Post Office, Holyoke, Mass

The former post office on Main Street, between Dwight and Race Streets in Holyoke, around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

For many years, the Holyoke post office was located in the ground floor of the Holyoke House, a hotel at the corner of Main and Dwight Streets. However, in 1905 the post office moved into a space of its own, when this elegant Beaux-Art style building was completed. It was located directly behind the Holyoke House, which had by this point been renamed the Hotel Hamilton, and it sat in the middle of a triangular block bounded by Main, Race, and Dwight Streets. The first photo was taken only a few years after it was completed, and it shows the Main Street facade of the building.

This building served as Holyoke’s post office for the first few decades of the 20th century, but it soon became too small for the volume of mail and packages that passed through here. As a result, construction began on a new post office in 1933. It was located further up the hill from here, on Dwight Street between Chestnut and Elm Streets, and was completed in 1935. The older building here on Main Street closed that same year, and it was subsequently demolished in the 1940s. Today, the site is a parking lot, and the present-day scene is dominated by the former Lyman Mills buildings, which stand in the distance on the other side of the Second Level Canal.

Essex County Registry of Deeds and Probate Court, Salem, Mass

The Essex County Registry of Deeds and Probate Court, on Federal Street in Salem, around 1909-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The courthouse in 2017:

As mentioned in an earlier post, Federal Street is the site of four Essex County courthouse buildings, representing a wide range of architectural styles, from mid-19th century Greek Revival to 21st century Postmodernism. The oldest of these, just out of view on the far right of this scene, was built in 1841, and was followed by a second courthouse in 1862, which can be seen in the distance on the right side of these photos. However, both of these buildings were subsequently dwarfed by the much larger Registry of Deeds and Probate Court building, which was completed in 1909 and is seen here in these two photos.

The Classical Revival-style courthouse was the work of Clarence H. Blackall, a prominent turn-of-the-century architect whose other works included a number of theaters in Boston. This style of architecture was particularly popular for public buildings of the era, and features a granite exterior with a large pediment above the main entrance, supported by six Ionic columns. Other classical elements include the carving above the door, which includes the head of a woman who is wearing a Greek helmet, presumably symbolizing Athena.

Today, this scene looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken a century ago. The building was used by the Registry of Deeds and the Probate Court for many years, and was expanded from 1979 to 1981 with a large addition to the rear. More recently, it was joined by a new county courthouse, which was completed in 2012 and stands just out of view on the left side of the scene. The two 19th century courthouses were subsequently closed, but this courthouse underwent a major renovation that was completed in 2017. This $50 million project included preservation of the original 1909 structure, along with the demolition and reconstruction of the 1979-1981 addition, and the building now houses the Essex County Probate Court and Family Court.

City Hall, Salem, Mass

City Hall, at 93 Washington Street in Salem, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

City Hall in 2017:

During the early 19th century, Salem was among the largest cities or towns in the country, ranking among the top ten in the first four federal censuses. It was also the second-largest in New England during this time, behind only Boston, and in 1836 it was incorporated as the second city in the state, with a population of 15,886. At the time, the municipal government occupied the town hall at Derby Square, but construction soon began on a purpose-built city hall here on Washington Street, just north of the intersection of Essex Street.

The building, which was completed in 1838, was designed by noted architect Richard Bond, whose other Salem works included the 1854 Tabernacle Congregational Church (demolished in 1922), as well as the 1841 county courthouse on Federal Street. Bond’s design for City Hall had a Greek Revival exterior, with a granite facade on the Washington Street side and brick walls on the rest of the building. The main entrance is flanked by four Doric pilasters, supporting an entablature that features seven laurel wreaths, with a gilded eagle atop the building. On the interior, the building was constructed with city offices on the first floor, and the mayor’s office and city council chambers on the second floor.

The first mayor of Salem was Leverett Saltonstall I, a prominent politician who had previously served as president of the Massachusetts Senate and would later go on to serve in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1838 to 1843. He was also the great grandfather of Leverett A. Saltonstall, who would serve as governor of Massachusetts and as a U. S. Senator during the mid-20th century. Other notable early mayors included Stephen C. Phillips and Charles W. Upham, both of whom also served in Congress, and Stephen P. Webb, who served as mayor from 1842 to 1845 and 1860 to 1862, while in the interim serving as mayor of San Francisco from 1854 to 1855.

The first photo was taken at some point in the post-Civil War era, most likely in the late 1860s or early 1870s, and shows the front facade of City Hall, along with a horse-drawn trolley on Washington Street. The building was significantly expanded in 1876, with an addition that doubled its length, although its appearance from this angle remained unchanged. Another addition came a century later in the late 1970s, but likewise this did not affect the Washington Street side of the building.

Today, this building remains in use as the Salem City Hall, with a well-preserved exterior that shows hardly any changes from the first photo. Now over 180 years old, it is the oldest continuously-used city hall building in the state, and it survives as a good example of Greek Revival-style architecture. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and it is also a contributing property in the Downtown Salem Historic District.

Custom House, Salem, Mass

The Custom House at the corner of Orange and Derby Streets in Salem, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

In a city with countless historic buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, one of the landmarks is the Salem Custom House, which was built in 1819 at the corner of Orange and Derby Streets. At the time, Salem was one of the busiest seaports in the country, with ships arriving with a wide range of cargoes from around the world, and the Custom House was located directly across the street from Derby Wharf, the largest of the many wharves in the harbor. It was also situated in the midst of many fine mansions, including the home of shipbuilder Benjamin Hawkes, which can be seen on the right side of both photos.

The imposing design of brick Custom House represented the presence of the United States government here in the port. Long before income tax and other direct taxes, the vast majority of the federal revenue came from duties on imported goods, so this building had an important role in the nation’s finances. For example, in 1819, the year that this building was completed, the customs duties across the country amounted to over $20 million, which comprised more than 80 percent of the total federal revenue of $24.6 million. By 1832, this had risen to nearly 90 percent, and included some $543,000 in revenue that was collected here in Salem. Although only a tenth of the revenue that was collected in Boston during that year, it was enough to rank Salem sixth among all customs districts in the country.

Today, despite its architectural value and its importance to Salem’s maritime history, the Custom House is probably best known for its association with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who immortalized the building in the introduction to his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. A native of Salem, Hawthorne returned to his hometown in 1846 when he was appointed Surveyor of the Port of Salem, with an office here in the Custom House and a salary of $1,200 per year. By this point, the 41-year-old Hawthorne had achieved only moderate success as a writer, and this job provided some much-needed financial stability for him and his growing family.

Hawthorne had managed to obtain the position thanks to his close friendships with leading members of the Democratic Party, including future president Franklin Pierce. However, the job – which involved weighing and measuring incoming cargoes – interfered with his literary career, and he did very little writing during his time as surveyor. The position proved short-lived, though, thanks to the Democratic loss in the 1848 presidential election. The victorious Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor, took office on March 4, 1849, and just three months later Hawthorne was dismissed from the Custom House.

Embittered by this dismissal, and with plenty of spare time on his hands, Hawthorne poured his emotions into his writing. From the late summer of 1849, until February 1850, he wrote The Scarlet Letter in the third-floor study of his home on Mall Street. This novel proved to be his literary breakthrough, and helped to establish him as one of the leading American authors of the era. The dark themes and bleak ending of the novel likely reflected his mood during this period of his life, but he was also more explicit in showing his anger. The novel begins with a lengthy introduction, titled “The Custom-House.” It takes up nearly 20 percent of the entire novel, and yet has very little to do with the actual plot of the story, aside from explaining how the present-day narrator discovered the 17th century story of Hester Prynne and the scarlet letter here in the Custom House.

However, this explanation comes as almost an afterthought at the end of the introduction, which is otherwise a long, semi-autobiographical polemic against both the Custom House and the city of Salem as a whole. By the time Hawthorne had taken his position here at the Custom House, Salem had seen a significant decline in its shipping industry. It had peaked in prosperity during the first few decades of the 19th century, around the time that this building was opened, but by mid-century the waterfront area featured rotting wharves and a Custom House building that was far too large for the modest amount of commerce in the city. In his introduction, Hawthorne described the area surrounding the Custom House, writing:

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf—but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig, half-way down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood—at the head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass—here, with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious edifice of brick.

He went on to describe the exterior appearance of the building, giving particular attention to the carved eagle above the main entrance:

Its front is ornamented with a portico of half-a-dozen wooden pillars, supporting a balcony, beneath which a flight of wide granite steps descends towards the street. Over the entrance hovers an enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw. With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears by the fierceness of her beak and eye, and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community; and especially to warn all citizens careful of their safety against intruding on the premises which she overshadows with her wings.

Later in the introduction, he described the interior, noting that “The edifice—originally projected on a scale adapted to the old commercial enterprise of the port, and with an idea of subsequent prosperity destined never to be realized—contains far more space than its occupants know what to do with.” It is in one such space – a large, unfinished room on the second floor – that the narrator of The Scarlet Letter discovers the story of Hester, along with the old scarlet letter that she once wore. These had once belonged to the fictional Surveyor Pue, who had preceded the narrator in his position at the Custom House, and were said to have provided the inspiration for the novel.

Neither Surveyor Pue, nor Hester or her scarlet letter, actually existed, but otherwise the introduction provides a fairly accurate – if rather jaded – view of Salem and the Custom House in the middle of the 19th century. The building did see some renovations only a few years later, from 1853 to 1854, and included finishing the rooms on the second floor that Hawthorne had described, along with adding a cupola to the roof. However, the decline of the city’s shipping industry continued over the next few decades, until overseas trade had effectively ceased by the 1870s.

When the first photo was taken around 1906, the building was still in use as a custom house. It had been painted yellow a few years earlier in 1901, but otherwise looked much the same as it had in Hawthorne’s day, aside from the cupola. Even the carved eagle, which had been installed in 1826, was still perched atop the building, and would remain there until it was removed in 2004 and replaced with a fiberglass replica. However, by this point the number appointed officials here in Salem had steadily dwindled. The position of naval officer was abolished here in 1865, followed by that of the surveyor a decade later. Finally, in 1913, Salem’s customs district was absorbed into Boston’s district.

Although no longer in a separate district, the old Custom House continued to be used by the Customs Service until 1936. It was then transferred to the National Park Service, becoming the centerpiece of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. This park, which was formally established in 1938, was the first National Historic Site in the country, and today includes a number of historic structures along the Salem waterfront. The old Custom House has seen few changes during this time, and still looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken, aside from the removal of the yellow exterior paint. The building is now open to the public, featuring a restored interior along with exhibits on the Customs Service, including the original eagle from the roof.

Essex County Courthouses, Salem, Mass

The courthouses on Federal Street in Salem, around 1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

This block of Federal Street features four generations of Essex County courthouses, all lined up next to each other on the north side of the street. They represent a wide variety of architectural styles, and the two oldest are seen here in this view. The older of these is the granite, Greek Revival-style courthouse on the right side, which was completed in 1841. It was designed by noted architect Richard Bond, who was responsible for several other important buildings in Salem, including City Hall and the nearby Tabernacle Congregational Church. As built, the interior had a courtroom on the upper floor, with county offices on the lower floor, although this later changed as more courthouses were built here.

The second courthouse was built just 20 years later, but with architecture that sharply contrasts with that of its neighbor. Completed in 1862, it featured a brick exterior with an Italianate design, and was the work of architect Enoch Fuller. However, the exterior was heavily modified from 1887 to 1889, including a new wing on the rear of the building, a tower on the right side of this addition, and a new three-story entryway on the front of the building. Although similar to the original design of the courthouse, these additions had more of a Romanesque appearance, which gave the building an unusual blend of architectural styles.

The third courthouse is barely visible on the far left side of both photos. It was completed in 1909, shortly before the first photo was taken, and it has since been joined by a fourth courthouse on the other side of it, which opened in 2012. All four of the buildings are still standing, although the two oldest have been vacant since the new courthouse was completed. Neither have seen any significant exterior changes since the first photo was taken more than a century ago, and both are part of the Federal Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. However, there are still no definite redevelopment plans for the buildings, and the 1841 courthouse was damaged by a fire in May 2018, less than a year after the second photo was taken.

Derby Square, Salem, Mass

Derby Square from Front Street in Salem, with the Old Town Hall on the right side, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

Derby Square is a small plaza in the center of Salem, and it is named for the prominent Derby family, which once owned the land here. Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799) was a prosperous merchant and among the richest men in New England, referred to by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter as “King Derby.” During the 1790s, Derby had an elegant mansion built here on the site. It was designed by noted architect Charles Bulfinch and was completed in 1799, but Derby died later that year and the property was inherited by his son, Elias Hasket Derby, Jr. However, the younger Derby had little interest in paying the high costs to maintain the house, and it sat abandoned for some time before finally being demolished in 1815.

After demolishing the house, Derby sold the property to his brother, John Derby III, and his brother-in-law, Benjamin Pickman, Jr. The following year, they donated the property to the town of Salem, in order to build a new town hall on the site of the mansion. Construction began later that year, and was completed in 1817. It was built of brick, with an elegant Federal-style exterior, and there is some speculation that it may have been designed by Charles Bulfinch. Like many New England municipal buildings of the era, it was designed as a multi-use building, with a public market on the first floor, and a meeting hall and town offices on the upper floor. The basement also had commercial tenants, including a restaurant that was housed here during the early 19th century.

The first event held in the meeting hall was a reception for President James Monroe, who visited Salem in July 1817 during a tour of the New England states. At the time, Salem was at the peak of its prosperity as a major trading port. It was the tenth-largest city or town in the country during the 1820 census, and the second-largest in New England after Boston. However, it was still technically a town at the time, with a town meeting form of government, and this building continued to be used as the town hall until 1836, when Salem was incorporated as the second city in the state, just 14 years after Boston became the first city.

The municipal government moved into the new city hall, which was completed on Washington Street in 1837, and this building remains in use today. By this point, though, Salem’s once-prosperous shipping industry was in decline, and the city saw slow population growth throughout most of the 19th century. Salem never again ranked among the ten largest cities in the country, and now it is no longer even one of the ten largest in the state. However, this early prosperity, followed by many decades of stagnation, has resulted in the preservation of a remarkable number of historic buildings. Today, while Salem is best-known for its infamous witch trials, the city also boasts hundreds of historic buildings from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, including many of the buildings here at Derby Square.

Although Salem’s government moved out of the upper floor of the old town hall in the 1830s, the first floor continued to be used as a public market for many years. It was known as the Market House, as shown by the sign in the first photo, and had stalls for a number of merchants, most of whom sold food. The 1869 city directory lists a fruits and vegetable dealer, a butter and cheese dealer, plus five tenants whose business was described simply as “provisions.” As seen in the first photo, the area in front of the building was also used as a marketplace, with dealers selling goods from their wagons.

The old town hall continued to be used as a market into the 20th century. Although threatened by demolition, it was ultimately preserved following an extensive renovation from 1933-1934. The first floor was completely remodeled, and the old market stalls were replaced with office space for a variety of city offices. The “Market House” sign was removed, and the building became known as the “Old Town Hall,” despite having served in that function for just two decades. Despite the changes on the first floor, though, the old meeting hall on the upper floor has remained largely the same, and continues to be used as a venue for many different functions.

Today, aside from the sign, the exterior of the building has seen few changes since the first photo was taken, and most of the other neighboring buildings have also been preserved. The first floor of the old town hall is no longer used for city offices, and is instead an art exhibition space, but the area in front of the building on Derby Square is still used for its original purpose. Although it was empty when the 2017 photo was taken, the square is the site of a weekly farmers’ market during the summer, plus a monthly flea market that runs from May through September.