BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Hundreds of cars pass the Washington Arch every day, with drivers barely giving it a glance. That may be best, since the historic replica on Salem Common is something of an eyesore.
“It’s gotten very deteriorated,” said Peter LaChapelle, who is part of an effort to restore the tall structure erected for the country’s bicentennial in 1976. “Once a wooden object starts to rot, it’s like a cancer goes right through it.”
After years of neglect, this replica of the magnificent original archway by Samuel McIntire, the city’s famed architect and wood carver, is suddenly getting attention.
On Saturday night, the Salem Common Neighborhood Association is teaming with Historic Salem Inc. to hold a Mardi Gras celebration at the Salem Knights of Columbus to raise funds for the restoration. The event, from 7 to 10 p.m., will include appetizers and desserts, live Cajun music, raffles and door prizes.
Cost estimates to restore the arch start at $25,000, according to LaChapelle.
The project has many backers, including the city and the Salem Veterans Council, which has reached out to the National Guard, which holds an annual muster on the Common.
Last month, President Obama signed a bill designating Salem the birthplace of the National Guard because the Common is the site of the nation’s first muster.
With all these hands reaching out to help, Ward 2 City Councilor Mike Sosnowski has called for a meeting.
“We need to combine all these good folks in a coordinated effort to get this done,” he wrote in an email.
The Washington Arch dates to 1805, when four gates designed by McIntire were erected on Salem Common. The most memorable was the west gate by Brown Street, which had a large profile portrait of Washington. It was the official entrance to the Common.
The arch/gate was only one of many tributes to the country’s first president, who visited the city in 1789.
Eventually, those original arches deteriorated and were removed. A century later, a new Washington Arch was erected across from the Hawthorne Hotel as part of the bicentennial.
When it, too, began to deteriorate, it was moved to its present location, virtually hidden away on a back side of the Common near Winter Street.
This renewed focus on Washington’s Arch comes as the park itself is getting more attention. A few years ago, the Salem Common Neighborhood Association led an effort to restore the statue of city founder Roger Conant, which sits on the edge of the Common. Currently, there are plans to fix part of the damaged ornate fence around the park.
Salvaging the Washington Arch, LaChapelle feels, would be a fitting tribute to the park and to the nation’s first president, who was revered in this city, which named a street and square in his honor.
“I’m always amazed that the people back then would make such a beautiful piece of art in tribute to our nation, the first president and the first commander in chief,” he said. “I just want to perpetuate this for future generations — the magnitude and the grandeur.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.