March 20, 2019

Rediscovering the lost buildings of Polish Salem


A home raised on stilts at the head of Derby Wharf, November 1937. (SAMA 14B-120)
Salem Maritime National Historic Site was first conceived of as the Derby Wharf Memorial Project in 1935, following the ratification of the National Historic Sites Act by President Franklin Roosevelt. The project was championed by local resident, Harlan P. Kelsey, a director of the National Parks Association (now the National Parks Conservation Association), who had long advocated the need for a “national shrine” commemorating Salem’s “long extinct shipping glory.”  

With the proposed backing of federal funding to create a park, the City of Salem embarked on securing the land and historic buildings in the Derby Wharf area between Central Wharf and Kosciusko Street, then the heart of Salem’s Polish neighborhood. Unlike the open space we see today, this area, like the rest of Derby Street, was densely packed with multi-family dwellings, businesses, and industrial warehouses.

Through fundraising campaigns, donations, and ownership transfers, Kelsey and the City secured Derby Wharf, Central Wharf, the Hawkes House, the Custom House, the West India Goods Store, Forresters Warehouse, and the Derby House, but this still left multiple buildings in the way of Salem’s grand vision of creating an open park along the waterfront. Through the use of eminent domain, the City offered the owners of these structures their assessed value plus 25% to vacate so that building removal could begin in August 1937.  The official City deed recording the taking by eminent domain states, “Said land is taken for the purpose of constituting a memorial to the sailors of Salem.”

National Park Service reports lead us to believe that the 20 seized structures were then demolished in preparation for the arrival of the National Park Service. But photographs, newspaper articles, and oral histories have led the cultural resources staff at Salem Maritime to believe that a few of the buildings had a different fate. 






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View of Derby Wharf Lawn from Custom House showing the “Mystery House” in its original location.
The Polish Falcons Club house is in the background, on Tuckers Wharf. (SAMA-14B-103)

The Mystery House

While cataloging and digitizing Salem Maritime’s photograph collection, Cultural Resource Management intern Jen Ratliff found a photograph that shows the chaos of demolition in the initial stages of the park’s creation. However, it also provided an interesting tid-bit, a single-family house jacked up on stilts at the head of Derby Wharf, contradicting the official site history. Intrigued, Ratliff searched the Salem Maritime photograph collection for further clues and found an additional photo of the house on stilts, as well as photos that show the home in its original location. The house previously sat on what is now the Derby Wharf lawn, an open green space across the street from the Derby House.  

With no information found in official site documents regarding buildings being moved, Ratliff began searching local newspapers on microfilm at the Salem Public Library. There she found an article dated November 17, 1937, in The Salem Evening News, “Removal of House from Derby Wharf to New Location on Jackson Street Attracting Attention and Caused near Traffic Jam at the Norman Street Crossing Last Night.” The article chronicled the house’s move across town, stating: “The moving of a dwelling…has been attracting considerable attention, especially yesterday when the structure was rolled down Mill Hill and across the railroad tracks.” “This added traffic flow caused quite a jam at the crossing during the busy hour between 5 and 6 P.M. when many trains pass through the tunnel. Police officers were placed on duty to clear the tie-ups and after a fashion, everything went smoothly.”  

Further research led to a follow-up article, dated November 26. The article showed the house raised on stilts while awaiting a new foundation at 91 Jackson Street. “Obstacles such as slanting streets, sharp turns and hills mean little or nothing in moving a building. Such conditions have been met in moving a dwelling formerly at Derby Wharf to its new location on a hill at 91 Jackson Street.” Disappointingly, the new address for the house listed by The Salem Evening News is presently a used car lot. Ratliff noted the mention of a hill in the article and investigated the area around 91 Jackson Street. She found a house located on Phelps Street, on a hill directly behind the Jackson Street address. The Phelps Street building however was more substantial than the Derby Wharf house and lacked the side porch seen in the 1937 photos. Utilizing Google Streetview, Ratliff was able to get an aerial view of the structure. This vantage point showed a change in the roofline, indicating that there had been a sizable addition to the home. The previous roofline better matched the Phelps Street home’s footprint with that of the Derby Wharf house. Real estate listings for the address also provided a clue. The home is recorded as being built in 1938, which would have been the first year it appeared on tax records in that location. The compiled evidence indicates that this dwelling previously thought to have been lost in 1937 is still extant. 



A three family tenement is move from Derby Wharf lawn a lot further down Derby Street,
across from Bentley Street. (SAMA 18B-189)

The Three-Story Tenement

The discovery of the still extant home on Phelps Street led Jen Ratliff to the search for additional buildings that may still survive today. Another photo was found in the photograph collection, this time showing a three-story building on jacks in the middle of Derby Street.

As with the previous structure, details of this building’s move were not recorded in Salem Maritime’s site history and additional research had to be done. An article was found in The Salem Evening News dated December 14, 1937. The article describes the moving of a three-tenement building from one lot on Derby Street to another, a short distance away. “Although the building only has a short distance to go, it is a ticklish job, as it is a narrow squeeze from the start of the job to its finish.” The article notes that prior to the relocation, a tree was removed from Derby Street to make way for the home, which many neighbors objected to.  The building previously stood on the Derby Wharf lawn near the intersection of Derby and Kosciusko Streets., not far from the single family “mystery house.” Today, the three-story building sits adjacent to Bentley Street, only a few blocks away from its original location.

There is little information to explain what happened to the building that previously stood on the lot, prior to the move of the Derby Wharf tenement. According to Historic Salem’s house history, there was a residence built in 1912 for Louis Pett, a shoe merchant.  This building is also listed as having been a three-family tenement, taking the place of a previous single-family home, built c. 1782. 



  The Polish Falcons Clubhouse on Tuckers Wharf  (SAMA 14B-307)

The Polish Falcons Clubhouse

In November 1937, Congressman and ex-mayor of Salem, George J. Bates, addressed the Armistice Day banquet held at the Polish Falcons Association club which sat on Kosciusko Street, near the head of Tuckers Wharf. Bates, who was a strong advocate for the creation of a memorial park, thanked the Falcons and the Polish community for their support of him and the project, saying that it would “not only be one of the best projects in city but one of the best of the country.”   This was the last event held in the clubhouse, which was the only building remaining in the once densely settled area around Derby Wharf. 

In the days following the banquet, The Polish Falcons relocated to the building of a former jute mill at the corner of Cousins and English streets. The City chose to keep their former clubhouses function, opting to relocate it to the newly opened Collins Cove Playground, less than two miles away. To do so, the building was placed on a barge and towed through Salem Harbor, around Salem Willows, to Collins Cove. Once placed on its new foundation, the building was renamed the Collins Cove Playground Field House. For nearly three decades, the Field House hosted many social events, associations, and community gatherings before being demolished around 1966.

 
View of Derby Wharf and Lawn after being cleared.
The Polish Falcons clubhouse remains visible on the far left. (SAMA 014B-599) 

These three structures are just a few examples of the many buildings that previously occupied the land around Derby Wharf. It is unclear why these few buildings were saved while others were demolished or why their movement was not better documented. Often research projects such as this rarely find all the answers but instead serve as a reminder to never stop asking questions. 




*This article was written by Jen Ratliff for use by Salem Maritime National Historic Site
Overseen by Emily A. Murphy, Ph.D. 

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