As noted in earlier posts in this series, unbeknownst to most Salemites, there was a time, in the recent past, when Salem had four operating public libraries, the Main Branch in the old Bertram Mansion in the McIntire District still operating today, and three extinct outlying branches: East Branch, South Branch, and North Branch.
North Branch Library 1934-1977
The first iteration of the North Branch library opened in 1910, in a room located in the Cogswell School at School Street in North Salem.
That school that is why School Street is today School Street. The Cogswell School, like so many other vintage schools in Salem, is now condos.
In the midst of the Depression the North Branch library was erected as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in only nine weeks, an incredible feat given the elegant structure of brick and fine wood that resulted. Records do not reveal how the lot was acquired, but during the Depression all types of real estate became available dirt cheap. Located at 176 North St, North Branch opened on May 17, 1934, the last of Salem’s three branch libraries to get its own building.
And correspondingly the first of the three branch libraries to permanently close. Recurrent fiscal crises came to a head in the mid-1970’s, so citing the usual bugaboo of “low usage”, the City and Library Trustees made the mutual agreement to close the North Branch Library on Jan. 29, 1977. Much of what makes a community worth living in was lost:
“Thirty elderly residents who regularly attended the Tuesday morning film series will be forced to find transportation to the East Branch library… Two girl scout troops and one brownie group must relocate.” Librarian Miss Mabel Begley “recalled the days when North Branch was bustling with extension courses from Essex Aggie, courses on holiday decorations, Monday afternoon movies, and afternoon story hours for the children.” From North Salem loses its library, Salem Evening News, Sat Jan 29 1977.
The advertisement for sale of the building presaged what the building was to become:
“The building consists of two open rooms and a reception area on the first floor, with two more open rooms, a lavatory, and a utility room in the basement … with permission of the City Appeals Board a prospective purchaser might be able to adapt the building to professional use for doctors, lawyers, or real estate agents, or perhaps even for use as something like a branch bank.” From For Sale: one library, Salem Evening News, Sept 6 1977
Today the building is the home office of the Cabot Heritage Corporation, a wealth management company, so something like a bank, and the public face of Cabot Farms, a peculiar Salem institution. Cabot Farms, in North Salem along the Danvers River at the tip of Orne St, is the only private family estate still extant in Salem. Once family estates dotted the beach fronts of the North Shore’s Gold Coast, from Nahant up to Gloucester, but given the vicissitudes of business failures and economic depressions few remain. Cabot Farms has remained in the Lutts family since Grace and Carleton Lutts in 1941 astutely bought on the cheap “a 28-acre property that currently is home to roughly 30 members of the Lutts family.”
What Salem Lost
What the loss of all three branch libraries in the space of a decade means for Salem today cannot be exaggerated. All their collections were crammed into the Main Branch, a out-of-date facility that is bursting at every seam, no empty shelf space, returns jammed onto carts that get pushed from side to side but never shelved. Dirty pipes exposed, ceiling holes gaping, restrooms unhygienic. Salem library, the busiest on the North Shore, is only a fraction of the size of tonier counterparts in Beverly, Danvers, even tiny Topsfield.
But it’s not just the space constraints. A library is more than a book depository. As this series of posts have noted, a library is also a gathering place, a classroom, a performance center, a cultural gallery, a community focus, a conference facility. With the loss of the branch libraries all those things vanished. The Main Branch library just has no extra rooms, so cannot have any activities that are common to libraries elsewhere.
Any solution is remote. Once gone a building can not be taken back. The Bertram Building has no place to expand, except by going up, which will never happen in height-averse Salem. Perhaps one of the dozens of empty properties now held by the Salem Redevelopment Authority or by the City of Salem could be converted to a new library, restoring some of what was lost. Don’t count on that happening soon.