Historic Court Buildings

Three Endangered Properties

  • County Commissioner’s Building (1841)
  • Superior Court (1862, 1887, 1889)
  • Registry of Deeds (1909)


Individually the Historic Court Buildings on Federal Street are noteworthy examples of architectural styles that were commonly employed in public building design from the mid-19th to the mid 20th century.  As an assemblage, are truly extraordinary.  They were added to the Most Endangered List in 2007 when the program for the new Ruane Judicial Center included vacating the historic buildings.  As of March 2012, the Registry of Deeds is slated for re-use as the Family and Probate Court.  The Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) has recently hired Perry Dean Rogers | Partners Architects, an architecture firm in Boston, to conduct a certifiable building study for the Registry of Deeds. Following this study, the state has preliminarily allocated $60 million for the renovation of this property.  Proposed plans for the Superior Court and County Commissioner’s Building are currently at a standstill, awaiting funding, with the potential for them to remain empty for the foreseeable future. There is currently an effort to move these buildings to the ownership of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA) who would seek proposals for their use.

(L-R) Ruane Judicial Center (under construction), former Registry of Deeds building, Superior Court, County Commissioners BuildingFederal Street Courthouse Streetscape


History and Significance

The entire block that comprises the Courthouse District is in the Federal Street National Register Historic District.  Aligned in a row on the north side of Federal Street, the three Essex County courthouse buildings form a visually exciting and historically significant streetscape[1].  Individually, the buildings are noteworthy examples of architectural styles that were commonly employed in public building design from the mid-19th to the mid 20th century.  The assemblage is extraordinary.

Salem holds the distinction of being the site of the first court in our nation’s history.  In 1692 it received the commission under the new Charter for the Province of Massachusetts with a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer for the Salem witch trials.  Salem Courts again played a significant historic role leading up to the American Revolution with the removal of the Massachusetts General Court from Boston to Salem in 1774 under the King’s orders in punishment for the Boston Tea Party. While the original buildings that figured in these events have been lost over time, today the Federal Street National Historic District still provides testament to the birth of our nation’s court system.  This dramatic collection of historic court buildings create a monumental streetscape.  In 1993, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held a special session in Salem to commemorate its 300th Anniversary and celebrate where the oldest court in continuous service in the western hemisphere began.  The entire block of buildings on both sides of Federal Street between Washington and North Street are part of the Federal Street National Register District

The Superior Court was initially constructed in an Italian Revival style structure in 1862, then was remodeled between 1887 and 1889 in the Richardsonian Romanesque style.  The interiors of the Superior Court Building are of particular architectural significance.  Of these, the Law Library is of the very highest quality and rarity.

The 1841 County Commissioner’s building one of the most outstanding Greek Revival style civic buildings surviving in New England.  However the majority of the historic fabric in the interior of the Commissioner’s Building has been removed or irrevocably altered.

The 1909 Essex County Registry of Deeds is considered by Bryant Tolles to be “one of the finest Neoclassical Revival buildings in the Boston area.”  The granite edifice, designed by Clarence Blackall of Boston is notable for the six-coloumn Greek Ionic portico at the front of the building.

History of Threat and Preservation Efforts

As described in the history of the courthouse efforts,original plans in 2003 included the reuse the historic court buildings on Federal Street for ancillary uses to the new courthouse.

By 2007, the plans had changed considerably.  What was proposed would mean that two of the three historic courthouses on the street would be vacated, declared surplus property and “warm mothballed.”  Without a clear plan and schedule for their reuse as civic buildings, Historic Salem, Inc. feared that these magnificent public buildings might lie dormant and neglected for a period of time after being vacated with the additional risk of losing them to private, rather than public, use.  Advocacy efforts for these buildings are on-going and have included a feasiblity study, which is described below.

The state may desire to dispose of these properties through a competitive bidding process.  On one hand this would insure that they not sit vacant or neglected for an extended period of time. On the other hand, it could potentially put them in the hands of a developer who wishes to change the irreplaceable historic character of the existing fabric. With this in mind, HSI has developed a position statement about the future re-use of these buildings, as follows:

Historic Salem Inc. has a vested interest in the future of the three historic courthouse buildings in the Federal Street National Historic Register district. We believe that they constitute a unique and nationally significant architectural and historical resource. These buildings include the Superior Courthouse, the Registry of Deeds and Registry of Probate building, and the County Commissioners building. We believe that the exterior of these buildings needs to be carefully preserved and restored. In addition, there are important interior elements of the Superior Courthouse, including its courtrooms and magnificent law library with its purpose-built furniture, which should be preserved in any reuse plan, and which should be accessible to the public. We believe that the best way to achieve these objectives is to retain all three historic court buildings for court functions in the context of a court campus block. Alternatively, other municipal functions could also support these objectives. A public institution using it for educational purposes and committed to the preservation of important interior spaces with public access to these spaces would be another good alternative use.


Feasibility Study

At Historic Salem, Inc.’s urging, the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) required DCAM to fund the Salem Superior Courthouse Re-Use Study Feasibility Report. This study, completed in 2008, provides architectural analysis of reuse possibilities, cost estimates, and evaluation of the feasibility of a number of potential alternative uses for County Commissioner’s Building and the Superior Court.  In preparation for this Study, Historic Salem, Inc.’s Preservation Committee toured these court buildings and provided DCAM with a list of historic features recommended to be preserved for inclusion in the Study. In particular, the preservation of the Law Library and the volume of the interior spaces, were stressed as a high preservation priority.  HSI also reviewed and commented on the draft version of the Reuse Study Feasibility Report. As of March 2012, this study was in the process of being updated.

The preliminary conclusion of the 2008 study was that an institutional use, or a mix of institutional and office space, would be the most economically viable for a future developer.  HSI believes that these uses are the most likely to appropriately maintain the historic fabric of the buildings’ interiors.

At Historic Salem, Inc.’s recommendation, the MOA also required that the Reuse Study Feasibility Report be first used to poll state agencies to see if any have interest in these buildings.  This polling took place in the summer of 2008 and one response was received from Salem State University.  Use by Salem State has the potential to maintain many of the courtrooms in their volumetric character as well as much of the historic fabric and the space and details of the former law library.

If Salem State does not pursue reuse of the court buildings the Reuse Study will inform interested developers of potential uses of the spaces.

[1]Tolles, Bryant.  Architecture of Salem, 1983.  Essex Institute, Salem MA.  Page 119.