seventeenth century until the later twentieth. The center of Salem’s bustling leather industry in the later nineteenth century, this was where the Great Salem Fire started in June of 1914, in a factory producing patent leather shows on the site of the present-day Walgreens on Boston Street (behind which is is Proctor’s Ledge, now confirmed as the execution site of the victims of 1692). Its name indicates that it was also associated with the production of whale oil, but for me it always conjures up an image of frenzied commercial activity, candles burning at both ends or oil lamps burning all night. No longer: those factories that survived the 1914 fire, or were built after, are empty for the most part, and coming down soon, as Blubber Hollow transitions from ghost town into residential neighborhood: one large apartment building has already been built and there are more to come. As you walk down Grove Street towards Goodhue, past the still-busy Moose Lodge and marijuana dispensary, the sense of imminent transformation is palpable but ghosts are still present.

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Urban Archaeology 2

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Relic smokestack.

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North River Canal

Texture at one of the former Salem Oil and Grease buildings, and the North River Canal.

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No one will be sorry to see Flynntan go.

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Blubber Hollow Hose House

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Past and Future: Blubber Hollow in its heyday and “Hose House” No. 4 in its midst, from Fred A. Gannon’s Old Salem Scrapbook, #6 (1900); North River Luxury Apartmentst @ 28 Goodhue Street.


Trees for Lafayette

This is not to complain–I know lots of good Salem people are working on this–but rather to offer some perspective: Salem’s grand boulevard Lafayette Street needs some trees (and some love). This is the route on which I walk to work nearly every day, and I crave the protective canopy it once had. I’m also tired of picking up trash, and hoping that the commitment to the future that tree plantings represent would also instill a bit more stewardship for this once-grand street. Lafayette Street was laid out a bit later than the rest of Salem: over the course of the nineteenth century following the erection of a bridge to Marblehead and the partition of the vast farm of Ezekiel Hersey Derby. The earliest photographs I have seen are from the 1870s: they show a boulevard of mansions, and trees: elms of course, but also other varieties. We have very precise dating for the planting of the elms of upper Lafayette Street from a wonderful book, John Robinson’s Our Trees. A Popular Account of the Trees in the Streets and Gardens of Salem, and of the Native Trees of Essex County, Massachusetts, with the Locations of Trees, and Historical and Botanical Notes (1891):  It has been said that the trees on the upper portion of Lafayette Street were planted within the line of the Derby estate, on account of some opposition to placing them in the street itself. The street was laid out in its present magnificent width at the suggestion of Mr. E. Hersey Derby in 1808. Mr. David Waters informs me that his father, but a short time before his death, while passing these trees, said that when a boy he was called by Mr. Derby to assist at planting them, holding the samplings while the workers filled the earth in about them. Mr. Waters, Senior, was born in 1796 and would have been twelve years of age when the street was laid out. The date of the planting of these elms, thus corroborated, may, therefore, safely be placed at 1808. In addition to a few images of the entire tree-lined street, we also have several photographs of the “wooded estates and pleasure gardens” (a phrase from an 1873 guidebook to greater Boston) of Lafayette Street before the Great Salem Fire of 1914. When you compare these lush images with those taken in the days after the Fire, it’s painful.

Lafayette_Street,_Salem,_MA 1910

Lafayette Street Cousins cropped 1891

Lafayette Street Cousins Derby Mansion 1891

Lafayette Houses Collage

Lafayette Church 1880s

Shades of pre-fire Lafayette Street: a very popular postcard c. 1910; Frank Cousins’ photographs of the very verdant street (1876) and the Old Derby Mansion (1891), demolished in 1898, Duke University Library; Gothic Revival and Victorian houses on upper Lafayette, still standing, while the McIntire-designed Josiah Dow House (built 1809) in the lower-right hand corner is gone (Smithsonian Institution collections and Cornell University Library); rendering for the Lafayette Street Methodist Church, American Architecture and Building News, 1884.

The Fire laid waste to half of the street (from Derby to Holly and Leach Streets), and later on many of the surviving mansions of the other half–rather massive Victorians, Queen Annes, and Italianates–became subdivided and commercialized. After the replacement of some of these structures by some truly terrible mid-century apartment buildings, the Lafayette Street Historic District was created in 1985. Trees will really help Lafayette Street, but other challenges remain: chiefly the constant traffic which seems to grow worse and worse with every passing year and the incremental though persistent expansion of Salem State University (my employer) at its upper end. Students and staff have turned this end of Lafayette into one big parking lot, a trend that has not been mediated by the construction of a large campus parking lot in my estimation. I think a new South Salem train stop would help with the parking, but I’m not sure about the traffic: I watch it every day on my way to and from work and the majority of it does not seem to be university-related: this is also the only route to Marblehead, after all.

Traffic is tough, but more trees will shield and shade Lafayette Streets residents…and walkers. And as I said at the top, there are plans for more trees, and better maintenance of existing trees, throughout Salem. Just last week the City Council formed the Leaf-oriented Resiliency and Arboricultural Expansion Taskforce with its associated acronym, LORAX, for just that purpose (yes, you read that correctly: LORAX). The plans for the major new development at the corner of Lafayette and Loring Streets also have lots of provisions for trees. I’m not really a fan of the new building (which will totally dominate the view from my office) but I’m really happy to see plans for all these new trees, including some disease-resistant elms (there is one Elm still alive on Lafayette–I think? See below!)

Lafayette Street 1908 Final

Lafayette today

Lafayette after the Fire pc

Lafayette 1917 SRCR Final

Lafayette Tree

Upper Lafayette in 1908 and today; the 1914 fire was so devastating, in so many ways, and all of the reports reference the lost trees almost as much as the lost buildings: the Rebuilding Commission Report specified many trees–some of which are visible in the 1917 photograph above: if trees were a priority then, they should be a priority now! Lafayette’s surviving Elm, near the corner of Fairfield Street.


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