Jul 30, 2014

Then & Now: 98 Washington Sq. East

The fire didn't only impact the residents, it left a mark on history.

Then & Now: 98 Washington Sq. East Then & Now: 98 Washington Sq. East Then & Now: 98 Washington Sq. East Then & Now: 98 Washington Sq. East Then & Now: 98 Washington Sq. East

When ,  we saw a piece of history going up in ashes and billowing smoke from this building.

While it's early yet, and no decision has been made on whether it is salvageable, we can hope it will be restored.

A Part of the Common's History

Built around 1840, this building was part of the growth spurt initiated by the improvement of the in 1801. Before then, it had been mostly scrub land with a number of hills and ponds and was commonly called the town swamp. It functioned as pasturage for the residents from the earliest times.

In response to ongoing disputes over who had rights to its use, the commoners voted in 1714 that the land in front of the Higginson House (the present area of the ) shall be forever a training field for the use of Salem.

Giving this land over to the local militia effectively ended the disputes, since the land on the northwest and west of the swamp dedicated to the training field was the only good land. The rest was marshy and prone to flooding. 

In the book, "Old Naumkeag" by Webber and Nevins (1877), the Common is described around 1800 as an unenclosed space where cattle, horses, ducks, geese, hens and stray pigs had free range. At the southern edge of the swamp, there was a school house in the area of the present Forrester Street.

Nearby, there was also a gun house and an engine house. In the northeast part of the Common, there was an almshouse and workhouse.

On the east and north of the Common, which is the area from Pleasant Street to Boardman Street, there were tan yards, bark mills, rope walks and bake shops that extended from this area back toward Webb Street and Collins Cove, which was much closer to the Common in those days.

Along Webb Street were more factories as well as a large Jute mill that made cordage. This area was a busy industrial area that was gradually being gentrified because of the now desirable space.

Dr. Bentley, in his diary that chronicled Salem life in the early 1800s, wrote in July 1819 the following entry describing the area around 98 Washington Sq. East. You’ll note that some names have changed; Shallop Cove later became Collins Cove, Bath Street was renamed Forrester, East Street became Washington Square North. He wrote:

"Great labour has been bestowed on Washington Square. The marsh at the N.E. corner which has been in the last degree offensive has been most effectually raised by a bed of stones covered with gravel. The walks within and the streets without have been gravelled with uncommon care. The corner where Newbury enters Brown street and where the great elm stood at Higginson's corner on Gedney's land has been raised several feet. The marsh was where Shallop Cove was and Mr. Higginson lived near the corner of Andrew's land, first Gedney then Gardner's. The Bath street has been gravelled for the first time on the south side and Pleasant street for the first time has been rendered passable at all times near the entry of East street. The many new buildings have justified this care of this section of the town."

I’m sure his description of the offensive swamp was referring to the odors that permeated the area from the tanneries and various industries that were in the area and not disposing of waste as they would in future times. 

In this same diary, Dr. Bentley described how William Browne, a successful tailor, grocer and landlord to boarders was able through his thrift to amass enough money to buy a portion of the Andrew estate eastward of the Common and start a tannery there. When the land was filled in and leveled, he laid out Andrew Street where he owned his business as well as several dwellings.

The Browne family owned extensive land in this area of the Common and probably built this and other buildings that bordered the Common. His heirs eventually sold the land in the 1860s, which continued the process of the expansion of housing and streets in this area.

When this area of Salem took its current shape, the China trade was still in full swing. Fortunes were being made that could translate back home to beautiful mansions and estates. This time came to an end for a number of reasons and Salem no longer had the wholesale building up of areas such as Chestnut Street and the Common.

With the demise of the China trade, Salem looked toward new industries, such as tanneries, mills, transportation and coal to provide. This industrial growth needed a steady supply of stable workers and attracted many immigrants to Salem.

Many of these immigrants having left impoverished situations, needed affordable housing. This spurred the growth of affordable housing, which often entailed the conversion of no longer viable mansions into multi-family dwellings.

A Residential History of 98 Washington Sq. East

Over the years, according to City Census records, a population as varied as the city itself has passed through this building. A review of the City Census records shows the residents throughout the life of this building came from all walks of life. In the 1800s, merchants and mariners lived here.

As the building was divided up into apartments  around the turn of the 20th century, there were doctors' homes and medical offices here along with apartments populated by leather factory managers, teachers, printers, ministers, photographers, bookkeepers, clerks and city marshals to name just a few.  The building was further divided up and was known as the Melba Apartments around 1933, offering some 20 apartments.

The slowly changing population of the building attests to its stable desirability for professionals and trades people continued up to the present with clerks, teachers and artists calling this home.

Reflecting on the building, one can only marvel at the number of people and families who lived there over the last two centuries and the unfolding history they saw from their windows.

Residents would have seen the many musters of the militia as they prepared to send Salem young men to the Civil War, the Spanish American War as well as World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf and Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

They would have rejoiced with the city at the many Fourth of July celebrations, including the Centennial and Bicentennial celebrations.

They would have seen haunted houses, pumpkins, circuses, antique cars, cycling and endless fairs and festivals and wedding gatherings.

Over the years, the Common has been a focal point for Salem in good times and bad. Sitting in a window at 98 Washington Sq. East, you would have seen it all.

History was and continues to unfold. Let’s hope the history of this building continues. 

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