Sunday, April 1, 2012

Photo Tour - Lowell City Hall

As I've mentioned before, back in my grade school days, I went to the Academy of Notre Dame in Tyngsboro.  The building was already nearly 70 years old, and even as a young child, I was fascinated by the architectural detail of the mid-20s Collegiate Gothic building. The floors were marble, the granite entranceway lead to a grand cast-iron staircase; the ceilings were 15 feet high. There were huge oak windows, massive transoms, push-button light-switches, and opulent entertaining rooms. The building had gone through a host of renovations, leaving clues of prior uses in certain rooms. My first-grade classroom was once a chapel; the spaces for the statues were still there. My 7th grade classroom had five doors - from when it was a series of small bedrooms and closets for live-in nuns.

Even in its old age, it was a beautiful structure - built with pride and intended to instill that pride in those who were students there (originally boarding students actually). I used to love exploring whenever I could - it would take hours to find every nook and cranny and there were a lot of doors that were always locked with those old skeleton keys. I managed to sneak up into the attic one night - not really much up there. Years later, I'd learn that there used to be a massive bell-tower above that, even in the 90s long gone. I never snuck into the tunnels to the outbuildings, but I knew where they were. A lot of my interest in architecture and urban exploration can certainly be traced to my nine years in that massive old school.

There was one other building I saw frequently that I was that impressed by - Lowell City Hall. Even though I was quite used to the sight of the building and had been inside it for various things over the years, I had never really taken a good look around. Recently, I attended the special meeting regarding late-night downtown disorder. Even though I actually didn't get any closer to the chamber than the hallway, I was really amazed at how detailed the council chamber was - I'd never bothered going to a meeting there before! This is clearly a building designed to instill pride in the citizenry - and they just don't make them like they used to. I contacted fellow Lowell Historical Society board member and city Historic Board employee Kim Zunino, looking for some sort of photo documentation of the building and a history. I got something far better - a guided tour! So, on a beautifully sunny and warm day in March, I snuck off for a few hours to look around from the cellar to the clocktower.

More after the jump.
A lot of this information is take from The Story of the City Hall Commission, available on Google Books. Other information is taken from Kim's notes, which she graciously provided me.


When Lowell was incorporated as a town in 1826, having been built on what was then sparsely-populated farmland in East Chelmsford, there was an immediate need for a meetinghouse.

The first few years had meetings held at various taverns; then in 1829 construction commenced on a dedicated meetinghouse on Merrimack Street at the corner of Shattuck - today's Enterprise Bank. The construction was complete by 1831 and had cost $19,000 dollars - the first meeting was held there on March 7, 1831.

As was the style at the time, the Town Hall had shops on first floor and in the cellar to help cover the cost of constructing and maintaining the building, with a large meeting room on the second floor. The businesses housed here included grocers, a hardware store, and a reading room. As the city and government grew (Lowell gained a city charter in 1836), Huntington Hall, owned by the railroad company and on the corner of Dutton and Merrimack Streets, became used as the public hall. The old meeting room in City Hall was divided up into two floors and smaller rooms, as it is today. City Hall also  held the library for a while before it moved to the old Masonic Temple building on Merrimack Street, where Mr Jalapeno's is today.

By the 1870s, Lowell was a sizable city and the old Hall was becoming far too small. Between 1870 and 1880 alone, the city grew from 40,000 to 60,000 residents. In 1888, a plan was set forth to create a Commission of residents and the mayor, charged with getting a new City Hall and Civil War Memorial Hall/Library built on a site belonging to Merrimack Manufacturing Company, west of Monument Square. Huntington Hall was to remain the public meeting hall.

The first order of business was to have buildings designed that would fit the strangely-shaped lot and would be appropriate for the city of 75,000 (and on budget). A competition was held to design a city hall costing $200k and a library costing $100k on that lot. Twenty-three architectural firms replied. Awards were given to the top three designs. The City Hall was given to the third prize winner (Merrill and Cutler - local architects, also designed the Lowell Armory and other local buildings) and Memorial Hall to the first prize winner (Stickney of Boston, born in Lowell, also did the Moody School and Lowell High School).

By 1890, the plans were complete and general contractors were being requested for bids. The bid for the library was raised to $150k and the city hall to $300k. There were a few rounds of bids that could not come in for those prices, so the commission needed to reduce some of the ornamentation in the building. One thing that was cut was the granite floors on the third floor of city hall. The city hall tower was almost cut, but it was able to be brought in on budget with the other cuts made. Other decisions that needed to be made were what sort of stone should the building be clad in - pinkish granite was selected from the White Mountains.

Construction took about three years. Ground was broken on June 23, 1890 and the cornerstone was laid Oct 11, 1890. A large percentage of contractors were local - it was petitioned that this would help the local economy if the $500,000ish dollars spent in total were to remain in the local economy. For comparison, that is about twelve-million of today's dollars.

The new city hall was dedicated on October 14, 1893. Mayor John J. Pickman's remarks included:
May this building typify and illustrate the quality of the work to be performed within its walls, and may the beauty and strength of good municipal government find here a permanent abiding place 
Former mayor Charles D. Palmer remarked:
Yonder Memorial Building is not a soulless pile of granite, it is a monument to loyalty and valor the Library is a votive offering to education - the City Hall is the temple of civil liberty. Such influences as these should inspire a loftier standard of citizenship making us realize that public affairs are a part of our daily life not to be neglected or put aside and that there are no more pressing duties of higher responsibilities or nobler privileges than the duties, responsibilities, and privileges of the American citizen.
He also requested bronze statues of Benjamin Butler and James B. Francis be built out front. This clearly didn't happen.

I guess the takeaway here is the comments that opulent buildings should instill pride in both the workers and the citizenry. We should think about how these clearly important buildings are places for important work. Compare them to municipal buildings we see today - you often hear "they don't build them like they used to." Well, I wonder why, and I honestly don't know. According to an inflation calculator I found online, the cost of City Hall would be worth $7,000,000 today. Certainly not an impressive sum when you see that the new Morey School cost $17,000,000! Therefore, building City Hall today couldn't possibly cost a mere $7m. Why haven't construction costs at all held to inflation? You'd think that the higher levels of automation today in construction would've brought costs down, not up!

Anyhow, onto the current pictures.


Lowell City Hall is a Richardsonian Romanesque building, with the requisite stonework, heavy arches, and round towers. City Hall bears more than a passing resemblance to some older buildings that serve as examples of the style. Victorians often designed their buildings to resemble an eclectic and fanciful mixture of classic European architecture, using modern mass-production techniques to bring opulent architectural detailing to places that would never have been able to afford the legions of artisans that would have been required to create such works by hand. Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, such embellishments were seen as downright ridiculous facsimiles and went out of style for more simple and "true" modernist styles.

The Merrimack Street Facade
The Worthen Street facade
Merrimack Street turret detail
The detailing inside is impressive as well of course, featuring marble, machined woodwork, cast iron, and gilding. However, as a "modern" office building, gas/electric hybrid lighting, elevators, and mail chutes were all included. The building also featured structural innovations such as Guastavino tile and fireproof and burglar-proof vaults.

First floor hallway

Main staircase

First floor hallway with vaulted ceilings
Burglar-proof vault, assessor's office
Old mail chute repository, next to elevator (actually in basement)
Like any well-designed public space, the offices most often interacting with the public are on the first floor, such as the Assessor's office and the Tax Collector's office. The second floor features the Mayor's reception room and the Council Chamber. The Council Chamber is surprisingly small, fitting a few dozen people on the floor and a few dozen more in the balcony. At the time, Huntington Hall was intended to be used for large public meetings. Today, we have radio, television, and, of course, blogs covering politics in the city. Still, like the outside of the building, the "monumental civic architecture" that was mentioned at the dedication ceremony is quite obvious here.

Original Layout of the second floor of City Hall. Note the original bicameral council  chambers. The  right-hand chamber is now used by Development Services.
Main hallway, second floor. Portraits of recent Lowell mayors
Fireplace in Mayor's Reception Room
Fireplace detail

Fireplace detail

Elisha Bartlett, first mayor. Portrait restored recently.

Council Chamber
Stained glass detail
Corbel detail (actually in Development Services office - the old Aldermen's chamber).
City Seal
Cloak Room
The third floor contains less often-accessed offices such as the law department and the engineer's office. The engineer's office still features much of its original woodwork.
Engineer's office

Courtyard - the boiler chimney is being reconstructed, hence all the debris. The bridge over the arch used to connect the two chambers.

Merrimack Street Cupola

Curved windows and carved stone - even on the invisible inner courtyard.

Roof detail

The Milk Inspector is long gone I'm sure.

Above the third floor is the attic. There have been a few offices up there, such as the typewriter repair shop. Largely, it is used for storage today, including very old city documents and plans. Any document from 1875 or earlier cannot be destroyed, as it is a historical document. What will these rooms be like in the future, when all documents are digital?

Old records piled up in the old typewriter repair office.

Long-disused sports equipment.
Some of these records are just about as old as the city!

This crane raises and lowers a chandelier for cleaning.

Detail of where the stonework meets the wooden roof. Of course, most of the building is actually brick and steel with a granite facade.

Here is where we keep the plans! Some are so old they're on cloth paper.

View of the Cardinal O'Connell Parkway from the windows above the Merrimack Street entranceway.

And now, we go into the tower. The tower, as mentioned, was seriously considered for omission in an effort to save construction money. It was built of course, to the benefit of us future generations. The clock was intended to be visible from any of the millyards, which were well past their "Lowell Experiment" phase and were struggling to reduce costs in the face of stiff competition. Would cheating the clocks help? Either way, at the time I took these photos, something was broken in the city hall clock and it wasn't running.

What goes on behind this door is serious business.

A view from the floor of the tower up. The clock  itself is on the wooden floor above.

A view down the spiral staircase from the roof -access landing.

From the roof - Saint Patrick's spire is visible in the background.

It was a beautiful day out, and the sun was lighting up the clock from the inside.


Here is the clock itself - currently stopped. It's behind very dirty plexiglass.

Above the clock tower is a room with a great crossbreeze and even better views!

One of the metal grates is missing - here is a shot down Merrimack Street. Note the original curbing for Monument Square, before the deletion of Moody Street along the side of City Hall and before the addition of Arcand Drive.

From the top room down to the clock.

This must be how they get to the Christmas lights. Note how ornate the granite carving is and how high quality the stone is, even up here where nobody will ever see it. Well, almost nobody.

Well, that was fun. Again, thanks to Kim for granting me nearly unrestricted access. I do have over 100 photos from this trip all captioned, the rest are here:

City Hall, March 2012

I know I haven't been blogging much - I'm looking to keep my posts more substantial, as passing out news is the realm of Twitter (!/coreypsc) and various Facebook groups. Also, there are so many blogs doing a better job of covering local news that I really can keep my mouth shut on that stuff. Check out Howl In Lowell if you haven't already! I do have a few projects on the horizon that I hope people find interesting...


  1. Corey -- this is awesome. Thank you very much for this thorough, detailed post. I've been at City Hall a couple weeks now but there is way more info in here than I would be able to pick up by just *absorbing.* I have bookmarked this entry as a reference (and in case I'm ever asked to give a tour!)

  2. Very Nice Pics. The traffic pattern around the L&W monument changed in the mid 90's when the arena was built. I can remember driving in high school you couldn't bear left on Arcand Dr and head to Dutton St. All traffic went straight infront of city hall and to Merrimack St. If I remember right there was a small section of Moody St right next to the monument and there was another triangle shaped island next to that kind of behind Cobblestones.

  3. Fabulous photo collection, Corey. Thank you for the tour. The folks who meet in that Council Chamber surely know that they are doing important, serious work, unlike the atmosphere in too many "modern" public spaces.

  4. Excellent post, went ahead and bookmarked your site. I can’t wait to read more from you. Auto Detailing Irvine