Saving Salem

At my New Orleans elementary school in seventh grade Mrs. Labouisse taught Louisiana history. She made us memorize all 64 parishes and taught us to write a research report. I loved this class and, surely influenced by my architect father Errol Barron, decided to do mine on “Architecture of the Vieux Carré.” That French phrase for “old square” denotes the original La Nouvelle Orleans, today famously known as the French Quarter. But the fact that I chose “Vieux Carré” for the title of my report reveals my first brush with historic preservation.  Almost all of the historic buildings I chose to research and photograph were at one point threatened by the wrecking ball or had been preserved under the auspices of the Vieux Carré Commission and other historic preservation organizations.


“This is the Cabildo facing Jackson Square.” Captioned illustration from author’s 7th grade history paper. Photo courtesy of Eliot Barron.

Little did I know then that one day I would be lured to live in a small New England city in part because of its many enticing, preserved similarities to the historical urban character of old New Orleans neighborhoods. I took for granted the stately elegance of the streets of Salem (speaking of the streets of Salem check out the blog of the same name) and the city’s architecture, from the McIntire District to Moishe Safhdie’s building at PEM. And I relished the center city’s walkability and accessibility to businesses and a waterfront.


PEM at night.


Salem neighborhood

Photo by Nathan Benn at

Then I became PEM’s liaison to Historic Salem Inc.’s (HSI) board of directors in 2013, my first year in Salem. I found out about how urban renewal almost wrecked the city in the 1960s and about Ada Louise Huxtable. I never would have moved here had urban renewal plans for Salem become a reality: a four-lane roadway right next to East India Marine Hall? Parking lots across 39 acres of Salem’s historic core?

Urban Renewal Broadside_Phillips Library

Urban Renewal Broadside2_Phillips Library

“Urban renewal” sounded so positive—why was it a threat? Urban renewal was federally supported nationwide movement intended to revive urban neighborhoods.  In cities across the country, historic neighborhoods like the French Quarter or downtown Salem seemed marred by deteriorating historic buildings. Many were demolished or slated for demolition in the name of progress (new roads, parking lots and garages, public buildings, apartment buildings and so on), but oftentimes development plans weren’t even in place yet.

What did Huxtable have to do with this? A pioneering and visionary architectural critic, Huxtable had a summer home in Marblehead.  Her proximity to Salem and expertise made her astutely aware of the challenges facing Salem. On October 13, 1965, she contributed a special report to the New York Times explaining the situation but denouncing urban renewal efforts in Salem. The headline read: “Urban Renewal Threatens Historic Buildings in Salem, Mass. Foes Fear Plans Will Mar Old New England Heritage.” Remarkably, planners heeded Huxtable’s forceful arguments and her views galvanized local preservationists. Advocacy proved mightier than a wrecking ball.

Photo by Garth Huxtable

Ada Louise Huxtable, photo by Garth Huxtable

It’s been 50 years since Huxtable’s landmark article, which was also a catalyst for the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.  HSI recognized the need to commemorate this important anniversary and organized the symposium to be held this Friday at PEM: Mightier than a Wrecking Ball: How Ada Louise Huxtable Saved Salem.”

Historic Salem, Inc commissioned filmmaker Daniel Callahan to create a mini-documentary encapsulating the stories of Salem and Huxtable circa 1965. I’m proud to have served on the steering committee for this event and as the “voice” of Ada Louise in this short film:

Editor’s Note:

Mightier than a Wrecking Ball: How Ada Louise Huxtable Saved Salem will be held September 25, 2015 from 1:30-5:30pm in PEM’s Morse Auditorium. Tickets are available here.  Prominent architecture critics, including Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times and Eric Gibson of the Wall Street Journal, as well as architects, historians and economists will explore what almost happened in Salem and how the issues at play in 1965 continue to be critical today. All symposium attendees are invited to a reception immediately following at the Salem Five Community Room. The celebration of Ada Louise Huxtable continues the next night at the MID/MOD dance party.


  1. Sylvia Belkin says:

    As founder of the Swampscott Historical Commission and one who loves older buildings for the stature, history and charm they lend to a city of town, I can hardly wait for the symposium. Ada was a remarkable woman, and she would be pleased to witness the interest this gathering has generated. Thank you, Ms Bailly, and others who are making this event happen. Kumbayah!

  2. Mary O'Neil says:

    This was a fabulous symposium. My only regret is that a copy of the October 1965 editorial was not distributed. The act of writing the piece was fundamental in turning the tide; but her careful crafting of the argument was the foundation. Ms. Huxtable’s deft allez, parry and editorial lunge are worthy of analysis and emulation.

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