The FlynnTan Tannery in Blubber Hollow

A feature article on the North Shore in National Geographic nearly 40 years past (April 1979) prominently featured operations at the FlynnTan tannery. The sweat, the steam,  the stink, the dankness almost leaps out of the photo.

FlynnTan factory
The date of the photo in 1979 seems off, as the FlynnTan plant suffered a major fire, reputedly arson, in Aug 1976 that destroyed its oldest building, a late 19th century brick building on Boston St. supposedly the birthplace of American Shoe Machinery Corp, a firm that still exists. With half the plant gone, leather manufacturing continued fitfully in the remaining large 4-story wooden building on the other side of the site along Goodhue St. So the photo could have been taken before the 1976 fire and saved for the early 1979 article, or maybe it is contemporary with the article and illustrates the tedious non-automated processes in leather manufacturing still existent even in late 20th century. There is no mention of North Shore tanneries in the National Geographic article besides this sole photo, so why the magazine editors included it is a puzzle.

Either way, tanneries in Salem were doomed, even before the fire kicked FlynnTan in the gut. The remaining half of the plant puttered on for another decade before closing for good in 1988 upon declaration of bankruptcy. The plant degraded further, home to vagrants and druggies, taxes unpaid, fires common, before an EPA cleanup in 1998 cleared the way for demolition of the old wood building in late 1999, leaving a runt of a brick building along Boston St standing, the gold FlynnTan logo atop the chimney tower visible to travelers into Salem a long ways down the Boston St entryway. In the new century legal proceedings dragged on for years before the City of Salem finally took possession.

FlynnTan Fire

Salem Firefighters respond to fire at runt of FlynnTan plant. Again

Even then redevelopment was snake bit. The first idea was to rebuild as mixed light manufacturing, but that proposal went nowhere before the first developer handed off  the site to the next applicant. The next plan was to build a large medical clinic, taking advantage of proximity to the North Shore Medical Center, but that floated balloon deflated when it was realized that the half-dozen other medical clinics closer to NSMC were already more than Salem needed. Finally the last plan, years having passed, was for a mixture of townhouses and an apartment building with first floor retail, now under construction.

FlynnTan Development 2

FlynnTan Town Houses along Boston St under construction in Blubber Hollow

FlynnTan Development 1

FlynnTan Apartment along Goodhue St under construction in Blubber Hollow

John Flynn started his leather business in 1920, bringing his three sons and daughter into business with him. It remained a Flynn family business until the end in 1988. The original plant employed a mere 18 persons making 100 dozen skins a day, expanding to a peak of 300 persons in the wartime boom of 1945. The plant initially produced leather for men’s slippers and sweat bands for the hat trade, switching after WWII to produce sheepskins and lambskins for the shoe industry, especially shoe linings.

FlynnTan Jacket

During WWII FlynnTan expanded into cowhide leather to produce Air Force products, such as bombardier jackets, still seen on the internet under the FlynnTan logo.FlynnTan Jacket label

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Construction in Blubber Hollow. January Update

Progress on two ongoing major building projects continues apace, despite horrific weather sprouting ice monsters nearby. Since last visited the Salem Senior Center (ahem Community Life Center) has gained a roof, sprouted windows on all sides, 000_0291and been “buttoned up” sufficiently to let plumbing, electrical and HVAC contractors do interior work without undue exposure. 000_0290

On the other half of the site, not visible in the photo, ground preparation continues for the Gateway Center, with groundbreaking planned for late spring.

Across Bridge Street apartment construction at the former Flynn Tan site also proceeds although progress not as dramatic. 000_0289Framing of the ground floor, what will be the parking garage, is completed with the floor above ready to pour as soon as weather cooperates. It seems that the remaining three floors will be wood frame construction, not the steel frame construction of the ground floor. It’ll be seen in the February update how far that framing will have progressed.

Great Salem Fire Origin – Then & Now

In the early afternoon of June 25, 1914, the fire began when the Korn Leather Co. factory at 55 Boston St. blew up. Before the conflagration was brought under control almost a day later (what is now Pickering Wharf smoldered for weeks after) nearly a third of central Salem was gone: all of The Point neighborhood, nearly all of the Mill Hill neighborhood, much of the South Salem neighborhood along Lafayette St, a slice of the McIntire District (narrowly missing famously elegant Chestnut St), and portions of downtown Salem along the Derby St waterfront.

Gone were many institutions: half of the tanneries that provided a substantial chunk of jobs and tax revenue for Salem: the Pequot Mills cotton plant that employed the other half of the Salem labor force not laboring in the tanneries; Salem Hospital on Charter St downtown, young then and suddenly absent; and even two fire stations, one at the end of Essex St rebuilt soon after and still operating, and one that occupied what is now Lafayette Park in The Point.

Given this history it is entertaining to view this day-after photograph of the origin site, Salem Fire Origintaken from the crest of Proctor’s Ledge of Gallows Hill. What’s left of the Korn Leather factory fills the central portion of the photograph, spectators along Proctor St shaking their heads at the damage. An apartment building and a factory across Proctor St are destroyed, but most of the destruction was to the right of the frame of the photograph, spreading first along Boston St then Jackson St. into Mill Hill, crossing the railroad tracks (narrowly missing the train station where Riley Plaza now lies) and spreading through neighborhoods along Salem Harbor.

More entertaining is to see what became of the area in the photograph. In this annotated Gallows Hill Fire Annotatedimage can be seen what buildings stand there now. The Korn tannery was rebuilt in the same location, decades later going out of business, and the entire lot dispiritedly now occupied by a Walgreen’s. Dispiritedly, because perhaps the two most hallowed sites in Salem, the Great Fire Memorial and the Proctor’s Ledge Witchcraft Trials Memorial, both sit in the parking lot of a chain pharmacy. Across Boston St was built the Hygrade Lamp factory, which stood almost 80 years before being torn down, the long-standing vacant lot soon to be filled by the Gateway Center of apartments and retail outlets.

Across Proctor St the apartment building at 65 Boston St was amazingly rebuilt and is now condos. Amazingly, because look at the damage, the building was gutted. Though the missing roof was replaced not by a gable roof to match its neighbor but was squared off adding a full fourth floor to half the building. The small tannery at 6 Proctor St was not rebuilt but was replaced by a two-family house still standing.

Diagonally across the intersection the site where horse carts are parked at the confluence of Boston and Goodhue Streets is now the parking lot for an outlet of the ubiquitous Dunkin Donuts. Across Goodhue St the tannery then there was replaced at the onset of the 21st century by a Public Storage building.

Examining the area now from the same crest of Proctor’s Ledge from where the photo was taken, what stands out is how concentrated was the area then, how dispersed now. It is a theme this blog has hit up before, and will hit again – Salem of a century ago was twice as dense as it is presently.

A single-story Walgreen’s occupies a full block where three multi-story factories once stood. The Gateway Center to be built in the coming year, while seemingly large (four-stories, 117-units), will be about half the size of the Hygrade plant that once filled the site. Three multi-story buildings once filled the triangle where a small single-story Dunkin Donuts now sits. Even the seemingly substantial Public Storage building is much smaller than the immense five-story building on the site in 1914.

As the Joni Mitchell song tells:

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone
They paved paradise Salem
And put up a parking lot.

 

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.

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Decrepit remains of Salem Oil and Grease

Watch this blog for regular construction updates.

Rare photo of Hygrade Lamp Co in Blubber Hollow

After searching high and low for months for an image of the former Sylvania plant at 50-60 Boston Street in Blubber Hollow, the front end of Gallows Hill, been able to uncover just one, hiding in the Nelson Dionne Collection in the Salem State University Archives Flickr collection. Nelson Dionne is a local amateur historian, whose recently donated his collection of thousands of photos, restaurant menus, postcards, and other bric-a-brac to Salem State University, where they are slowly getting scanned and digitized. Some 450 items scanned so far, so SSUL still has far to go, meaning that further images of Gallows Hill and Blubber Hollow may yet turn up online.

Hygrade plant Boston St

Sylvania Employees Watch Salem Soldiers March off to World War I

The plant was built in 1916, on land left barren by the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and was then the Hygrade Lamp Company, the first firm to apply principles of assembly line manufacture to the manufacture of incandescent light bulbs. In 1931 Hygrade merged with Sylvania first forming Hygrade Sylvania, becoming in 1942 simply Sylvania Electric Products, then after a 1959 merger with General Telephone becoming GTE Sylvania. Sylvania née Hygrade was once among the largest employers in Salem, surpassed only by the Pequot Mills textile plant on the other side of Salem in The Point neighborhood.

The plant closed in 1993 following the buyout of Sylvania by Osram GmbH of Germany, and was demolished several years thereafter. After lying empty for 20+ years, construction of the Gateway Center of apartments and a new Salem Senior Center has finally begun this year on the former Hygrade site.

Returning to the photo, the orientation of the plant is along Boston Street, with Bridge Street just visible hooking off at the left and Federal Street out of view to the right, with roofs of several homes of the McIntire District partially visible beyond. The Hygrade plant would have only been a year old at the time of the photo. Hundreds of new employees hang out of windows and even stand on the roof, filled with patriotic fervor and waving to the soldiers marching along Boston Street.

The photo had to be taken from atop Proctor’s Ledge, looking east towards downtown. Most telling are the ruins in the foreground, all that remains of the Korn Leather Co. factory at 55 Boston St., the ignition site of the Great Salem Fire of 1914. Eventually replacement tanneries would fill the site, but at the time the photo the terror of the fire would have been fresh in the minds of the soldiers and all those waving them on. In their own turn the tanneries would go defunct, replaced in the 21st century by a Walgreen’s super-pharmacy, the Great Salem Fire Memorial in one corner of the Walgreen’s parking lot and the Proctor’s Ledge Witchcraft Trials Memorial in the opposite corner.

 

Salem Market in Blubber Hollow knows its customers

The Salem Market, the sole retail operation in North River “Luxury” Apartments at 28 Goodhue St, yea the sole retail establishment in Blubber Hollow, strains to find customers in the desolate area. Despite many plans over many years, this is the only apartment building in Blubber Hollow. But the proprietor, Aziz Ali, gets plenty of credit for catering to the one strong customer base in Blubber Hollow, the Massachusetts Registered Marijuana Dispensary around the corner at 50 Grove St. Though Salem Market appears a conventional convenience store from the outside, inside are racks and racks of bongs, pipes, hookahs and other paraphernalia. Yes, the Salem Market, despite the bland name, is a head shop, the most expansive in Salem.

It’s more than gear. Notice the shelf of Cheez-Its above one display case, and not pictured is a rack of Doritos across from another display case. Does the place cater to its neighbor or what?

A shrewd business placement, as there are not enough Blubber Hollow residents, yet, to drive sufficient foot traffic to the store otherwise. But Salem Market is placing a bet on the future. If all planned construction in the area ever gets completed there will be hundreds of apartments, and hundreds more customers, within sight of the front door. Until then the store is just holding on, and three other retail storefronts in the North River Apartment building remain unfilled. So if visiting the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial, just two blocks distant, please patronize the Salem Market.

If the legislature and governor ever get their act together on legalization of marijuana sales, approved by a ballot proposition last year, then the number of potheads passing the Salem Market will grow, as the medical marijuana dispensary is sure to petition to become an outlet for recreational marijuana. Fingers crossed.

Salem Market

Google street view of Salem Market. Note decrepit building adjacent. Medical marijuana dispensary just to the left of photo view

 

Ghosts of Blubber Hollow

Along the North River in Salem, in front of Gallows Hill, is the ancient neighborhood of Blubber Hollow, named for the rendering of whales in that area in the mid-

 

17th century. By the mid-19th century Blubber Hollow was the center of the Leather Industry in America, filled at its peak with dozens of tanneries. In the 2nd half of the 20th century the industry collapsed, tanneries abandoned. Now in the 21st century all that is left are forlorn empty lots and spectacular ruins, as these photos attest.

 

For decades now plans have been afoot to demolish these derelict buildings and replace them with sprightly apartments and thriving businesses. Alas, apart from one new apartment building on Goodhue St, and the settling of a medical marijuana outlet on Grove St, nothing has become of these plans. The buildings rust and molder, visited only by daring urban spelunkers and lived in only by addled homeless with nowhere else to go.

The problem, as this blogger sees it, is the old bugaboo of density. Nearby residents refuse any building big enough to justify clearing the brownfield sites, but small buildings cannot economically justify clearing the brownfield sites. And there the matter lies. Unless and until residents accept density, the only long-term residents will be rats.

 

Anniversary of Great Salem Fire June 25

Late by several days due to inattention, but let’s note here June 25 was the 103rd anniversary of the Great Salem Fire of 1914. The fire began with the explosion of the Korn leather tanning factory at 57 Boston St in the Blubber Hollow region of the Gallows Hill Neighborhood, just underneath the now famous Proctor’s Ledge, the spot where 19 innocents were hung for accusations of witchcraft through the summer of 1692.

Great Fire 1914 start

The 1914 fire soon after it started

In this photo, taken from the vantage point on a tannery on Goodhue St shortly after the fire began, the flames have already spread east along Boston St., pushed along by a stiff wind. Soon the flames would jump across Boston St, taking out the factories and houses in the middle of the photo. Hours later the conflagration would only subside when it reached Salem harbor, after taking out about a third of Salem, razing 1376 buildings and leaving 18,000 homeless. The tanneries in the right foreground were untouched, protected by the stiff wind pushing flames in the other direction. In the photo the position of Proctor’s Ledge is already obscured by heavy smoke.

The site of the Korn Leather Factory in the 21st century is occupied by a Walgreen’s Pharmacy, seemingly oblivious to its central position in local history, a monument dedicated to the Great Fire in one corner of the parking lot, and a new monument dedicated to those executed in 1692 catty-cornered across the lot.