Top Ten Reasons Gallows Hill is Historic

Historic” Gallows Hill is often touted. Hell this blog has been heedlessly loose with the term. To prove how historic Gallows Hill really is, here are the Top Ten Reasons Gallows Hill is “Historic“.

1. Proctor’s Ledge witchcraft trials hanging site. Have to start with the Witchcraft Trials,p_00153 the reason why millions come to Salem “for reasons they cannot even fathom“. In 1692 14 women and 5 men convicted of the false crime of witchcraft were executed on Proctor’s Ledge, an Plaque Proctors Ledgeotherwise undistinguished rocky ledge at the foot of Gallows Hill along Boston St. The site’s impact, missing from historical memory for centuries, was resurrected in 2017 with the erection and dedication of a simple stone memorial to those who lost their lives on the slope.

2. Great Salem Fire of 1914 origin site. Incredibly enough, Proctor’s Ledge is also the site of the second most indelible event in Salem history, the Great Salem Fire of 1914. Salem Fire OriginAn explosion at the Korn Leather factory at 57 Boston St, under Proctor’s Ledge, began the conflagration in the early 57 Boston Stafternoon of June 25, 1914, which quickly spread out of control east along Boston Street out of the Gallows Hill Neighborhood. The fire alarm box used to report the fire still stands at 57 Boston Street, across the sidewalk from the memorial plaque that sits in the corner of the site now occupied, depressingly, by a Walgreens chain store. Walgreen’s is the steward of Salem’s two most precious historic sites!?

3. Boston St Gateway corridor. Proctor’s Ledge was chosen for witchcraft trials hanging partly because it lay athwart the main colonial-era road that led both to the outlying sections of Boston St 1890Salem, Salem Village (now Danvers) and Salem Farms Gateway Center(now Peabody), and in the other direction to Boston (hence Boston St). Then and since and now Boston Street has remained a major gateway into Salem, so much so that a major apartment / commercial project planned for the corner of Boston and Bridge Streets is to be known as the Gateway Center.

4. Center of tannery industry in Blubber Hollow.  Tanning of leather along the shores of the North River at the base of Gallows Hill began almost as soon as the settlement of Salem was established. Shoe Factory 28 Goodhue StFor centuries the tanning industry was a household industry, families tanning  in their yard, but in the mid-19th century technical innovations enabled consolidation into large factories. Tanneries boomed, with perhaps 100+ highly profitable tanneries near or on Gallows Hill by the late 19th century, accessory factories like shoe factories intermingled. Blubber Hollow ruinsInevitably the industry declined, and by the mid-20th century machines fell silent in tannery after tannery. Most were torn down, the sites awaiting revitalization today, but a few “ghost” factories remain, moldering away, the subject of many a photographer seeking ruin porn.

5. Charlotte Forten at Eppes School. Charlotte Forten was the pre-eminent female African-American intellectual of her time: abolitionist, suffragette, poet, writer, educator, lecturer, essayist. charlotte-forten.jpgAfter becoming the first African-American graduate of the newly formed Salem Normal School in 1856, her first professional position was teacher at the Eppes Grammar School on Gallows Hill (also Epes). She was apparently the first African-American teacher of white students in a public school ever. The Eppes School still stands on Aborn Street Court, now a nondescript four-unit apartment building. 7 Aborn St CtPetition has been made to add the former Eppes School to the National Register of Historic Places, where it would join the Charlotte Forten Grimke House in Washington D.C. already so listed.

6 . Highest Concentration of Gablefront Houses in Salem. As the profitable tannery industry took hold in Gallows Hill in the middle decades of the 19th century (see #4 above), the emerging working middle class needed a new type of housing. 13-15-oak-st.jpgThe grand Federal and Greek Revival homes of the merchant class were too swank. The squalid tenements of the laboring class would no longer do. Accordingly emerged a new type of single family housing, the Gablefront House, modest and sturdy, characterized by high attic gable facing the street, narrow two-bay facade, and main entryway not in front but tucked to the side. Many thousands of Gablefront houses were built in industrial cities of northeast America through the last two-thirds of the 19th century. Though Gablefronts are found in most Salem neighborhoods, for the real flavor come to Gallows Hill, where they dominate the streetscape.

7. Long-term Gallows Hill eateriesDairy Witch at 115 Boston St in Gallows Hill has been serving delectable ice cream to parched diners every summer since 1952.Dairy Witch

Mandee’s Pizza at 2 Boston Street at the far edge of Gallows Hill has been serving pizza and subs since 1962 to famished teens of Salem High School, which until its relocation way down Highland Ave. in the 1970’s was right around the corner.Mandee's Pizza 1966

Mandee’s was recently entered into the Pizza Hall of Fame. Those who frequented either eatery decades ago now return with children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren in tow, so long have both been serving Gallows Hill residents.

8.  Hygrade Illuminating Lamp Co. introduces assembly line manufacturing to light bulbs. Hygrade Lamp Ad 1931In 1914 Frank Poor and his brothers, owners of the Hygrade Incandescent Lamp Company then located in Danvers, were looking to expand to a new location. They intended to institute the principles of assembly line manufacturing, developed by Henry Ford in 1913 for the wildly successful Model T, to light bulbs. After the Great Salem Fire of 1914 (see #2 above) there was an abundance of open space along Boston St. in Gallows Hill. In 1916 the new Hygrade Illuminating Lamp Co. plant opened at the corner of Boston and Bridge Streets. The plant remained in business through numerous corporate mergers, employing thousands of Salem residents over decades, until eventually the last owner Osram Sylvania closed and demolished the plant in the mid-90s. Soon a new mixed-use Gateway Center (see #3 above) is to take its place

9. Gallows Hill water tower.  On the highest ledge of Gallows Hill sits the Salem water tower, adorned with insignia of a witch aloft her broom. An image of the water tower under a full moon serves as the frontispiece of this blog.moon-over-gallows-hill-croppedSitting astride the main flight path of planes into Boston Logan Airport, hence the first sight of Salem many arrivals espy, the Gallows Hill water tower is among the 12 coolest water storage tanks in New England.

10. First medical marijuana dispensary in Massachusetts. In the election of 2012 Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved the Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Initiative. “On June 24th, 2015, Alternative Therapies Group became the first dispensary in Massachusetts to begin serving registered patients … located in historic Salem.” p_00146Actually located at 50 Grove St in the Blubber Hollow section of historic Gallows Hill. Could soon be the first retail marijuana dispensary in Salem, and very possibly Massachusetts, should the Cannabis Control Commission ever get its ducks in a row. It’s now looking like late 2018 for opening. A local businessman responded to this history by opening a well-stocked head shop across the street, disguised as a convenience store.

And two bonus historical reasons. Minor, but worthy of notice.

A. Location of a Hawthorne short story. Nathaniel Hawthorne alluded to the savage events of 1692 that took place on Gallows Hill in nearly everything he wrote, but faced it directly in his short story Alice Doane’s Appeal (1835):

… a physical curse may be said to have blasted the spot, where guilt and frenzy consummated the most execrable scene that our history blushes to record. For this was the field where superstition won her darkest triumph; the high place where our fathers set up their shame, to the mournful gaze of generations far remote. The dust of martyrs was beneath our feet. We stood on Gallows Hill.

Indeed, Hawthorne is given credit for naming Gallows Hill. Before that it had been Witch Hill to locals and visitors alike. Hawthorne implored for remembrance:

There is nothing on its barren summit, no relic of old, nor lettered stone of later days, to assist the imagination in appealing to the heart. … And here, in dark, funereal stone, should rise another monument, sadly commemorative of the errors of an earlier race.

In 2017 Hawthorne finally got his monument on Proctor’s Ledge (see #1 above).

B. Minutemen buried at Old South Cemetery. On the last slope of Gallows Hill as a traveler descends into central Peabody lies the Old South Cemetery. Old South CemeteryIt sits within the borders of Peabody, not Salem, but Peabody was once a part of metropolitan Salem, when it was called Salem Farms, and the city line deliberately jogs around the cemetery which fronts Salem on three sides, so really it is Gallows Hill. Among other luminaries within are the remains of four local Minutemen who fought at the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775.


Construction in Blubber Hollow. June Update.

That’s it. Gave it a chance but Time to vote two thumbs down. The facade of the new Senior Center on Bridge Street is complete. Three shades of soporific beige is the best that could be had? Box windows that look like they were cut from poster board? In the words of humorist David Sedaris: “designed by a ten-year-old with a ruler, that’s how basic it is.”000_0322The flat ranch house design, utterly foreign to Salem, resembles nothing so much as a service station, like the Speedway further up Blubber Hollow on North St. Let’s see…flat roof, check; racing stripe around the roof line, check; ornamentation absent, check; uninspired entryway, check; flat unappealing facade, check.Speedway 86 North St

Was it mentioned just how…insipid…is the color scheme.

A defining tenet of contemporary architecture is that any design must in some way echo / reflect / evoke / respect (you select the verb) its surroundings. When a building is planted in an area brimming with epic 18th and 19th century homes then upholding that tenet should not be so difficult.

The bland ranch style evokes nothing of the history and culture of the surroundings. Unless it was designed to evoke the bland warehouses that once dotted the industrial area. Two remaining such warehouses face the senior center on the other side of Bridge St and the North River. If so, the plan was to evoke… a warehouse? Even the Public Storage rental building visible behind in the photo was designed to resemble residential units in the neighborhood, what with red brick facade and lintels over fake windows, and that IS a warehouse.

The Senior Center was 25 frustrating years in the making. Perhaps the designers threw in the towel just out of sheer exhaustion. Moderately justifiable if so, but still no excuse.

As to construction update, this unassuming Senior Center is completed apart from some remaining punch list items, and is scheduled to open September 4, the day after Labor Day. The same day as Massachusetts State primary elections and the start of school for many places. As is there wasn’t enough to attend to already that day.

Flynn Tan Apartments Gets its Name

On the other side of Bridge Street, shoehorned into the ridge between Goodhue and Boston Streets where the Flynn Tan factory once rested, the apartments under construction got their formal name – River Rock Residences – and their formal address – 70 Boston St. Perhaps it was too much to hope for a call out to the former use of the site. Tannery Ridge could have been evocative.


Unlike the Senior Center down the street, this apartment building does deliberately evoke its surroundings. The parapets at the end of the roofs evoke the Georgian-style apartment building at 65 Boston St, badly damaged in the Great Salem Fire of 1914 but rebuilt. The mansard style windows on the top floor with the curved lintels are meant to evoke three outstanding Second Empire apartment buildings at 67, 73, and 87 Boston Street. Hard to believe that the Second Empire apartment at 73 Boston St is low income housing operated by the Salem Housing Authority.

As far as construction update, the apartment building portion of River Rock Residences is topped off, the roof complete, the windows in place, plumbing and electrical contractors toiling. The framing of the townhouses portion is up to the second of three floors and will be complete before July is out. Scheduled opening is Spring 2019, but construction is proceeding so rapidly that an opening by New Year’s is not out of the question. Applications for housing are now being considered on the River Rock Residences web site.

The Gablefront House Gets No Respect

There are no museums dedicated to the Gablefront, no Societies for the Preservation of the Gablefront, appalling few Gablefronts on the National Register of Historic Places. On wikipedia, the ultimate arbiter of cultural impact, the Gablefront entry has a mere dozen lines and two photos, compared to hundreds of lines and dozens of photos for both Queen Anne style, its successor, and Greek Revival architecture, its predecessor.

The Salem housing registry does not have a separate entry type for Gablefront. Then again it makes no distinction of types for any houses earlier than the early 20th century, listing every house of that period as “Old Style“, be it Greek Revival or Queen Anne or any Victorian or whatever. Strangely, the registry does make distinctions for late 20th century homes, separating “Colonial” from “RAISED RANCH” from “SPLIT ENTRY” from “Cape”, the Cod part implicit. The inconsistent capitalization is inherent to the registry.

It’s a shame, since making distinctions for 19th century homes would aid realtors, historians, home buyers, especially homeowners wanting an answer to that basic question: what style is my house?

MACRIS (Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System), the registry of historic buildings in Massachusetts, does break old style into multiple classifications for 19th century homes, unlike the Salem registry. Still MACRIS does not have an entry for Gablefront. Instead, most Gablefront homes deemed historic enough to be listed on MACRIS are classified as “No Style“, again showing a lack of respect. A handful of Gablefront homes on MACRIS are classified as “Greek Revival”, consonant with the contention that the Gablefront style derived from Greek Revival style.

How about an example

79-81-83-87 Boston St

Three Gablefront homes along Boston St in Gallows Hill, plus for contrast an imposing Second Empire edifice typified by the Mansard roof (right, c. 1869). On MACRIS #81 and #83 (middle houses, c. 1870 and c. 1876) are listed as “No style”, but #79 (left, c. 1835) is listed as “Greek Revival”, though all three are evidently Gablefront, what with characteristic high gable facing forward, narrow two bay frame, and side passage main entry.

Not even the Guide to Salem Architecture has an entry for the Gablefront house, the most common house type on Gallows Hill. Perhaps not reason to be too disconsolate, as there’s no entry for Queen Anne Style either, though Queen Anne homes dot many Salem neighborhoods.

Lastly, Historic New England produces a wonderful Architectural Style Guide that has extensive listings for Greek Revival and Queen Anne but NOT Gablefront, although this style guide does place Gablefront as a subcategory of Greek Revival: “In New England and the northern United States, the side-passage, gable-front house was introduced … can be found in cities that industrialized during this period.

In part this lack of attention is due to the very humbleness of the style. Recall that Gablefront style came about as a response to a unique event in history, the advent of a middle class due to industrialization. Before  the Industrial Revolution there was no notable middle class, apart from a handful of teachers and shopkeepers. There was an upper class, in Salem residing in imposing Federal and Greek Revival mansions along Chestnut St and around the Common, and an enormous lower class surviving in squalid tenements and cabins in the rest of the city, or living as servants in said mansions.

112 Federal St

Typical Federal House (c. 1800) on, where else, Federal St. Note “squashed” 3rd floor

Lest it be forgotten, the “squashed” third floor in Federal mansions was where lived the masses of servants needed to keep those mansions operating.

Industrialization brought an expanded middle class, what with the new professions of  foremen, supervisors, accountants, designers, engineers, and more. This class was well-off enough to move away from squalid multifamily housing, but not well off enough to live in the mansions. Enter the solution, a sturdy single family house, simple enough to be affordable to the up and coming middle class, i.e. the Gablefront house. As industrialization proceeded in the later decades of the 19th century, the middle class got larger and wealthier, and for them the humble Gablefront no longer sufficed, being supplanted by the more elaborate Queen Anne Style.

So while in Salem there are heralded Greek Revival mansions 14 Chestnut St and rollicking Queen Anne mansions 32 Forrester Stthe very idea of a Gablefront Mansion would be an oxymoron.

And that, in a nutshell, constitutes why the Gablefront house gets no respect.


Business Update. Bodegas open along Boston St

Most buildings along Boston St in Gallows Hill have stood for a century or two, in exceptional cases closer to three centuries, and most have been mixed use commercial / residential for all those years. In that span several waves of creative destruction have ebbed and flowed: Industrialization – consolidation of backyard tanning shops into flourishing tanneries in the mid-19th century; Deindustrialization – closure and vacating of those tanneries in the mid-20th century; Suburbanization – replacement of many properties with strip malls and parking lots in the 2nd half of the 20th century.

Now perhaps a new revitalization is budding, what with energetic immigrant families moving into and sprucing up long vacant storefronts.

136 Boston St

Yamilex bodega in left storefront

Just opened at the Peabody end of Boston St is the Yamilex Mini Market in the historic Ellen Hayes Apartment Building (c. 1885, presumably constructed or operated by an Ellen Hayes). Though labeled as a mini-market, the store truly is what a native New Yorker would recognize as a bodega34 Boston St

Yamilex joins La Loma Market at the other end of Boston St near Essex St, operating for two years now in a non-historic mixed use garden apartment building of a style more in line with Los Angeles than with Salem.

The opening of two bodegas in a short period reflects the movement of Latino immigrants into Gallows Hill in large numbers in the last decade, mostly Dominican in the apartment buildings near La Loma, mostly Brazilian with a large overlay of Dominican in the apartment buildings near Yamilex at the other end of Gallows Hill. That movement caused the Stop and Shop supermarket around the corner from Yamilex to enlarge its Hispanic foods section from a couple of shelves to an entire aisle. Having a large corporate competitor nearby may give Yamilex pause, but customers should prefer the friendly bodega over the sterile supermarket.

The Hispanic arrivals, coupled with the ongoing construction of apartment buildings where tanneries once stood, may yet breathe life into torpid Boston St, stagnant even before the Sylvania plant was razed in the mid-90s. Let’s hope so.

Business Update. Dark Moon Healing Art Closes

Well that didn’t last long. Not quite a year after it opened at 96 Boston St in Gallows Hill, the Dark Moon Healing Art shop has suddenly closed. The shop had space in the historic Daniel Frye Tavern & Inn building built c. 1790, attributed to the incomparable Samuel McIntire. Who knew, the princely McIntire built in lowly Gallows Hill.

94-96 Boston St

Frye Tavern and Inn today. Note construction to the side on the former FlynnTan site

With a half dozen flourishing witchcraft shops in downtown Salem, the proprietor had hoped that some of that “magick” would work well in a peripheral location. The concurrent opening of the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial down the street gave promise that many visitors there would stay in Gallows Hill for their fix of metaphysical services, rather than head back downtown.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Not for lack of trying. Besides magic, massage, meditation and an art gallery for local artists the shop offered computer repair on the side. For when those dark spirits infect your hard drive. The space in Frye’s Tavern and Inn was shared with the Sacred Harp Tattoo shop, which so far as can be determined is flourishing. Expected synergism between the two “dark arts” businesses did not work out.

At least Dark Moon closed voluntarily. Not so the Roasted Peppers restaurant a few doors down at 100 Boston St., which closed suddenly over the winter with a sheriff’s order pasted on the door. Not to despair, those with a pizza and sub fix have plenty of options in Gallows Hill. Already renovations are underway for a reopening under new management. Will keep readers posted.



Construction in Blubber Hollow. May Update

This next update has the Senior Center nearly completed, the FlynnTan apartments across Bridge St topped off, and site preparation underway for the Gateway Center at the corner of Bridge and Boston Streets.

For those new to this series of posts, Blubber Hollow, at the foot of Gallows Hill along the North River (which flows west to east north of central Salem), was the center for more than a century of an immense leather tanning industry, at its peak dozens of flourishing tanneries. By the mid-20th century the industry was in a death spiral. One-by-one tanneries went belly up, the factory buildings abandoned, rotted, eventually demolished. Eyesore doesn’t go far enough to describe what Blubber Hollow had become (and in many respects, still is).

Efforts to fill in the vast empty spaces with new buildings have been intermittent, more steps back than steps forward. There have been stunted shoots of life. The North River Apartments opened in 2013 at the site of a demolished tannery, but despite hope was not a harbinger of more. The first medical marijuana facility in Massachusetts opened in an empty tannery in 2015. Finally in late 2017 groundbreaking occurred on two of many proposed projects, the new Senior Center (ahem Community Life Center) (25 years in the making) replacing an outdated facility across town on Broad St, and the demolition of the closed FlynnTan factory and replacement by apartments and townhouses, brought by the same folks who put together North River Apartments (a venture a mere 20 years in the making).000_0314

The FlynnTan apartment building is topped off, the roof going on, plumbing going in. The parapet at each end is intended to echo the like parapets on this noteworthy vintage Georgian apartment building across Boston St.

61 Boston St

61 Boston St

The building is a survivor, damaged in the Great Salem Fire of 1914 but repaired, most recently converted to, what else, condos. In its long life the parapet once served as a billboard for Coco-Cola.


The framing for the six townhouses along Boston St has begun, the carpenters moving over from the now fully framed apartment building. Several vintage Gablefront houses of Gallows Hill are visible across Boston St.

Catty corner to this site the Senior Center has its cladding nearly in place, hardscaping for sidewalks and parking underway. The siding is not very becoming. Final judgment on the aesthetics of the building will be reserved until opening, but it’s not promising. Perhaps the cladding design was deliberately chosen to reflect the remaining industrial warehouses across the street, survivors of when this property was part of Hygrade Sylvania. Echoing vintage buildings in contemporary design is to be promoted (see 61 Boston St above) but really, industrial chic does not cut it.000_0316


Workers plastering in stucco finish on Memorial Day!

Also noted on this holiday perambulation around Blubber Hollow.000_0318.JPG

When moving into an apartment building must not forget to pack the swimming pool ladder and the classic rocking horse. Kudos for getting it all to fit atop the family SUV.

And though the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial is not dedicated to those who died in war, the executed were victims of a religious battle, so the 19 plum-colored carnations strewn along the top, one for each victim, seems altogether appropriate.000_0319

Gablefront Tract Housing on Ord Street

The Gablefront houses, though plentiful throughout the Gallows Hill neighborhood, were generally built one at a time. Mostly this practice was due to the difficulties of getting a large mortgage loan to build multiple homes. Such house building loans as could be obtained were usually for six years often with 50% down. For a contractor to get a loan to build more than one house at a time was all but unheard of.

This practice had the salutary effect that almost every Gablefront house is an individual, different from the Gablefronts built before or after it. There are few duplicates.

With one considerable exception.

Up on Ord St heading towards the Witchcraft Heights Elementary School is a row of six cute once identical Gablefront cottages. Built circa 1880 towards the end of the Gablefront period (Queen Anne style was pushing in). The transition away from the standard Gablefront design is evident in the front, not side, door, and in the diminutive front porch. But the other characteristics of Gablefront (high-pitched gable, narrow width, plain facade) remain evident.

Wrote “once identical” because the human propensity to individuality has taken hold in the century plus since these Gablefront cottages were built. The original tiny front porch has been extended, enclosed, and in one house ensconced. A dormer has sprouted on another house. A couple of the houses have substantial rear extensions not seen in the street views. Despite all the changes, three of the homes retain the original delicate scalloped pattern of roof shingles.

57-63 Ord St

Tract housing is defined as “groups of essentially identical houses built on a tract of subdivided land.” No minimal number is provided but six would seem enough to constitute tract housing. No report could be found at how the original developer achieved this feat.

The great age of tract housing that descended upon Witchcraft Heights was still decades away. In the early 70’s the acres of highland ridges above Ord St were filled with hundreds of near-identical split levels and raised ranches on spacious lots. The similarity did not last long. Again the urge to individuality quickly took hold and the hundreds of near-identical split levels and raised ranches were near identical no more. Such alterations culminated in the tacky and soulless Overcooked Homes of Witchcraft Heights.

67-56 Ord StThe same row of Gablefront tract housing viewed looking down Ord Street.


Whence the Gablefront House

The meaning of the Gablefront house to Gallows Hill having been made clear, the next obvious matter is “Wherefore hence Gablefront“.

Downgrading the Greek Revival

In the early 19th century, roughly 1820 to the Civil War, the predominant polite, or formal, architecture style in Salem, and in America at-large, was Greek Revival. Like Gablefront, a Greek Revival house also has a gable front roof, but here the gable is fully pedimented and low pitched (an isosceles triangle not an equatorial triangle), the lower pitch made possible by the wider frame of the house, three bays not two bays in the typical Gablefront. The wider frame leaves room for the main entryway to be in the front, not the side as in most Gablefronts, and the entryway is not centered but lined up with the left or right window bay. A Greek Revival house is gussied up next to a Gablefront, the windows always shuttered and often topped with lintels, the main entryway flanked by columns, topped by a pediment, and frequently adorned with transom and sidelight panels or glass panes.Greek Revival basics

As the popularity of the Greek Revival peaked circa 1840, local builders started “slimming down” the style to derive the Gablefront, obviously arrived at from Greek Revival style, but without the appurtenances of Greek Revival. A poor man’s Greek Revival, so to speak. The Gablefront would be popular to the end of the 19th century and even into early years of the 20th, while the Greek Revival style had passed from popularity by the Civil War

The narrowing of the frame in the reduction of Greek Revival to Gablefront had many advantages. The high-pitched gabled roof hindered accumulation of snow and ice in the winter. Central heating and cooling in the mid-19th century was unknown except for the wealthiest. In the summer heat opening windows on both sides of a Gablefront allowed cooling cross-ventilation; in the winter warming sunlight would penetrate the full living space. The Gablefront in its way was an early example of green engineering long before the term achieved resonance in the early 21st century.

156-158 Boston St

Nowhere better is the distinction yet the similarity between Greek Revival and Gablefront highlighted than this pair of homes on Boston St in Gallows Hill. On the right an elegant and loudly colored Greek Revival. On the left a demure Gablefront. The Greek Revival has a full roof pediment with friezeboard; the Gablefront has not. The Greek Revival has handsomely decorated windows; the Gablefront has not. The Greek Revival has a striking front entryway adorned with entablature and pilasters; the Gablefront has an unobtrusive side entryway.

The transition from Greek Revival to Gablefront, like all architectural transitions, was not sudden, but, in keeping with the archetype of evolution, gradual and almost indiscernible. Take this early 19th-century house in the McIntire District. 115 Federal StcGreek Revival for sure, but the roof pediment is broken, the house is only two bays wide, and the elegant Greek Revival entryway, complete with columns and portico, is tucked away to the side. Traces of Gablefront style, though not quite there.

A realty listing once of the Gallows Hill Gablefront house this blogger lives in described it as a “modified” Greek Revival. Erroneous, but in light of the evolution of architectural styles not all that far from correct.

Upgrading the Gablefront

As noted previously the Gablefront house is simple to build and highly adaptable. Given the American propensity to upgrade their residences, no sooner would have a Gablefront house been occupied than the improvements commenced. Perhaps a small portico to smarten up the main entryway. Dormers to the roof to add living space on the top floor. A bay window to replace the drab original windows. Perhaps an oriel window on the second floor. A small porch to the front to provide cover to entering guests. Dress up the eaves.

13-15 Oak St

Two once near-identical Gablefronts. The one on the right apart from an added oriel retains humble Gablefront appearance. The one on the left dressed up for high society.

Sometimes, as in this example in the Blubber Hollow section of Gallows Hill, go all out. A grand Palladian window in a humble Gablefront! Why the nerve!

Eventually, rather than have bay windows and porches and such as after-market upgrades, build them in as original equipment. So grew the Queen Anne style from the basic Gablefront. If one bay window is fine, why not more bay windows on other sides or other floors. If a porch is fine, why not exuberantly wrap a large porch around the front and side, or even add a porch to the rear or to the 2nd floor. Extend the roof eaves well beyond the wall below and adorn with with patterned wood shingles. Keep the high-pitched gable front roof, but perhaps add extra gables, and while you’re at it maybe even a roof turret.

Since by the late 19th century central heating was now commonplace the narrow two-bay wide front wall could be widened to three bays. The door tucked around to the side in the Gablefront came back round to the front, usually not central but to one side or the other, as in the predecessor Greek Revival.

So by the end of the Victorian Period Queen Anne began to supplant Gablefronts. Again the evolution was gradual, not sudden. Though Gablefront houses continued to be built up to and through World War I their time was past. In Gallows Hill most lots were built up, so Queen Anne homes only showed on the occasional still empty lot, as in the examples below.

32 Ord St

Two Queen Anne homes on Gallows Hill. Note two-story bay windows and substantial front porches, wrap-around on the right

The Gablefronts in the tiny corner of Gallows Hill burned out in the Great Salem Fire of 1914, around May Street, were mostly replaced with becoming Queen Anne houses.

Upscale to downscale and back

Gablefront transitionSo over a century or more the Greek Revival house evolved into the Gablefront house (or should it be said devolved, since complexity was stripped), then the Gablefront evolved into the Queen Anne house. The circle of (architectural) life.


The Gablefront House

The predominant housing style throughout the Gallows Hill neighborhood is the Gablefront. There are hundreds of them, distributed on nearly every street in the neighborhood. The Gablefront is as canonical to Gallows Hill as Federal style is to the McIntire District neighborhood or raised ranch to the Witchcraft Heights subdivision.

A Gablefront house is exactly as the name states, the central feature a high-pitched gable roof facing the street. There are two basic varieties, the 2½ story (two full floors plus attic) house and the 1½ story cottage. The 2½ story renders itself amenable to both two-family and single family format, though most in Gallows Hill are single-family.

28 Butler St

A lovely Gablefront cottage, the ell in the rear a 20th-century addition

The gablefront end is so narrow, only two bays wide typically, as to leave no room for a front entry. Accordingly and almost without exception the main entry is tucked away to the side, the few exceptions with the door on the Gablefront looking tight and cramped.

12-22 Varney St

A row of Gablefronts along Varney St

Occasionally the Gablefront is turned, with the long end facing the street and the gable end to the side (Gableside house?). The entryway then is central and faces the street. Lots in the 19th century were generally laid out deep and narrow, so only the rare lot could handle the side gable alignment.

The gable facade is simple and unadorned, no lintels or any other decorative millwork over the windows, no pediments or columns or pilasters about the entryway, as is so common to predecessor architectural styles such as Federal or Greek Revival. A pediment does not frame the gable roof. Often there is no roof overhang either, the molding tight up against the roof edge. Even if the eaves overhang the extension is slight.

14-16 Nichols St

Two similar Gablefront houses, the farther single-family with eave overhang and shutters, the nearer two-family without either

Built from the mid-19th century to early 20th century throughout the Northeast, the Gablefront is a Vernacular style unique to the United States.

[Vernacular is] a building designed by an amateur without any training in design; the individual will have been guided by a series of conventions built up in his locality, paying little attention to what may be fashionable. The function of the building would be the dominant factor, aesthetic considerations, though present to some small degree, being quite minimal.  — Ronald Brunskill

Gablefront homes were built to house the burgeoning worker class of the American industrial age. As such their prevalence in mid-19th century Gallows Hill coincides with the mid-19th century growth of the leather industry in Blubber Hollow at the foot of Gallows Hill.

Gablefronts were not the residences of the recent immigrants toiling in tanneries, who lived instead in cramped tenements in The Point and Derby Street neighborhoods along Salem harbor. Instead, Gablefronts on Gallows Hill were built for foremen and managers and accountants and such in Salem industries, and represent what would be labeled today middle-income workforce housing.

Still these were not wealthy residents, which goes a ways to justify the excessive simplicity of the Gablefront house in Gallows Hill, in contrast to the elaborate, occasionally excessively elaborate, homes in the McIntire District or in the neighborhood around the Salem Common. There are a handful of timid and unassuming Gablefront homes mingled into these wealthy districts, out of place beside their grandiose neighbors.

Though the Gablefront is humble nearly every one is unique; there were few exact duplicates. Standard plans were available to 19th-century contractors but custom construction was the order of the times. Nothing was built in large quantities on spec. In part this was due to the ragged financial opportunities of the time. Mortgages bore no resemblance to the standard 30-year 10% down plans of today. Such house loans as could be obtained were for at most six years often with 50% down. For a contractor to get a loan to build more than one house at a time was all but unheard of.

The simplicity of the Gablefront rendered it amenable to additions and alterations. The tall attic space finished with dormers, porticoes embellished the main entryway, bay windows replaced flat windows, porches sprang out the side or front, ells pushed out the side or back, shutters added about windows, sidelight extensions placed on doors. In the almost two centuries since Gablefront homes starting dotting the slopes of Gallows Hill nearly every one has been altered. An original Gablefront in pristine condition is about as rare as an original Levittown Cape Cod house, the predominant house style of the 20th century whose sheer simplicity, like the Gablefront, also rendered it amenable to additions and alterations.

Note on orthography of Gablefront

The term is variously punctuated and capitalized: Gable-front, gable-front, Gable Front, gable front, Gablefront, gablefront, even GableFront. After much hewing back and forth this blog is settling upon Gablefront. Single word title case bestows a deserved dignity upon the humble ubiquitous style.

St. James Church Obliterates Salem Houses

A previous series of posts on How Salem lost its Density Mojo elaborated the overwhelming destruction of housing caused by expansion and construction of parking lots throughout central Salem neighborhoods. One of the half dozen examples reviewed was the destruction of the houses about St. James Church, in the McIntire District along Bridge and Flint and Federal Streets.

Now a vintage photograph uncovered by local historian Jim McAllister shows just how severe was the razing. St James Church rear along North RiverTaken sometime before WWII from a vantage along the north (Ledge Hill) side of the North River in Blubber Hollow, some half-dozen homes are visible along Bridge St. behind the towering presence of the St. James Church. All these homes are gone, not a single one retained between the widening of Bridge St and the paving into a parking lot of the area behind the church and neighboring St James School.

Getting a photo from the same vantage today was troublesome, as the widening of Bridge St in the mid-90’s also rechanneled the North River.

000_0313The church lost its sky-piercing steeple in the early 70’s but otherwise remains unchanged. The houses are gone, replaced by asphalt and crickets. The St. James parochial school next door, which attended to several generations of Gallows Hill Irish immigrants, closed in the early 1970’s concurrent with the loss of the steeple. For several decades the school was repurposed by the Salem School District as the Federal Street Elementary School, but that too closed years ago. Soon it is to become mixed market / affordable housing in a conversion spearheaded by the North Shore Community Development Coalition.

Now the houses lost behind St. James were not too distinguished, one them actually a converted railroad car (low-slung building center-right), but dammit generations of Salemites were bred and raised in those homes. To have lost those homes to asphalt, when affordable housing is so hard to come by, a crying shame.