Friday, February 12, 2010

Varnum Building burns

According to, the Varnum Building on Bridge Street suffered a large fire last night.

The article says "damaged" and "destroyed" in the same paragraph, and from the looks of it, I'm not sure which it is, either.  The roof is definitely gone as is the tower, but it's hard to tell from the street what the damage is inside.  I drove by to see how bad it was, and as of 10 AM or so, Bridge Street was still closed.  In the confusion and the traffic (plus I was supposed to be in work!), I didn't stop to take any pictures.  Hopefully I'll get down there eventually, but I expect The Sun will have some good ones in the paper tomorrow.

The Varnum Building is a National Historic Landmark, and one of the few buildings of any size and urban proportions that was left on that stretch of Bridge Street - hopefully it doesn't get demolished and replaced with another fast food joint, drug store, or prefab apartment building.  I wonder if it is repairable, if they'll rebuild it, or truncate it?

Lowell, although never suffering a massive downtown fire like Fall River has, or the multiple serious fires that damaged downtown Lynn, there have certainly been buildings of note destroyed, and seemingly frequent neighborhood blazes, some involving multiple structures (one on Rock Street I'm shaky on details for comes to mind, but I know it destroyed a few blocks).  Non-Americans often remark to me "Why is this city made of wood?" and it's a good question.  The best answer I can give is "because look around you, we have plenty of it to spare."  In addition to being wooden, the exact construction method of much of Lowell is Balloon framing, which has the nasty tendency to carry fire upwards from its origin along structural members, with few fire-stops between floors.  This was the fate of the burned triple-decker on Auburn Street and the one on West Sixth Street - a ground-floor tenement fire soon had flames shooting out the roof.  These old buildings generally have no sprinkler systems.

The loss to fire and other demolition reasons in Lowell has been fairly significant over the years.  The Lowell of 1924 had a similar population to today's Lowell, but had noticeably more open land on the outskirts.  As people in the Highlands and Belvidere can attest, they just keep building, paving, and converting houses to apartments in the outer neighborhoods while the city's population doesn't increase.  That can only mean the the population in the more urban neighborhoods is falling (and the fact that the population downtown is growing, the situation is even worse).  Considering most people wants as much space for themselves and their family (and the car...) as possible, I'm not going to outright lament this, but I think it's safe to say character is lost with every apartment that burns and every home that is chopped up, vinyl-sided and has its yard paved over.

Interestingly, I noticed yesterday the burned apartment building on Auburn St in Back Central had its siding stripped off - I was thinking they were going to repair it.  Instead, this morning, it's completely gone.  Takes one day to take one of those down I guess.  I think the burnt house a few doors down is still there. I drove by quickly this morning, but the large apartment building near the corner of West Sixth St and Aiken Ave looks like it has been or is being repaired.  In the same neighborhood, the house that truck drove into on Lakeview Ave is gone.  I'm not sure what the fate of the house on Broadway is, does anybody know if there are plans to put the roof back on the house on the corner of Highland and Thorndike?

In construction news, there is now a two story parking garage on the corner of Hall and Cabot Streets, across from the new Perkins Park Lofts.

2/18/10: Building is a total loss:

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