Tag Archives: Urban Renewal

Seven Women of Salem: the Preservationists

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!

Emmerton Collage (2)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-du-pont-crowninshield1Louise 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.

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SAL_2431 (2)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: sterilized nonplaces. 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 1965 NYTAda 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!

Reardon Collage1965! 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 Essex Institute Historical Collections). 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.

Women Preservationists CollageA 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.


Cousins Comparisons

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.

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pixlr-1The 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.

pixlr-2Barton Square has been pretty much annihilated.

pixlr-3Change 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.

pixlr-5Kimball 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.

pixlr-618 Lynde Street: this appears to be the same house, with major doorway changes.

pixlr_20190705142016939The 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.

pixlr-7134 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.

pixlr-817 Pickman Street seems to have acquired a more distinguished entrance; this was the former Mack Industrial School (Cousins’ caption reads “Hack” incorrectly).

pixlr-9Great 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.

pixlr-10Hardy 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.


New Developments on Essex Street

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.

Hotel Salem Best

Hotel Salem Counter

Hotel Salem Lobby

Hotel Salem Lobby 2

Hotel Salem Details

Hotel Salem Staircase

Hotel Salem Bedrooms

Hotel Salem First

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.

Essex Street 217

Essex Street Mall 2

Essex Street collage

East India PC

East India Square Tolles

Witch City Mall collageThe 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’ Architecture in Salem).

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.

Essex Street PEM addition

Essex Street PEM addition2


Evolving Essex Street

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 Perley Map

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 1776 Bowditch

essex-street-salem-ma-postcard 1820s

Essex Street 1870

Essex Street 1874

Essex Street HNE 1880s

essex-street-stereo-nypl2

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”).

Essex Street

Essex Street Paving

Essex Street LH Rogers

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).

EssexSt Synagogue 1930s

Essex Street 1920s HH

Essex Street Swedenborgian Church

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.

Sanders House 292 Essex

Essex Street YMCA 1920s

Essex Street Bon Chon


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