Thursday, February 18, 2010

Varnum Building to be demolished

I had posted a few days ago the report that the Varnum Building on Bridge Street had had a bad fire, but I wasn't sure if it was repairable or not.  I also put in a few links to the little history of the building I could quickly find online.  Well, The Sun reported yesterday that the building is beyond repair.  The photos they had put up the day after the fire had made that fairly clear anyhow.  The Third Street side that is visible from Bridge Street and VFW doesn't look nearly as bad as the Bridge Street side, where it looks like the fire originated.

So, I was planning to get down here anyway, and I actually got out of bed on time this morning, so I headed over to see it before it was gone.  I bought a bagel and a coffee at Dunks so I could not be in violation of the "parking for Dunks customers only" sign  (I get real weird about that sort of thing) and then walked around the neighborhood. The article says the fire was caused by an electrical fire on a lower floor - you can see the windows on the second floor of the right-hand side of the Bridge Street facade are charred (next to the angled corner), and the fire seems to have gone straight to the roof from there.  I would absolutely love to live in an old house, but 100-year-old wiring with brittle, failing insulation and no grounding scares the crap out of me for this very reason.  I had also mentioned the old-fashioned balloon framing, and another dangerous trait of older houses is the lathe-and-plaster walls, rather than modern sheetrock.  Unlike thin slats of wood, sheetrock doesn't burn too well and can absorb heat.

Like I had said previously, I hope this building is replaced with something else that is, if understandably non-monumental, sensitive to the little remaining urban character this street has.  Realistically, in this economy, I expect it to remain an empty lot for a long time.  However, there is a wonderful block between West 3rd St and West 4th St just opposite the Varnum Building that still has an unbroken row of (occupied!) period storefronts with what looks like upstairs apartments.  A barber, a restaurant, etc.  Parking, unlike many more modern developments, is hidden out back or on the street.  This type of development is finally becoming more popular again - even the single-story, single-use CVS building on the corner of VFW and Bridge did the neighborhood a big favor by nearly hugging Bridge Street and Lakeview, and putting the parking in the rear.  Nothing hurts the feeling of "I am someplace" when walking down a street more than a huge parking lot along the sidewalk, where pedestrians need to compete with cars to get through.  I think it would've done a bigger favor if they had put a couple floors of either apartments or office space above it, but oh well.  All neighborhoods need a quality drug store and the building doesn't look so bad...although, I do miss Russo Music.  Why can't we have a music store downtown by the way?  This is precisely the type of specialty operation that can handle a lack of parking, loading docks, expressway access, etc.

I'm beginning to ramble here, so here are the photos I took today:


  1. I drove by at 3pm today and a large excavator was being unloaded...when driving back the opposite direction an hour later the building was already half demolished (they began at the rear - 3rd St side). -Gary Francis

  2. Gary is correct, and they completed the work today. I drove by about 30 mins ago and there is nothing left but a pile of debris. Interestingly, there were two cruisers there on Third Street with their lights on. Related?

  3. Do you know any history on the Varnum Family?

  4. Hi Kim,

    I don't know much detail off the top of my head, but along with the Co(l)burns, they were some of the earliest settlers of what is today Dracut, and by extension, the Pawtucketville and Centralville sections of Lowell, which were annexed from Dracut starting around 1840 and ending around 1890. Primarily Pawtucketville, in which a major street is Varnum Avenue. The family has been in New England since the 1630s.

    This book may interest you. Being written by a Coburn in 1920, there is a decent amount of discussion about the two families' history: