A Plethora of Salem Libraries. III. North Branch.

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.

5 School St

Former Cogswell School, home of North Branch Library 1910-1934

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.

176 North St side view

Former North Branch Library today

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.”

Cabot Farms Entrance

Gate on Orne St marks entrance to private Cabot Farms


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.



A Plethora of Salem Libraries. II. South Branch.

As noted in an earlier post, unbeknownst to most Salemites, is that 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.

South Branch Library 1913-1986

The first iteration of the South Branch library opened in 1910 in a room in the firehouse in The Point region of South Salem, in the triangle opposite St. Joseph’s Church on Lafayette St, now Lafayette Park. The firehouse room, being over a stable, was found “entirely unsuitable for library purposes”, and the library quickly moved to a room in the Browne School on nearby Ropes St. In the same year, thinking ahead, library trustees purchased a lot of land further south on Lafayette on the southwest corner of Ocean Ave, the former site of Ezekiel Hershey Derby‘s farmhouse.

Ezekiel Hersey Derby Farm 1800

Ezekiel Hershey Derby Farmhouse c. 1800

Boston architect Clarence H. Blackall designed a striking Neoclassical building, and the new South Branch library opened to the public on April 11, 1913. South Branch was the first branch of Salem’s library system to occupy its own quarters. The timing of the opening was fortuitous, as the Great Salem Fire a year later on June 25 1914 wiped out the entire Point neighborhood, including the Browne School and to the everlasting chagrin of Salem firefighters, the firehouse itself. A replacement firehouse was eventually built deeper into South Salem at 64 Loring Ave, which still operates today.

From Salem Evening News Thursday Apr 10 1913:
“This beautiful new building, which is the first branch of the public library to occupy its own quarters, is ideal in its appointments and is the forerunner of what the trustees of the library hope to duplicate in the other sections of the city eventually … The lighting is ideal. The reading room is provided with seven large windows, the stack section has six, while over the librarian’s desk is a skylight of prism glass. This makes the place as light as the proverbial day.”

The good feelings lasted a considerable time but alas were not forever. Citing low usage, at the end of 1984 Library trustees voted to shut down the South Branch public library at the end of January 1985. Protests by the affected community kept the South Branch library a while longer than planned, but eventually the South Branch Library closed forever in June of 1986, the second of three branch libraries to close. The closing of the East Branch library followed it by a year; the closing of North Branch preceded it by almost a decade. Holdings were transferred to the Main Branch library on Essex St in the McIntire District.

Unlike the East Branch, which languished empty and unsold for nearly a decade after its closing and finally sold at fire sale pricing, the South Branch sold quickly. Today the beautiful edifice is a posh spa and salon, with prices more apt for Newbury Street than South Salem. Photos inside and out show that the elegance of the building remains. How could Salem give away such a jewel?

South Branch library today

Former South Branch Library, Ocean Ave side

290 Lafayette St

Former South Branch Library, Lafayette Ave side

The proceeds from the quick sale were used to defray repair costs at the Main Branch library, which decades later is still in dire need of repair, although Salem has run out of spare libraries to sell.


A Plethora of Salem Libraries. I. East Branch.

Unbeknownst to most Salemites, even old-timers like this blog reporter, is that 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.

East Branch Library 1910-1987

The first quarters of the East Branch was the “wardroom” inside the Phillips School at 77 Washington Square South, also 86 Essex St on the back side, facing the Salem Common. And no, no more idea than anyone else what is a “wardroom”. Quarters were cramped, the facility doubling as the school library, at a time when schools did not have libraries or librarians. The building still stands, now converted to affordable family housing operated by the Salem Housing Authority.

Phillips School Today

Former Phillips School today

And the hordes of passionate fans of the silly Hocus Pocus Disney movie know it as Jacob Bailey High School where Max first met Alison and where the three Sanderson witches get locked into a kiln, only to escape as spirits through the chimney and resume havoc upon forthright children of Salem. The movie was filmed in 1992 just after the Phillips School closed for good, but before it was converted into affordable housing, perhaps the most elegant affordable housing around.

77 Washington Sq - Hocus Pocus

Phillips School in Hocus Pocus

In 1924 rehabilitation of the Phillips School pushed the East Branch library out temporarily, returning on Jan 12, 1925 to “a large well-lighted and attractive room in the newly renovated Phillips School”.

In 1962 the Bentley School on upper Essex St, built in 1869, was replaced by the new Bentley Elementary School on Memorial Drive on Salem Neck, recently repurposed as the Bentley Academy Charter School. No longer needed as a school, the building was acquired from the City of Salem and converted into a new East Branch library, opening on August 10, 1964 at 50½ Essex St. (Half addresses are another commonplace curiosity of Salem, to be contemplated in future posts). And by conversion, we mean wholescale revamping.

Bentley School pre-library

East Branch Library Building pre-1962

The top two floors of what was an elegant Second Empire building were lopped off, mansard roof and all, leaving a squat and unappealing flat box of a building. The front door was moved to an uninviting side alley such that passersby could not readily find the entrance.

50 Essex St

East Branch Library Building today

“Twelve years ago it was a three-story red brick school house…Today it is a bustling modern one-story library.” (Salem Evening News, 10/20/76).

The East Branch Library flourished for another quarter century,  more than a book depository, serving as a center for the Polish immigrant community around it.

“For many years the library has maintained a ‘Polish Collection’ … The concept of a library has changed through the years, from a repository of books to an active community resource with books, records, paperbacks, films, art and programs … Now the rooms of the library ring with the sounds of preschool story corners, after-school films, wycinanki demonstrations [n.b. a form of decorative paper art], Marx Brothers films, handicraft workshops, business discussion and seminars for women.” (Salem Evening News, 10/20/76).

But the slap-dash conversion eventually caught up. The roof leaked prodigiously, and lacking funds to cover extensive repairs, in February 1987 the trustees of the Salem Public Library decided to close the East Branch library, the last of three branch libraries to close. With its closing a hole was ripped into the community fabric. All holdings were moved to the Main Branch in the McIntire District, and the building was put up for sale.

The story from there gets weirder and sadder. An original listing of the building at $190K drew no bidders. For a while in the early 90’s there was a quixotic attempt to convert it to a planetarium. When that fell through, the building was relisted at $96K and again drew no bidders. In serious decay now, infested by vermin and inhabited by homeless, the city finally accepted a sale in 1996 at the rock-bottom price of $32K, to a local developer who converted the building in 1997 to, what else, condominiums. Twenty years later the condos there now appraise at half million each. Ouch.

One contemporary curiosity is that Congressman Seth Moulton resides, since May 2017, in the former East Branch library, in a unit facing Forrester Street. Wonder if he’s aware of the immense history.





Charlotte Forten Dedication

Charlotte Forten, the first African-American graduate of the Salem Normal School, the predecessor of Salem State University, had a long and remarkable career as abolitionist, suffragette, teacher, poet, writer, and more. What brings her to the attention of this blog is that her first teaching assignment after graduating in 1856 was at the Epes Grammar School on Aborn Street Court on Gallows Hill, the school itself long gone but the building still extant, now apartments.

Charlotte Forten Dedication

In honor of this illustrious alumnae SSU long had a Charlotte Forten Hall in the library. With the building of the new university library that room was closed, its historical artifacts packed away into storage. After absence of a few years, SSU is restoring The Charlotte Forten Legacy Room in a dedication ceremony on February 28, the last day of Black History Month. The ceremony is open to the public, but prior registration is required.

On display will be images, photos and artifacts of Charlotte Forten’s legacy. Perhaps there will even be images of her time spent teaching on Gallows Hill.

Gallows Hill Distillery Opens

From the annals of C’mon Really!? arrives this report of the opening of the Gallows Hill Distillery, not in Salem MA, which would have some perverse justification, but in of all places, Allentown PA. Which makes about much sense as a Billy Joel themed karaoke bar in Salem MA.Gallows Hill Spirits Co

There is some justification:

“In 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, my eight-times great grandfather was accused and arrested for witchcraft,” [owner Bob] Piano explained. “He was later hanged on Gallows Hill on Sept. 22, 1692.”

Explaining why “Behind the bar will be a replica of the 17th century house of Jonathan Corwin, one of the judges of the trials.”

Now Sept. 22 was the last and busiest of the execution dates in 1692, with eight unjustly accused hanged but only one male, Samuel Wardwell, who “is the eight-times great-grandfather to American actor Scott Foley and to American author Anne Greenwood Brown.” So Mr. Piano has competition in the descendants game. That wikipedia line would seem to have been contributed by Mr. Piano himself.

Samuel Wardwell was a common carpenter with a penchant for predictions. He often claimed the ability to read the future in tea leaves and made a practice of predicting the genders of the towns’ unborn children. After several of these predictions came to pass, he became known as the Soothsayer of Andover. These were dangerous times to behave in such a manner.

Spirits puns continue with the naming of the fine spirits obtainable at the Gallows Hill Distillery, which include Soothsayer VodkaMoonstone Rune pictured above, and even Tituba’s Silver.

Might there be other common products that brand with the Gallows Hill name? A cursory Google search finds disappointingly few. There is expectedly enough a Gallows Hill Brewing Co. offering “all natural & interesting beer of exceptional quality to discerning palettes” but that is even further afield in Cape Town South Africa, with no discernable connection to Salem MA. Of course there are many potboiler dime novels that abscond the Gallows Hill name, a homemade Gallows Hill recording to be found on YouTube, and of course the “top rated” but still kitschy Gallows Hill Museum/Theatre in downtown Salem.

But that’s it. What, no Gallows Hill dark roasted coffee, no Gallows Hill heavy metal album, no Gallows Hill tattoo and piercing parlor, no Gallows Hill winery. C’mon, the opportunities are endless. 😉

McIntire Privilege. VII. No Go Zone for Affordable Housing.

After a long hiatus a return to the theme of McIntire Privilege. To those new to this blog, McIntire Privilege is the thesis that residents of the McIntire District of Salem gain benefits, to the detriment other neighborhoods in Salem, without ever being conscious of said benefits.

Now this one is perhaps splitting hairs, but when researching another planned post could not help but notice that there did not seem to be any affordable housing within the McIntire District. So this intrepid blog reporter went and mapped all the affordable housing properties in Salem onto the Salem Chamber of Commerce street map. The graph below shows the result.

Affordable Housing Salem

The most common type is Elderly Housing, most of them managed by the Salem Housing Authority, and sprinkled throughout Salem though prevalent downtown. Though Elderly Housing is the kind of low income housing that neighbors don’t whinge about so much, there is not a unit to be found within the boundaries of the McIntire District demarqued by the dashed gold line. The closest is the J. Michael Ruane Residence, mostly SRO (Single Resident Occupancy), at 3 Broad St on Mill Hill just outside the conventional limits of the McIntire District.

Low Income Family housing of various types (for qualified veterans, for qualified handicapped, or just generic low income family) is also scattered throughout all neighborhoods of Salem, just not within the McIntire District. SRO (i.e. the “undesirables”) properties are few in Salem but naturally enough none cross the boundaries of the McIntire District. Finally, the three mixed low-income / workforce high-rise properties, managed not by the City of Salem but by independent property management firms, keep their distance from the McIntire District.

Salem has a remarkable number of affordable housing properties, almost 30 distributed somewhat evenly throughout all neighborhoods in Salem – Downtown, Gallows Hill, The Point naturally, Mill Hill, West, South and North Salem, as well as both Neck neighborhoods. Even the Common. But not the McIntire District.

It was a bit distressing to note six properties along a half-mile stretch of the Boston St corridor in Gallows Hill, the biggest concentration outside of downtown, even more than the three properties in The Point, which as a low status area would have been expected to be chock full of affordable housing properties. Kudos to the Salem Housing Authority for spreading the burden around. As a long-term resident of Gallows Hill this blogger was unaware that he lived within hailing distance of so much affordable housing. Which just goes to show how well managed are these properties. More kudos to the Salem Housing Authority.

High income exclusive neighborhoods find ways to keep out affordable housing, and it might be that such methods are why affordable housing does not traverse the McIntire District, which prides itself on its exclusivity. Yet the Washington Square neighborhood around the Salem Common is just as exclusive as the McIntire District, but it is home to the handsome yet low income Phillips House family units at 77 Washington Sq. East.84-86-88 Essex St SHADon’t know how it has been done, but somehow the McIntire District has managed to keep out all forms of affordable housing. Could the explanation be…McIntire Privilege?