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.
Read last week's Introduction to the Salem Handbook
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
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