We are lesser people for the disappearance of our architectural heritage. If Edmund Burke was correct that “to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely,” then historical preservation takes on the same importance as land conservation. Both are inheritances to be held against the bulldozers of economic development.

Salem Depot

Towering over Salem, Massachusetts for over a century, the castellated Salem Depot awed some with its neo-Gothic majesty and dismayed others who considered it a dreary monument to the past. “Some say the Salem railroad station is the most hideous structure in America,” the Boston Globe joked in 1938. “Some say its ugliness is enchanting, that all it needs is a coat of ivy – preferably poison ivy – to make it an antique of rare value. Some Salem commuters shudder at it daily. Others look upon it as an old friend, shelter of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers.” The Depot, built in the era of horse, carriage, and President Polk, was deemed an inconvenience in the automobile age and, with the railroad’s blessing, razed in 1954. Today, the Depot remains an image in photographs and memories, and a striking example of the architectural vandalism of American post-war urban renewal.[1]

In 1846, stockholders of the Eastern Railroad (the dominant career on Boston’s wealthy North Shore) concluded that due to increasing passenger traffic, a new depot needed to be constructed in Salem, the railroad’s headquarters. All agreed that the current wooden depot could not handle the crowds and thousands of shares of ERR stock were sold to finance construction. David Augustus Neal, the Eastern Railroad’s president, determined to build a unique depot that would double as the railroad offices. Neal, a former China merchant and respected early railroad executive (he also served as president of the Reading Railroad and promoted development of the Illinois Central and Michigan Central in the 1850s) just returned from an extensive tour of Great Britain and came home greatly impressed with the architecture of British castles. He then hired Boston commercial architect Gridley J.F. Bryant to design the new depot. Bryant’s main customers were Boston merchants and his work dominated the Boston business district until the Great Fire of 1872 leveled his creations. His structures, however, dotted eastern New England. “He built or remodeled nineteen state capitals and city halls, thirty-six courthouses and jails, fifty-nine hospitals, reformatories, schools and other public institutions, eight churches, sixteen railroad stations, sixteen custom houses, post offices and other buildings for the United States government, and hundreds of building blocks and private houses,” one admirer calculated. Neal presented Bryant with sketches of the castles he admired overseas, and he responded with a stunningly unique design. “Whatever the source, Bryant developed this idea in his own dramatic fashion,” a Bryant biographer wrote. “The basic form of the Salem station derived from the gate of a medieval city. But instead of horse-drawn wagons, steam engines entered through the gates on this new, modern thoroughfare of commerce.”[2]

Neal’s fascination with castles coincided with a trans-Atlantic rage for all things Gothic, resulting in a four-decade architectural movement called Gothic Revival, which reached its peak in the 1830s and 1840s. Literature inspired rediscovery of Gothic forms, as Sir Walter Scott novels spiked interest in medievalism. “The truth is that the service which Scott rendered to the cause of the Revival was to awaken popular interest in a style which had hitherto been associated, except by the educated few, with ascetic gloom and vulgar superstition,” one English Gothic enthusiast recalled. As Americans read, so too did they build; in Neal’s case, as he visited the land of Scott, so too did he contract an architect to build. Salem’s new train depot would resemble something out of Ivanhoe. “Why were American architects, artists, and their clients so interested in medieval architecture? Their reading habits tell us a great deal,” historian Kerry Dean Carso explained. “Americans indulged in Scott’s brand of medievalism. Medieval architecture plays a crucial role in these texts, leading some curious readers to visit medieval and Gothic Revival architectural sites related to their favorite novels.” Most often seen in churches, universities, and public buildings, as well as cottages for the wealthy set, Gothic Revival was typified by use of battlements, turrets, and arched windows. Paired with the rise of American Gothic literary figures like Edgar Allen Poe and Salem’s own Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gothic Revival architecture like Salem Depot perfectly fit the high tide of nineteenth century Romanticism.[3]

The finished depot, unveiled and opened for service in 1847, must have exceeded the expectations of President Neal. The Depot’s façade, facing the southern portal of the 1838 Salem tunnel, was constructed entirely of nearby Rockport granite. Two eighty-one foot towers graced with Gothic windows and stone battlements guarded each side of a low arched entrance for trains. In the early years, gates guarded the arched entrance and “swung open at the ringing of a convent bell. The bell had been captured by Americans at the siege of Port Royal, S.C. in colonial times.” Seven tall arched windows perched above the entrance frequently remained open to ventilate the sooty interior. The majority of the structure was not constructed of granite but brick and wood, like the rear train shed. The caretaker of the first Salem Depot had been a one-legged Revolutionary War veteran named Corporal Joshua Pitman. When the Gothic towers went into service, he remained as an unofficial watchman. An 1848 local ballad proclaimed:

Who keeps the Depot clean and nice,
And drives away the rats and mice,
And checks the boys in every vice?
The Corporal.

President Neal and Eastern Railroad management moved into the Depot’s upstairs offices and made Salem their headquarters.[4]

Salem Depot was soon considered one of the finest railroad stations in New England and “perhaps the most remarkable building in Salem.” With its looming Gothic towers and stone arches, befitting a community haunted by the witch trials, it became a major tourist attraction, rivaling the old Custom House and Gallows’ Hill in visitors. In addition, before soot even soiled the granite, telegraph lines were installed in the Depot, but railroad employees never trusted the system. Their suspicions led to ofttimes comic results. In 1856, a freight train waited at Salem all night for a southbound passenger train that never arrived—fifteen miles away, the southbound waited all night for the freight train. The Depot had not been in service one year when it had a hand in metaphorically-rich railroad disaster. In 1848, the Whigs and Democrats battled for the presidency. In early November, the Democrat Caleb Cushing spoke to party members at a Salem rally, while several miles south the Whig Daniel Webster did the same for his party members in Lynn. When Cushing concluded, two hundred people boarded a train at the Depot southbound for Marblehead. Just south of Salem, it collided with a northbound passenger train loaded with Whigs from Lynn. Six people died and sixty-four were wounded, making it the worst railroad accident to date in New England.[5]

One early admirer of the depot was Hawthorne himself, who mentioned it in his 1851 romance House of the Seven Gables. Speaking of Clifford’s and Hepzibah’s retreat from the city, Hawthorne wrote:

Whether it was Clifford’s purpose, or only chance, had led them thither, they now found themselves passing beneath the arched entrance of a large structure of gray stone. Within, there was spacious breadth, and an airy height from floor to roof, now partially filled with smoke and steam, which eddied voluminously upward and formed a mimic cloud-region over their heads. A train of cars was just ready for a start; the locomotive was fretting and fuming, like a steed impatient for a headlong rush; and the bell rang out its hasty peal.

Visitors within the granite walls one hundred years later, covered with cinders and billowing steam, would recognize Hawthorne’s description of antebellum travel. As the portal to enter Salem, the Depot welcomed assorted dignitaries to town over its long life. Franklin Pierce frequented the Depot in his pre-presidential days, visiting his college friend Hawthorne. President Grant came through in 1871, Arthur in 1882, and ex-president Benjamin Harrison in 1893. William Howard Taft made a campaign stop at the depot in 1912 and Calvin Coolidge alighted often. The future King Edward VII briefly stopped at Salem Depot on his 1860 American tour. “When the Prince and the Duke of Newcastle stepped on the platform of the rear car,” historian Francis B.C. Bradlee wrote, “the whole square in front of the depot was packed with people, who cheered vociferously and waved hats and handkerchiefs amid great enthusiasm.”[6]

Destruction always loomed over the Depot. Its first flirtation with oblivion came in 1882. A can of fuses stored in one of the baggage rooms exploded and within minutes the entire depot was ablaze in “a fascinating though terrible spectacle.” Smoke covered most of the city and the neighborhood surrounding the Depot was singed with flying sparks. “[T]he fire leaped from one section to another as though the woodwork was saturated with some inflammable material,” the Salem Evening News reported. Fast thinking railroad workers hauled two passenger cars within the Depot to safety and rescued articles on the depot’s first floor, but all records stored in the upstairs offices were lost. The granite façade and towers were all that remained standing. Hearing rumors the railroad intended to demolish the Depot, residents circulated a petition to preserve it and the trainshed was soon rebuilt. More talk of demolition began a decade later, that the Depot was too ornate and not sensible enough for a practical railroad. Others squawked of the enormous flock of pigeons dwelling in the towers, and who with every train arrival (sometimes over one hundred daily) flapped around the vicinity and caked everything in droppings. Though a minority in the 1890s, the complainants would increase. Perhaps the more cynical believed 1914 brought the perfect opportunity for a new depot.[7]

On June 25, 1914, a fire broke out in one of Salem’s leather tanneries. With the aid of drought and a stiff breeze, the racing flames leveled one and half square miles of the city. In the early hours of the Great Salem Fire of 1914, the wind-swept conflagration headed straight for the Depot. Desperate firefighters rigged the building with dynamite, hoping the granite boulders from the blasted depot might halt flames from incinerating the downtown business district. Just when the firefighting squad readied to blow the Depot to pieces, however, the wind shifted and the fire headed east ravaging the waterfront. Salem Depot had now faced three existential threats. The fourth threat—the internal combustion engine and urban renewal—was too much to bear.[8]

The advent of the 1920s brought an economic boom and the most desirable consumer product of the decade was the automobile. Automobile ownership soared in the 1920s. In 1914, 1.3 million cars were registered in the United States; by 1929, that number rose to 27 million. In 1929 alone, Detroit manufactured six million cars, production numbers that would not be reached again until the mid-1950s. With this ownership explosion, traffic problems on urban streets, particularly those in older East Coast cities, quickly grew. With grade crossings blocked every time a train entered or departed, the Depot became an annoyance for drivers. During rush hour, commuter traffic backed up into neighborhoods. Outspoken locals called for demolishing the old depot and constructing a less ostentatious, less intrusive station to accommodate automobiles. By the 1930s, the city and the Boston and Maine Railroad drew up plans to extend the tunnel and destroy the Depot, a $4 million-dollar project ($73 million in today’s dollars).[9]

The project took shape at the beginning of a period of urban “renewal,” intended to reshape American cities for the needs of automobiles, clean out perceived unhealthy “slums,” and rid urban America of the last remnants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In practice, it bulldozed integral neighborhoods (almost always populated by the city’s poor), pretzeled cities around highway networks, and leveled countless historic structures that gave cities their unique beauty and identity. Railroad depots were frequent victims. The railroad companies did not complain, as they were faced with bankruptcy and hostile governments unwilling to deregulate or lessen railroads’ property tax burden, and wanted their big depots torn down to save money. The state and local governments did not complain because they wanted the economic boost and tax revenue from development of former railroad land. Thus, the buildings came down, replaced by high rises, super market plazas, condos, and parking lots. Instead of bending cars to the needs of proud historic cities, the cities bent to autos and destroyed their patrimony.

Every detail was set by 1939. Salem Depot would be torn down. “The railroad which owns it takes no pride in it,” the Boston Globe remarked. “There doesn’t seem to be any great opposition to the project which would indeed be the greatest public improvement in Salem’s long history.” Yet, like previous threats, events interceded to give the Depot a reprieve, this time World War Two. With labor and materials diverted toward the war effort, local authorities temporarily shelved plans.[10]

When the war ended, the complaints over traffic snarls resumed and depot removal took on the hue of public improvement and the rejuvenation of old Salem. The urban renewal impetus was there before World War Two, but something about 1945 intensified the impulse to destroy the old—the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism, the rise of the middle-class GI generation, the growing faith in science and technology to understand and solve all problems, the new internationalism of the post-war world (typified by the “International Style” of the new United Nations building), and the trust in government after the conquest of Nazism and Japanese Imperialism. Future-obsessed modernity faced few obstacles to remake the face of American cities. Destruction of the older city disposed of a backward past.

Salem city government wasted little time and evicted forty residents and businesses for tunnel extension and in October 1954 hosted a festive ceremony outside Salem Depot to celebrate its demolition. Major state dignitaries attended, including Massachusetts Governor Christian Herter (five years later, Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State) and the State Transportation Commissioner John A. Volpe (later Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Transportation). A crane removed the first block from the Depot’s western tower and lowered it to street level. Governor Herter then presented small granite pieces to the attendees, declaring:

Today marks the beginning of the culmination of many years of efforts to rid the city of the Depot. Demolition of course means that a historic building has to come down. But it is a great consolation to know that it will solve Salem’s traffic problems and be of great economic benefit to Salem.

To rid the city of the Depot”—Herter’s words perfectly encapsulated the postwar American attitude toward the historic heart of its cities. Historical structures that shaped the identity of American cities took on secondary importance to “traffic problems” and “economic benefit.” Money and malls triumphed over memory.[11]

Contractors commenced their work removing the two towers before winter. By late spring 1955, the Depot was largely gone, its granite stones used to line the banks of a nearby river. The much-heralded improvement project did not progress smoothly. Demolition created a muddy quagmire around the site, making nearby streets nearly unfit for travel. “Windows were broken, plaster cracked, dust, and alternately, mud permeated everything,” remembered two railroad historians. Shoppers, normally eager to ride the train into town to browse the shops, decided the trip no longer pleasant and local businesses suffered. Traffic became worse, as the project proceeded “agonizingly slow.”[12]

After years of work, the project neared completion by 1958. The tunnel length doubled, dangerous grade crossings had been replaced, and a new Salem Station built. This cheaper, basic modern station (“an example of Spartan simplicity . . . It certainly left a lot to be desired”) was simply a narrow below-ground trench with stairs leading down to long concrete platforms. Many Salemites expressed disappointment at the final product. “The loss of the magnificent towers and the experience of the sheer mass of the building are still recalled by long-standing Salem residents, many of whom regarded the depot as a symbol of the city,” a local historian lamented decades later. In July 1958, the railroad’s president along with a medley of politicians rode through the tunnel and station inaugurating a new era in Salem history. The railroad, so visible in the town for one hundred and twenty years disappeared into the trench of modern convenient travel.[13]

Portland (Maine) Union Station, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Interior of Pennsylvania Station, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Though unique in design, Salem Depot was but one of many nettlesome depots that faced the urban renewal wrecking ball in the 1950s and 1960s. In New England, Concord Depot in New Hampshire came down in 1959 and was replaced by a shopping center. Portland Union Station in Maine, with its magnificent 138-foot high clock tower and designed in pink granite “to resemble a medieval French chateaux,” came down in 1961. A “low-slung strip mall” stands on the sight now. “It’s still unspeakably ugly, too, a wasteland of uneven parking spaces and generic storefronts,” a Maine newspaper columnist wrote in 2017. “It’s a black hole of charmless commerce, a far cry from the elegant, 19th century station that proceeded it.” Manchester, New Hampshire’s Union Station came down a year later. The most infamous of America’s depot demolitions, however, occurred in the mid-60s, when New York City’s Pennsylvania Station came down to make way for Madison Square Garden. History and beauty again gave way to economic redevelopment. One need only experience the miseries of subterranean Penn Station today to understand the loss.[14]

In George Scott-Montcrieff’s Burke Street, a paean to the disappearing “visible past that ruthless ‘developers’ efface,” he lamented the destruction of rootedness and sense of place when neighborhoods come down to suit the needs of economic growth and fashionable design.  His little book spoke of a small Edinburgh street, its homes, and residents.

It is not simply because a French King dined in one of its handsome small houses or a President of the United States may have slept in another, that made Burke Street important. Those are only spotlights of history, recalling dynasties and potentates, making connexions in the mind. The importance of a handsome old street is partly aesthetic, but certainly also the substance of tradition that it contains, preventing us from being mere wandering tinkers in the world.

We are lesser people for the disappearance of our architectural heritage. If Edmund Burke was correct that “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely,” then historical preservation takes on the same importance as land conservation. Both are inheritances to be held against the bulldozers of economic development.[15]

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Boston Globe, December 4, 1938.

[2] New York Times, November 24, 1954; Henry Turner Bailey, “An Architect of the Old School,” New England Magazine 25 (November 1901), 334; Roger G. Reed. Building Victorian Boston: The Architecture of Gridley J.F. Bryant (Amherst, MA, 1997) 48; For information on Neal and his activities, see David A. Neal. The Illinois Central Railroad, its Position and Prospects. (1850); W.H. Bunting. Portrait of a Port: Boston, 1852-1914 (Cambridge, MA, 1994) 15; and A.J. Veenendaal. Slow Train to Paradise: How Dutch Investment Helped Build American Railroads (Palo Alto, 1996) 54.

[3] Kerry Dean Carso. American Gothic Art and Architecture in the Age of Romantic Literature (Cardiff, 2014) n.p.; Marilyn W. Klein and David P. Fogle. Clues to American Architecture (Washington and Philadelphia, 1985) 20-21.

[4] New York Times, November 24, 1954; Boston Globe, December 4, 1938; Francis B. C. Bradlee, Eastern Railroad: A Historical Account of Early Railroading in Eastern New England (Salem, MA, 1922) 41.

[5] Arthur J. Krim, “Francis Peabody and Gothic Salem,” Peabody Essex Museum Collections (January 1994) 27; New York Times, November 24, 1954; Boston Globe, December 4, 1938.

[6] Nathaniel Hawthorne. House of the Seven Gables (New York, 1981) 255-256; Bradlee, Eastern Railroad, 65.

[7] Salem Evening News, April 7, 1882, April 10, 1882, April 17, 1882, April 20, 1882, and April 26, 1882; Boston Globe, December 4, 1938; New York Times, November 24, 1954.

[8] Boston Globe, December 4,1938; New York Times, 2 November 24, 1954.

[9] Richard W. Symmes and Russell F. Munroe, Jr., “The Great Salem Tunnel Relocation Project,” B&M Bulletin (Fall 1975) 5.

[10] Boston Globe, December 4, 1938; Symmes and Munroe, “Relocation Project,” 5.

[11] Symmes and Munroe, “Relocation Project,” 5-11.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Symmes and Munroe, “Relocation Project,” 5-11; Krim, “Gothic Salem,” 32.

[14] Portland Press Herald, August 31, 2011; Bangor Daily News, June 26, 2017.

[15] George Scott-Montcrieff. Burke Street (New Brunswick, NJ, 1989) 69.

The featured image is a photograph of Salem Depot (c. 1897), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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