Imagine you are a visionary German nobleman, head and benefactor of a tiny mission-minded church proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. Now imagine you have practically an entire continent — or say 100,000 acres — where you can lay out a City of God, a New Jeru-Salem in this Eden on earth.
What do you plan?
How about a vast circular city like a great wagon wheel with the spokes as streets all converging on the church at the city’s hub? That is precisely what Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf concocted for our central administrative city in North Carolina. He called it Unitas.
Now place that great wagon wheel of a city on the rolling hills and valleys of Piedmont — that’s why it is called Piedmont, “foot mountains” — North Carolina, and what do you get? A completely unworkable plan on an up-and-down landscape.
That’s why circular Unitas never appeared in North Carolina. Besides, Count Zinzendorf died in 1760 and took it with him, though he did change the name from Unitas to something more scriptural, Salem.
So who designed the straight-line grid that is Salem today? It was two Brethren, Frederic William Marshall and Christian Gottlieb Reuter with help of other Moravians who had designed church communities before them.
More than anyone else, it was Marshall who left his imprint on Salem. Son of a military officer, university trained, Marshall had that abundance of talent to accomplish almost any task set before him. In 1764 the task that brought him from Europe was to build Salem from wilderness to city.
Like Marshall, Reuter was European-trained, but in the occupation of surveying and map-making—the perfect skills for the Moravian Church to send him to America to map and report on the 100,000 acres the church had bought.
In a July 1765 document, five months before the first trees were felled in Salem, Marshall set down his thoughts on the new “Congregation-Town,” keeping in mind health, fire prevention and spiritual quality.
Tightly-built houses or apartments, as in a city, Br. Marshall noted, “is disadvantageous for all and especially for the children.” And so he set Salem’s housing lots at 66 feet wide and 200 (or 198) feet deep, and “not more than two houses should be built side by side (which also lessens the fire risk), and where possible each family should have a separate house.”
One favored plan combined two Moravian towns, Niesky, “with one main street running across the middle of the Square,” and Gnadenberg, “with cross streets.” But Marshall liked surveyor Reuter’s suggestion to run Main Street “in a straight line” from Salem Creek through the town and beyond.
As for the width of Main Street, Marshall declared, “I have made it 60 ft. wide,” since in Lititz the main street was originally only 40 feet and was “found to be too narrow.” But 40 feet, Br. Marshall wrote, should be the width of the other streets, like today’s Church, Salt and Academy Streets.
Turning to the heart of the community, Marshall grouped the major buildings around the square — ministers house, church, Widows and Single Sisters Houses, and Boys and Girls Schools on one side, and Single Brothers and Widowers Houses and Store on the other.
And so with the exception of the Widowers House and housing the Widows in the Brothers House when it ceased its earlier function, Frederic William Marshall envisioned the “principal buildings” of Salem years before they were built on a straight grid plan that Christian Gottlieb Reuter proposed for Salem that is today.
Richard Starbuck is archivist for the Southern Province in Winston-Salem. Learn more at www.moravianarchives.org.
From the July 2016 Moravian Magazine