Construction in Blubber Hollow. March Update

Progress on two ongoing major building projects in Blubber Hollow continues apace, despite a string of horrific nor’easters that flooded all parts of Blubber Hollow.

Flooded Bridge St

Bridge St looking towards Gallows Hill, March 4 nor-easter

Since last visited the Salem Senior Center (ahem Community Life Center) has been fully buttoned up, the roof finished, and HVAC machinery placed on the roof.


Rear View

Inside, unseen in the outside shots, nearly all the electrical, plumbing, and duct work have been installed. Wallboard is ready to go up, and with nice weather approaching soon workers will head outside and put up the final siding. Progress is on track to open the Life Center by the end of summer.


Looking from rear of Center towards Gallows Hill

Across Bridge Street the apartment building going up where the Flynn Tan tannery once sat, has started to be built upward. It took two months to enclose the ground floor garage along Goodhue St and to build the elevator / utility shaft. The first floor is done, with three more floors to follow.000_0298.JPG

On the other side of the site, along Boston St, the foundations for the six townhouses part of the project have been poured. 000_0299Soon framing of the townhouses will begin. By the time of the next report it is expected that both the apartment building and townhouses will be fully framed, rendering the building visible from all parts of Gallows Hill.

How Salem lost its Density Mojo. Part 1.

Previous posts have harped upon that the revelation that the last century of “development” has brought no “growth” to Salem, in that its population today is the same as a century ago. In other words, population density is half today what it was a century ago, implausible to anybody stuck in Salem traffic.

Which raises the obvious question – where the hell did all those people live?

It may be true that people did live in more crowded quarters a century ago, in large multi-generational families, often with boarders besides. And single family houses on expansive lots were uncommon. But those factors, though appreciable, cannot by themselves account for the drop in density.

The Real Answer: parking lots and street widening devoured housing.

In dozen of locations across Salem, residential buildings were torn down to make space for cars, to park them, to drive them. Replacing these lost housing units was never a consideration, until the last few years. Several “then and now” examples illustrate just how much was discarded.

Church Street LotChurch St Lot then and now

First up is perhaps the most infuriating example, the block between Church and Federal Streets south to north, St. Peter and Washington Streets east to west. A victim of the benighted urban renewal push of the late 1960’s, the area is now the Church St parking lot, with space for hundreds of cars.

A quick count of the late 19th century “Then” map finds 30+ houses lost. Given that most were 3+ stories, and estimating 15 persons per house, gives possibly 500 people displaced, in just that one block. Given nowhere to go, most of the displaced likely departed Salem for good.

The only buildings to survive, outlined in blue, were the former central firehouse with its striking lookout tower and the adjoining Salem Water Commission office, now repurposed as the Firehouse Coffee Shop (what else?) and Milk and Honey Green Grocer, respectively. In the red outline was built the Salem District Courthouse, a hideous example of Brutalist architecture (among other oversights were windows and natural sunlight) that itself is destined to be demolished and replaced by appealing condominiums, should problems with toxic material buried at the site be overcome from when the lot was a “lubritorium”.

The promise of urban renewal was that developers would scramble to fill the area with “outstanding” modern replacements, but proponents failed to comprehend that if there were no impetus for expansive projects before clearing, there would certainly be no impetus after. And there was none.

Though other nearby lots have been slowly filled over the 50 years since urban renewal sucked the heart out of historic Salem, this block remains impermeable to development. So far as can be determined, there’s never been a serious proposal. The infuriation is that the Museum Place Garage sits across Church St, which outside of October rarely passes 50% occupancy. Why park there when the more convenient surface lot bids attention? Until the surface lot is displaced the parking garage, which barely generates enough revenue to maintain upkeep, will remain underused.

North Street Overpass
North St Overpass then and now

The next example, also downtown, is an area that fell victim to both street widening and house clearing, the Bridge St / North St intersection. Building of the North Street Overpass in the early 1950’s not only took out the historic Old North Bridge, site of Leslie’s Retreat in 1775, but necessitated removal of scores of buildings along North and Bridge Streets (marked with dotted blue line), displacing hundreds of residents and dozens of businesses. Worse, building of a cumbersome half-cloverleaf to connect Bridge St to North St removed Odell St. from the map forever, and took out the North Street Arena (round red building in the 1911 map), home to roller skating, boxing and wrestling events. Talk about losing your mojo!

To appraise how much was lost, note that the FW Webb building, now right next to the North Street cloverleaf, a hundred years ago had dozens of structures between it and North Street.

The part of the cloverleaf nearer courthouse row was removed almost a decade ago to make room for construction of the new Salem Courthouse. The former Baptist Church (large red building just outside dotted line) was moved closer to North St and incorporated into the Ruane Courthouse as the Essex Law Library.

The overpass was built to eliminate the railroad grade crossing at a time when trains to and from Peabody passed frequently. But with only one small freight train a week passing through the overpass has long outlived its usefulness, and hinders traffic between downtown and North Salem. For a multitude of reasons it needs to come down, but that’s a topic for a future post.

St James Church campusSt James then and now

The next example is notable because the offender was the Catholic Church, showing that not only government organizations were to blame for sundering Salem. Behind the St James Church and former St. James School is an immense parking lot along Bridge St, where once there were a half dozen houses. Even worse, a past forgotten widening of Flint Street took out a handful of homes between the church and the street. Not all that many homes lost here, but dammit, generations lived in those homes.

That parking lot today is never filled, outside of the occasional funeral service. Only a few dozen dispirited and general elderly parishioners attend weekly services, even after the St. Joseph’s congregation in The Point (obliterated) and the St. John the Baptist Polish congregation (downsized to the John Paul II Divine Mercy Shrine) downtown were folded into St. James. This white elephant of a church cannot hold on for many more years. To make up somewhat for the lost housing the former rectory on Federal St has been converted into apartments, and the former convent is being condo-ized. Perhaps shortly the school and the church itself will follow? Desperately needed housing, after all, is a higher purpose.

Coyotes Prowl Gallows Hill – Be Careful with Your Pet

All winter long posters like the one below have been appearing on utility poles around Gallows Hill. When walking my dogs must pass a dozen of them.Lost Cat posterNot just cats either. Lost dogs too.

WARNING: There is a coyote den in Gallows Hill Park. Been there several years now. They dine on the plentiful rabbits and squirrels in the park, but will not miss a chance to turn you pet into an appetizer. Coyotes have been spotted walking throughout the park, and on nearby streets in Gallows Hill and Witchcraft Heights. And it’s not just Gallows Hill; coyotes have claimed pets throughout Salem and environs.

They may look cute, like this one below captured on the MIT campus, but they are superbly intelligent killers, no match for your kitty or puppy.  So keep puppy leashed at all times, especially in the park, and don’t let kitty outside, especially not at night and preferably not at all.Coyote at MITThis blog reporter knows whereof. Halloween evening 2016, the park crowded, left my precious Ginger off the leash, and into the maws of a coyote she trotted, feet away from me. Somehow she shook herself free and escaped. Veterinary surgeons sewed her backside back together, and after several tense days in the ICU she recovered. p_00091

So let this photo be lesson learned: NEVER let your pets roam free anywhere near Gallows Hill Park.

Leonard Nimoy In Search of … Shows Gallows Hill Playground

In this wonderful age of “The Internet” all sorts of old videos best left forgotten emerge. In the late 70’s Leonard Nimoy hosted a series exploring the paranormal called “In Search of …“. Advertised as serious documentary, it was actually tongue-in-cheek kitsch. Inevitably attention turned to In Search of … Salem Witches, in an episode originally aired Dec. 13 1980. Filled with gross inaccuracies, (“In 1692, 20 young women were tried and executed for practicing witchcraft…” when it was 13 women and 7 men), attention inevitably turned to the location of the hanging site. Not bothering to do any deep research, and years before the confirmation of Proctor’s Ledge as the site, instead the site plugged was the playground at the top of Gallows Hill Park, blocks away from Proctor’s Ledge and a hundred feet higher.

In search of Salem witches still 1980

In his sonorous voice Nimoy intones “Nearly all of the victims were hung here, on Salem’s Gallows Hill, now an old and deserted playground” while the camera pans the swing set. The swing set is now gone, torn out two years ago after the rusted hulk had become too dangerous to leave standing.  The huge maple tree behind still stands.

It’s neat to consider that Leonard Nimoy, or at least his show producers, once trod the same ground where generations of Gallows Hill children have frolicked. Like the parents of many of those children, who labored in leather factories on Gallows Hill, Nimoy’s grandfather was a leather worker. Nimoy and his tales are deeply missed.

When Salem Highlands was Really Empty

An earlier post showed an aerial view around 1920 looking along Highland Avenue past Gallows Hill and into Witchcraft Heights, courtesy of the wonderful Salem Digest. What was remarkable was the sheer emptiness of that half of Salem. Apart from the newly opened three original buildings of Salem Hospital, now a dozen plus buildings of North Shore Medical Center, there was … absolutely nothing.

Salem Hospital 1920-2

Now Salem Digest has provided another photo of the same area at the same time, when Bertram Field (behind Collins Middle School and Highland Hall of NSMC) was first getting laid out. Again, the sheer emptiness, the wilds. To orient, the photo is taken from atop Jackson St, with Highland Hall and Gallows Hill out of the frame at the right, and Witchcraft Heights to the top right past Salem Hospital. To help with the orientation, here again is the original aerial photo. The new photo would have been taken from just past the bottom left corner of the former photo.Salem Hospital 1920

When compared to the bustle along Highland Avenue today – the endless rows of strip malls, the soul-sucking traffic backups – it might seem that Salem has grown considerably. That is the Ultimate Paradox – Salem has NOT GROWN at all in the past century.

Salem Population Chart

Examine this Salem census plot. From a peak of 43,697 in 1910 Salem’s population entered a long slow decline, hitting a trough of 38,129 in 1990, finally resurging to 42,824 in 2014, still below the peak. That is despite filling in the vast expanses of West and South Salem with tract housing, condo complexes, and big box stores. After a century of churn and bubble, nothing gained, nothing lost.

As seen in the turn-of-the-(19th)-century map below, only about half of Salem’s land area was developed a century ago. Which means, for the math prodigies among us, that Salem’s density was TWICE what it is today.

Salem Map 1891

1891 map of Salem. Neighborhoods delineated.

When this population paradox is explained to friends and neighbors, the first remark is invariably: Where (the hell) did all the people go? That is a matter for a future blog post.

McMansions of Witchcraft Heights. I. Disengaged.

Having explored several Overcooked Homes of Witchcraft Heights, a subcategory of McMansions, time to venture on to to the master category itself, the elusive McMansion of Witchcraft Heights.

The American McMansion has a popular web site dedicated to their silliness and offensiveness: McMansion Hell. Go there to learn more – you won’t regret leaving this page. Daunting is the competition with that blog, the author Kate Wagner having become an internationally famed architectural critic while still in school. McMansions in Salem are few and far between, Salem having come late to the late 20th century suburban Big Bang of sprawl. What few there are are almost exclusively in … wait for it … Witchcraft Heights.

A McMansion is not just a big house, and should not be confused with the elegant and classic Mansions common and beloved in Salem. A McMansion is distinguished from an ordinary Mansion by poor design and craftsmanship (“built big and … built cheap“), by a mish-mosh of architectural styles pasted together (“… a chaotic mix of individual styles”), and by failure to engage with the streetscape or landscape (“dominates rather than accentuates the environment”).

Of those three factors today’s example really only violates the third. But there’s a bonus – this house was just listed for sale (only $700K and 3,200 sqft , certifiably McMansion price and size territory) and so exterior and interior staged photos galore of the already vacant house are online for public consumption.

8 Almeda St

The street view shows that balance and symmetry are maintained. The garage massing on the right balances the great room massing on the left, the central front entryway is symmetrically placed in the front facade.

8 Almeda St 2

A closer street view, a lovely sunset (possibly photographer enhanced) accentuating the frame, shows that the Style is nothing special, possibly “contemporary colonial”, sans shutters. The suspicious Dormer Turret over the door is not the cap to a dreaded two-story “Lawyer Foyer“. Surrounding the front entryway with too much stone and concrete is all too characteristic of McMansions. C’mon a little shrubbery would break up the uninviting massing. The small garden spot by the garage containing nothing but a boulder (!) does not help.

8 Almeda St 3

A backyard view shows nothing but an huge expanse of grass (color touched green by the photographer to hide winter brown), a single lonely shrub in the corner, outstanding example of the McMansion Landscaping Aesthetic  It stands poles apart from ostentatiously landscaped and hardscaped front yard. Not even a patio or deck, nowhere to place the immense BBQ grill requisite of suburbia. The enclosed extension contains only for an extravagantly oversized hot tub, verging on swimming pool dimensions.

8 Almeda St 4

The interior foyer view shows indeed that there is no Lawyer Foyer so characteristic of McMansions, although there is minimal realtor staging (a single potted plant!).

8 Almeda St 5

The garage view. In transit-accessible Salem are four garages, two off the main house and two in a detached carriage house, absolutely essential? Goodness, there is a bus stop to Boston or to downtown Salem just steps away. Ostentatiousness has no bounds.

6&8 Almeda St

So far gets this McMansion gets middling but positive marks on design and style. Where it really passes into McMansion Hell territory is on engagement with its surroundings. First it is set way back on the heights, refusing to engage with its street, bristling with antipathy towards its neighbors. But nohow is the lack of engagement more evident than in this streetview with its neighbor. On one side is a vintage early 20th century side-porched Dutch colonial, engaged with the sidewalk and passersbys, exuberant garden commanding attention; on the other side, a distant emotionless McMansion. Nowhere is the difference more stark between “New” Witchcraft Heights vs. “Old” Gallows Hill.

Reasons for McMansion designation: 1) no engagement with street or neighborhood; 2) Sea of turf grass + single tree in back yard; 3) whopping two 2-car garages; 4) front access almost entirely pavement.

Close with an appropriate quote:

“…the McMansion is the ultimate form of the type of house-fussery. They are designed to impress others, to serve as material, architectural signifiers of the American aesthetic ideal of financial security and social success. They … create isolation (every space is demarcated and communal spaces are for once-a-year “entertainment” rather than day-to-day familial existence), anti-social sentiments (distance from city/town centers/neighbors, gated communities, hostile HOAs), and waste (the power bill, suburban sprawl, interior space wasted on empty architectural gestures, e.g. the great room or the lawyer foyer).” — Kate Wagner, McMansion Hell.




Overcooked Homes of Witchcraft Heights. IV. Federal Longings.

To refresh, an Overcooked Home has been defined on this blog as a subcategory of McMansion House, a tract house “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 soulless.”

A McMansion is not just a big house. A McMansion is distinguished from an ordinary Mansion by poor craftsmanship (“built big and … built cheap“), by a mish-mosh of architectural styles pasted together (“… a chaotic mix of individual styles”), and by failure to engage with the streetscape or landscape (“dominates rather than accentuates the environment”). Architectural principles like symmetry and balance and rhythm are excluded altogether.

Overcooked homes are especially common in the Witchcraft Heights neighborhood behind Gallows Hill, and non-existent elsewhere in Salem, for reasons speculated upon before. Previous examples were unquestionably ugly, little thought given to style or symmetry. Today’s example seems more demure, but close examination shows violations tilting it towards McMansion staus.

3 Gallows Circle

What began as a modest colonial has been expanded with a large extension out into the side of the lot (and another extension out the back not visible in Google StreetView). At first glance it would seem to have been birthed as a raised ranch, what with the massive too-big-by-half entry stairway (a minor quibble), but the front door at a level with the first floor, not between floors, marks it as suburban colonial.

There is symmetry and balance throughout the front facade, no windows off-centered as in previous examples, entryway prominant not invisible, roof lines and styles match. So far does not qualify as an Overcooked Home.

However, there are displeasing incongruities. Note the small paned sash windows throughout, meant as an homage to Federal style so prevalent in older parts of Salem. There is distressing inconsistency in their usage, as note six-over-six double, six-over-six single, eight-over-eight, even twelve-over-twelve (over the garage) sash windows. Even windows that should be functional and not stylish, the basement windows (three-over-three), and almost hilariously the garage door slit windows (three-over-three with arches), make the effort.

Now these cannot be real Federal style sash windows. They must be double-glazed sash windows that mimic traditional style using plastic muntins glued to the glass surface, giving the appearance of many smaller panes when each sash contains only one large double-glazed unit. At least give credit to trying to follow traditional style, though execution fails.

Staying with the windows, there are shutters only on the side extension, not on any windows on the main facade. What’s up with that? Tradition Colonial style requires shutters. Construction budget exceeded?

It takes a while to catch on, but the siding on the main facade, wide plank, clashes with the thin plank siding on the side extension and on the side walls. Did ya think nobody would notice? Again, construction budget exceeded?

So overall rating, not two thumbs down 👎👎 as with previous examples here of Overcooked Homes of Witchcraft Heights, but certainly not two thumbs up 👍👍 either. One of each 👍👎.




Dedication of Charlotte Forten Legacy Hall at SSU

On February 28,  the President and Faculty of Salem State University dedicated and opened the new Charlotte Forten Room in Meier Hall on Lafayette Street, in what until a few months ago was the President’s Office. There had been a Charlotte Forten Hall in the former university library, but that closed when the building was torn down after the opening of the new library. The saved artifacts were placed in the new more expansive room, explaining the subtitle of the program: Bringing Her Back Home.

Charlotte Forten Dedication Program

To those out of the know, the accomplishments of Charlotte Forten were many and deep – poet, essayist, teacher, journalist, activist, a co-founder of what eventually evolved into the NAACP. Her activism as both abolitionist and suffragette make the opening of the Legacy Room on the last day of Black History Month and the onset of Women’s History Month appropriate (though from conversations with faculty at the dedication the selected date was more serendipitous than planned).

Charlotte Forten Dedication Bookmark

What makes her legacy resonant in Salem: she was the first African-American graduate of Salem Normal School, in only its second graduating class, the institution that in 1932 became Salem Teachers College, in 1968 Salem State College, and eventually in 2010 Salem State University. The quote on the program bookmark above was from her journal when she moved as a 17-year-old from Philadelphia to Salem. Her position as a female college graduate in the mid-19th century was less than resonant, as Salem Normal School was women only, not going coeducational until 1898.

Epes School SAL_188

What makes her legacy resonant on Gallows Hill, and hence a recurrent entry on this blog, is that her first teaching position, 1856-58, was at Epes Grammar School on Gallows Hill. She was the first African American hired to teach white students in a Massachusetts public school. And possibly in the entire US; records are hazy. Another feather in the cap for progressive 19th century Salem, an abolitionist hotbed at the time. Gallows Hill at the time was flooding with Irish immigrants fleeing from the famine, working in Blubber Hollow tanneries that were then consolidating from tiny home shops. Charlotte Forten was the first American teacher for many children of those immigrants.

Even more remarkable, the Epes School (variously Eppes in records; mid-19th century orthography was more fluid), is still standing. There it is above, at 7 Aborn St Ct (also 21R Aborn St or 10 Bow St), in a vintage photograph taken for MACRIS in the mid-1970s looking from Bow St, obviously long after conversion to apartments (note bathroom windows on second floor; mid-19th century schools had outhouses, not plumbing).

7 Aborn St Ct

Epes School today, perspective from Aborn St Ct

Yet more remarkable, the Epes school is likely the oldest school building extant in Salem. Built in 1841, it exhibits the typical elements of early 19th century school design – four classrooms back-to-back, two up, two down; wood frame construction with clapboard siding; tiny schoolyard (the sprawling ball fields so typical of modern schools was a mid-20th century innovation); no frills uninterrupted facade. Such schools were not built to last; that one still remains on Gallows Hill seems almost miraculous.

13 Fowler St

Fowler St School today

Only one other school building of the vintage of the Epes School still stands, the Fowler St School in the McIntire District, now condos, which has the identical two-by-two structure of the Epes School, but for which an exact construction date cannot (yet) be pinpointed. Later 19th-century schools were constructed of more permanent brick and exhibited  more elaborate facades. Several of them still stand: Cogswell School on School St in North Salem (now condos); Phillips School facing the Salem Common (now affordable apartments), Bentley School in the former Polish district on the Waterfront (now luxury condos), Endicott School in Blubber Hollow (now family services).

The Charlotte Forten Room is free and open to the public during regular university hours.