Happy Holidays from the Planters of Blubber Hollow

The mysterious Blubber Hollow Planters got spruced up for the mid-winter holidays.


For those not in the know, several years ago these planters were dumped onto one of the most inhospitable spots of Blubber Hollow, a parking space on the commuter rail mud lot, jammed between freight tracks and busy Bridge Street. Seasonally somebody decorates the planters, and this photo shows them spruced up with boughs and bows for the Christmas season. Kudos to the unknown neighborhood gardeners who maintains these planters. They make trudging to the train station more tolerable.


Overcooked Homes of Witchcraft Heights. III. The White Unicorn.

In this episode of Overcooked Homes of Witchcraft Heights we examine a white unicorn, a home more apt for the sun-drenched coast of Florida, ill-fitting for the climes of Salem. A Study in White.

7 Witchcraft Rd

This example doubled the home size not by raising the roof on simple raised ranches like previous examples, but by attaching an enormous new three-story wing, converting what once was a straightforward colonial home into a hybrid colonial slash split level (the three stories don’t line up with the original two floors) slash bungalow (axis perpendicular to street and to parallel axis of original home).

And are those white stucco walls? Not clapboard or vinyl siding or red brick prevalent in Salem, but stucco as in Miami Beach? OK, not real stucco but the plasticine material that substitutes for stucco these days, but still. Now you understand the unicorn designation – never seen in these parts.

Completing the blinding white stucco walls is the blinding white stone driveway, another material never aforeseen in Salem. And of course there’s a super-high maintenance in-ground pool, another extreme rarity in Salem. 7 Witchcraft Rd 3DGoing full unicorn, so to speak.

The topside view magnifies the sheer incongruity of the home. Is that an incredible SIX skylights in the roof of the addition? What, never heard of dormers? Must be deafening in a hard rain.

The front facade at least is not repellent like previous studies of overcooked homes. There is balance and symmetry in the arrangement of the windows, leaving aside the odd middle porthole. The peculiar transom window on the third floor somehow does not detract, maybe because there’s so much else to offend the eye that it lies almost unnoticed. And unlike nearly all other overcooked homes in Witchcraft Heights, this revision retains a garage, even expanding it from the original one-car garage.



Construction in Blubber Hollow. December Update

Progress on the two construction projects in Blubber Hollow at the foot of Gallows Hill has been substantial.

Senior Center Xmas 3

Senior Center, looking east.

First up, the Community Life Center (known to ordinary mortals as the Salem Senior Center) on Bridge Street. Just a slab foundation when last visited, but has now been almost completely framed and enclosed. Only the roof frame needs to be completed. The size of the building is surprisingly modest, just two stories, and an entirely wood frame, no steel or reinforced concrete.

Senior Center Xmas 1

Senior Center, looking west into setting sun

Two aspects of the building that draw the eye. First, there are almost no windows on the Bridge Street facade. A design choice perhaps to minimize traffic noise? Second, and related, the building faces what will be the parking lot to the rear of the Bridge St facade.  Putting the parking in back is a commendable design choice, aimed to avoid the foul “strip mall aesthetic” far too common in commercial and public buildings. But not having access off the sidewalk along Bridge St might mean that pedestrian visitors will have to traverse the parking lot to reach the main door on the rear. It’ll have to be seen as the building is completed what access looks like.

FlynnTan Apt Xmas 2

Flynn Tan Apartments,  looking west

Across Bridge St along Goodhue St the frame, a steel frame, is going up at the long-awaited replacement to the Flynn Tan tannery, 50 new luxury apartments and a half-dozen townhouse units, a companion to the North River Apartments across the way at 28 Goodhue. So far just the frame for the partially underground parking garage is completed. Because of the topography of the site, with Goodhue substantially lower than Boston St on the other side of the plot, nothing is visible from Boston St. The final building will be four stories on the Goodhue side, but just two visible on the Boston St side. Completion anticipated by early 2019, with applications for apartments to be taken starting in mid-2018.

FlynnTan Apt Xmas 3

Flynn Tan site looking southeast. Grand mass of Salem Heights Apartments visible top center.

Meantime, further up Goodhue at the intersection with Grove St the old Salem Oil and Grease site decays further. Plans for rebuilding are in stasis.


Decrepit remains of Salem Oil and Grease

Watch this blog for regular construction updates.

Overcooked Homes of Witchcraft Heights. II. Bland Monolith Redux

The first post in this series on the overcooked McMansion-like homes reviewed an outstanding example of the Fortress Aesthetic – bland and forbidding great wall facade, nothing to divert the eye or spirit. Today it is a more hideous example of the Fortress Aesthetic, yet more bland and yet more forbidding.

5 Cauldron Ct

Again, so many missteps to point out that bullet points are needed.

  • It goes one step better than the previous example of the fortress aesthetic by adding a true fourth floor. Four stories in horizontally laid out suburbia, my goodness.
  • Albeit it’s not a true floor, but actually a raised gabled attic roof floor, not the flat gabled roof present on raised ranches, the progenitor of this house.
  • But still, it’s a true story, but likely uncomfortably stuffy, as there are no dormers to release heat and air, just windows on the gabled sides. The window A/C unit pointing out the side 4th floor window is likely necessary to prevent suffocation.
  • The windows are at least symmetrically arranged, but golly gee somebody forgot shutters, or any other adornment. Was the construction budget exceeded?
  • No adornment on the windows, no lintels, frames, shutters or anything else, coupled with the wood brown siding, exudes all the charm of a frontier fort. One almost expects muskets to poke out the window slots when in’juns get close.
  • Speaking of budget exigencies, there’s only half a front door, a single sidelight window on the right side, none on the left. Didn’t know it was even possible to purchase such a door. What was done, purchase a convention door and saw off the left sidelight to fit into the off-centered door hole?
  • Though there is only one sidelight window there are two two door lights. Asymmetrically arranged, natch.
  • The garage having been removed, the added brick wall ensures that there will never be the urge to restore the garage
  • Is that a Hitler mustache above the garage recess?
  • Minimal landscaping to show off the austere facade. Goes well with the two bunker-like storage sheds placed out front to hold what would have been kept in the garage. Really, couldn’t move them to be out of sight in the back yard?

It’s depressing to consider that a family actually lives in such a joyless brown mass.

Next post will leave behind the dismal brown palette to a dazzling white palette, distressing in its own right.



Overcooked Homes of Witchcraft Heights. I. The Bland Monolith.

Having defined an Overcooked Home by comparison to their cousins the hellish McMansions, it’s time to view some examples. Unlike past posts on homes for sale or rehab, in these posts no addresses will be given, to mitigate embarrassment. An enterprising individual with an adeptness for Google Maps could find particular examples, but this blog will have no part in that 😉

4 Crescent DrFirst up is this massive number, a small raised ranch initially, now mutated into this Fortress Aesthetic. So many complaints, so little time.

  • There are 1, 2, 3, 4, … 5 different depths of the front facade, 6 if you count the presumed shed on the side.  No symmetry at all, either. So many corners.
  • It’s a good thing Google street view does not picture the back facade, with yet more corners beyond count.
  • OMG! The contractor forgot the front door! Oh no, there it is, a small shrouded door hole on the bottom right corner. Be careful to duck to avoid the hanging plant cleverly hiding the front door.
  • Shiver me timbers, there are portholes through which to watch the seas of Witchcraft Heights float by.
  • Returning to the tacky, monolithic facade, why do none of the windows match? Three styles of windows on the first floor, two styles on the second floor which don’t match any on the first, then two other styles on the third, only with a bay window duplicate to the bay window on the second.
  • In contrast, it’s the same-sized shutters everywhere, no matter the size of the window, small or large, single or double.
  • The two bay windows for the two living rooms that any decent house needs? Bay windows do indicate good taste, right?
  • The second-floor bay is left aligned, the third-floor bay is right aligned. Could the bay windows please be centered.

The side views from Google street view further the despair.

  • Another front door appears, at the top of the stairs climbing up the side Harlem tenement style. Could it be, a main entrance on the third floor!?
  • The two windows on the otherwise blank right side are as far apart as possible while being on the same house, like squabbling siblings.
  • At least the right facade has windows. The left side is a forbidding expanse of beige siding.
  • Really, you had the money to blimp up the house beyond measure but you couldn’t afford central A/C? The units hanging out of multiple windows are unbecoming.
  • Just gave up on the idea of a garage altogether?

6 Crescent Dr

A photo of a neighbor’s raised ranch shows what our monstrous overcooked home was birthed from. Now raised ranches are detestable (no foyer to greet guests, garage under the bedrooms to which the dank aromatic air floats, no storage either attic or basement, among many other sins), but something about the humble simplicity of this home charms. Goodness, the front door is visible. Alas, there’s no going back for our highlighted example of the Fortress Aesthetic.


Overcooked Homes in Witchcraft Heights

One of the best blog reads on the internet, and certainly the best architectural blog, is the ever-entertaining McMansion Hell, which behind all the snark actually imparts a great deal of information about why McMansions should be so hated. For an appreciation check out The architectural genius of ‘McMansion Hell’ on why your house sucks.

For the uninitiated, McMansions are the recently built enormous (>3000 sq ft) ostentatious and sloppily designed and constructed homes that dot the suburban landscape. Rather than stick to one style they mix and mash architectural styles, sometimes hilariously so. Any adherence to architectural principles like balance, proportion and rhythm is more happenstance than design. More money than taste, as the adage goes.

But this is not a post about McMansions of Salem, though they too exist, predominantly in Witchcraft Heights, and later posts will get to them. It instead introduces a sub-category of McMansion, the Overcooked Home. This is a home birthed as a conventional and modest split-level or raised ranch that has been expanded and added onto and rebuilt and rejiggered so that it graduates to McMansion status, ostentatious and tacky and causing passersby to screech WTF! And my god, are they ever prevalent in the Witchcraft Heights neighborhood of Salem. A brief drive through spotted more than a dozen of them.

So introducing a new series of blog posts, The Overcooked Homes of Witchcraft Heights.

The path to such homes is insidious. It starts with needing more room for the young’uns, so the attached garage gets converted to a rec room. After all, you’ve long been too lazy to pull the car into the garage. You miss the storage space the garage provided, so a shed is built, eventually converted to an ell off the side or the back of the house. Then three bedrooms is not enough, as your “special child” has become a teenager and demands privacy, so the roof is raised, and since you just got that long-awaited promotion a couple of bathrooms get thrown in. Perhaps mother-in-law in her declining years needs a suite, so that gets added. Years pass, the in-law passes on, the special kid has gone on to create an insanely profitable iPhone app, the Golden Apple is passed, and the couple finds themselves retired and alone in an house too enormous to maintain without hired help from those damn immigrants. In the vast home the couple can spend days and even weeks together but never espy each other. Perhaps that is entirely the point?

Why are Overcooked Homes so common in Witchcraft Heights? The neighborhood is not a neighborhood per se, but a subdivision, the only substantial section of late 20th-century suburban housing in the City of Salem. As a subdivision it is housing and housing only, no institutional or retail or offices or anything. As such, anything one needs entails a drive out of the neighborhood. One cannot safely walk out of the area, as there are no sidewalks. The street layout follow the common dendritic pattern of winding streets and numerous cul-de-sacs. There are few exits / entries, meaning that if one access is blocked, as if happening now with construction on Valley St one of the few accesses into Witchcraft Heights, then the whole area gets stuffed up. The housing is tract housing, a handful of plans to choose from, nearly all raised ranches and split levels.

All this is to say that Witchcraft Heights is different, really different, in culture and politics and demographics and diversity and architecture, from the rest of Salem. The raised ranches must quickly pale, and the temptation to rebuild the family home becomes hard to resist. It is a wealthy district, but so too is the nearby McIntire Historic District, which avoids the temptation to add. Maybe living in a centuries old home hinders the temptation. Expansion in the McIntire District is constrained by all types of well-meaning regulations, but there is no like care for Witchcraft Heights. Unseen and unloved anything goes. As will be seen in future posts, truly anything goes.




Rehabs in Gallows Hill

A recent blog post covered the astonishing number of rehabs going on along a single street, Federal Street, stretching from the downtown district through the McIntire District to the doorstep of the Gallows Hill neighborhood. Gallows Hill, another vintage neighborhood with homes dating back to the mid-19th century, has not been immune to to the resurgence of rehabs in Salem.
8 Hanson StFirst up is 8 Hanson St, a small home left in deplorable state by an outspoken lifetime Salem resident. Bought by a conscientious rehab developer for the basement price of $120K, this went beyond a “back-to-the-studs” all the way to “back-to-the floor joists” and a rebuilt foundation. After a year of work the small home sold at almost 2.5 times initial price, deservedly so, and the home is no longer an eyesore on Gallows Hill.
12 Langdon StNext up comes 12 Langdon St, a two-family home steps from Gallows Hill Park on one side and a stone’s throw from Proctor’s Ledge on the other, which as can be seen in the photo started in better condition, so the rehab took a summer and not an entire year. Now restored to pristine condition and hosting new tenants.

15 Albion St

Further up Gallows Hill at 17 Albion is an ongoing rehab of a home so ancient it still had the original asbestos siding. Despite the deplorable condition and the long abandonment, this home at least had the benefit of being on a huge, albeit completely overgrown, lot, unlike aforementioned 8 Hanson hemmed in on all sides. So it sold for the comparatively reasonable price of $215K. Sale after rehab should take place in spring 2018.
20 Summit St And just as the Federal St post looked at forthcoming rehab, so too this post presents a depressed property now on the market and due for renovation. That would be 20 Summit St, long-whispered in the neighborhood as a drug den, but now emptied of sketchy characters and ready for its remake. Despite the bleached shutters, hanging fence gate and overgrown shrubbery, the home is in comparatively decent shape relative to other homes featured in this post, so should be a prime habitation in due time.

Why the wave of rehabs?

This question was considered in the earlier post, and as before does not avail of ready understanding. Properties have a way of festering for years, even decades, before a surge of rehab washes over. But how do they get into such deplorable states in the first place? Each case seems different (aging in place or bankruptcy or mere inattention), but let’s be pleased that eventually restoration comes to fore. Now about those remaining problem properties dotted through Gallows Hill…


Salem Election 2017 – What’s the Matter with Ward 4?

In the election for Salem City Council and Mayor progressive candidates won resounding victories throughout all wards in the city. Except in Ward 4, comprising the Gallows Hill and Witchcraft Heights neighborhoods. A disconcerting regressive outlier. Let’s examine the tapes.

In the race for At-Large Councilor the top four vote-getters win a seat on city council. The top four city-wide were newcomer Domingo Dominguez, and incumbents Elaine Milo, Arthur Sargent, and Tom Furey, with challenger David Eppley and incumbent Jerry Ryan finishing just out of the running in a near tie. But ward by ward results show how far out of scale is Ward 4.

Election Results At Large Councilor

Domingo Dominguez was high on the leader board in all wards, especially his home base of W1-P2, The Point neighborhood (El Barrio el Punto), but did not place in Ward 4. On the other side of the ledger, Jerry Ryan ran middling everywhere in Salem except in Ward 4, especially Precinct 1 (Gallows Hill). If not for Ward 4 Mr. Ryan would not have gotten as close as he did. Then there is outgoing Ward 4 Councilor David Eppley, who ran strongly in most wards, especially Ward 2, but far out of the running in his Ward 4 home base. If not for Ward 4 Mr. Eppley would now be an incoming At-Large Councilor, instead of out of the running in 5th place. Indeed, Ward 4 is the only ward where the four incumbents placed 1st through 4th. The two other progressive challengers Jeff Cohen and Liz Bradt won respectable amount of votes everywhere except Ward 4, where they were well behind the pack.

For inclusion here are the individual ward councilor tallies.

Election Results Ward Councilors

The more progressive of the two candidates in each ward won handily, except in Ward 4 where the most regressive candidate, and righteously so, won handily.

In the mayoral election, Mayor Kim Driscoll handily won all wards by large margins, except Ward 4, which she barely won. If Ward 4 had followed the rest of the city the margin of victory would have been a 3-to-1 landslide, not the resounding 2-to-1 reelection margin actually recorded. Similarly for the Yes on 1 ballot initiative, the misnomer ‘Sanctuary for Peace‘ initiative, which carried every ward by impressive margins, except again for Ward 4, where the ballot initiative was actually defeated. Not by much, mind you, but still.

All these data illustrate that there is something about Ward 4 antithetical to the remainder of Salem. But what could that be? In the seminal analysis What’s the Matter with Kansas (not to be confounded with WTF is the Matter with Alabama?) author Thomas Frank examines why Kansas went from one of the most progressive states a century ago to one of the more regressive states today (though Alabama does give Kansas a run for its money). Why do so many Kansans vote against their economic and social interests? Frank blames the transition thoroughly on the culture and religion wars, which trump any economic self-interest.

Could a similar dynamic be playing in Ward 4? It’s unlikely that the culture wars have much resonance in local elections in a tiny ward. Maybe fear of recent immigrants, more properly expounded as fear of “The Other” (scare quotes intended), is what is at play here? Though Salem has historically been diverse, an estimated 20% non-white presently, closing in at 50% for school age children, most of these reside outside of Ward 4. Gallows Hill and Witchcraft Heights, apart from a sliver of Latinos along Boston Street and a tinier sliver of Brazilians along Aborn Street flowing across the city line from the neighboring Brazilian district of Peabody, is nearly all white, many descendants of Irish immigrants of last century.

Fear of the Other seems too pat to satisfy this blogger. Salem has a long history of reaching out to The Other, from actually attacking and arresting Federal agents in town to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act before the Civil War (talk about a sanctuary city), to the settlement house at House of Seven Gables that promoted immigrant welfare at the turn of the 20th century and continuing even today. These efforts were city-wide, and it seems implausible that Ward 4 neighborhoods were excluded from these efforts. After all, Salem’s claim to international fame is what happened when fear of The Other got out of hand 325 years ago.

For now, this blog bends towards a socioeconomic explanation, at least until it can be shown why the socioeconomic argument is flimsy. Ward 4, in Witchcraft Heights, contains the only large expanse in Salem of mid-20th century suburban sprawl homes in Salem. Though there are patches of split-levels and raised ranches elsewhere in Salem, no where else is there such a mass of them but in Ward 4. Suburban voters tend to be traditionalist and highly resistant to change. After all, the suburban voter is the foundation of Republican hegemony. Witchcraft Heights was settled from the mid-60’s to the mid-70’s. There has been little turnover to new families. Instead the original dwellers have tended to age in place, well into retirement age, resistant to change and accordingly wary of newcomers from different cultures.

So that’s the explanation we’re going for now. A populace deeply ensconced in their expansive suburban homes on expansive suburban lots deeply wary of residents of the remainder of Salem, votes their feelings, not their humanity.