In the year 2000 one particular block in the City of Gloucester, MA had not changed in 100 years with the exception of the Sawyer Free Library onto which had been built a new wing.
Holding down the corner of Middle Street and Dale Avenue stood the Saunders house, built in 1764, converted for library use in 1884 with additions in 1913 and 1976.
In 1800 Capt. Beach owned the old Saunders house with a large piece of land. In 1801 John Mason bought land from Beach and built a house which he then sold to Joseph Henderson and Samuel Gale for $1600 in 1807. Henderson and Gale who were also house wrights next sold the lot with the house for $1215 to Nathaniel and Charles Babson in 1810. Along with the house, there was also a shop. It is not clear whether this was a separate structure or was included within the house.
This Federal period house with the gable end on School Street was next owned by John W. Haskell for many years. The main part of the house that faced Middle Street had replaced 2 over 2 window sash, popular in the Victorian period. The ell of the house still had small paned 6 over 6 window sash that would have been original to the house. Although set way back on School Street the house faced Middle Street. In front of the house is another house that can be seen in the photo. It was most likely the back of the home of John J. Somes that was later replaced by the Lorraine Apartments built nearly thirty years after this picture was taken in 1882.
Later in the 19th century, the Lane family lived there. The house was deeded to Maria Lane, wife of Edwin Lane of the fire department. At that time the fire station was on Dale Avenue on the site of the Central Grammar Apartments today. It was just steps from Lane’s house to the station.
This is a Corliss and Ryan photo taken about 1882. Courtesy of the Cape Ann Museum
Eventually, another house was built next door at 7 School Street. This house was occupied by J. Warren Haskell, probably the son of John W. Haskell. It was larger than the charming but small Federal at 3-5 School Street.
Benjamin F. Somes, bank president, lived on the corner of School and Middle in a Federal period house with a nice fanlight over the door. John J. Somes, long time city clerk, lived in a modest Victorian house that was next door to Benjamin’s house but newer and closer to Middle Street. Photo courtesy of Cape Ann Museum.
The two Somes lots on the corner of Middle Street and School Street became the lot on which the Lorraine Apartments replaced the Somes houses about 1910. School Street was between the Benjamin Somes house and the Congregational Church. The Somes houses may have been moved to new locations in the city.
Next door on the right side of the Lorraine Apartments on Middle Street was the former First Parish Church, in recent years the Temple Ahavat Achim. Continuing up School Street it soon intersects with Mason Street. Mason Street is a sharp right-hand turn facing Central Grammar and the passageway to Dale Avenue next to the Sawyer Free Library.
On this short leg of Mason Street at #3 was the pretty Italianate house that was quite new when Corliss and Ryan photographed it in 1882. Right behind it is the back of the First Parish Church. The small chimneys indicate stove heat. Fireplaces were no longer needed for heat. Through the trees on the left side of the house is the gable end of the old house that originally stood on the corner of Dale Avenue and Warren Street facing City Hall.
In 1867 this piece of land was sold for $950 with no house on it. In 1883 it was sold by Horatio Andrews to Emma Perkins with a house for $5000.
This handsome house has pairs of brackets under the eaves, the hallmark of the Italianate period in architecture so popular in Gloucester. Chances are that it was built in the 1870s. This photo is courtesy of Cape Ann Museum.
As late as the year 2000 this neighborhood was still as described. The Saunders house with its library additions was still next door to the old First Parish Church with the Lorraine Apartments on the corner of Middle and School streets.
On School Street, the first house, the old Haskell house, was still standing at 3-5 School Street with the other Haskell house still standing next door at 7 School Street. Turning the corner onto Mason Street was the Italianate house of the later 19th century. This completes this block as it was in the year 2000 just before this long-time stable and established block began to change.
The first house to go was the former pretty Italianate at 3 Mason Street. The Sawyer Free Library, in anticipation of expanding to meet modern library needs, purchased the house for $229,000 and demolished it.
The library next focused on the two School Street houses. On June 4, 2003, the library acquired 3-5 School Street for $339,000. Just about two weeks later 7 School Street was acquired by the library for $350,000. Both houses were demolished clearing three house lots in preparation for a larger library with some parking.
That ended the planned demolition but unplanned demolition continued to wreak havoc on this city block.
In December of 2007, a devastating fire destroyed the Lorraine Apartments with a loss of one life. As the apartment house collapsed in flames it took the former First Parish Church, then Temple Ahavat Achim, with it completing the destruction of this block. Only the old Saunders house with its 1913 and 1976 additions remained. Now Gloucester was presented with a unique opportunity to redevelop this block and begin renovations to the library. There was plenty of room for the library to spread out. Kirk Noyes, representing the Gloucester Development Team who owns Central Grammar organized a charrette hoping for inspiration for exciting redevelopment.
Sadly, this opportunity to do something really wonderful slipped away as a poor reproduction of the Lorraine Apartments quickly rose from the ashes and a controversial Temple replaced the old converted first Parish Church, its contemporary design thought to be out of place in a small historic district struggling to survive the loss, recover from this major upheaval, and keep its identity.
The money hoped for though an override for the library failed to materialize and the 2007 plans for expansion of the library were shelved.
With a new round of library funding available in 2017, the library has again jumped on board. Having discarded the 2007 plans the building committee began anew and presented the city with a disappointing set of plans. Although the interior would provide the much-desired features it was recommended that the 1976 library building be demolished and replaced with a very contemporary and controversial building designed by architects who apparently didn’t look at the surrounding area, consider the Gloucester Historic District or the 250-year-old Saunders house. The city was shocked! The important Saunders house didn’t work for these architects so that would be put out to pasture unless someone could come up with a sensible idea for an architecturally important but 250-year-old detached piece of the library. The new plan has yet to be approved and the land on School Street and Mason Street remains vacant but providing some parking for the library. The newest plan does not call for expanding in the rear of the library where the old houses once stood.
Nearly $1,000,000 in historic Gloucester houses was lost, a number of affordable rental units lost, nearly $1,000,000 in grounds work, a beautiful amphitheater and landscaping doomed if the plan goes through. Now there are two sets of architectural drawings costing several hundred thousand dollars wasted if the plan isn’t approved or used.
Why wasn’t the Gloucester Historic District Commission or the Gloucester Historical Commission included in the planning? There are a lot of unanswered questions. For the time being, we are left with a decimated neighborhood and an application pending for funding for a new library that will make many people very unhappy if it ever gets approved.
Although it didn’t all come out of one pocket the expenses incurred and the loss of antique houses and rental units in an attempt to renew the library are huge. I feel sorry those who have contributed so much such as the amphitheater named for the Randos and the new beautiful landscaping by Hillarie Holdsworth that would be destroyed. I feel sorry for the Monells knowing that the beautiful and appropriate building their father designed would callously be bulldozed.
When and if a new library gets built, whatever the design, it will represent a very costly trial and error attempt. There has been insufficient regard for the old Saunders house, the Gloucester Historic District, the National Register designation, or the civic-minded individuals who contributed time and money so generously in support of their library to make it better.
Prudence Fish, of Lanesville, is a published author and expert on antique New England houses. Read Prudence Fish’s blog, Antique Houses of Gloucester and Beyond.