Threatened: International Style Church

St. Joseph Church, built in Salem, Mass., in 1948

Credit: David M. Hart

Salem, Mass., may not be famous for its modern architecture, but that's exactly why some locals want to save an International Style church slated to be torn down for an apartment building.

The Archdiocese of Boston closed St. Joseph Church in 2004. Its subsidiary, the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, now owns the two-acre property, which includes the 1948 church, a rectory, convent, and school. It wants to demolish both the sanctuary and the convent and replace them with a 65-unit residential complex.

But their plans hit a road block earlier this month, when the Massachusetts Historical Commission ruled that loss of the church would have an "adverse impact" on the site. The Jan. 14 ruling triggered a review process in accordance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

Although the church could still be demolished, the owner  will now have to officially consider alternatives to demolition before moving forward with the project.

"We don't see the adverse impact ruling as something negative, but just a common recognition between us and the state that we're making a change at the site," Molly Ekerdt, project manager at the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, told the Salem-News.

St. Joseph Church in Salem, Mass., has been closed since 2004.

Credit: David M. Hart

In the past four years, a group of two dozen residents has filed four lawsuits against the owner to stop the project. "Not every church in New England is the typical white clapboard church," says Joseph Carr, a local lawyer who represents the group pro bono. St. Joseph's epitomizes "an important architectural style, and it's rare, and for that reason it should be preserved." Besides, Carr says, "the architecture they have chosen to replace it with is banal."

The Section 106 process does not ensure that St. Joseph Church will be saved. "It'll be interesting to see what happens," says Emily Udy, preservation project manager at Historic Salem, Inc., which placed the church on its list of the town's most endangered historic places in 2004. "There has been a church on that site for over 100 years. That building itself is really unique to the area; it's gorgeous."

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Submitted by john at: April 3, 2011
Since the church has a unique architecture, and since there is a battle over whether it should or should not be demolished to make way for a new apartment complex, why doesn't the church just reopen? I don't see anything on here about why the church closed in the first place. It looks like a lovely place to learn the teaching of the bible. Anybody know why it can't just be reopened?

Submitted by jean at: August 2, 2010
It is a sorry state we live in when we can not save our past This church was built by the french , The people that made Salem Ma what it is today. The people that belived that to live in America was important they also built a school that thought partriotism to all the children that attended the school

Submitted by josephine at: February 9, 2010
I think it is sad that the simplest line on a sheet of paper with a small penned name at the bottom reading Picasso or even Wright can raise so much preservation and sales interest but a whole building, built according the several sketches and painstaking drawings of one architect, can be fought over, preserved or demolished without any reference to the person who created it!

Submitted by Bridgelover from Belgium at: February 9, 2010
Why don't you try to put new uses into this building. It sure looks as if it can sustain it! One can turn a house of God into mixed use and a daily home for people of flesh and blood...

Submitted by Don Matheson at: February 9, 2010
Tolles, _Architecture in Salem_, lists the architect as James J. O'Shawnessey

Submitted by Bruce Hannover at: January 28, 2010
This church is a virtual twin to Christ the King Cathedral, in Lexington, Kentucky. It HAS to be by the same architect.