Tag Archives: urban planning

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 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. 


Blank Buildings

Periods and events of the past are generally identified after they are over: history is about remembrance, and imposing order and meaning on what has happened. There’s no better way to convey this essential point than to reference wars: obviously people in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Seven Years’ War had no sense that these were the historic events in which they were participating or enduring! Often historical and cultural eras overlap, and that means that styles are identified well after their expression: medieval, colonial, Victorian. But there are also cultural descriptions detached from precise historical periods: Gothic and Palladian come to mind but I suppose any “revival” style could fall into this category. This long preamble is just my mind wondering how people of the future will categorize Salem’s current architectural style: in a city long identified by its architecture, how will the buildings of the early 21st century be branded? I think we are turning a corner with the latest downtown building slated for construction—a condominium development on the site of the District Courthouse on Washington Street–but I’m not sure where this turn will take us.

Blank Architecture 1 Coming Soon on Washington Street via Building Salem.

The style–or perhaps I should say form–of this rendering is familiar: similar buildings have been built in the last decade on Federal and Lafayette Streets. But what is it? I am architecturally naive, but it looks like a Prairie-esque type design on steroids, shorn of craftsmanship and charm. I’ve often heard Frank Lloyd Wright characterized as the most influential architect of the last century, both for better and for worse. All I see when I look at these buildings are the shallow or flat roofs with their overhanging eaves, sometimes slanted and sometimes straight, and their bulk. They look vaguely Italianate, vaguely “Mediterranean”, vaguely Prairie, and like they could belong anywhere and everywhere, and as more of them are built in Salem, Salem becomes less and less Salem-esque.

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Blank Architecture 5Ten Federal and 135 Lafayette; I think this “style” started with the Ruane Judicial Center nearly a decade ago, on the far right: it is very bulky with a conspicuous overhang. The panorama of courthouses on Federal Street makes quite a statement!

My title is a double entendre: I really don’t know what this architectural style is called or what architectural era we are in so I am inviting readers to fill in the blank______, but I also think that this architecture is blank: empty, soulless, devoid of any connection to its surroundings. We could do so much better; inspiration is all around us. A building in Lynn caught my eye just as I was driving back from the airport this morning: it features some of the very details that characterize these stark buildings in Salem but is clearly a composition rather than just a composite. It has texture, ornamentation, depth, craftsmanship: its builders were obviously proud to cast their mark on it, and mark its time, as it was built to last.

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Blank Architecture 8The Loraine Apartment Building in Lynn’s Diamond District, designed by architect Samuel Rogers.


Wooden Houses on Beacon Hill

I had two appointments in Boston yesterday, but I parked my car in a spot that was rather inconvenient to both just so I could go over the hill: Beacon Hill, one of the few neighborhoods in which all the variant architectural styles of the nineteenth century coalesce into a completely harmonious quarter. Victorian exuberance was definitely restrained–to rooflines for the most part–for the greater good, and the Federal and Greek Revival aesthetic appears to have lingered and evolved rather seamlessly into the Colonial Revival. Brick is it on Beacon Hill, so it’s the wooden houses that really stand out: I snapped a few on my way over the hill to one appointment and back to another, but I was a bit pressed for time so I certainly didn’t capture them all. I always stop at one of my favorite Beacon Hill houses, which is also the oldest house in the neighborhood: the George Middleton House at 5 Pinckney Street, built in 1786-87. Distinguished by his service in the American Revolution as well as his roles as founder of the African Benevolent Society and Grand Master of the Prince Hall African Lodge of Freemasons, George Middleton is an important figure in Boston’s African-American history, just as Beacon Hill is an important locale: the Black Heritage Trail links his house to other important historical sites such as the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School. The Middleton house and One Pinckney Street, just two doors down, form a perfect little corner of Beacon Hill’s earliest built history on its North Slope.

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Even though wooden houses are few and far in between on Beacon Hill, there are quite a few houses in which one or more part is clapboarded: a front facade or a side wall, or some “dependent” part. My favorite example of this is the amazing John Callender House on the corner of Walnut and Mount Vernon Streets, built in 1802 as a “small house for little money” according to Allen Chamberlain’s Beacon Hill: its Ancient Pastures and Early Mansions (1925—a really great book) and the long-term home of Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick a century later: every source refers to its conspicuous “boarding” along Mount Vernon Street as unusual for Beacon Hill. And then there are those bay windows made of wood, some very conspicuous and not quite so-understated: Beacon Hill was home to a vibrant artistic community in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and some homeowners obviously wanted to bust out a bit.

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beacon hill collage 14 Walnut Street historic photographs from Historic New England, Allen Chamberlain’s Beacon Hill, MACRIS, the City of Boston’s Archives, and the Boston Public Library.


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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.


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