"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." – Margaret Mead
Happy New Year everyone! We're very excited to celebrate Historic Salem, Inc.'s 75th Anniversary in 2019.
The founding of Historic Salem, Inc. in 1944 was bound up in the fortunes of two of Salem's most historically significant homes. The Witch House, home of Salem Witch Trials Judge Jonathan Corwin, and the Cook House, the last Salem Home of renowned navigator Nathaniel Bowditch (now known as the Bowditch House), were both at risk of being demolished to accommodate the widening of North & Essex Streets. Recognizing the gravity of the potential loss of these buildings, a group of concerned citizens gathered in Salem's City Council Chamber on April 28, 1944 to find a solution.
At the meeting, Warren Butler, Chair of the Salem Planning Board, and Boston Architect Gordon Robb proposed moving the historic houses away from the street in order to preserve them and still allow for the planned widening of the roads. Mayor Edward Coffey assembled an Executive Committee tasked with raising the money to put this preservation plan into action.
The Executive Committee was incorporated as Historic Salem, Inc. in June of 1944, with a purpose and mission "to preserve historic sites, buildings and objects and to work for the education of the community in the true value of the same." George Benson was elected HSI's first president, Warren Butler its first vice president, and Salem City Treasurer Arthur Brennan its first treasurer and secretary. In the following years, the Witch House and the Bowditch House were both successfully relocated and restored.
Today, the Witch House is a historic house museum owned and operated by the City of Salem. The house interprets the Salem Witch Trials and the early modern cosmology of Salem's seventeenth-century inhabitants. It is a major contributor to the city's local tourism economy, seeing about 50,000 visitors a year, most in October. The Bowditch House serves as the headquarters of Historic Salem, Inc. Nathaniel Bowditch artifacts and informational museum panels are on view for the benefit of Salem residents and visitors alike.
In December we reported on a draft zoning overlay that would be discussed at a Public Hearing. At that meeting, December 13, the public was clear on two issues:
1 – We want to see historic schools, churches and other large civic buildings reused.
2 – We want any new construction on these neighborhood sites to suit the surrounding neighborhood.
To ensure this we agree with the draft ordinance when it allows for liberal zoning for the existing buildings. We disagreed with the generous allowances for new construction on the sites and asked that they be constrained to meet the same requirements as the surrounding neighborhood. When the ordinance was publicized in December it allowed very tall (50 feet or higher), very dense new construction to be placed very close to property lines (within 5 feet).
In response to public comments from dozens of community members the city’s planning department made appreciated changes that limited new construction to the dimensions that matched the surrounding neighborhoods. This was just what we had hoped for. We supported the changes (with some concern about allowed density) at the January 9 public hearing and looked forward to an overlay district that would have broad community support.
This week, we were unpleasantly surprised to hear that the Planning Board, in their recommendations to the City Council, will suggest that 55 feet be the allowable height in all areas of the city. This is 20 feet taller than the allowed height in our historic one and two-family neighborhoods. That means that a neighborhood where the school or church is already the largest building on the block (built to have a grand civic presence) can now have equally large additions or new buildings constructed that tower over their neighbors. This height, together with the allowed density, could allow well over a hundred units to be built at sites such as the St. James and Immaculate Conception churches with their associated school buildings.
The ordinance states that its intention is “to allow for reuse..but minimize impacts to surrounding neighborhoods”. We believe that following national best practices (see the National Trust ordinance below) that encourage building reuse but restrict new construction meets this intent. We believe that allowing significant new construction that is much larger than surrounding historic neighborhoods does not meet this stated intention.
We will be asking the City Council not to pass the ordinance until adequate protections are put in place for our historic neighborhoods.
We ask you to let your city councilors know how you feel (contact information on city website). Review the list of potential properties to see what sits in your neighborhood. Please note – the city is not required to notify abutters of a zoning change. If you know people who live very close to these properties, please forward this and make sure they are aware of this proposed change.
Read our letter to the City Council
Here are some ways to learn more about this proposed zoning overlay:
The edited version of the ordinance, that we received from city planning staff on January 8, is here:
The December draft of the ordinance itself is here (this has been changed and is included only as reference): Click to read Municipal and Religious Properties Adaptive Reuse Overlay District Draft Ordinance on City’s website.
Our December letter to the City Council is here:
City Council chambers - December 13, 2018 at 6:30pm. (The city's meeting notice is posted here)
Proposed Zoning Changes: Use your voice to ensure positive changes.
The City Council and Planning Board will hold a Joint Public Hearing on December 13, 2018 in the City Council Chambers. This is the time to let Councilors and Planning Board Members know your thoughts on a proposed Adaptive Reuse Overlay District.
Here are some ways to learn more about this proposed zoning overlay:
The ordinance itself is here >> (Link to Municipal and Religious Properties Adaptive Reuse Overlay District Draft Ordinance on City’s website.)
This is a list of the properties to which the overlay will apply >> (Link to List of Municipal and Religious Properties.) This list includes most of the religious and city-owned buildings in the city, a total of 28 properties.
Please take a moment to read the zoning ordinance, especially if you live very near one of these sites. The city planning department is available to answer your questions, as they have many of ours, or consider calling your city councilor to discuss the ordinance. We will be attending the Joint Public Hearing and invite you to join us
Historic Salem’s thoughts:
The stated intent of the Adaptive Reuse Overlay District is to facilitate the appropriate preservation and reuse of eligible buildings -- this is an outcome that Historic Salem wholeheartedly supports.
However, the details of the proposed ordinance will also allow, and therefore encourage, substantial new construction on the lots on which the buildings are located. In some cases, additions to building footprint would be allowed 5 feet from neighboring property lines and in others, the existing buildings could have several floors added to their height. Important to note - any proposed new construction could be 50 feet tall, or higher. This is in contrast to the surrounding residential neighborhoods, which generally have buildings less than 35 feet tall. If you want to read more about the allowable dimensions for new construction on these school and church sites look for Section 8.7.4 in the ordinance draft.
We think that in order to meet the stated purpose, to allow for reuse…which will best serve the community but will minimize impacts to surrounding neighborhoods, additions and other new construction should be required to meet the dimensional requirements of the underlying or adjacent zoning – so that it fits into the neighborhood. New construction should also be a carefully considered with approval from the Historic Commission and Design Review Board. These changes to the proposed ordinance would allow for reuse flexibility while also respecting the civic presence of the historic buildings and the existing neighborhoods in which they sit.
 The public comment period is often closed on the night of the Joint Public Hearing, so we suggest comments be sent by December 13th.
 In an R-1 (Single Family) or an R-2 (2 family) zone new construction must be 10 feet from the lot line, and in R-3 zoning, which is a higher density, multi-family zone the minimum is 20 feet from adjacent properties.
 An existing zoning designation that has similar setbacks, density, height and parking allowances is the B-5 (Central Development) zone, which covers downtown Salem. In this zone, projects are successfully reviewed by the Salem Redevelopment Authority and Design Review Board to ensure that projects best serve the community.
"Old and young, we dream of graves and monuments"
— from "The Ambitious Guest"
Historic Salem, Inc. is excited to celebrate Nathaniel Hawthorne in recognition of the 350th anniversary of The House of the Seven Gables on this year's Christmas in Salem house tour, A Very Hawthorne Holiday. While tour-goers are rounding the outer limit of the tour route along Hawthorne Boulevard, they will certainly notice the figure of the author memorialized there in bronze.
Salem's statue of its most famous son was sculpted by Connecticut-born artist Bela Lyon Pratt (1867–1917). The statue was on display at Boston's Museum of Fine Art before being purchased with funds raised by the Nathaniel Hawthorne Memorial Association and moved to its current location in 1925, the same year that the Hawthorne Hotel was opened.
In his sculpture, Pratt chose to portray the author sitting on rocks by the ocean because, he said, "It was [Hawthorne's] habit when in Salem to walk alone by the sea and to sit for hours looking across the water." The work is meant to convey Hawthorne's genius and the isolation brought on by his "brooding spirit."
Hawthorne once described his feeling for Salem as "not love, but instinct." He was not particularly fond of his hometown and spent much of his life trying to escape, only to be pulled back by circumstances beyond his control. It is certainly entertaining to imagine the dark humor that Hawthorne might find in the situation were he alive today to see this nine-foot statue situated upon a boulevard bearing his name, in a city he was always trying to leave behind.
Since the initiation of the North River Canal planning process in 2000, Historic Salem, Inc. has participated in and supported the goals of the North River Canal Corridor (NRCC) Master Plan and zoning ordinance. All the neighborhoods that abut the NRCC are historic neighborhoods which will be affected by development in the Corridor. A key aspect of the NRCC Master Plan is the importance of neighborhood character as reflected by the customized goals for each section of the Corridor. Another key part of the NRCC zoning ordinance is the review oversight of the Design Review Board (DRB).
The DRB is a board that possesses specialized skills and experience to address urban design issues as they apply in many areas of our city. Their value has been proven in the long tradition of work with the Salem Redevelopment Authority. The Planning Board and City Council have also shown their recognition of the valuable role of the DRB, as evidenced by the recent change that adds DRB review to projects in the Urban Entrance Corridors. We support the work of the Design Review Board throughout the city and find that the iterative nature of their review improves each project that they evaluate.
Since the introduction of the NRCC Zoning District in 2003, as far as we know, every development approved by the Planning Board has received a positive recommendation from the DRB. With the recent approval by the Planning Board of a project (16-18-20R Franklin Street) that received a negative recommendation from the DRB there is now precedent to allow projects with a negative recommendation to move forward.
This dismissal of the DRB decision undermines the clear intent of the NRCC zoning ordinance. Historic Salem believes that any project, in any zoning district, that must seek a DRB recommendation should receive positive endorsement to qualify for final consideration by other boards.
Historic Salem supports action to clarify the DRB relationship with the Planning Board to insure that the intent of the NRCC Master Plan and Zoning Ordinance is honored, and to improve communication and collaboration among all city boards.
Last Saturday Professor Chip Piatti spoke to a full house about the "Language of Architecture." Here are some of the things that stood out to me in the context of Historic Salem's mission to preserve historic resources and ensure that new construction fits in the historic context.
#1 - When you build you change the environment three ways:
1-You change the location you are building in.
2-You process resources into building materials.
3-You change the location that the materials come from.
How does this relate to our historic city? The intersection of preservation and sustainability is greatly underappreciated in the United States. In Britain, for example, these two disciplines are grouped together under the name “conservation” with specialties in heritage conservation, landscape conservation, or biodiversity conservation.
Without discounting the negative effect humans can have on the environment we have to acknowledge that we are nevertheless part of the environment. Our bodies are made of the same carbons that birds and beaver are made of, and just like them, we build shelter and edifice, which then becomes part of our built environment, nestled in our natural environment. Throughout Professor Piatti’s talk he referenced our human connection to the environment, pointing out that one part of a successful city or building is having a connection to the environment.
But back to the intersection of preservation and sustainability. When one makes the effort to build something it should balance positive and negative impacts to the environment (natural and civic). It is particularly critical to acknowledge the overall and long-term environmental impact of extracting, processing, shipping and disposal of materials. This seems like a great time to mention that the greenest building is the one already built -- reusing a building results in dramatically less change to the current environment, less need to create new materials (or dispose of old) and less change to the places from which materials originate.
"The greenest building is the one...that is already built."
#2 Architecture is the intersection of art and engineering – and -
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