The Salem Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2010, The Gombach Group.
Salem is a sparse, loosely-assembled rural township between Colchester, Montville and Lyme: the three towns from which lands were transferred when the town of Salem incorporated in 1819. At that time, Salem had reached a peak population of 1,027 people, who generally turned to their parent towns for commerce and services. Salem did not develop its own identifiable town center until the early 19th century when two churches, a town hall, a post office, homes and a music school grew up along a five mile section of Governor's Road, now Route 85. The Salem Historic District encompasses Salem's central-most intact zone.
This is an area of simple, plainly styled buildings set in open farmlands. It has always been a place between places where building has the appearance of being done randomly. Visually, Salem's most outstanding feature is its green, where, contrary to the town's largely unplanned environment, a trio of public places stand in a distinct crescent facing the main road. This remarkable composition of ascetic white frame buildings was assembled over a 54-year period, 1831-1885. Northern-most is the Congregational Church c.1840, Greek Revival in style with a portico of Doric columns fronting its small body and blunt steeple. The Grange Hall, next to the church, has pared silhouette wrapped in an assortment of fancy shingles and sheathings. It was built in 1885 as the Central District Schoolhouse. Completing the group is the Salem Town House, originally built in Norwich, Connecticut in 1749 as an Episcopal church. It was moved to Salem in 1831 when the Episcopal Society purchased it for $500.00 (a stove and table were included in this price). The lancet windows and columned portico date from this reconstruction. A vaulted ceiling spans the entire interior space. Its congregation quickly diminished so that by 1840 the church closed and was obtained by the town for general meetings. Since 1969, this elegant and serene building has been the home of the Salem Historical Society. The exterior has been painted and repaired, and the Society is working on the interior. A small rear ell has been added to house kitchen and laundry facilities and a fire-proof vault.
Immediately surrounding the green are several 18th and 19th century houses, and but one intrusive element: a cement block shed opposite the green. Maps of 1854 and 1867 show no building in this location despite the densely built-up east-side. These maps also indicate that in this immediate area, no buildings have been lost or added. Today the condition of these structures varies from good to fair. The southern section of the Salem Historic District has not retained the remarkable physical integrity of the northern zone, but it does contain buildings of notable historic value; the principle ones being the "Methodist Tavern," and a house and barn that were once parts of the Music Vale Seminary. The Methodist Tavern derived its name when, as the home of Rev. John Whittlesey, it was a stopping place frequented by state officials and politicians on trips between and Hartford. Whittlesey, himself a state senator, invited them for debate and company. The "Tavern," built c.1720, is a single story cottage with a central chimney, and said to be the oldest structure remaining in Salem.
Rev. Whittlesey's son, Orramel, founded the Music Vale Seminary in 1835 on farmlands across the road from the "Tavern." It was the first degree-granting school of music in the United States. Between 50-100 women attended Music Vale each year. Orramel's modest, Federal style house c.1820, was the first building on site, and later the school's "headquarters." A classroom and dormitory building accumulated as one expansion followed another. A large, rambling barn (c.1849) with fancy barge-board trim completed the institution's physical plant. In 1868, the classroom building was destroyed by fire. It was replaced by an elaborate, Tuscan-mode structure which had practice rooms and pianos for each student, and a theater with a stage complete with painted backdrops. Two grand stone lions flanked the school's entrance. These have now been retired backland to the Whittlesey Cemetery gates. The school closed in 1876 soon after Orramel's death, and in 1897 fire destroyed the main building. Antique musical instruments and valuable records were destroyed with the building; but important artifacts have been discovered in the barn and with family. The Salem Historic Society is custodian of these materials.
The southern end of the Salem Historic District contains a number of contributing buildings; a Greek Revival style home on Pratt Road, and an 1800's house opposite the "Tavern" on the corner of Chapman Road and Route 85. Further north on Route 85 is the Salem Public Library, given to the town by Hiram Bingham III. In addition to his career as a Latin-American scholar at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, Bingham was governor of Connecticut for one day in 1924, but was elected the next day to the U.S. Senate where he served from 1924-1932. He remained a member of the Salem Grange, and held a strong faith in local self-government. At the time the library was given c.1929, Salem's population was near its low of 400. The amazingly tiny library (about 20' x 15') was built in what the New London Day praised as "a pure colonial style..." i.e. wood shingles, shutters, and a cupola above the gambrel roof. Composed symmetrically, the formality of the small building is decidedly quaint; and an interesting statement of Bingham's philanthropy and view of the town.
There are two non-contributing buildings in this area; a two-story house c.1940 (out of scale, disruptive in color); and its neighbor, the Salem Elementary School. While the design of the school's front entrance bay does make an allusion to the front facade of the Salem Town House, it succeeds only in demonstrating the difficulties of rendering earlier styles in contemporary materials and scale.
Other buildings of historic value lie further north along Route 85. (such as the home of Orramel Whittlesey's brother, John, a manufacturer of pianos). But as they are both separated from the district by large housing sub-divisions; and interpenetrated by 20th century houses, they offer no district potential. Salem Historic District is surrounded by farm and open lands. Although these lands protect the Salem Historic District's perimeters, land ownership patterns within could contribute to incongruous developments.
Salem Historic District records the early growth, the decline, and recent renewal of a small rural town, which with the exception of the Music Vale Seminary and a few sawmills, was a farming community. The Salem Historic District is significant for the unusual building arrangement of its green, and for the cluster of building around it, which typifies rural modes of the 18th and 19th centuries. Among these structures, the Salem Town House stands out as being particularly well-designed, The balanced, graceful combination of Greek and Gothic motives is remarkable in itself, and more so considering the building's two relocations (and concomitant redesign), and the limited resources of the small Salem congregation responsible for its present form.
The Salem Historic District is equally important for the surviving structures of the Music Vale Seminary, an early music school established in the United States. The young women it trained to be instructors settled and taught throughout the country. Students came to the school from coastal towns and southern states, with some coming from Nova Scotia and the West Indies. Tuition, room and board totaled $300 for the one-year program. Widows, orphans, and daughters of clergy were afforded special fees. Lessons included notation, composition, guitar, voice and piano. The schedule was demanding, rising at 5 o'clock, practicing from 6 to 7, then breakfast, followed by a full day of study. A normal degree was awarded to students successful in exams and a recital before a board of examiners.
Orramel Whittlesey was a demanding instructor, but with a taste for the romantic. The appeal that the rural, remote life held for him is expressed in the name he chose for the school, and in Salem places — Fairy Lake, Witches Wood, Elfin Glen, and Walden Road — that he is said to have named. When students arrived in Norwich or New London they were brought to Salem in the Red Robin or the Bluebird — the school's carriages. In a paper called "Connecticut Fairy-land" John Sullivan Dwight of the Harvard Music Association described Music Vale as:
"...a mystical Community of romantic, beautiful young ladies, segregated from the coarse and selfish world, and leading the happiest life imaginable, a life all music, in a secluded valley, unapproachable to vulgar feet, in the midst of the very land of 'blue laws' and 'wooden nutmegs.' (1855)"
Whittlesey's school was a family industry in which his wife was manager, his brothers manufactured pianos (patenting some improvements), and where his four daughters also taught. The farm remained an important part or the operation, suppling animals and crops. Enrollment dropped after the Civil War when fewer Southern students showed an interest in coming north. This and the death of Whittlesey in 1876 precipitated the school's closure.
Johnson, Frances Hall. Music Vale Seminary. New Haven, Yale Press and the Tercentenary Commission of the State of Connecticut, 1934.
New London Day, special edition April 1931.
Perkins, Mary E. Chronicles of a Connecticut Farm 1769-1905. Boston, privately printed, 1905.
Bingham, Alfred; and Bodman, John and Helen. Salem Historical Society, interviewed, 27 July 1977.
† Anstress Paine, consultant, Connecticut Historical Commission, Salem Historic District, Salem, CT, nomination document, 1977, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
Street Names: Hartford Road, Morgan Road, Pratt Road, Round Hill Road, Route 85