The Washington Arch by Samuel McIntire

Washington Square Early History: 1600-1800

Salem Common, the large, attractive park in the heart of the city, has been public land since Salem’s early days in the 1600’s. Originally, much of it’s eight acres was swampy, hilly land with several ponds. The higher ground was used as pasture for goats and cows which were brought out to graze for the day and then returned to their owners at night by the town cowherd.

The dry part of the common was also used as the designated area where people could practice shooting to prepare for military duty. Salem Common was called “Ye Olde Training Field” when Captain John Endicott organized the first training day to drill settlers in 1630. The British Puritan settlement was largely responsible for its own defense. The colony required all males between the ages of 16 and 60 to possess arms and be prepared to participate in the defense of their communities.

In 1637, the first regularly scheduled militia drill of the East Regiment, known as the “First Muster,” took place on Salem Common. For the first time, a regiment of militia drilled for the common defense of a multi-community area, thus laying the foundation for what became the Army National Guard. Needing a place for regular military drills, it was voted in 1714 by the commoners to be “forever kept as a training field for the use of Salem.”

From 1775 to 1783, Salem played a significant role in the Revolutionary War for Independence against the British. Leslie’s Retreat, which occurred on Salem’s North Bridge, is considered by many to have been the first armed resistance of the American Revolution. Salem also had 158 Privateer Ships that captured 444 prizes (enemy ships) over the course of the war, more than half the number taken by all the Colonies.

George Washington became a wildly popular war hero, so he used his first year as president to personally tour each of the 13 states in order to build national comradery. On October 29, 1789, General Washington visited Salem to thank those on the North Shore for their part in the Revolution. He rode into Salem mounted on a white horse to the sound of church bells and cannon fire from Winter Island. Huge crowds followed the celebrations as he reviewed the troops, was feted with speeches downtown, attended a Ball at the Assembly House, and watched a fireworks display.

In 1801, Salem’s Elias Hasket Derby (the 2nd), who was a colonel in the militia, led a committee to raise $2,500 to improve the condition of the Salem Common. Ponds were filled in, the surface levelled, and rows of poplar trees were planted. The following year, by order of the town selectmen, the common was renamed Washington Square in honor of the nation’s first President. Unfortunately, all the poplar trees were destroyed in 1815 by a great gale and were replaced with elms and maples several years later.

Park improvements continued with the erection of gates and a fence. The abutting land quickly became desirable for residential use and a posh neighborhood grew. For two decades thereafter, a number of the city’s leading merchants built imposing Federal mansions facing the Common. Houses in various revival styles were later built on remaining lots, resulting in an impressive concentration of early to mid-19th century dwellings.

George Ropes Jr.’s painting, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), is a beautiful reminder of Salem’s new center of community activity. Annual Training Day brought local militia units from neighboring towns and communities parading in dress uniform through Salem streets to meet at the Common. Memoirs of early Salem residents fondly describe this day of colorful parades, puppet shows, athletic events and socializing.

The Original Washington Arch: 1805 – 1850

Samuel McIntire, Salem’s genius woodcarver and self-taught architect, was commissioned in 1805 to design and construct four gateways for the four entrances to the common. This included two elaborate and embellished arches (East and West) and two turnstiles (North and South). The main gateway (the West Arch) was designated the “Washington Arch” and was located on the westerly side of the Common at the head of Brown Street.

McIntire molded his design based on those used in ancient Rome in welcoming processions. The Western arch featured ornate carvings including an oval portrait of Washington flanked by swags of drapery, the Massachusetts state emblem, and a gold eagle to symbolize the newly formed United States of America.

For the western gateway, McIntire carved a medallion likeness of General Washington, thirty-eight by fifty-six inches in size. When the arches were taken down in 1850, this medallion was removed to the Town Hall and is now held by the Essex Institute (Peabody Essex Museum). It was carved in wood after drawings from life made by McIntire during Washington’s visit to Salem in 1789.

On August 31, 1824, one of George Washington’s most influential generals during the Revolutionary War (and America’s favorite French Diplomat), the Marquis de La Fayette, received a hero’s welcome in Salem. Despite the rain, thousands of people came to Washington Square to celebrate their famous guest.

In 1850, the Common was again remodeled adding walkways and the cast iron fencing. The arches were removed at this time. The Salem Common fence was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. In 2007, the SCNA successfully nominated the Salem Common Fence for placement on Historic Salem, Inc.’s Endangered Historic Resource list.

The Washington Arch, Remade: 1976 – 2013

In 1976, the Bicentennial Commission under the direction of Robert Murray commissioned to have the western arch reconstructed and designated it the “McIntire Washington Arch”.

The “new” arch was constructed of metal and wood and located at the corner of Washington Square South, facing where the Tavern at the Hawthorne Hotel is now. Carl Peterson contributed the architectural drawing for the project. Ramon Parga of Salem performed the woodcarving. The 101st Battalion National Guard Corps of Engineers, Reading Ma, provided expertise with respect to the steel fabrication and construction. Johannes Maki was the project supervisor. Reno Pisanno served as consultant. James Kieran and Richard Redfern were the carpenters assisted by the staff of the Essex Institute who contributed substantially to the venture.

Mayor Levesque formally dedicated the Arch on July 4th, 1976. The reproduction arch was showcased in the Peabody Essex Museum’s 2007 exhibit Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style – Symbols of the New Republic.

The Arch was moved in the mid 1980’s to the top of Winter Street as part of the rehabilitation of the Common. The Arch was neglected until 1988 when the Salem Common Neighborhood Association (SCNA) and a visiting ship of Naval cadets began basic restorative efforts such as painting.

On January 10, 2013, President Obama signed Public Law 112-241 that named Salem as the birthplace of the National Guard. The National Guard hosts their annual spring Muster and formal review of the Troops on the Common in honor of the Guards founding as well as Washington’s original visit.

The 2013-2015 Restoration

In 2013, Winter Street Architects created a detailed report on the arch’s history, restoration parameters, and recommended repairs. The rotten and missing parts of the arch were replaced, but the carved pieces were not replicated. Due to the ongoing dedication of the SCNA and local partners, the restoration of the Arch continues.

Over the years, many organizations and citizens have helped with the ongoing Arch restoration including: City Councilor Michael Sosnowski; Richard T. Laperchia & Alpine Woodworks; Boy Scout Troop 24; Salem 5 Bank; Mark Merche & AIA/Winter Street Architects; Lions Club; Scottish Rite & Essex Lodge Freemasons; Kearsarge Lodge # 217; Eastern Bank, Lodge #118 Odd Fellows, the Salem Witch Museum, and the City of Salem. The efforts of the Salem Common Neighborhood Association (SCNA) board and members are gratefully acknowledged, particularly those of Peter LaChappelle.




Goals of the Washington Arch Restoration: Present

  • The restored Arch will continue to stand as a tribute to George Washington, our first President and Commander of the Continental Army, for whom the streets around the Salem Common are named.
  • Once restored, the National Guard troops will march through the Arch during their annual muster.
  • It will also serve as a tribute to Samuel McIntire, reflecting his unique style as shown in the federal-style homes around the Salem Common.
  • Restoration work needs to be completed before Salem’s 400 year quadricentennial celebration in 2026, but ideally work will be done much sooner (by Fall 2021).

Through the hard work and decication of the SCNA board and the generous contributions of our neighborhood partners and supporters the Arch is on it’s way to restoration for the Quadricentennial Celebration in 2026. Please consider donating to help make this restoration a reality.