Content taken from the 1977 Salem Handbook with updated information.
Salem boasts a wealth of architecture spanning four centuries. However, the variety in our built environment can be taken for granted. Indeed, modern history illustrates that at times the vitality of our older buildings has not been a major concern in local decision-making. For instance, Salem’s 1965 urban renewal plan called for the demolition of 145 of 177 downtown buildings and came close to destroying the historic and architectural fabric of the city’s core. Citizen protest halted this original scheme but not before dozens of buildings (surrounding what is now the Church Street parking lot) were destroyed. Once the folly of “urban renewal” was recognized a philosophy followed which gave credence to preservation guidelines and the adaptive reuse of existing commercial buildings was encouraged. Salem’s downtown now reflects a successful integration of old and new buildings and urban spaces.
The neighborhoods matter
In Salem, as in other cities, it is not just the downtown core that should be appreciated. Our older residential neighborhoods contain a legacy that garners their own attention. It is not important if these areas are officially designated as “historic districts.” What is important is their social value, for never again will typical houses be built with such high quality materials and workmanship, and only the slow working of time can create their genuine character. As thousands of visitors flock to our city in search of this country’s roots, we as residents should take note of their interest. Old buildings in all of our neighborhoods can help us understand the importance of our past by providing a shared history and a strong sense of community.
Over the past fifty years Salem and historic preservation have changed in many ways. In the early years of urban renewal “new” was equated with progress and our architectural inheritance was neglected, or destroyed, in the process. Thanks to widespread opposition to traditional “urban renewal” tactics the attitude of city planners evolved in the 1970s, however the urban core continued to lose businesses, value, and residents through the 80s. Slowly, though, with the work of visionary citizens, business owners and residents there began to be reinvestment in downtowns across the nation. In Salem, these efforts have resulted in an urban core that is lively and vibrant. It is surrounded by historic neighborhoods that are attract residents who value the location and quality of life that these areas offer. It is easy to be optimistic about the future as we continue to work toward Salem’s betterment. Yet we must remember that the active reuse of historic buildings requires a thoughtful commitment from all of us. Salem, like other New England communities, must still confront the needs that a modem society requires from an environment of aging buildings. In a prosperous city, change is inevitable, but we should ensure that change respects and reflects the unique character of our historic neighborhoods.
In most cases, it is you, the homeowner, who will ultimately determine whether this character is retained. Only if you carefully consider how renovation or new construction will affect your building and your neighborhood will our older neighborhoods remain livable and attractive. With a click of a button one can access an excess of opinion on how to undertake a historic renovation. The challenge is to separate misguided or inappropriate information from the useful and sound. In an effort to assist you, Historic Salem, Inc. is web-publishing this manual. The content is time tested and reliable. We hope it will be an invaluable resource, guiding you in the care of your house and our city.
Halfway down a by-street of one of our New England towns stands a house on 7 Prescott.
Behind the walls of this simple edifice, the history of one family can be traced. No heads of state were born here. No titans of industry. No sports heroes. Just some commonly uncommon folks – veterans of wars, hard work and raviolis.
This house was built on top of the cooled embers of the Great Salem Fire by my grandfather, Giuseppe Giunta, a Sicilian immigrant who died forty years before I was born. None of us now living ever had the chance to meet him and with only a single solemn portrait to ponder, we have all speculated about his character and his life. What was he like? What did he go through coming to this country, raising such a large brood, buying a house, seeing it burn to the ground eleven days after he paid it off, and then building a completely new one? Just a couple years after his house was constructed he was struck by a motorcycle, hit his head on a trolley track and died on the corner of Lafayette Street and Ocean Ave. All we really know is that he was persistent and incredibly unlucky.
July 22nd would have been my Mom's 100th birthday – she came up just a couple years short. She loved this house her father built. She was born in the same room she eventually died, and in the long stretch of time between those moments she wrapped many a lively conversation here with her laughter. On July 22nd, a Sunday, as is our tradition, a large group of us gathered here to continue those conversations over much food and drink. We thought about Giuseppe, Josephine and the whole lot of Lottas and Giuntas who stamped this place with their spirit.
With the help of Historic Salem, Inc., this place has now been properly marked. We appreciate the recognition. Our history here is not the one that most people associate with Salem, but it is ours. It belongs to a time and place in this city that is usually overlooked. We've been told that this may be the first Historic Salem, Inc. house plaque bearing an Italian name. We hope it starts a trend so that new inhabitants and casual strollers alike will recognize a twentieth-century pattern on the houses of this city's by-streets; will ask questions; will start to understand the Twice-Told Tales that have echoed around the corners of these blue-collar neighborhoods in many languages and that, over time, have become our shared experience.
– Joe Cultrera
In 1977 Historic Salem released the Salem Handbook, as prepared by the architectural firm Anderson Notter, Inc. (now Finegold Alexander). At the time this book was one of the few published resources that provided homeowners with tangible advice on conserving the architectural history and materials of a residential building. Forty years later hundreds of books on home maintenance are supplemented by websites and TV shows with hacks and trends that cover the entire spectrum of rehabilitation. Yet this Salem Handbook, in addition to its nostalgic charm, continues to provide clear, easy to understand information on how to care for a historic home, free from trademarked product links or celebrity branding.
Historic Salem, therefore, presents an ongoing series of posts that will “re-print”, online, the 1977 Handbook, with relevant updates. Information presented is specific to Salem (that’s part of its charm!) but pertinent to any historic homeowner.
Much of the pride we share as residents of this city comes from living in or near old buildings. Our older neighborhoods bring the past alive for residents and visitors alike, creating a legacy to pass on to future generations. We appreciate Salem’s architectural diversity and realize that if it is removed it is unlikely to be replaced. And while taking care of a historic home can be problematic we subscribe to the preservation maxim, espoused by the National Park Service:
“Generally, it is better to preserve than repair,
During home repair and renovation there are often questions about a building’s style, design, upkeep, and sustainable methods and materials. This Salem Handbook web-series will address these major concerns of preservation. First, we want to assist in identifying the stylistic features of Salem houses so that homeowners will take them into consideration before starting renovation and maintenance projects.
Second, we provide design guidelines by suggesting ways a homeowner can treat architectural details, yards, parking areas, and sidewalks so these visible elements will enhance their home and the rest of their neighborhood. Third, we direct attention to the basic structural problems that must be treated to avoid unnecessary deterioration of otherwise sound buildings. Fourth, throughout the series we will address sustainability. Historic buildings have an inherent sustainability and materials and methods used in maintenance and upgrades can further improve this quality.
We are glad you are here. Remember that the future of the built environment depends on what you do to maintain or improve it. Look around you, consider what you see, and work with your neighbors. Salem has been here for nearly 400 years. She has something to say. (This applies to other historic cities and neighborhoods; the beauty of a historic place is that each one has a unique history and therefore message – what is your neighborhood telling you?)
We look forward to sharing these chapters with you in the coming weeks:
A Guide to the Styles
Maintaining Your House
How to Get Things Done in Salem
The area we know today as Salem Common was swampland when the English arrived in Naumkeag in 1626. Over time, they adapted it for public use as a pen for livestock and a training field for the local militia. On November 16, 1713, a group of the proprietors of Salem’s common lands met and voted that the land used as a training field remain “as Itt now layes” for the public use of the town in perpetuity.
In 1801, in an early example of Salem citizens pooling their resources together for the common good (and for the good of the Common), Elias Hasket Derby Jr. led a committee of Salem residents in an effort to raise money for an intensive landscaping project aimed at making Salem Common more accessible to the public. Through the sale of subscriptions, the committee raised over $2,000 to grade and fill the land and plant poplar trees and shrubs. The following year, by order of the town selectmen, the common was renamed Washington Square in honor of the nation’s first President.
Plan of Salem Common, 1800: "Plan of Salem Common made about the year 1800 for the use of the Committee who had the direction in levelling the common & filling up the dirty pond-holes. Gen. Derby was chairman of this Committe & we collected by subscription about 2000[?] to pay the expense." (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)
In 1805, a collection of public and private funds was again taken up for the construction of four ornamental gateways to the common, designed by local architect Salem McIntire (a replica of the arched western gate can be seen today). A little over a decade later, a new wooden fence was erected around the perimeter of the common. This wooden fence and its gates were replaced by a more ornamental fence made of cast-iron in 1850.
Like so many of the things we enjoy in Salem, Salem Common and its historic fence are a result of our community coming together to make this a better place to live and a special place to visit. Salem is a community that has traditionally treasured and protected its unique history and heritage, and that history and heritage are what draws multitudes of people to our city every year. Historic Salem, Inc. supports the City in its efforts to complete a multi-phase restoration project on Salem Common Fence in order to preserve it for future generations. If we lose the fence, we lose another connection to our rich past, and we become a little less special, and a little bit more like any other place.
The statement that a building is just too run down or outdated to be saved is not so much fact as platitude. It tends to be thrown out to the crowd when a developer is faced with funding or permits that hinge on preservation considerations, to defend against a community concerned with losing a treasured building or the character that it brings to the neighborhood. This statement gives the impression that the need for demolition is out of the owner’s control. The audience is led to assume that the owner spent considerable time weighing the options and are just as upset as the rest of us that they have to tear it down. But often what it really means is, “We wanted to use this site for something else and we never really considered using the building at all.”
“This building is too far gone to save” is an easy myth to bust because there are no shortage of vibrant, beautiful buildings that were once incredibly run down. In fact, in the 1960s most of the buildings in downtown Salem were labeled as “blighted,” a technical synonym for “too far gone to save.” The Historic Salem Jail, once almost impossible to imagine as anything other than a jail, now houses incredible, unique apartments. Historic Salem has given preservation awards to many projects with incredible before and after montages, including one of the original farm houses in North Salem.
Claiming a building is “too far gone” gaslights the community. Anyone who questions this claim can be labeled unreasonable and obstructionist; a crazy preservationist opposed to change. Certainly, there are instances when a rehabbing an old building does not make financial sense or does not meet programmatic needs – in which case, the owner or developer should respect their audience, present their rationale and engage in the debate. Imagine a permitting process where the discussion is about value of a project beyond the developer’s financial concerns.
What social, historical and community value does the building have? How can that be incorporated into a project?
What environmental value do existing materials have? Does it outweigh the convenience of demolition?
What social and community development value does the proposed project offer? Does that tip the scale towards a change in the urban fabric?
Analyzing the social calculus of a project ensures that both developer and neighborhood benefit from the steady march of progress. Let’s replace "it's too far gone" with a real conversation about the monetary value and social values of our community.
The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association was founded in 1910 by Salem philanthropist and early historic preservationist Caroline Emmerton. Capitalizing on the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion's connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne (who used it as the setting for his 1851 novel, The House of the Seven Gables), Emmerton rescued the 1668 mansion, restored it, and opened it to the public as a museum, using ticket sales specifically to fund social services for Salem's newly arrived immigrants. Over the past century the Trustees of The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association have followed Emmerton’s leadership and stewardship example. Over time they have acquired and maintained additional historic structures, including the Retire Beckett House (1655), the Hooper-Hathaway House (1682), Hawthorne's Birth Place (c.1750), and the Phippen House (1782). In 2007, the campus was designated a National Historic Landmark District, signifying its high level of historic integrity and the significant role it plays in interpreting 3 ½ centuries' worth of stories relevant not only to the heritage of the region, but to the architectural, economic, literary, and social history of the nation. Most recently the Settlement Association has undertaken stabilization of the Summer beam in the Gables, allowing the dining room to be open to the public as well as more practical projects including four new roofs. Through the efforts of the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association we see an important example of stewardship of our shared history and culture. This year the Gables is proud to celebrate the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion’s 350th anniversary and HSI was proud to present them with an award for a Century of Stewardship.
Another charming accessory structure is found behind the Ropes Mansion. The impeccably restored potting shed accessed through the back gate of the garden adds stature to the professionally kept Ropes garden. The shed started life as a garage in the early 1900s and was moved back from the street when the greenhouse portion was added around the 1930s. After storm damage in 2015, the restoration efforts focused on sourcing old growth tidewather “sinker” Cyprus to replace damaged framing for the glass. Any unbroken material was able to be reused. Proving that details matter, the restoration “wavy” glass installed on vertical surfaces is simple yet stunning. This season the greenhouse and shed will be used for education, plant propagation and winter plant protection. The Peabody Essex Museum assembled an all-star team for this elegant project including: American Steeple and Tower, Cassidy Bothers Forge, Robert Ouellette, Weaver Glass, John Jeffers and Precision Painting.
The Greek Revival building located at 55-57 Federal Street was constructed c. 1836 by Joshua Loring as a double residential home. The building located at 59 Federal Street was constructed c. 1850 as a residential property. By 1890 the buildings were connected by a two-story ell. Portions of both buildings were later renovated for office use and over time the buildings fell into disrepair.
When Salem Renewal LLC purchased the buildings, they continued their proud tradition of rehabilitation. In partnership with Seger Architects of Salem, they converted the buildings into 9 residential units. The exterior materials including the siding, trim, windows, and roof were all restored or replaced and the interior woodwork, fireplaces, and staircase were completely refurbished. Proposed work qualified for Historic Tax Credits, which require stringent adherence to the Secretary of the Interior's Standards and the buildings are now a proud complement to the historic neighborhood of the Federal Street district.
The owners of the historic Harris-Webb House at 265-267 Lafayette Street began restoring it in 2017. After they repainted the wooden clapboards, incised corner pilasters, paired curvilinear cornice brackets with pendants, open pediment dormers, and thin segmental-arch window caps, they began work on the front entrance porch, which was in serious disrepair. The owners took the opportunity to restore the historic appearance of the porch – what Bryant Tolles called “pleasantly light and understated.” New mahogany turned balusters were created to match others found on Lafayette Street. New handrails and column bases were also installed. Typically the Historical Commission does not nominate a restoration project until all work has been completed, however, in this instance, the commission recommended honoring the property owners’ efforts to date as a means to address conflicts between historic building designs and modern building codes. After the owners of 265-267 Lafayette Street installed the new porch railings, they were notified that the railings did not comply with current code requirements for railing height, even though they matched the original porch design. The Massachusetts State Building Code allows exemptions for museum buildings only; there are no exemptions for buildings listed in the National Register or designated within a local historic district. The Historical Commission will be assisting the owner in seeking an appeal of the building code requirements to allow the retention of the historically appropriate railings.
Homeowners Tim Obert & Matt Obey facilitated a complete rehabilitation of the exterior of 170 Federal Street. A few highlights include the restoration of all original wooden sash windows, the complete restoration and extension of the original wrought iron fence, and the installation of a brick sidewalk and driveway. In addition, the original stained glass entrance doors were restored, reconstructed, and re-leaded, and arched second-floor windows previously hidden behind rectangular storm windows were exposed. The granite entrance steps and the original carriage step were reset and the garage restored, with new swing-out wooden doors fabricated and installed. Deteriorated soffit woodwork was also restored around the entire roofline. Many people were responsible for 170 Federal’s transformation, most notably McLaughlin Masonry, DeAngelis Iron Work, and carpenter John Obey.
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