I adore the venerable and very traditional British magazine Country Life, which has been showcasing stately homes, lush gardens, and rural pursuits since 1897. I’ve had indulgent subscriptions and purchased my share of back issues: there can never be enough manors, fields, and drawing rooms for me! Despite my obsession, I had no idea that Country Life featured Salem in a 1972 issue with Salisbury Cathedral on the cover until just last week, and as soon as I saw the table of contents I searched for a copy and snapped it up. The timing is interesting to me: 1972, as Salem’s long struggle with urban renewal was coming to a close, or at least one phase. Of course, the editors at Country Living were not at all interested in anything new: they were seeking what survived.
The article is interesting and the photographs are great—but rather dated: they had been published by Samuel Chamberlain in several publications prior. Perhaps British readers would not have seen his New England views before but they might have appreciated Salem in color! The author, Helen Hall, observes that “the architectural richness of Salem is not so immediately apparent as it is in Deerfield or Marblehead,” so I assume this article is part of a series. She is not very complimentary about most of the city, actually, noting that “you are not especially aware of being in a town that was once so dependent on the sea for its existence” (I think you might be more aware of that now, but maybe not) and that certain parts “give the impression of never really having recovered from the decline of the Depression years.” She does note the recent renewal but also that “the results so far have been negative, with extensive demolition of often potentially restorable buildings, mostly in the central shopping district, creating blitz-like (!!!!!!) spaces that have become, inevitably, parking lots.” But she does love the Essex Institute and its houses, the Custom and Derby houses of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the Common, and Chestnut Street. The latter is still elm-lined when she visited, and while she finds American elms “much more graceful” than their European counterparts, they also hindered her views of the houses.
Samuel Chamberlain photographs of Salem in the August 31, 1972 edition of CountryLife.
Salem is currently in the midst of implementing another urban renewal plan under the supervision of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA), the board that was created by the city’s first urban renewal plan in the 1960s. The story of the implementation of that plan is a pretty established narrative: over-ambitious SRA orders destruction of much of downtown and advocates for the construction of a highway into central Salem to increase access for shoppers lured away by the North Shore Shopping Center in Peabody until concerned citizens’ protests and the New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable’s extremely influential article brought national attention to the imminent destruction of Old Salem, shifting “renewal” towards redevelopment and preservation. Well, obviously I’m simplifying a much more complex process with many players: I’m starting to go through some of the sources which documented this process so I can understand it a bit better. I thought I would start with the early 1960s vision, as expressed by a series of reports issued by Blair and Stein Associates of Providence, RI, a planning firm hired by the City. Blair and Stein supposedly produced seven reports for the Salem Planning Board: I have found only three so far and the “Central Business District” report the most interesting: Salem, Massachusetts : central business district / prepared by Blair and Stein Associates in cooperation with the Salem Planning Board and the Massachusetts Department of Commerce (1962).
This study and its recommendations was not as focused on “tear it all down” as I expected: there are definitely recommendations for clearances, but also for preservation. Blair & Stein believed that the North Shore shopper, who is always referred to as “she,” could be lured back to downtown Salem if “blight” was cleared away and access improved. There are many references to urban blight, which was perceived as both decay and the reign of “inappropriate” facades and signs: after those were removed the state and fate of the stripped building should be considered. Because the emphasis is on renewing Salem’s shopping district above all, parking is very important, as is the overall design of pedestrian avenues around the downtown. Thus they gave us a pedestrian mall on Essex Street, Salem’s main street, but also on secondary routes leading into it. Salem would become an outdoor mall, with a mix of old restored buildings and new complementary structures: complementary not “imitative,” which is what I think most people would like to see now. It’s just annoying when advocates of sub-standard new construction accuse anyone who argues for higher standards of trying to turn Salem into a faux Federal city: I like the language below emphasizing scale, texture, character and “spirit” of new construction and did not expect to find it in a document of this nature and vintage.
Interesting spelling of “aesthetic” but these are goals I wish we were shooting for now!
Apart from the concerns about blight, parking and aesthetics, the major difference between this plan and the current one relates to housing: Blair and Stein envisioned a distinct shopping and cultural district and did not advocate for the expansion of residential buildings downtown, while that is a major planning goal at present. While they referenced tourism, they clearly saw it through a regional focus rather than a national one, and they don’t even mention Halloween. Salem would be a city of day trippers and day shoppers, returned to regional hub status.
Deed restrictions prevented all that planned Front Street parking, and inspired Artists’ Row, here pictured in 1978, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.
The schematic sketches are just that, clean and orderly, and now I am seeking the specifics of how this rather vague plan turned into the scary plan of action recorded in the Boston Regional Office of HUD several years later: The Heritage Plaza East project advanced from the planning stage to the execution stage in February 1968. About 40 structures in the area will be rehabilitated, 140 will be razed, and 75 families will be relocated in the process of clearing the area. CLEARED OUT. The records of the SRA, which for some reason are deposited in the Phillips Library, will certainly shed light on the “progress” from planning to execution.
Appendix: Historic Salem, Inc. has prepared a “Citizens Guide to the Downtown Renewal Plan” for those who wish to engage with its implementation, available here.
Norman Street was and is an important thoroughfare in Salem, one of the major connections from the major route north to the center of the city, and ultimately the harbor. The street was charming in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with substantial houses lining its brick sidewalks and TREES. Two of my favorite Salem Georgians were on Norman, the Jonathan Mansfield House and the Benjamin Cox House: details of the former show up in all sorts of early American architecture books in the first few decades of the twentieth century.
Norman Street in the later nineteenth century (1880s-1890s), Phillips Library, Peabody
Norman Street was essentially annihilated in the twentieth century: its charming houses demolished and replaced by generic business boxes, its width expanded for automobiles, its trees left to die. I can’t think of a street in Salem so utterly transformed. Its bleakness is all the more apparent by the fact that it’s basically an extension of mansion-lined Chestnut Street, so the contrast is striking: I sigh with relief when I pass over Summer Street and everything gets greener and more friendly. All the twentieth-century forces aligned to kill this street: a big public works project (the Post Office), the car, of course, and the worst architectural eras of the century, the 1930s and the 1970s-1980s. There are three crosswalks, but cars whip around the corner onto Norman so you have to be a rather audacious pedestrian to think about using them. The street is so bleak it can only be improved, but the one vacant lot now set for redevelopment is in a particularly conspicuous spot: on a corner, between two historic districts, and between a residential district and the beginning of the commercial downtown: this project has the potential to CONNECT so many constituent parts of Salem, and restore some structure (and dignity) to Norman Street at the same time. I have high hopes and great expectations, and I really hope the permitting boards of Salem do too.
So let me show you the current lot and the prospective building: I am taking these photos from the presentation that the developers (KinvarraCapital) and Architects (BalanceArchitects) gave to a neighborhood group last week, before they go before the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) next week. This presentation was very thorough in its consideration of all of the challenges and context of this site, I thought. You can see the whole thing for yourself here. Let me say that I don’t have really strong objections to this building: compared to recent construction in Salem, and to what defines Norman Street at present, it’s an improvement. But I think it could be better. And I REALLY think that it should prompt a city-wide discussion about design rather than just a neighborhood discussion about parking.
Existing conditions looking north (top) and east (bottom): Chestnut Street is right behind you in this second photo. The city has decided to put a roundabout at this busy intersection, but they haven’t really committed and it’s too small a space, so everyone just drives over that yellow circle.
Same vantage points as above with the rendering of the new building. The bottom image also show the recently-approved “suburban” addition to the adjacent Georgian house by the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA), the same board that has jurisdiction over new Norman Street building.
So you see, a challenging site. I don’t envy the architects: should they take their contextual cues from the adjacent 1980s plaza, or the Georgian with its (insert adjective; I have no words) addition, or the 1930s Holyoke building across the street or the Federal and Italianate buildings which open Chestnut Street? You know me, I’m a traditionalist and a historian: I’d like to restore something of what was Norman Street in its glory days, perhaps along the lines of the Julia Row in New Orleans, without the wrought iron. But you can’t really recreate that: it would look cheap with today’s materials, and it wouldn’t fit in with the twentieth-century buildings of Norman Street. It’s not the entire composition but rather the depth of façade and detail I’m after, and in this case I was particularly attracted to the parapet end wall: if integrated into a new building on Norman, it could match the one at 2-4 Chestnut Street, establishing continuity and connection.
Julia Row, New Orleans; Chestnut and Norman Streets in the 1880s, Salem Picturesque,State Library of Massachusetts.
The New Orleans building is also too big, as is the proposed Norman Street building. What you don’t see in these photographs is the Crombie Street Historic District tucked away in back, with smaller-scaled buildings than any of the other adjacent structures. I looked at some recent developments in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia in which new construction was integrated into existing historic neighborhoods and came up with a few favorites in terms of scale and also texture, which is missing in most of the new construction I see. The first is in Bay Village in Boston, a small historic neighborhood tucked away in the midst of downtown Boston. The scale and detail of of Piedmont Park Square is nice: it fits right into its quaint neighborhood on the storied site of the Cocoanut Grove, where a tragic fire occurred in 1942. The building “stitches” together townhouses—what could be more connective than that?
As I searched for semblances of things I’d like to see in this important new building, I was motivated by scale, detail, texture, integration, contextuality, and some sense of the past: the proposed rendering reads “industrial” to me, and Norman Street was never industrial, so I don’t understand the reference. I don’t think I found what I was looking for, but I really like the integration achieved by a recent infill development in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, below. Tucked in between an early 20th century mansion on the site of its fire-ravaged garage and a row of 19th-century townhouses, this structure fits in but still makes a statement with its variegated façade and roofline and so much texture! This seems like an even more difficult challenge than Norman Street. I like it, but my husband-the-architect does not and neither, apparently, do its neighbors. All architecture is paradoxical, but urban architecture particularly so: it is so very public, yet the public has so little power to influence what is built.
Renderings of 375 Stuyvesant Street, Brooklyn by DXAStudio.
I was researching Salem’s struggle with/against urban renewal in the 1960s when I came across a massive collection of photographs from the career collection of Edmund Bacon, the famous Philadelphia city planner who is sometimes referred to as representing a “third way” between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. I honestly don’t know if Bacon was a critic or a fan of urban renewal: his work looks a little plaza-centric to me. Apparently he captured urban renewal funds for the rehabilitation of Society Hill in Philadelphia, however, and that is certainly to his credit. The landscape architect who worked on Society Hill was another Philadelphian, John F. Collins, and when Bacon was brought in to consult on Salem’s redevelopment after some (not all) of the planned destruction through “renewal” was thwarted, he recommended Collins to implement the new Heritage Plaza East Plan in the 1970s. Collins’ efforts reshaped downtown Salem over the decade, and you can read (and see) more about them here. But back to Bacon (father of Kevin, by the way): after his retirement he turned all of his papers and photographs over to the Fisher Fine Arts Library of the University of Pennsylvania, which is currently digitizing and crowdsource-cataloguing them through a project called the Ed Bacon Photo Project: the photographs are an amazing window into twentieth-century urban planning, and include several scenes of Salem’s little Dig.
During and after: Derby Square is such an important center for downtown Salem, although I wish the City was as dedicated to the maintenance of all the hardscape features incorporated by Collins as Philadelphia has been with Society Hill. The Cultural Landscape Foundation notes that “Collins’ details–richly patterned brick sidewalks and walls, granite curbs and backless benches, alleys, street trees, site-specific light standards and bollards – combined with small courtyards and pocket parks peppered throughout the 120-acre neighborhood, unite the unique blend of historic and modern buildings and landscape features.” The space has served as the site of grocers’ and farmers’ markets for decades–until last year when Covid mandated another location with more space for social distancing: I hope it can return this year. And on quite another note, I’m sure everyone will be thrilled to hear that one of Salem’s key businesses, Vampfangs®, is expanding into Derby Square with “Maison Vampyre,” an “elegant and uniquely themed private space, located in the heart of Salem at One Derby Square. Guests are invited to experience personal or group psychic readings from members of the local Vampire community.”
I am of two minds when it comes to genealogy: the professional historian in me thinks it is a bit antiquarian and lacking in context, but the local historian in me is very grateful to genealogists past, especially those who produced major family histories around the turn of the twentieth century, complete with lots of photographs of the old manses built by first, second and third generations. The other day I was looking for something other than the sources missing from my almost-completed manuscript’s endnotes, in other words, procrastinating, and somehow I found myself in the midst of the very comprehensive Cabot family genealogy: HistoryandgenealogyoftheCabotfamily, 1475–1927 by L. Vernon Briggs. The Cabots are a famous Yankee family, primarily associated with Boston now I think, but like so many Brahmin families—they started out in Salem. Some branches stayed, but most left: for Beverly, for Brookline, and for Boston. Everywhere they went they built great houses, and some of their best houses were right here in Salem. Unfortunately, only one survives: the Cabot-Endicott-Low House on Essex Street. I had read about the others, but never seen them, and in this great old genealogy, there they were! The Cabots had it all: ships and land and great country and city houses, but I only had eyes for these Salem Georgians.
The first Cabot house in Salem, built in John Cabot in 1708 at what is now 293 Essex Street; demolished in 1878: this is a great photo because you can see how commercial architecture imposed on Salem’s first great mansions on its main street.
Moved to Danvers! No time to run over there and see if it is still standing right now, but will update when I know.
Oh my goodness look at this Beverly jog! Built by second-generation Dr. John Cabot in 1739. Church Street was destroyed by urban renewal and is a shadow of its former self.
A familiar corner at the 299 Essex Street and North Streets: this Cabot house was built in 1768 by Francis Cabot and later occupied by Jonathan Haraden.
Survived! The Cabot-Endicott-Low House was built in 1744 by merchant Joseph Cabot and remains one of Salem’s most impressive houses. Its rear garden used to extend to Chestnut Street, and crowds would form every Spring to gaze upon it.
I’ve been rather depressed about the state of historic preservation in Salem: after a strong commitment in response to full scale urban renewal in the 1960s and early 1970s we seem to be awash in a sea of vinyl siding and shed dormers. I’m not sure what happened exactly, although rising property values and the corresponding desire of developers to cram as many units as possible into old structures, thereby transforming their architectural profile beyond all recognition, likely has something to do with it. But history always brings perspective, and in recognition of both this Centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage, my own #SalemSuffrageSaturday series, and the Preservation Month of May, I am focusing on seven women who really made an impact on the recognition, and preservation, of Salem’s material heritage. These women faced far greater obstacles than I am seeing now, and they should be celebrated. This post is partly repetitive, as I’ve featured several of these women before, but there are some new heroines as well, at least new to me.
In chronological order:
Caroline Emmerton (1866-1942): the founder of the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association, and a founding member of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). Much has been written about Caroline Emmerton (especially as she was a rather mysterious woman), so I don’t have too much to add here, but she deserves recognition not only for reconstructing and creating the House of the Seven Gables and its campus, but also reorienting Salem’s—and the nation’s—appreciation of its first-period past. The House of the Seven Gables, and Emmerton’s vision of her native city, remains a strong counterweight to the commercial cacophony of Witch City. Emmerton seems like a rather “creative” preservationist to me, but certainly an influential one!
Caroline O. Emmerton, The Chronicles of Three Old Houses, 1935
Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958): As a du Pont, Mrs. Crowninshield was not from Salem, nor did she ever live here (although she summered in Marblehead), but she has to be included on any list of preservationists for her key efforts towards the preservation and interpretation of several Salem sites, including the Derby House of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Peabody Essex Museum’s Crowninshield-Bentley and Peirce-Nichols houses. She was also a board member of SPNEA, as well as of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum in Salem, and a founding trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You can read more about Louise in this post, in which I appeal to a potential successor to to emerge in contemporary Salem!
Louise duPont Crowninshield (center) surrounded by the ladies of the Kenmore Association in Virginia, one of her first preservation projects, Hagley Museum & Library.
Bessie E. Munroe (?-1975): Mrs. Munroe waited out urban renewal in Salem in her lovely Federal home on Ash Street, with demolition ongoing all around her. She was a widow in her 80s when the Salem Development Authority began implementing its 1965 urban renewal plan, which called for the demolition of 145 out of 177 buildings downtown, including her house! She was compelled to sell to the SRA in 1970, but fortunately the agency agreed to her life tenancy because of her age and health. And then a new Salem Redevelopment Authority emerged, more intent on preservation than demolition: at the time of Bessie’s death in 1975, her house—the last historic residence standing, facing a parking lot—was saved and sold to a preservation architect. It is now on the National Register.
Seeing red (demolition) in 1965; 7 Ash Street, the Bessie Munroe House, today.
Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013): Another woman who never lived in Salem (but long summered in nearby Marblehead like Louise duPont Crowninshield) yet had a tremendous effect on the city’s material heritage largely through her passionate indictments of the 1965 urban renewal plan (see above) published in the New York Times from 1965. Sometimes I think crediting her exclusively for the demise of this plan minimized all the efforts towards that aim by preservationists here in Salem, but still, there’s no denying her powerful impact, as she occupied a strong position of power as the architectural critic for the Times. Ms. Huxtable was not a strict preservationist, but she believed that it could be a useful tool against generic, thoughtless development with no historical or aesthetic merit: sterilizednon–places. She kept watch on Salem through its new redevelopment and credited its mix of old and new in later articles and her 1986 anthology Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger. In praising Salem for “renewing it right” she also asserted that “Salem’s results promise to be a stunning rebuke to every community that has ever thought the only way to revitalization lay through….mutilation of what was often a unique identity for shoddy-slick, newly jerrybuilt anonymity.” Every day I wonder what Ms. Huxtable would think of Salem’s newest buildings.
Ada Louise Huxtable’s condemnation of Salem’s 1965 Urban Renewal Plan in October of that year, the first of several pieces published in the New York Times.
Elizabeth K. Reardon Frothingham (1923-1983): A Salem native descended from several notable Salem families, “Libby” Reardon was a passionate afficionado and student of early American architecture who went on to become a professional preservationist, shepherding Historic Salem Inc. though its most turbulent era and writing several detailed inventories for the City of Salem. All of her records, unfortunately, were donated to the PEM’s Phillips Library and therefore moved from the city to which she was so dedicated: you can read more about that here. Given the pandemic, I haven’t been able to access her records or reports up there, but newspaper accounts testify both to her discovery (as a mere “housewife”) of two camouflaged Salem first-period houses, the Gedney and Samuel Pickman (pictured in the Huxtable article above, as well as below) Houses, as well as to her steadfast defense of Salem’s material heritage in the 1960s and 1970s. She was a real preservation heroine, gone too soon: I can only imagine what she might have achieved in the 1980s or 1990s—or now!
1965! What a year that must have been—-Salem’s preservationists had to have been functioning 24/7.
And speaking of gone too soon, I wanted to take this opportunity to recognize two women who were clearly effective administrators of their respective institutions as well as contributors to the preservation of Salem’s material heritage: Anne Farnam (1940-91) of the Essex Institute and Cynthia Pollack (1932-1992) of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Ms. Farnam served as Curator at the Institute from 1975 to 1983 and as its President from 1984 until 1991, while Ms. Pollack served as Superintendent of SMNHS from 1983 to 1992. I have no idea what their personal relationship was like, but they were clearly colleagues not only in advancing the missions of their institutions but also the stature of Salem as a heritage destination. Both were active in the Salem Project, the forerunner of the Essex National Heritage Area, and both worked towards a more layered and contextual interpretation of Salem’s history. When you study their careers, you can see how interpretation and preservation are integrated and complementary: as the chief administrator of an institution charged with the stewardship of eight historic houses, Ms. Farnam was by necessity a preservationist, but she also initiated the 1977 exhibition on “Dr. Bentley’s Salem: Diary of a Town” which seemed to have seamlessly merged textual and material history (I never saw it, but I do have the companion volume of the EssexInstituteHistoricalCollections). Likewise, Ms. Pollack deserves high praise for her dedication to the restoration of Salem’s historic wharves, but at the same time worked to enhance Salem Maritime’s interpretive reach: as the tribute sign at the Visitors Center’s Cynthia Pollack Theater reads: There were stories to be told, and she wanted visitors to see, touch, smell, and feel the maritime spirit that the site embodies. We all have a lot to live up to, I think.
A Boston Globe (glowing) review for Ms. Farnam’s exhibition, Dr. Bentley’s Salem. Diary of a Town in 1977 and 1992 photograph of Ms. Pollack.
It’s been really wonderful to see people in Salem respond to the large collection of Frank Cousins glass plate negatives which were digitized and uploaded to the Digital Commonwealth by the Peabody Essex Museum just last week. It was verified that columns from Mechanic Hall, which burned down in 1905, had been situated in a River Street garden for quite some time, we all saw how connected the city was a century ago with tracks running everywhere, and people are zooming in on all sorts of details we could never possibly grasp without these visual “windows” to the past. Sometimes I’m a bit wary about historical photographs: people do tend to get focused on the details rather than look for the bigger picture. But it is impossible to deny their instant accessibility and capacity for driving historical engagement, especially by enabling comparisons of the past and the present. That’s what I have been doing all week, whenever I could find or make the time: walking around with the Cousins collection and placing myself in the spot (or vicinity) where he took the picture a century and more ago. So much is revealed when you look at the city through a historical lens: some places have hardly changed, others are unrecognizable, everything is illuminated. Before I get to the details, some big picture observations: the city appears much cleaner in Cousins’ day (most of these photos are from the 1890s) than ours, and much less crowded (although he is not showing us Salem’s working-class neighborhoods), and the impact of cars is obvious. I do wonder about the pristine streets in Cousins’ photographs as this was a world of horses: did Cousins bring his own broom or helper to sweep the streets before he took his photographs? But there was no food-and-drink detritus then: Salem is awash in coffee cups, paper plates, and nip bottles now.
The John P. Felt House on Federal Court past and present: despite a rough last half-century or so, the house is still standing in good form, lacking only its widow’s walk and shutters.
Barton Square has been pretty much annihilated.
Change and continuity on Bott’s Court: old house on the left, newer (both 1890s) houses on the right. Cousins is showing us the demolition of the former house on the right with his preservationist eye.
Kimball Court present and past: Cousins is showing us the birthplace of Nathaniel Bowditch below: this house is in the top right corner above. In front of it today is a house that was brought over from Church Street during urban renewal in the 1960s when that street was wiped out.
18 Lynde Street:this appears to be the same house, with major doorway changes.
The house on Mall Street where Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the Scarlet Letter: there was an addition attached to the house at some point in the 1980s or thereabouts.
134 Bridge Street: As a major entrance corridor–then and now—Bridge Street has impacted by car traffic pretty dramatically over the twentieth century; Cousins portrays a sleepier street with some great houses, many of which are still standing—hopefully the progressive sweep of vinyl along this street will stop soon.
17 Pickman Street seems to have acquired a more distinguished entrance; this was the former Mack Industrial School (Cousins’ caption reads “Hack” incorrectly).
Great view of lower Daniels Street–leading down to Salem Harbor–and the house built for Captain Nathaniel Silsbee (Senior) in 1783. You can’t tell because of the trees, but the roofline of this house has been much altered, along with its entrance.
Hardy Street, 1890s and today: with the “mansion house” of Captain Edward Allen still standing proudly on Derby Street though somewhat obstructed by this particular view. You can read a very comprehensive history of this house here, drawn from literary sources in the Phillips Library’s collections.
I was going to title this post “the good, the bad, and the ugly” but decided to stay a bit more neutral, and yet here I am leading off with this hackneyed phrase! That’s my preview, so beware. Essex Street, Salem’s venerable main street, ever in transition, is experiencing big changes yet again. First the very good: Salem’s newest hotel, the Hotel Salem, just opened in the old Newmark building at 209 Essex Street. It is a sparkling mix of mid-century modern decor superimposed on what feels like an earlier 20th-century building (it was actually built for the Naumkeag Clothing Company in 1895), complete with a marble staircase and a soda fountain-esque restaurant (called The Counter, not quite open) in the first-floor lobby (as well as a seasonal rooftop bar!). The entire hotel is oriented towards the street and all about embracing its bustling commercial past: it’s a great addition to Salem.
Now for the not-so-good. Say you’re sitting at that counter in the Hotel Salem lobby, drink nearby, peering outside onto Essex Street and planning where you’re going to go Christmas shopping next–the Counter will be open before Christmas I am informed. You probably can’t quite see it, but right next door is a great little independent bookstore, Wicked Good Books (above), which is a good start, but then where? You’re new to Salem: you don’t know that there is in fact good shopping a bit further down Essex Street in both directions, and on Central and Front Streets. All you see on one side is the Witch History “Museum” (quotations mine), more witch kitsch across the street, and on the other corner of Essex and Derby Square a vacant building that will house Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery come March. Not a lot of shopping possibilities there I would imagine, even when it is open. And then it gets uglier: as you look out of through the wide windows of the Hotel Salem in the other direction, beyond the old Almy’s clock, your eyes cannot avoid the hulking Museum Place Mall, recently rechristened the Witch City Mall. What happened to this building? The photographs from the 1970s show a rather imposing structure but at least one with some semblance of architectural integrity, later lost through artless adaptations and poor maintenance.
The old Naumkeag Trust Bank Building (1900), soon to be Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery; Museum Place (Witch City Mall) shops and signs, today and in the 1970s (MACRIS and Bryant Tolles’ ArchitectureinSalem).
All I can say is ugh, but I’m not through with this block yet: across the way from the Mall the new Peabody Essex Museum building is rising and I am finding that my reactions to it are not what I thought they would be. It’s going to be very boxy, but I like the restoration of the streetscape: though lovely, the Japanese garden which was previously located on this site didn’t quite fill the space. It’s just a frame, so maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now the structure seems to emphasize the street qualities of old Essex (like the hotel), as opposed to the pedestrian plaza of the 1970s. Time will tell.
The sight of the poster announcing the arrival of the new Korean fried chicken chain restaurant Bonchon on Essex Street reminded me of how main streets are always in transition: you can trace the history of a town just by examining the evolving nature of its buildings and hardscapes. Essex Street is fronted by structures from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries—residential, commercial and institutional. It has been covered with dirt, cobblestones, tracks, and pavement, widened several times and in several places, and (unfortunately) transformed into a pedestrian “mall” (on which cars–or I should say trucks and trolleys–still drive)–in its central section in the 1970s. I have posted about Essex Street many, many times, so I thought I would feature some seldom-seen images today, and examine the physical evolution of this storied street.
Essex Street has run right down the center of Salem since the seventeenth century; Below, Essex Street from the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries, as imagined and in reality.
Essex Street envisioned in 1776 in Carry On, Mr. Bowditch; and in the 1820s on an old Essex Institute postcard; photographs of the street in 1870, 1874 & 1880s (Historic New England & New York Public Library Digital Gallery). Below: a shopping street–until the 1970s–although the famous stores Almy, Bigelow, & Washburn and L.H. Rogers survived into the 1980s. Only the Almy’s Clock remains, and the Rogers store is now administrative offices for the Peabody Essex Museum. (1976 photograph from Jerome Curley’s great Patch column, “Then and Now” and L.H. Rogers photograph from the website “Hawthorne in Salem”).
Below: a not-so-faithful street. It’s surprising to me how few houses of worship are located on Essex Street: at present, only one. Reverend Bentley’s Second Congregational “East Church” was on lower Essex, and before it was transformed into Daniel Low and Co., the imposing structure at the corner of Washington and Essex—the site of Salem’s first meeting house–served as the First Church of Salem–now further along (up) Essex Street. Salem’s only Jewish congregation, Temple Shalom of the Congregation Sons of David, established its first synagogue on Essex Street (its second on Lafayette Street is currently being adapted into academic offices and classrooms for Salem State University). The more mystical Swedenborgian Church was briefly located on upper Essex Street, on the present site of the Salem Athenaeum (American Jewish Historical Society, New England Archives; Weston Collection).
So many lost Essex Street houses! Too many to mention here–I’ve focused on them individually and will continue to do so. I don’t think I’ve ever featured the Sanders House at 292 Essex however, a site now occupied by the Salem YMCA. Alexander Graham Bell lived in the house in the 1870s and conducted experiments in its attic that led to the invention of the telephone: why it couldn’t have been preserved just on this basis I do not know. It reminds me of the beautiful Pickman house down the street, also gone. This particular block of Essex was definitely trending commercial in the late nineteenth centuries, however, and Georgian structures were not long for this world. The new YMCA came in, and just across the street a bit later-the Colonial Revival structure (with its new facade) that will soon house Salem’s Bonchon.