BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — As the country’s best-known architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable’s influence was felt far and wide. If you’re looking for examples, you need look no further than the North Shore.
Huxtable, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic who died Monday in Manhattan at age 91, wrote two articles that had a major impact on development and historic preservation in Salem and Beverly.
Her 1965 piece in The New York Times on urban renewal in downtown Salem is credited with stirring opposition to the plans and helping preserve the city’s historic character.
More than three decades later, in 1996, she wrote a story for The Wall Street Journal praising the transformation of the United Shoe Machinery Corp. factory into the Cummings Center office park.
Huxtable, who lived for part of the year in Marblehead, also served as an adviser on the major expansion of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem in 2003.
“She’s really an important part of Salem history,” said Bill Tinti, a Salem lawyer who was involved in the historic preservation efforts of the 1960s and ’70s.
Huxtable’s 1965 story, spread across eight columns in The New York Times, was headlined “Urban Renewal Threatens Historic Buildings in Salem, Mass.” It detailed a plan to tear down historic buildings around Old Town Hall to make way for an expandable parking garage and a new retail block, and to build a four-lane road past the Peabody Essex Museum.
Tinti said the story helped slow urban renewal projects not only in Salem but around the country and led to federal legislation that encouraged historic preservation.
“In large measure, her article was a pivot point from the standpoint of people paying attention to preservation,” Tinti said. “I wish I could tell you that it stopped urban renewal, but it didn’t. We lost a lot of important buildings, but a lot was saved, obviously. It certainly helped to shape public opinion. Sam Zoll was able to take advantage of that when he became mayor and turned the process on its head.”
Huxtable followed up with a story in 1978 titled, “How Salem saved itself from urban renewal.” Tinti said Fred Rogers, whose L.H. Rogers clothing store had been slated to be demolished, hung a framed, enlarged copy of that story in his store window for years.
Huxtable’s story on the transformation of the United Shoe is also hanging from a wall, at the Cummings Center in Beverly.
In 1997, Huxtable called The Shoe “the single most important and generally unrecognized, concrete landmark in this country.” She praised the renovation project as a “miraculous rebirth.”
“For those who prize an architecture still invisible to many and treated as expendable by most, this is more than a success story; it is a dream come true,” she wrote.
Cummings Properties founder Bill Cummings said that story, written in the early stages of the renovation, bolstered his determination to follow through on the project, which many viewed as costly and ill-fated.
“She gave it a boost when many people still thought we were crazy. She gave it respectability,” Cummings said. “With some people, it was little bit like we had received a pontifical blessing.”
Huxtable grew up in New York, but her ties to the North Shore began as a child when she vacationed with a cousin on Marblehead Neck, said Edward Nilsson, a Salem-based architect who lives in Marblehead.
Huxtable and her husband, Garth, bought a modest ranch house on Neptune Road in Marblehead in 1982. Garth Huxtable died in 1989, and Ada Louise, who did not have any children, continued to spend five or six months per year in Marblehead.
Huxtable hired Nilsson to when she was renovating her house in 1994.
“Needless to say as an architect it seemed intimidating at first, but that was not the type of person she was. She was down-to-earth, funny,” Nilsson said. “As a personality, she definitely didn’t want to draw attention to herself. I think she viewed coming up to Marblehead as a way of getting away from New York. She kept a fairly low profile when she was up here.”
In 2008, Huxtable was given the Hawthorne Historic Preservation Award in a ceremony at the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem. Last year, the Cummings Foundation established the Ada Louise Huxtable Fellowship to provide scholarships for students at Boston Architectural College.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.