The Downing Block and Whole Lot of Shaking Going On in Salem MA

Salem Fagin


Downing Block

173-175 -177 Essex Street

Built in 1858 for dry good merchants Thomas W. Downing and John Downing next to Pickman Place. In 1844 the last year of Captain Joseph Peabody’s administration the Salem Bank removed from the Central Building to the bank building where the early meetings of the trustees had been held near Pickman Place. This site is now occupied by the easterly wing of the Downing Block. The old building stood somewhat back from Essex Street practically on a line with the much changed Pickman house which stood where the PEM garden is now. The bank building had been built by Colonel Pickman for the use of the Salem Marine Insurance Office, the Salem Bank, and the East India Marine Society. The Essex Historical Society which is now part of the Peabody Essex Museum was above the Salem Bank in that building. The Salem Bank started in 1818 as the Institute for Savings in the Town of Salem and Vicinity occupied Essex Place opposite Central Street where the Salem Five Bank is now. This was founded by Edward Augustus Holyoke. It was known as the Salem Bank. In 1830 there was an attempt to break into the their vault in Essex Place. Dr. Edward Holyoke, Benjamin Pickman, Timothy Pickering, Benjamin Crowninshield, Judge Daniel A. White, and Nathaniel Silsbee were members. In 1843 the bank changed its name to the Salem Savings Bank. In 1844 the Salem Savings Bank will move into The bank building on the corner of Derby Square. In 1864 the Salem Bank was in the Holyoke Building where the Bewitched Statue is now. The Essex County Natural History Museum was housed here at the Pickman Bank Building when it merged with the Essex Historical Society to become the Essex Institute in 1848.

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In 1869 the Salem Fraternity which is the oldest boy’s club in the country was founded within the new Downing Block. It was created to create evening instruction and wholesome amusement for those “who were confined to their work during the day who needed recreation at the end of their labors”. Physical training, general education, and arts and crafts were offered. They had a library, a reading room, and amusement room. These services were provided to boys and girls for free. Then they move into the Lyceum on Church Street. That wooden building suffered a fire. Then in 1899 the Salem Fraternity buys the Joshua Phippen Essex Bank Building on Central Street. After being housed there they merge with other national clubs to become the Boys & Girls Club. This time the children were not able to burn the building down. All three of their locations were attached to the tunnels in town. It makes you wonder if Fagin ran the boys cub… Their current Salem location is in the hall next to the Immaculate Conception Church.

This building has a curious set of tunnels. Under the entrance that leads to the stairs to the 2nd and 3rd floors is a long hall way in the building. On the back of the building in this basement hall is an iron door covered in thick glass. At this point the long sliding latch is rusted shut. I was able to pull the doors hinges free from the wall, but the concrete wall behind it is well mortared. From this point to the front are several arches on the left and right. In one arch you can look through a hole and look into the basement under the old Samantha’s Costume Shop. Before you get to the stairs there are a pair of metal doors. These open into rooms on either side of the hallway. Two shoots can be seen entering them from the ceiling. Behind the stairs is the original neon sign for Bernard’s Jewelers. Past the stairs there are arches with old furnace doors in them. Then right before the Essex Street entrance to the tunnel there are a pair of arches with doors in them. The one to the left has a mail slot in the bottom of it. On the other side of this door is a metal bracing composed of a series of “x”s. In this room the tunnel entrance extends 5 feet into the basement. In the other arch opposite of this is another door that leads to the basement under Witch T’s. This storefront was once home to the Goddess Treasure Chest. The Goddess Treasure Chest used to resides in the old Daniel Low warehouse which has a tunnel leading to it. Also the old owner’s home in the Derby-Pickman Building is also connected. Now the tunnel entrance to Essex Street has been bricked closed, but there is a hole big enough to climb through. This section of tunnel was filled with ash and pumice which has caved in from the right and the left. Above is a granite slab which you can see in the sidewalk in front of the door. The corridor is about 3 feet wide and 7 feet tall. Roots were growing through the tunnel from the direction of the Hawthorne Hotel. The tunnel extended past the granite slab and had water pipes running through it. Soon after the first printing of this book the Peabody Essex Museum buys this building to protect their secrets.




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2 thoughts on “The Downing Block and Whole Lot of Shaking Going On in Salem MA

  1. I believe you forgot to use quotes and cite your source: The One Hundred Years of the Salem Savings Bank: Glances at an Interesting and Useful Past, Salem Savings Bank, Walton Advertising and Printing Company, 1918. — Of which chunks of this post appear to be copied and pasted from.

    1. Probably used Old Naumkeag: an historical sketch of the city of Salem, and the towns of Marblehead, Peabody, Beverly, Danvers, Wenham, Manchester, Topsfield, and Middleton.

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