Chic, shtick among Salem's pleasures

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Deborah Asbrand
Globe Correspondent / September 28, 2003

SALEM -- In the past, you could always credit Salem for being earnest, if tacky. When it came to tourism, the city happily highlighted its Puritanical faults as well as its maritime talents. That unusual combo was part of its charm, the motivation behind the sometimes awkward promotional poses it struck to commingle six months of witch hysteria in 1692 with the lavishness of life 100 years later, when Salem was living large as a wealthy port city.

Imagine the smiles all around when city promoters hit on the perfect hybrid motto: "The bewitching seaport."

Now Salem has a third element to juggle: sophistication. It started with the opening of a handful of high-end retailers selling chic home goods rather than, say, little plastic skulls that double as pencil sharpeners. It marched on with the debut this summer of Strega, a trendy eatery.

But the loudest appeal yet to the upscale tourist has come from one of the city's oldest tourist destinations, the Peabody Essex Museum. The 204-year-old museum took the wraps off a $125 million expansion this summer and has undertaken an equally aggressive marketing campaign to promote its newly stylish self.

The message from the museum is that it's heading for the big leagues, and it's taking its host city with it. "New York? D.C.?" asks the museum's promotional billboard that towers over travelers along Route 93 and bears an image of the new wing's startling, reach-to-the-sky lobby. No, comes the billboard's definitive answer. "Salem."

The museum is also shaping a fresh identity. Taking a page from prestigious museums commonly known by their initials -- think the MFA (Museum of Fine Arts) and even more grandly, MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) -- the museum's new shorthand for itself is "PEM."

Can a city that has prided itself on witches, tchotchkes, and maritime history coexist with sophisticates who might not see anything funny about donning a pointed witch's hat?

Salem's quandary struck us as familiar. After all, who among us hasn't at some point secretly aspired to be chicer than we are?

Perched along the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall, the new entrance to the Peabody Essex Museum fits in so well with the fabric of that walkway that its appearance can almost come as a surprise.

Almost. You'll definitely know when you've arrived.

Stand in front of the glass doors, and you can't help but want to tug them open. That's because the museum's long, tall, light-filled lobby draws you in.

That irresistibility is just the reaction PEM hoped to elicit and the reason for its hiring of architect Moshe Safdie to design the new 110,000-square-foot wing. Safdie is Somerville-based but internationally renowned for, among other things, the National Gallery of Canada.

The lobby area is the heart of the refurbished museum. The glass ceiling soars several stories, and its panes swoop up to points like meringue. Panels of white cloth hung just below cap the sail effect.

Much of the PEM's collection reflects Salem's history as an active importer of goods from the Far East. The museum is about art but also the cultures of China, Japan, and India, as reflected in the bounties brought back by mariners. So as you wander through the galleries, which are painted in muted grays, blues, creams, and lilacs, you see not just paintings and sculpture, but also silk clothing, porcelain, and furniture. A large chunk of the PEM's collection is Asian Export Art, which is decorative art made in Asia for export to the West. Don't miss Gallery 27. Even if you're not a student of silver, you may become one after seeing the collection of bowls, boxes, vases, and teapots in this sun-filled gallery that spirals up to a skylight.

The 2.4 million items in the PEM's collection are also spread among galleries devoted to maritime art, and to the cultures of New England, Native Americans, and Africa.

A major coup for the PEM collection is the acquisition of Yin Yu Tang, the 200-year-old home that housed eight generations of the Huang family in southeastern China. It was disassembled from its site and reassembled on the museum grounds.

On a recent sunny September afternoon, the Yin Yu Tang house glowed with the warmth of the home's intricately carved wood screens and the earthy tones of the center courtyard's stone floor. Yin Yu Tang has a hushed presence. No matter how slowly you walk along the narrow second-story corridors, the rattle of your footsteps still seems too loud. From these slim hallways, you can step into tiny bedrooms that the family inhabited. Turn to the right, and you can turn your face to the sky or peer down into the courtyard.

The Yin Yu Tang house fascinates -- for a few moments. It may for longer, but that's unknown because the museum grants visitors a stingy 20 minutes to tour the house. Museum personnel ride herd on visitors with the subtlety of NFL referees. There's even a last-call, five-minute warning blurted over a PA system.

The museum explains the time limit as a way of both following the advice of architectural preservationists, who recommend allowing no more than 20 people at a time in the home, and accommodating museum crowds. The rushed affair and frequent interruptions are a jarring contrast to the serenity of Yin Yu Tang. It was all a bit much for Al Kolberg of Marne, Mich. He was touring the museum with his wife, Karlene, and their friends Bob and Sue Schuiteman, who have summered in nearby Essex for the last 30 years. "They made you feel like you weren't invited," he said. (PEM says it now allows 30-minute viewings on weekdays.) All the same, Karlene Kolberg said, she came away with some great ideas for draping fabric around her grandsons' bunk beds.

Beyond PEM, which has been a destination here since 1799, the first thing to understand about Salem is that in the hierarchy of tourism, witches trump maritime attractions. The city has successfully parlayed the 1692 incident into 300-plus years of fame, pursuing it with a single-minded zeal. As a result, Salem dubs itself the Witch City. Its sports teams are the Salem Witches, and the city symbol is a broomstick-riding witch.

Quick now, can you discern what the Witch Museum might offer versus the Witch Dungeon Museum or the Witch History Museum? No? How about the Witch Village, the Witch House, and the Witch Mansion?

Despite the dizzying options, lots of visitors are willing to persevere. As they strolled along the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall, Bob Cleary of Brick, N.J., his stepdaughter, Alexis Seiferling, 18, and son Max, 12, were a remarkably cheerful trio. They had enjoyed the Witch House on Friday and looked forward to Saturday's agenda, which included the Witch Dungeon Museum and the House of the Seven Gables, the homestead that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic of the same name.

Cleary shrugged off the 300-mile drive from New Jersey to Salem and put it this way: "It's a nice small getaway, not a week on an island."

The Essex Street Mall, where Cleary and his family were walking, connects Salem's attractions. The brick promenade extends along several blocks and was formed by closing the street to vehicles. It's lined with shops, eateries, and various attractions. Be prepared for diversity. Elixir is a small store crammed with wooden sconces, candelabras, and charming children's furniture. Steps away are the Witch Museum, Samantha's Costumes, and the Magic Parlor (''The Fang Capital of the World"). And for $20, Angelica of the Angels will photograph your aura.

One end of Essex Street reaches in the direction of Chestnut Street, a stately, leafy avenue that stretches for blocks and features an impressive array of Federal Style homes. Chestnut Street is a lovely walk and architectural testament to Salem's heyday.

The other end of Essex Street leads toward the waterfront. There's a lengthy list of maritime sights to be seen along Derby Street. It should be an intriguing era to recall: when Salem grew fabulously rich importing pepper from Sumatra and tea from China, when it ranked as the country's sixth largest city -- and the richest per capita -- and when 50 wharves bustled along Derby Street.

Salem's maritime exhibits -- which include tours of historic houses and an 18-minute film on the maritime trade -- play like PBS to the witch era's E! Entertainment Television. We know viewing the exhibits is good for us; but when no one's looking, we'd rather watch "True Hollywood Story" than "The 1900 House."

Salem no doubt understands our dueling impulses. After all, this is a city of quirky juxtapositions, where Fatima's Psychic Studio, for example, is open for business across the street from a brooding bronze statue of Salem's native son and tourist attraction in his own right, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Each has, or had, a different spin on readings, but only one flashes a red neon sign that promotes them.

If the Peabody Essex Museum is about culture and sophistication, then Salem Willows Park is, well, the anti-PEM.

The park's official name is the Salem Willows Amusement Park. But that grander name recalls a long-ago time when the Willows, now just a short drive from Salem's tourist destinations, was reached by trolley and, later, was home to a roller coaster. Today the official amusements at the Willows consist of arcade games, a miniature minigolf course, and Kiddieland, four tot rides housed in an aging, hangar-style building.

At the Willows, it's the unofficial pleasures that rule. For one thing, access is free. Just pull up and park. For another, Salem has 18 miles of waterfront, but only here can you stroll along generous portions of it. From beneath the canopy of white willow trees, planted 200 years ago when the site was a smallpox hospital, grassy hills offer a perfect spot to view Salem Sound and the sailboats of Salem Harbor.

It's a place where the scent of salt water mingles with that of popcorn and, if you arrive early enough in the day, grilled peppers and onions from the food stands that line one edge of the park.

Here the small pleasures of a little fun will match chic every time.

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