February 22, 2018

The Empire Theatre - Salem, Massachusetts

Empire Theatre, Salem Massachusetts
The Empire Theatre, Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts

On August 29, 1907, theater giant Julius Cahn unveiled his nearly 1,500 seat theater at 285 Essex Street. The Empire Theatre was built on the previous site of Mechanic Hall, which had been lost to a fire only two years prior.
For the construction of Salem’s Empire Theatre, Cahn employed his usual team, which included architect, Charles E. Horn and contractor, E.C. Horn. By 1908, Julius Cahn had nearly 300 affiliated theaters spanning the Northeast to Ohio.
Empire Theatre, c. 1925
The Empire Theatre, c. 1925
The 1915-1916 season was chronicled by theater fan Charlotte M. Younge, who had moved to Salem with her father in 1914. Charlotte combined her memories, Salem Evening News interviews, and playbills to create a complete overview of the Empire’s performances for that year. Charlotte dedicated her manuscript to Carolyn Elbert, the Empire Theatre Company’s leading lady, writing: “It is my intention to review some of the plays presented at the Empire Theatre, Salem, Mass., during the engagement of the most loveable and popular leading lady Salem ever knew.”
Charlotte notes that the 1915-1916 season opened on September 6, 1915 with “Get-Right-Quick-Wallingford” the story of two swindlers masquerading as wealthy businessmen in Iowa. The play follows their troubled, though comedic, adventures. The season ended on January 31, 1916 with “At-Bay.” Charlotte writes that following the last performance of “At-Bay,” Carolyn Elbert announced she would be departing the Empire Theatre Company and Salem. Charlotte wrote, “I was speechless. The news spread like wildfire and letters flew into the manager’s office begging him not to send her away…Many people cancelled their subscription tickets…Salem was actually heart-broken until the news came of her marriage and then it rejoiced that she gained, rather than lost, by the manager’s mistake.”
The Empire Theatre building was removed in 1955 and the site is now a public parking lot, adjacent to Essex House, a condominium complex.

*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections. Images above are from their collections. 

February 17, 2018

Gallows Hill - Salem, Massachusetts

For centuries, Gallows Hill has attracted visitors for its alleged connection to the Salem Witch Trials. The location appears early on in Salem Visitor’s Guides as “Witch Hill.” The guides included a small section about “The Witchcraft Delusion” that discussed buildings and locations related to the events of 1692. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that “Witchcraft Delusion” gained its own chapter, separate from Salem's “Historical Sketch.”

For the first half of the 20th century however, Gallows Hill was possibly better known for its Independence Day bonfires. The night of July 3rd, many would gather to see the midnight lighting of the up to 90 foot tall pyramid of old barrels, collected from local tanneries.
In 1921, historian Sidney Perley suggested that Proctor’s Ledge, a lower ridge of Gallows Hill, was the more likely location of 1692 executions. Nevertheless this finding did not halt interest in Gallows Hill. The area still continues to attract visitors, tour groups, and discussion in international publications and films.

*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections. Images above are from their collections. 

December 12, 2017

Can We Save Salem?

The Essex Institute, c. 1910-1920 (Library of Congress)

Peabody Essex Museum Plans to Remove 400 Years of Salem's History 

            As Salem, Massachusetts approaches the 400th anniversary of its founding, the city is simultaneously being robbed of its 400 years of history.
            On December 6, 2017, Bob Monk, a representative of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) along with a member of the PEM’s architectural firm, Schwartz/Silver, confirmed what many Salemites had been fearing since 2011. The collections of the Phillips Library would not be returning to their home at 132 Essex Street.
            In 1992, The Peabody Essex Museum was created by a merger between Salem’s most prominent institutions, the Peabody Museum and the Essex Institute. Both institutions were the stewards of four centuries worth of artifacts, documents, furniture, and even buildings, all of which contributed to the historic fabric of the city. Some of these objects were donated by Salem families and businesses, hoping to leave a legacy for the city’s future generations. While others were deposited by institutions that, at the time, didn’t have the funds or space to properly care for them. Items include: papers from Salem's founding, documents and artifacts relating to the Salem Witch Trials, log books from Salem’s “Great Age of Sail,” a signed first edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and a deposited copy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter. Not to mention volumes of manuscripts and family heirlooms donated over the years.
            In 2011, when the Peabody Essex Museum announced the temporary closure and relocation of the Phillips Library and the Museum’s archival collection. The news was relatively well received by scholars and the public alike. Many had mourned the loss of The Essex Institute and looked forward to a more accessible, well maintained display of Salem’s history. In an interview with The Salem News, the Museum’s public relations officer, April Swieconek, referred to the Phillips Library as “a part of what we are, and a part of what Salem is.”
            Not only is The Phillips Library “a part of what Salem is,” it in fact is the largest depository of Salem’s collective history, giving the Peabody Essex Museum a monopoly over the City’s past. As Salem struggles to define itself and its history to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, it has become increasingly apparent that the collections of the PEM hold the key to the proper interpretation of the city’s historic past. A role that they have failed to uphold. The Peabody Essex Museum has instead spent the past decade, focused on branding itself as a leading art museum, and to that claim, it has been successful. But at what cost?
            The 2013 proposed completion date of the Phillips Library came and went with little-to-no new information announced by the PEM. In December 2016, The Peabody Essex Museum announced the addition of “40,000-square-foot wing” to be completed on the Museum’s main campus by 2019.
            The silence surrounding the fate of the Phillips Library was broken on December 6, 2017 when Bob Monk announced to Salem’s Historical Commission that, as of 2018, the Phillips Library collections would permanently be housed in Rowley, Massachusetts, forty minutes outside of its Salem origin. Monk claimed that the PEM was unable to find a suitable location in Salem for the return of its collections.
             Not only was Salem to lose her 400 years of history to Rowley, but the beautiful brick, Plummer Hall and Daland House buildings, which previously housed the collections were to be desecrated as well, and closed to the public, for the sake of private office space to house the Museum’s staff.
            During the Historical Commission meeting, Schwartz/Silver (initially hired for the 2011 renovation) displayed mock-ups illustrating the destruction of the grand stairs and the connector, which first united the two buildings in 1907, as the home of The Essex Institute. Just as the Peabody Essex Museum is severing Salem from its history, Schwartz/Silver are severing Plummer Hall from the Daland House. The crowning jewel of the PEM’s attack on Salem’s history? A modern glass encasement to replace the 110-year-old connector, to better match the Museum’s 40,000-square-foot new wing across the street.
            This is, however, not the first time the historic city has wrestled with the possibility of losing its history. In 1965, at the pinnacle of Urban Renewal, Salem stood to replace its architectural heritage with highways and parking lots. By this plan, the site of the PEM’s new wing would have become part of a four-lane highway. The New York Times architecture critic and preservationist Ada Louise Huxtable wrote a front-page article, credited with saving Salem, calling the proposed plan “alarmingly insensitive,” stating, the city would “bulldoze rather than rehabilitate.” Summing it up with, “the business community is accused of paying lip service to history while planning to demolish it.” Ada’s sentiments echo in the aftermath of the PEM’s latest announcement. Has the PEM been "paying lip service to history" while planning to demolish it all along? Is this Salem’s latest battle against Urban Renewal? And if so, is there an Ada Louise Huxtable that can save the city?
            The recent proposal by the Peabody Essex Museum shows the Museum’s complete disconnect with the Salem community, and the rich history they are the stewards of. The Museum has lost the trust of its patrons, many of which in recent days have resigned their memberships, stood united in protest, contacted their state representatives, and signed a petition aimed at keeping the archives in Salem. The collective disappointment weighs heavily throughout the city and is the primary topic of conversation. If a compromise isn’t found, Salem, a city synonymous with history, will be forced to mourn its loss.

              *Articles and links mentioned above can be found at Save The Phillips Library.

December 4, 2017

Chestnut Street - Salem, Massachusetts

Christmas in Salem, 2017

The residents of Chestnut Street have a long tradition of opening their stately homes to curious guests hoping to immerse themselves in the pageantry of “Old Salem.” The first event, “Early Days on Chestnut Street,” was held in the summer of 1926, in celebration of Salem’s tercentenary. The grand boulevard was re-imagined as its nineteenth-century self and residents were encouraged to recreate the “Great Shipping Era.” Many donned period-appropriate garb and took the opportunity to display their family heirlooms and mariners’ spoils from the Far East. Strolling musicians, old-fashioned dances, and carriage rides were all part of the day’s events, reminiscent of the street’s early-nineteenth-century splendor.

Chestnut Street was constructed between 1796 and 1805 on farmland previously belonging to the Pickering and Neal families. The eighty-foot-wide thoroughfare became a haven for wealthy mariners and their families, seeking peace from the bustling waterfront of Derby Street. During the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, substantial and mansion-class homes were built on Chestnut Street, predominantly in the Federal style. Although the facades of these homes were uniquely American, their interiors reflected the Eastern influence of their cosmopolitan owners. Homes featured luxuries such as hand-painted wallpaper imported from China, exotic spices, porcelain, and fine silks.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Asian Influence began to appear on many of the home’s exteriors. Earlier buildings were often modified by new owners or younger generations looking to keep up with the latest fashions. Overlapping ovals, fan designs, and complex geometric motifs can be seen throughout Chestnut Street, appearing in glasswork, door frames, fences, and balustrades. These additions were directly inspired by Eastern design and create the unique ornamentation that is still visible today.

Chestnut Street’s crowning jewel, Hamilton Hall, is considered one of the finest Federal buildings in America. Completed in 1807 by Salem architect Samuel McIntire, the Hall served as a meeting house and function space for Chestnut Street’s maritime elite. The Hall has welcomed notables such as the Marquis de Lafayette, held lectures on international affairs, and served as the headquarters for well-known entrepreneur and abolitionist, John Remond’s catering business.

As Salem’s maritime industry waned and the city shifted to industrialism, Chestnut Street became forever linked to the memory of “Old Salem.” For over a century, the street has been immortalized in postcards, paintings, and even films, acclaimed as “the most beautiful street in America.”

This article was written and researched by Jen Ratliff for publication by Christmas in Salem, Historic Salem Inc.

November 20, 2017

Almy, Bigelow & Washburn - Salem, Massachusetts

View of Essex Street toward Washington Street
Salem’s beloved department store Almy’s can be traced back to 1858, when James F. Almy opened his first store at 156 Essex Street in the Bowker Block. His original business card read “James F. Almy, wholesale and retail dealer for cash in silks, shawls, dress goods, and housekeeping goods.” After a successful first few years in business, Almy moved to a larger space in the West Block at 188 Essex Street, where the store remained.
Copy of James F. Almy's first business card for his 156 Essex Street location.
In the 1860s, Walter K. Bigelow became Almy’s business partner and the firm changed its name to James F. Almy & Co. The store continued expanding and around 1869, William G. Webber also became a partner. The firm was renamed Almy, Bigelow & Webber, which it remained until Webber’s retirement in 1885.
After Webber’s departure, Calvin R. Annable and E. Augustus Washburn advanced to partnership with Almy. The firm then changed to its final name of Almy, Bigelow & Washburn. The business was incorporated after the death of James F. Almy in April 1899, with Almy’s wife and daughter serving on the board.
In a 1908 booklet, commemorating the store's 50th year, Almy’s boasted about being the first in many advancements in Salem, including: “first in the city to install a passenger elevator,” “first in the city to provide a retiring room and toilet for customers” and the “first to inaugurate the department store idea in Essex County.”

Early 20th century postcards showing Almy, Bigelow & Washburn's store at 188 Essex Street.
In the first half of the 20th century, small branches of the store were added in nearby towns such as Beverly, Danvers, and Gloucester. In 1951, Almy, Bigelow & Washburn Inc. was sold to the Gorin family, which already operated a small chain of stores. By the 1980s, the Gorins owned 32 stores throughout the northeast, many of which they rebranded as “Almy’s.” After several years of struggling to make a profit, the Gorins sold their company to an investment firm. By 1985, a majority of the Almy’s stores had been sold to Stop & Shop Companies for redevelopment. Today all that remains of Salem’s Almy’s is a clock that bears its name on Essex Street.

*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem State University Archives and Special Collections. Images above are from their collections.