A few weeks back I attended a meeting of the Salem Historical Commission. My reason for going was simple — the fate of an old barn on what used to be the Ropes Estate on 18 Felt St. was up for discussion.
The Ropes Estate was sold earlier in the year and broken up into separate lots. The house and garage have since been purchased by landscape architect, Michael Blier. Blier has been busy repairing and restoring the property as a home for his family.
The barn was purchased by James Treadwell, a noted advocate for historic preservation in Salem. He has been, for many years, a leading voice in Salem for restoration and rehabilitation. Many times over the years, when a developer or property owner proposed to demolish an older structure, he was the one who stood up and objected. St. Joseph's Church would be the most recent example.
It was interesting to me that Treadwell had decided he would like to tear the barn down because it is "not feasible to rehabilitate".
As the meeting progressed, the barn on Felt Street was relegated to just a part of the story.
First on the agenda was a couple on upper Essex Street who needed the board to approve the materials they had chosen for repair of their front porch. Little did I know, that decision does not belong to the homeowner.
Next up were folks who own a house on Derby Street down by the power plant. The board told this couple very specifically what kind of clapboards and corner boards were to be used and also instructed that they were to retain "existing rakes and cornices".
The next 25 minutes were spent tearing down a Broad Street homeowner's plan to build a mudroom vestibule on the side of her house. A discussion about the appearance of a door that will not be seen from the street was actually amusing. The pitch of the roof was critiqued, the size of the vestibule called into question and, in the end, the whole plan was continued to a later meeting. I wonder how much it cost to delay the contractor.
More recently, a vacant and neglected property at 6 Federal Ct. has come into the local news feed. In the 1990s, the Salem Historic Commission denied the owners of this property permission to raze an old carriage house on the property because they felt that the property should be preserved. They also later denied a request to adapt the carriage house into a single family home. What we have there now is a run-down abandoned property. It seems to me someone is trying to make a point to somebody here.
Historic preservation is an important part of what Salem has become. We need to preserve and restore when and where we can. We learned that lesson 40 years ago when a younger generation of civic leaders stepped up to stop the destruction of our downtown district.
Rules and procedures were put in place to assure that history in Salem would always be a priority. It is time, I believe, for some changes to take place. We must still protect our history, but having a small group of people telling you what color you can paint your house is a little too much protection.
Homeowners should not be put through the wringer every time they need to strip some clapboards and apply some paint. If they want to add a mudroom it should not require multiple trips to public meetings with architects in tow and drawings in hand.
I want to see the barn at 18 Felt St. survive, but I don't own it. James Treadwell bought it and paid for it. Despite his frequent positions on what others should do with their property, this decision should belong to him.
The Salem Historical Commission should have their sails trimmed a bit and let property owners be property owners.