, Salem, MA

July 18, 2008

Our view: Fresh hope for two Salem landmarks

When passengers aboard the cruise ship docked at the Blaney Street landing recently were asked what they thought of Salem, they broke into applause. Then they went right back out to see some more of the city.

There's a good chance the next time they visit there will be even more to see as a result of a new agreement between the city and the Gordon College Institute for Public History aimed at breathing new life into two local landmarks — Old Town Hall and Pioneer Village.

City councilors are enthusiastic and last night were expected to give final approval to the deal granting the college group a five-year lease on both the historical building in Derby Square and the replica 17th-century village at Forest River Park. Both have long been underutilized, and the latter is particularly in need of restoration.

The Gordon College theater department has already proven itself a good and reliable tenant of the 192-year-old former market house and municipal office building, having long used its upper hall for annual productions of its re-creation of the Salem witchcraft trials, "Cry Innocent." Now the Wenham-based school is proposing to spend some $125,000 on renovations to Old Town Hall, converting the first floor into an exhibition space that will include displays on the city's history.

Plans are to expand programming for the upstairs performance space as well, which Mayor Kim Driscoll expects will draw more people downtown at night and generate more business for nearby stores and restaurants.

No less significant are the plans to reopen the building's restrooms. This should help address the lack of public facilities in the area — a frequent complaint of those who visit.

By agreeing to take on the restoration of Pioneer Village, those at Gordon College have demonstrated a willingness to go where many others have failed. Though well worth the effort — the collection of houses and outbuildings was constructed under the direction of historian George Francis Dow in 1930 to commemorate the Massachusetts Bay Tercentenary — the task of maintaining and attracting visitors to the out-of-the-way site has frustrated many well-meaning individuals and groups in recent decades.

The plan is to draw people there for plays, lectures and workshops. That makes sense; but as has been noted in this space many times previously, Pioneer Village's best chance of salvation lies in making it more visible and accessible to those visiting the city.

Take those cruise-ship passengers: Given the distance of Forest River Park, which is almost at the Marblehead line, from Blaney Street by road, few, if any, would likely make the trek to Pioneer Village even if they knew of its existence. That trip would be much shorter, and more enjoyable, by boat.

The establishment of a maritime route linking the city's many seaside attractions — Salem Willows, Winter Island, the House of the Seven Gables, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Pickering Wharf and Pioneer Village — would provide visitors with the ultimate Salem experience.

But that's a task for another day and another entity (or, more likely, several) to attempt. The challenges facing Gordon in taking on the management of Old Town Hall and Pioneer Village are formidable enough, and the city should do all it can to help it succeed.