Burnham Road and the Big Trouble in “Little Cicero”

When a Revere Scandal Almost Sunk a Lowell Neighborhood

”The Death Trap”

There’s a pleasant ranch-style house on the corner of Burnham Road and Andover Street in the far reaches of Belvidere, right on the line between Lowell and Tewksbury.  It’s been there for maybe 30 years; there’s nothing exceptional about it.  But once, that corner was the focus of a battle between powerful local forces for the future of “Outer Belvidere.”  Someone had had the audacity to try and build shops there, not once but twice, shops for which the site was legally zoned by the way.  Legal or not, elegant Andover Street, as some powerful figures would ensure, would not be “despoiled” by commerce.  And so for the 30 years before that house was built, the corner held a great yawning hole with the remnants of a concrete foundation, empty and abandoned. The hole was often filled with water and irresistible to curious neighborhood kids; it was what public safety types call an “attractive nuisance.”  City Councilor Sam Pollard was blunter; for him it was a “death trap.”

The water filled “Death Trap” Foundation in 1953 looking south towards Andover Street. Havilah Street is in the uppermost left had corner. -Lowell Sun, April 1, 1953

The shops on the corner were to be the last piece of the overall development of the 35 -acre Burnham Road parcel that had begun as an innovative, low-cost veterans housing plan, only to be abandoned as collateral damage to an over-hyped rackets and bribery scandal in another city. After a several-year hiatus, the housing plan would resurface, slightly altered but to a changed environment of shifting public opinion.  The urgency of the housing crisis that impelled the initial scheme had abated. The Burnham Road scheme had been one of numerous, similar developments across the state, but now the modest houses designed for an emergency drew disdain from some powerful figures determined to see that they would not be repeated here.

The initial Burnham Road housing plan was seemingly based in noble intentions.  The return after World War II of hundreds of thousands of GIs, anxious to start new families, paired with the halt of construction during the war years, created a housing demand of crisis proportions. And crisis, as the old adage goes, creates opportunity, opportunity for not just the honest and creative, but also the less scrupulous. In the late 1940s, vast amounts of government money chased real and imaginary problems, with con men and opportunists trailing closely behind, eager for an easy payday.  The “can-do” and improvisational attitudes of the war years carried over into impatient postwar years and many schemes surfaced, sound and not, legitimate and not. The Burnham Road project surfaced  into this wary, cynical atmosphere.

A solution for Those Birth Control Houses

 Lowell had hastily thrown up overcrowded temporary veterans’ housing on scattered sites around the town, built from repurposed military barracks.  But this stopgap measure met only a fraction of the demand and did little to dampen growing impatience for permanent housing. Testifying at a State House hearing late in 1947, Lowell City Manager John J. Flannery derided the inadequate one-bedroom apartments as “Birth Control Houses.” Even worse, the Lilliputian-scaled, meager 289 units were hardly sufficient in the face of 1400 applications for housing already on hand. Alternatives were few for a young veteran earning $40 a week, who, as Flannery noted, couldn’t afford a $10,000 house.  With this kind of urgency and the accompanying political social pressure, getting the vets and their new families into suitable and inexpensive housing quickly would require new ideas.  Massachusetts legislation in ’46 and ’47 offered one solution: reduce the cost of houses for builders by having cities assume the costs of building the needed utilities and roads through low-cost, state-issued bonds. Real estate taxes on the new housing would cover the cost of the bonds. Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insurance and Veterans Administration (VA) mortgages would reduce costs for buyers. The lingering war-time mentality of massive mobilization efforts carried over in this new front.  But these new tactic ran up against conservative gatekeepers like local elected officials and bureaucrats, who had little experience with massive projects, new methods of financing, or radically new construction methods and materials that challenged familiar building codes.  Still, the sense of a “crisis” pressured officials to action.

In April of 1947, the state authorized a $20,000,000 program for veterans housing assistance, promising up to $5,000,000 a year in aid to the communities.  The program largely targeted construction of low-cost rental housing in the state’s industrial cities, where the need was perceived to be the greatest. This new funding was promoted as the solution to the housing crisis in Massachusetts and was expected to produce 20,000 new units.  Funding was largely allotted for affordable rental units to be built by local housing authorities, but the law also permitted financial support for new, low-cost, owner- occupied units.

Lowell Encounters a New Way of Building

In early 1948, Benjamin Bertram “Bert” Seigel, a Brookline-based real estate promotor, arrived in Lowell on behalf of an entity known as the American Homes Development Corporation (American Homes) with what would be a plan for 125 houses on the far eastern edge of the city. Siegel was the Roxbury-born son of a Russian immigrant tailor; he’d made his way selling Studebakers in Dorchester before the war and before graduating to real estate.  Siegel’s proposal would rely on the city’s new access to bond funds to pay for the road and utility work.

American Homes was the creation of three well-known Boston attorneys and partners, Abraham Karff, Louis Hammer, and Benjamin Goldberg. The venture was a financing scheme and not the actual builder.  American Homes would provide “venture funding” secured by the near total assets of the builder to the Kelly Construction Company of Arlington.  It appears that American Homes was created to take advantage of the new funding and to bankroll the efforts of an established home builder to scale up operations on sites across the state and in New Hampshire.  When banks, fearful of impending war with Russia, as Joseph Kelly would claim, refused financing, he turned to the less conventional source. American Homes would provide funding and also receive a fee of $200 for each home sold.  American Homes and Kelly Construction would not build whole new communities on the scale of the Levittown in New York, but would rather concentrate on substantial acreage in cities and towns that could readily supply water, sewer, and gas.  Cities and towns would select possible development sites to be overseen by local housing authorities.  Newton was the rare example of a city that took the initiative to identify its site.  Otherwise, American Homes politicked the cities to put pressure on local officials to adopt their plan and seek out the bond funds. Revere was one of the first cities to grab the opportunity in late 1947 when incoming Mayor-Elect Peter Jordan announced on Christmas Eve a plan for 417 houses, a mix of rental and ownership.

Joseph F. Kelly and his family had grown the family’s Arlington-based lumber, coal and oil business, started by his immigrant father, into a residential construction business beginning in 1939 with the Kelwyn Manor subdivision overlooking Spot Pond in Arlington.  Kelwyn Manor, they boasted, was the largest FHA approved development with 100 modest homes designed by the architect Christopher C. Crowell. It also likely began the Kellys’ connections to state and Federal housing officials.

With the impending war their organization promptly pivoted to build hundreds of housing units for defense workers at sites like the shipyard in Quincy and the Navy Yard in Portsmouth.  From the experience of working with these defense jobs, they developed an organization that emphasized speed and economy.  They borrowed techniques from the popular house-kit sellers like Sears and precut materials offsite. And they emphasized standardization and uniformity like the Levitt Brothers.  Kelly’s post-war developments resembled the Levitt developments, the massive Levittown developments in Newy York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but built on a much smaller scale.  (Kelly would later collaborate with Levitt on a 3000-house development in Puerto Rico.) The Kelly system produced uniform, modest single-story houses.  It eliminated basements and simplified heating by using radiant heating in the concrete slabs.  Plaster and lathe were gone, replaced with the new “drywall system” of gypsum wallboard. Houses arrived pre-cut from Kelly’s own sawmills and building elements like doors and windows were pre-assembled and ready for installation.

Today, we might describe Kelly Construction and its system as a “disrupter” overturning the existing practices and conventions of the industry.  Even as he was celebrated as a housing industry visionary, Joseph Kelly would confront resistance from other builders, trade unions, and wary local officials. Kelly focused on the lower end of the market, observing in 1948 that there was a market glut of houses over $10,000, despite the overall housing shortage. He proposed that builders cede the low-cost rental segment to public housing authorities and focus on middle-class and lower-middle-class houses. He believed that government was better suited to build and run unprofitable low-income housing.   Of course his preferred housing segment itself depended on by the liberal mortgage programs of the FHA and VA, which he thought should be made even more generous.

Kelly projects often met resistance. One of his first post-war developments, consisting of 100 houses in Pittsfield; begun in 1946, it ran into opposition from building trade unions as well as local builders who resented the municipal assistance he received. The community was skeptical about houses on slabs rather than foundations. In response, Kelly outmaneuvered his critics and suggested that General Electric, a major local employer, might relocate a planned expansion to another community if the Kelly scheme was not approved. High-volume building on numerous sites could be a financial risk at a time of rampant post-war inflation and serious materials shortages, but it also inspired adaptability. If one site like Pittsfield was derailed, he could move his house kits to the other communities like Leominster or Manchester, New Hampshire.  When the initial Pittsfield houses came in substantially more expensive than predicted, and a federal mortgage program expired, he was forced to rent rather than sell. American Homes rescued him by buying his unsold houses and developed a plan for financing home purchases that allowed buyers to pay the down payment in installments, but response in Pittsfield was lacking.

Kelly promised substantial houses in Pittsfield.
There was resistance to the houses with only footings and a slab rather than a full basement.

 Another development begun at the same time, ”Pinecrest Acres,” a 200-house development in Stoughton, was also offered as rentals.  Renting might keep the lights on, it wouldn’t provide the capital to continue building.  The expiration of the FHA program and a credit crisis caused by war fears pushed Kelly to collaborate with American Homes.  Going forward, American Homes and Kelly Construction would be more closely integrated and would focus together on other ambitious projects, such as Oak Hill Park in Newton, Burnham Road in Lowell, and portentously, a 200-house development in Revere.

In reaction to the low cost, low feature Kelly Houses, other builders offered similarly priced houses with traditional amenities such as full basements and real plaster walls but they didn’t build

Garden Suburbs

Oak Hill Park in Newton was the Kellys’ most expansive project. With 412 houses on a generous 150-acre site, it was the largest single-family housing development Massachusetts to date. (The contemporaneous 789-unit Hancock Village in nearby Brookline was made up of more substantial attached, expensive rentals.)  Oak Hill Park featured the same modest houses found in the other Kelly developments. But the South Newton project was conceived and driven by the city. Newton acquired and designed the site plan; Kelly built the houses. The Oak Hill Park plan was also distinct. Designed by the city engineering department and the Newton City Engineer Ashley L. Robinson, it was termed a “campus plan” and was clearly modeled after the Greenbelt towns of the New Deal Era and the Garden Suburbs movement. Clusters of houses faced onto a network of pedestrian paths free of motor vehicles, paths that lead to a village center with a school, community hall, and shopping center. Cul-de-sacs provided vehicle access to the rear of the houses.  A broad curving parkway bisected the neighborhood and was to be part of a planned parkway extending from the Hammond Pond Parkway in Brookline west to Route 128. Fortunately for the neighborhood, the roadway links were never completed.

The Oak Hill Park plan differed from the greenbelt towns with an emphasis on single family houses.
Plan of Greenbelt, Maryland. Greenbelt towns prioritized separation of pedestrians and cars and attached houses.
Oak Hill Park would offer more plan options that Burnham Road
Few Oak Hill Park houses remain unaltered. Many have been replaced by new larger residences.
A typical Oak Hill Park pedestrian path.

There would be no similar plan in Lowell. The 32-acre long, narrow parcel and an existing right-of-way effectively precluded it.  There was no easy option besides the obvious; it would be a single, half-mile-long street.  As for amenities, a small business district was allowed by zoning at the corner of Andover Street. 

Just how the Burnham Road site was selected is murky, if not outright opaque. The City of Lowell hadn’t chosen it in the way Newton and Stoughton had designated their sites.  In 1948, there was a good deal of undeveloped land on the periphery of Lowell, but there seemed to be no local leadership in the selection process, at least from the city government.  American Homes claimed they’d undertaken a needs survey of Lowell and a comprehensive study of alternative sites, but there was no evidence that it considered other locations.  The Burnham Road parcel may have had one aspect in its favor – an influential business owner fresh from a divorce and eager to sell.  The American Homes study appears to have been little more than an exhibit in City Hall to market their scheme and identify potential buyers.  This so-called housing “exposition” occurred in February of that year, and the actual plan became public with a March 16 City Council order directing the City Manager to begin negotiations with American Homes.  It was later acknowledged that Bert Seigel, the American Homes representative, had selected Burnham Road.

The local press embraced the news enthusiastically as an important step in solving the veteran housing crisis and the development gained momentum.  To aid the development, City Councilor Joseph J. Sweeney explained that the city of Lowell would take the site by eminent domain on behalf of American Homes. This was not unusual. Revere planned to sell its site to the builders at a substantial discount. Newton donated the Oak Hill site to its veterans housing board. The anxious Burnham Road property owner appeared before the Lowell City Council to support the acquisition and indicated that he was open to a negotiated sale as well. The Council had its skeptics in William Geary and James Bruin, who pushed an amendment to allow the City Manager to negotiate with other firms, but it failed when other members complained that it would delay construction.  Few wanted to be the obstacle that obstruct any housing, and the proponents had skillfully exploited the sense of urgency to keep pressure up for approval.  Still, curiously, the negotiations with the City Manager would drag on for several months.

The anxious property owner eager to sell was Fred S. Guggenheimer, the owner and founder of the hugely successful Scott Jewelry Company. The Richmond, Virginia native arrived in Lowell in 1934 by way of Lynn. Here, in the depths of the Great Depression, he implausibly yet brashly established the Scott Jewelry store in the heart of the downtown (his middle initial S stood for Scott.) Guggenheimer developed the idea of a credit jewelry store with generous borrowing terms. The Moderne style store, with its black Carrara glass façade and bright neon, was an island of glamorous, but attainable, luxury shining enticingly amid the circling dime stores, Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, Green’s, and Newbury’s.  The business grew rapidly to nine more locations across Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and Guggenheimer was recognized as an industry leader.  But in 1947, he was in the midst of a divorce from his first wife of 12 years and about to marry the “B” actress Joan Barton.

Guggenheimer had bought the land in 1944 from the estate of the recently deceased Fannie Burnham.  She was recognized as a keen businesswoman who’d surprised everyone when, in 1919, she took over the management of her late father’s extensive real estate holdings.  Fannie managed them with great acumen and in 1934 had been savvy enough to sell the right of way for the future Burnham Road to the city.  This deftly transferred the eventual responsibility for road construction to the city, making the site that much more developable, linking her name to the site forever, and letting her pocket $500. She’d later sold a substantial portion of the future North Common Village development site to the housing authority. 

Lowell hadn’t seen a private housing development of this scale- 125 houses would be built all at once-inmore than a century.  As for the necessary site improvements, the city could either build them or bid the work out.  Joseph Kelly of Kelly Construction, builder partner to American Homes, acknowledged under oath that an agreement with the City of Revere allowed him to walk away from the similar development there should another contractor underbid his firm.  Undoubtedly he and American Homes would be looking for similar terms from Lowell.

Lowell Takes Its Time

In contrast to the parallel process in Revere, talks in Lowell were moving too slowly for the proponents – the city was deliberately cautious.  After a recent contracts scandal, the city had undertaken a major reorganization of its charter, replacing an elected strong mayor with a professional “City Manager” in hopes of depoliticizing management of city affairs and eliminating opportunities for corruption.  Flannery, as Lowell’s first “Plan E” city manager, had other reasons for caution as well. Seigel of American Homes had a brusque style, leading some observers to characterize him as a “hothead” and a “little Napoleon.” More significantly, Flannery must also have known that Seigel was currently under federal indictment for allegedly bribing a VA official. Flannery’s apparent wariness provoked an impatient Seigel to accuse him of being “cool” to the plan and “blocking progress.” 

Competing builders claimed to build comparable houses with full basements and real plaster, not wallboard but none built on the scale of the Kellys and American Homes.

As for progress, there was also much skepticism from a public familiar with rushed war-time construction. Ever innovating, to speed up construction and to reduce costs, Kelly proposed a new type of untried prefabrication; the houses would be built of pre-assembled panels; Lowell’s doubtful Assistant Building Inspector Frank Cogger speculated that the houses wouldn’t meet the city’s building code.  The building trade unions protested the loss of skilled local jobs. Even more surprisingly, the local AMVETS council spoke out against the scheme.  Still, the City Council advanced the Lowell Housing Authority $10,000 to prepare an application to the State for the bond approval. The state housing authority provided comments on its initial review on June 5, 1948, and the comments were perplexing.  Its staff had determined the site to be “low and wet with a brook running through it,” which meant the site would require draining and filling and the houses must be built without basements.  It’s unclear what brook the state board found. A half century of geological survey maps didn’t show any stream, and the site’s grade dropped some 75 feet over its half-mile length to the Merrimack River’s edge.  But additional filling and grading would certainly benefit any site contractor.  New Englanders were chary of houses without full foundations for good reason.  Still, the state board findings suited Kelly Construction; they built all their houses on slabs. Slabs not only saved foundation costs but also accommodated the new “radiant heat” system that could be cheaply installed in the slab, eliminating radiators and associated piping.

The 1946 USGS Topo Map showed the Burnham Road paper street but no evidence of any stream.

That Big Trouble in “Little Cicero”

At last, on June 15, the state authority approved the project, and the city and the developer’s representative were reportedly meeting daily to work out the final agreement. But, one month later ,the negotiations came to a dramatic halt when Bert Seigel, the American Homes representative, surrendered himself to the State Police in Revere. He was accused of being the mastermind of a scheme to bribe the Revere City Council to approve a similar housing development there.  The Revere sweep would grow to 14 indictments, including five members of the City Council, the mayor’s aide, and the three principals of American Homes. 

Republican Deputy Attorney General George Fingold blazed into Revere in early 1948, fresh from a rackets sweep in Fall River that landed three city councilors in jail.  With an eye on the upcoming 1950 race for Attorney General, he was building his reputation as a hard-hitting “rackets buster.”  Revere was an easy enough target; it was seen as was a magnet for illegal gambling and crime attracted by its racetracks and other amusements, legal and illegal. Cynical reporters, looking for an angle, labeled it “Little Cicero,” after the notorious Chicago suburb and headquarters of Al Capone,  as if the beach town  was straight out of the similarly cynical “B noir”movies of the day.

Lowell puts on the Brakes

In the aftershock of the Revere bombshell, Lowell City Manager Flannery announced he’d “put a hold” on the Lowell project, but it was effectively dead; it couldn’t possibly proceed with the project principals under indictment.  If there was any chance of the Revere investigation extending to Lowell, distancing the city from the indicted parties now was probably a good idea. If there was any question that Lowell had abandoned  the scheme, it was made clear in late 1948 when Burnham Road was briefly floated as a site for a proposed “water purification plant.”  Of course that plant had even less chance of happening than the housing plan. Water pollution wasn’t seen as much of a problem and a host of practical and economic concerns doomed the plan. One opponent improbably noted that the river “has not caused a solitary case of sickness in the past forty years.” Besides, it was thought, the site was too far downstream to benefit Lowell in any way. The water would be “purified” as it exited the city. Vincent Hockmeyer, a city councilor, textile manufacturer, and Andover Street neighbor led the opposition, and the City Council killed the idea. And indeed it would be another quarter century before Lowell would begin sewage treatment at a different site up-river.

The Big Trial

Fingold’s grand jury investigation had been running none too quietly in tandem with the three months of the Lowell negotiations. During that time, it dug into all the rackets: illegal wire services, slot machines, and bribery.  None of these were unique to Revere.  Other cities, Lowell included, had their “jockey clubs,” and slot machines graced the back rooms of many fraternal clubs.  But in Revere, it was said, mobsters brazenly shot up businesses and residences, including policemen’s houses, to discourage cooperation with Fingold.  Tops among the rackets, Fingold claimed, was a $75,000 housing slush fund for widespread bribery of local officials to cement approval of one particular veterans’ housing scheme, the 200-unit plan fronted by American Homes. What’s more, Benjamin “Bert” Seigel, Fingold declared, was the “mastermind” of the whole dirty business.  Seigel had indeed been active promoting the Revere development on the old Shurtleff Farm in the undeveloped north side of the city; Kelly Construction already had an option on the site.  Fingold and the press sensationalized any possible angle. Even Seigel’s name was cause for suspicion for them.  Was he Benjamin Seigel or Bert Seigel, they asked? (In fact he was Benjamin Bertram Seigel but he preferred to go by his nickname.) On paper, the unbuilt subdivision had a potential gross value of $1,250,000.  The astronomic sum was tossed around by the prosecutors and the press suggesting that the principals might realize that fantastic payoff, overlooking the costs of construction, marketing and the like. In truth, the return on these low-cost, low- margin houses would be nothing like the big-money racket it was made out to seem, but the stratospheric number burnished the scandal.

Like its counterpart in Lowell, the Revere City Council – and specifically its Finance Committee – needed to approve the plan to land the $300,000 in bond funds needed.  And as in Lowell, American Homes would be the financier and Kelly Construction the builder. The scheme reportedly had Revere buying the 65-acre parcel from Kelly Construction for $45,000 and then selling it back to them for $17,500.

So, when the Revere City Council voted eight-to-one for the American Homes plan, Fingold dropped his net and pulled in nine indictments for bribery, including five city councilors (members of the Finance Committee,) the three principals of American Homes, and Seigel. The December trial lasted three weeks with some entertainingly sensational moments.  The presiding judge was the noted Felix Forte, who would be better known as the judge for the notorious Brinks Robbery trial. For this trial he cautiously ordered the jury locked up for the duration, a highly unusual move for a noncapital trial.

Fingold would attempt to show that the accused councilors had allegedly accepted substantial bribes from Seigel and American Homes, but his case rested on the dramatically embellished testimony of his star witness, the fifth indicted councilor. Young Leonard Ginsberg was a disabled war veteran and evening student at Northeastern University, who’d been convinced to turn state’s evidence against his colleagues.  Fingold and state police detectives had both badgered and beguiled the seemingly naive and anxious Ginsberg who nonetheless seemed to bask in the notoriety and perhaps aggrandizing the mortal peril he believed that he faced. He darkly testified that he feared being “bumped off” opaquely continuing “…by certain parties with connections outside of Revere and certain friends of certain members of the Revere City Council [who] would …do me bodily harm.” Because of this he explained he was held in protective custody at the Andover state police barracks for three weeks.  His life may or may not have been at risk, but his reputation took a hit, with some in the seaside city referring to him as “Revere’s public enemy.”  

 “Boys, if we go in there and vote yes, there’s $500 for each of us,” City Council President Charles S. Freeman was alleged to have said.  It was also asserted that Councilor Andrew Cataldo claimed he knew of another contractor who’d pay them $5000 apiece and “build a better house.” In reply, Freeman was said to comment, “the contract has to go to the Kelly Company – it was in the bag,” but that their payments would be increased to $1000. Ginsberg regaled with a tale of a shady meeting in Councilor Freeman’s car in which he claimed Freeman said, “We already got the votes.  Why don’t you come along with us?  You’ll get $1000 too.” And then he described Freeman peeling $100 bills from a “roll that would choke a horse.”  As for that large wad of cash, Ginsberg claimed that Freeman explained “I got to take care of the rest of the boys.” Ginsberg further testified of a trip to Manchester NH to see a Kelly housing development during which he claimed they were “wined and dined at the Manchester Country Club.”  When Seigel allegedly asked Ginsberg what he thought of the Manchester house, he said he answered that “I didn’t care for it. [I] didn’t think it was worth the money.”

The accused councilors vehemently denied accepting any bribes, although Councilor Merullo admitted to taking a loan from Freeman after the vote that he was then repaying weekly.  But he was reminded that he had reportedly said to detectives, “When I received the money, I didn’t want to accept it. It was a gift. So help me God, it was told to me that way.”  There was even suspicion about the $7900 projected price of the Revere (and Lowell)  houses , since similar Newton houses were purportedly going for $7400.  This $500 discrepancy, prosecutors implied, could only be the cost of the bribes thus cheating honest veterans. Ginsberg had admitted to accepting the $1000 bribe but he undercut his own reliability when, under cross-examination, he admitted that Fingold had arranged for a job for him with a competing contractor presumably to induce him to turn state’s evidence.

In a surprise on December 9, Judge Forte ordered a directed verdict of not guilty for the three American Homes executives, the attorneys Karff, Hammer, and Goldberg.  This was a rebuke for the prosecutors, even as he acknowledged “a good deal of suspicion.” The judge explained that if this were a civil case, a partner would have liability, but this was a criminal case which required a higher standard of proof; the attorney general hadn’t clearly demonstrated that the partners knew of or agreed to any bribery.   The conspirators now had been reduced to five, the four city councilors and Seigel.  Seigel had wisely chosen as his defense attorney the 80-year-old William H. Lewis, a widely respected trial attorney and expert on constitutional law. Lewis argued that his client and the other defendants had been denied their constitutional protection against self-incrimination, since, in those pre-Miranda Rights days, they’d all been questioned without lawyers present.

 The jury was charged at last on December 18, but, after deliberating for 27 hours the foreman  reported back that  they were at an impasse.  Forte returned them to the jury room, and three hours later they returned a verdict of not guilty for all defendants on all counts.  Although the hapless Ginsberg had pled guilty to the bribery charges, Fingold subsequently declined to prosecute.  Ginsberg’s admission would be held against him when the city councilors returned to their chamber and voted to direct the Revere City SoLicitor to determine whether or not Ginsberg was fit to continue serving. Ginsberg refused to step down and served out his term.  In his bid for reelection, he tried to portray himself as the only principled actor who’d exposed corruption but was instead set up as the fall guy.  His strategy didn’t work, and he wasn’t reelected. Bert Seigel was already under federal indictment for bribing a VA official, a charge for which he was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months (later reduced to 15 months).  Seigel, in fact, probably hadn’t paid any bribe himself; he claimed he’d unwisely lent the money to a nephew, also convicted, who used it to bribe the official for a tool supply contract. Councilor Cataldo was jailed the day after the verdict for a contempt-of-court charge in another racketeering trial.

Back to the Future

Back in Lowell, the Burnham Road plan was sunk, at least for the moment. Fairly or unfairly, it would take time for the taint of scandal to dissipate.  But in early 1951, over two years after the end of the Revere trial, the Kelridge Realty Trust, composed of Kelly Construction family members, bought the parcel and announced the immediate construction of 100 new homes. Joseph Kelly was seemingly the luckiest of all.  The survivor of the infamous Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston,may have been designated a hostile witness but he had nonetheless survived the Revere Scandal intact (although the Revere City Council had voted to ban any future sale of the Shurtleff Farm site to him). He was back building his houses again.

The Kellys had apparently learned the hard lessons from three years earlier, and their marketing reflected it.  These houses, they assured buyers, were “fully inspected and appraised by the VA and the FHWA,” had Lowell water and sewer service, and enjoyed “natural drainage [that] assures a dry lot;” There was no more talk of a suspected stream. Advertising insisted that Burnham Road offered the lowest-cost new homes in eastern Massachusetts, and in case anyone was concerned, these houses would be “built in strict compliance with the City of Lowell Building Code.” Some lots closer to Andover Street were set aside for other builders of more expensive homes. 

The basic houses were small, with four rooms and just under 650 square feet, but they had generous lots of 10,000 to 15,000 square feet, which would easily accommodate alterations and additions over time. Indeed, only a handful of the houses survive today in their original form.  What the houses lacked in size, they more than offset in affordability and possibilities.  These were truly “starter homes” long before the term existed.  But another surprise was their price; they sold for $6500, nearly 20% less than the previous American Homes plan price of $7900.  But advertising didn’t feature the modest sale price; it emphasized instead the low down payment of $375. The down payment was dropped to $260 by the fall of 1951, and ads stressed the low carrying cost of $12 a week, which made home ownership appear as cheap as renting.  The Kellys must have been confident, because they were simultaneously building a similar development of 23 houses  in South Lowell.  As for the necessary site work, the City contracted for the work for $100,000, a third of the cost estimate of 1948.

Enter the Outer Belvidere Improvement Association

Yet by 1951, the atmosphere had changed.  The urgency of the housing crisis of just a few years back had abated, and the pressing need that favored speed and low cost had waned as well.  Earlier skepticism now blossomed into full on disdain.  The simple houses sold seemingly well but they now drew heightened scrutiny and skepticism from some influential people.  The Burnham Road detractors were determined that it wouldn’t be replicated.  As late as 1959, in a City Council hearing for a different housing proposal, City Councilor John J Dukeshire complained, “a developer had been allowed to build ‘chicken coops’ on Burnham Road and I don’t want to see a repetition.” The Burnham Road homeowners were understandably incensed and demanded an apology.   In fact, others had already mobilized in 1952 to assure that these small houses would not be repeated. When a report surfaced of another low-cost housing development bordering the Longmeadow Golf Club, the critics quickly coalesced into the “Outer Belvidere Improvement Association.” Led by the clothing merchant Charles R. Talbot, high school administrator James Conway, and real estate and entertainment magnate Charles Dancause. The association quickly boasted a membership of more than 250. The group had two objectives, to not only control future housing developments, but also eliminate two business districts allowed under existing zoning.   The Douglas Road business district existed only on paper, but a small shopping center was already permitted and under construction on the corner of Burnham Road and Andover Street when the group mobilized.  The very idea of commercial uses amid the prim green lawns of Andover Street was as an abomination that would not be countenanced.  Since the 1840s, Andover Street had developed as a district of wealthy country villas and later substantial rural homes for the city’s industrial elite. It had evolved into an affluent neighborhood of comfortable suburban homes on tree-shaded lots. The Improvement Association was determined to retain this status quo.

One of the few remaining original Burnham Road Houses

The shopping center was the final phase of the Burnham Road development. Joseph Pellegrino was the chief proponent and seemingly a worthy match for his powerful opponents.  The President of the Prince Macaroni Company, the self-made Italian immigrant had built a pasta company in New York in the early years of the 20th century, lost it, and came to Boston to start over. He joined Prince Macaroni after the pasta company moved its factory to Lowell in 1939 and, under his supervision Prince became one of the major spaghetti producers in the country and a large employer in the city. 

The main foe of his shopping center was another self-made man, , Charles Dancause, son of French- Canadian immigrants.   For him this would be personal.  His own home was in view of the new center, and he was selling house lots in his own subdivision of more conventional houses just across Andover Street. Dancause made his fortune early in automobiles. He’d secured the lucrative Chevrolet franchise for his Post Office Garage on Appleton Street. But his greatest achievement came in 1933, at the depth of the Depression, when he conjured a gleaming sports and entertainment complex from the rubble of the the abandoned and partially destroyed Prescott Mills, a baleful symbol of Lowell’s decline. From the sleek automobiles in the front showroom to the broadcast studios of the radio station WLLH, the dazzling Rex Center radiated modernity and optimism in dire times.  From the literal wreckage of Lowell’s industrial past, Dancause built a promise of a revitalized city, a phoenix rising from its ashes.  He grandiosely called it “The Radio City of New England.”

It may not exactly have been Rockefeller Center but Dancause, an avid outdoorsman, had created a sportsman’s dream.  The Center included an auditorium for wrestling and boxing matches, a roller rink, bowling alleys, and Turkish baths. He installed a second Chevrolet dealership in a futuristic Art Moderne showroom at the front.  The lunchroom quickly grew and pushed out the Chevrolets to become the Rex Café, a glamorous supper club that for the next 20 years was the leading nightspot of the town. But, by the mid-1950s, the ageing Dancause must have perceived the slow decline of the downtown and the growing migration of commerce to the city’s fringes and he was determined to block it.

The Improvement Association’s other goal,  beyond stopping the “blight” of commercial development on Andover Street and Douglas Road, was to address a feared proliferation of more Burnham-Road-type developments.  To make sure that Burnham Road was not replicated, they demanded not only minimum lot sizes, but also minimum footprints for one-story and two-story houses.  The requirements were not excessive — 900 square feet for a one-story house and 850 per floor for a two-story structure — comparable to what was built in the Dancause lots on the opposite side of Andover Street. Of course, multiple family houses, and even two-family homes, were forbidden. The changes would not be limited to Belvidere but would extend to large areas of the Highlands and Pawtucketville on the opposite ends of the city. Kelly Construction quickly pivoted and remaining lots nearer to Andover Street were sold to another Arlington based builder, Manhattan Builders, which built more substantial and costlier homes at more than $10,000. Ads were careful to omit mention of Burnham Road featuring instead proximity to Longmeadow Golf Club.

Before the fabled Rex Grille, the front of the Rex Center housed the Rex Chevrolet dealership.

The Improvement Association also made a fortuitous choice in legal assistance in the person of the young and promising Richard K. Donahue. Coincidently, that same year, Donahue would meet another ambitious and ascendant young man, Congressman John F. Kennedy. Appropriately enough, they made their acquaintance at the Rex Grill And Donahue would go on to become an aide to the future President Kennedy. Pellegrino and his shopping center probably didn’t stand a chance, and it didn’t help that he lived not in Lowell but in Shawsheen Village, a tony neighborhood in Andover several to the east.

But in another ironic turn, the crusade to save Andover Street unintentionally blighted the proud boulevard with the abandoned shopping center’s gaping hole and neglected concrete foundation and they would stand empty for decades. Six years after the initial battle, another leading Lowell businessman made a futile foray to build a grocery business on the desolate site. This sortie was led by Robert Lewis, a well-known and respected Lowell grocer who lived a few blocks west on Andover Street and operated the much admired ”Robert Lewis Fine Foods,” a specialty-food store in Kearney Square.  He billed it “The Faneuil Hall of Lowell.”  He’d opened the market just a few years earlier after many years as an executive of the once leading Brockleman Brothers Markets.  In the years between the wars, Brockleman’s was a regional grocery dynamo. Its 14 downtown stores stretched from Worcester to New Hampshire, and it brought marketing excitement to the mundane chore of grocery shopping.  But by the early 1950s, Brockleman’s had succumbed to the competition and convenience of spreading suburban supermarkets. Lewis believed he’d found a niche to compete with his emphasis on service and quality that even included free taxis.

Lewis, however, was looking beyond the declining downtown. The proposed market on Andover Street would be no supermarket but a “bantam” market, built in a pleasant “Colonial” motif, the better to blend with the surrounding neighborhood. But even his status as a neighbor and respected Lowell businessman could not move the guardians of the Outer Belvidere Improvement Association and Lewis failed to win the necessary zoning change.  The  crumbling foundation would remain neglected for another 20  years. 

Ultimately the Improvement Association’s victory was pyrrhic.  Even the power of the guardians of Belvidere had its limits, and one of them was the intractable town line of neighboring Tewksbury. A garish filling station had sprung up in 1955 at the intersection of River Road and Andover Street.  Frank Goddard’s tractor store, just over the line, the site of a 19th-century blacksmith, was soon replaced with a drug store tauntingly named “Townline Pharmacy.” To the Improvements Association’s horror, the Garabedian farm and its homely farmstand, also right on the city line, was sold as a site for a threatened Purity Super Market. Today, it’s the location of a busy strip mall. 

A new builder completed Burnham Road with larger and more costly houses.

Charles Dancause’s Rex Center was consumed in an historic fire in 1961. The ruined site stood empty as well for nearly 20 years until it was redeveloped by Dr. An Wang, another remarkable entrepreneur who helped usher in the personal computer age and, in the process, transformed Lowell once again.  The Rex site, like Lowell, seemed to resurrect itself once more. “Outer Belvidere” is simply Belvidere today, and has proved as resilient as the larger city, withstanding many perceived changes over the past half century.  Burnham Road is just another of its verdant streets of comfortable homes, and that empty hole is happily long gone and seemingly forgotten. Many of the Kelly innovations have become standard practice in home building, but the focus on small, affordable houses did not survive. Kelly’s observations about where builders should focus their efforts proved prophetic as low-cost, low -income housing increasingly became the responsibility of the state and Federal governments.

Frederic Faulkner’s Folly


Lowell Daily Mail, 11/14/1902

The history and spirit of a place is found in its architecture. Yet Lowell was initially built as a place to make wealth, not display it. Tentative and experimental, it was a provisional place for its parsimonious Yankee founders, where financial failure was a constant specter. People came and left with regularity. They built only what was necessary — and then only plainly and conservatively. The one exception, Kirk Boot’s imposing house, was re-used after his death as a worker’s hospital, an eminently more practical use for the large mansion.

But even from its beginning, Lowell also attracted ambitious builders, merchants, and tradesmen who, along with the local farmers and speculating landowners, saw it as a home and a community, independent of the all-powerful Boston investors, and something more than the proto-typical company town. By the mid-1840s, they began to display their new prosperity in impressive homes on the edges of the expanding city. The corporations kept a tight control on the city’s budget and expenditures through their Whig allies who dominated the local government. But the local grandees, mostly Democrats, working with their county allies, provocatively built an alternative civic center on the southern end of the town. There, overlooking the new South Common, and facing each other as poles on an east-to-west axis, they raised a handsome courthouse and a monumental jail. This extravagance vexed their opponents. The local bar association refused to dedicate the new courthouse, and the architectural grandeur of a lowly jail was roundly condemned. Meanwhile the Whigs sidestepped past a much-needed new city hall by throwing up a drafty, structurally unsound barn of a hall over a smoky train depot, shoehorning in shops to pay for its upkeep.
But the 1857 scandal of Samuel Lawrence’s embezzlement from the Middlesex Mills of Lowell and the Bay State Mills in Lawrence and the disastrous mismanagement of the mills during the Civil War emboldened locals to fight for greater economic independence. In the aftermath, local manufacturers and business owners built railroads, impressive new business blocks, locally capitalized factories, and elegant new homes in the Highlands to the west, as well as on Pawtucket Street and the along the slopes of Christian Hill. In response, the corporations moved their managers from the city’s core to Nesmith and Andover Streets in leafy, rural Belvidere.

This transformation continued, and by the early 1890s, at the height of the Gilded Age, Lowell was rapidly acquiring the symbols and necessities of a major, thriving metropolis. Within a few short years it gained a monumental new city hall, a modern library, several other civic facilities, numerous substantial commercial blocks, a controversial new post office, a stylish union railroad depot, multiple parks, a racing boulevard to match the one in Boston, new churches and social clubs, a grand high school, and an impressive normal school. The city was reimagined seemingly overnight, and kicking off this building frenzy was one extraordinary house that exemplified all the new confidence and bravura of the time: Mr. Faulkner’s “Castle” high atop a precipitous hill in the increasingly rarified zone of Belvidere Heights.

Courier Faulkner Image

Mr. Faulkner’s House, Lowell Daily Courier

But to properly tell the story of Frederic Faulkner and his extraordinary house, we must start with Captain William Wyman and his folly. The eccentric Captain William Wyman, one of Lowell’s earliest independent capitalists, acquired the 43-acre “Lynde Hill Estate” on the eastern extreme of Belvidere Village in 1841. A self-proclaimed preacher, he was also a savvy businessman. Always idiosyncratic, he built a homely row of five houses and barns, interconnected and indistinguishable from one another, at the head of today’s Wyman Street. He experimented and failed with growing peaches and then wine grapes. But Wyman’s peace on the hill was disrupted in 1849 by the construction of a reservoir next door. Crowds flocked up the hill to stroll about the reservoir and marvel in the grand view, inspiring in Wyman his great quixotic vision of a soaring observation tower on the summit of the hill, rising 150 feet and adorned with 27 busts of prominent figures. In another flash of inspiration, he called it the “Appleton Observatory,” futilely hoping that investor Nathan Appleton would become a major donor. To entice subscribers, he put a lithograph of his observatory on view in the window of Merrill’s bookstore on Merrimack Street. But the scheme languished.
Ever hopeful, Wyman tried once more in 1863 with the renamed “Washington Observatory.” This time he got as far as a foundation on the eastern side of today’s Belmont Avenue, but he died the next year. The Washington Observatory plans, if not the idea of a tower, died with him. For years after, the abandoned foundation was known as “Wyman’s Folly” or simply “the old castle.” Wyman’s son Samuel subdivided the property into 214 house lots but the desolate, steep hill was poor competition for the burgeoning Highlands neighborhood to the west. One of the few early buyers was Alexander Cumnock, the agent for the Boot Mills, but when Samuel died in 1883, his estate fell to a tangled mess of heirs.
But that hill and its sweeping views could still inspire recklessness, and in 1887 two wealthy brothers, John and Frederic Faulkner, laboriously acquired large house sites from the scattered heirs (including a grandson confined to an insane asylum in Providence.) Their house lots, perhaps provocatively, bookended Cumnock’s new house. The Faulkners were longtime woolen manufacturers. John and Frederic’s father Luther Faulkner began woolen manufacturing in Billerica and expanded to Lowell in 1865. The brothers joined the family partnership and for years lived in modest company-owned houses on Faulkner Street close by the family mills. Nothing about them hinted at the extravagant display of wealth that would come.


John Faulkner House, 1887 W. Whitney Lewis, Architect

John built his new home first, on the corner of Hovey and Belmont. He chose the Boston architect W. Whitney Lewis to design a handsome house in the most up-to-date Shingle Style, like the great cottages of the North Shore that Lewis had designed for Boston socialites. It was and is the best example of Shingle Style in Lowell and one of the best in Massachusetts. And without question, John now had finest and most fashionable house in the city. But the distinction lasted for only a short time, because the following year, his older brother Frederic built his own showstopper.

16 Exeter AABN

Bradbury House, 1887 Back Bay Boston, W. Whitney Lewis, Architect; American Architect and Building News.

Frederic also chose W. Whitney Lewis, perhaps impressed by the house Lewis had built for Dr. Bradbury in Boston the previous year. A palatial house like that was noteworthy yet not out of place in Boston, but it was unprecedented for a place like Lowell. And yet Faulkner built what would become his own folly, on the very site of Wyman’s Folly; a new castle on top of the old castle, and this one at last would have a tower, an observatory. It was the most ostentatious house Lowell had ever seen . It reportedly cost over $125,000 to build and furnish, which is around $3,000,000 today, and despite that exorbitant sum the interior was not completely finished. Even at the height of the Gilded Age, no one could expect he would ever recover his investment. The house took two years to build and it became an instant landmark widely recognized far beyond Lowell. You could admire the mountains of New Hampshire from that tower and the admiration was mutual. The Grand Hotel in Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, boasted that you could see Mr. Faulkner’s Castle from the hotel’s piazza.

My beautiful picture

Frederic Faulkner House, 1888, W. Whitney Lewis, Architect

Whitney’s design was full-blown Richardsonian Romanesque, a style then at the height of its popularity. It was built entirely of pink North Conway granite, a stone quite similar to the pink Milford granite that the master H.H. Richardson favored. The monochromatic effect gave the building a modern aesthetic that must have influenced Lowell’s City Hall Commission a year later, when the members insisted that the new City Hall also be built in granite. In fact it was built with the same North Conway stone. Faulkner’s house initiated a building spree over the next three years.

The economic chaos of the Panic of 1893 brought the building frenzy to a standstill, and Chicago’s great Columbian Exposition of the same year brought about a revolution in architectural style that made Lowell’s new landmarks instantly out of fashion. Then just six years after the castle’s completion, the unthinkable happened. At 1:00 am on August 17th 1896, Michael Martin, coachman for Alexander Cumnock, was awakened by a loud cracking and dogs barking. Expecting to find a burglar, he looked out to see the Frederic Faulkner’s house in flames. Martin raced to John Faulkner’s house to rouse him.

Fortunately, there was no one home at Frederic’s; the family was away in Scituate. An alarm was called from Box 41. The pumper strained up the steep hill but arrived to find the house totally engulfed in flames. More alarms followed, and additional companies labored up to join the fight. And then at 1:30, all at once, the front of the house collapsed. Several firefighters were struck and injured by the rain of falling slates. Neighbors watching from the porch of the house across the street fled the intense heat as the house behind them was scorched. By 3:00 am the great tower was “an immense beacon lighting the heavens” The flames lit up the night sky for miles around. The fire chief ordered the unstable walls knocked over. At last, at 6:30 am, the recall was sounded, and weary firefighters returned to their station houses leaving a skeleton crew on watch. The interior of the house was nothing but ash and cinders, and only the porte cochere remained unharmed.

After the Fire
The fire was news across the country. Thousands climbed the hill to take in the scene, and rumors of arson ran rampant. Some reported seeing a basement window open earlier in the day. The neighborhood had also recently been pestered by petty thieves. The Faulkner Mills had had their own labor problems recently, perhaps inspiring resentment or maybe burglars had torched the house to hide their crime. This would all become apparent when a safe was found, because there had to be one.
Faulkner Talks

But when a stunned and shaken Frederic arrived in Lowell from Scituate that evening, he explained that there was no safe in the house. As for arson, he couldn’t conceive of such a thing; no one could have such animosity towards him or his family. Yet he was no stranger to fire. In 1880 the family’s mills were destroyed in what was one of the most memorable fires in Lowell history, only to be rebuilt immediately.
Of course, the good silver had been stored at his brother’s house for the summer, but his best watch and chain, Mrs. Faulkner’s better jewelry and wardrobe, and the furniture and invaluable paintings were all gone in the inferno. The loss was estimated at $100,000, but the insurance on the house was only $60,000, and the contents were also underinsured. Yes, he shakily responded to the inevitable question, he would rebuild, but how and what he couldn’t say just now.
Meantime Faulkner retreated to more modest quarters in the Highlands, and the ruins languished for three years with no attempt to rebuild. Fortunes and circumstances were changing rapidly for the Faulkners. The Faulkner family partnership was reorganized in 1897 as a corporation, and in April of 1899, it was absorbed by the American Woolen Company, the huge conglomerate of woolen mills spread across four states and headed by Frederick Ayer and his son-in-law William Wood. Brother John stayed on as the agent for the Lowell operation, but the Faulkner name was removed and the plant was rechristened the “Bay State Mills,” coincidentally the same name as that of the company Samuel Lawrence had ruined forty years earlier.

Faulkner Sale - Sun 9-23-99

Frederic took the Faulkner name for a new venture, a woolen factory in Stafford Springs, Connecticut, which he started that same year in a leased mill. So, in September 1899, three years after the fire, he offered the ruins for sale at auction, but there were no buyers — or at least none willing to pay Faulkner’s price — and so he waited another two years. In September of 1901, with even more reason to sell, he tried again and this time managed to sell the ruins and an adjoining lot to William T. White for $8,000, a sum equal to the value of a mortgage on the property. White began reconstruction almost immediately in October, first taking down the ruined walls and then building a more modest version of the original house five years after the fire. This is what we see today. Conspicuously, the hubristic tower was not rebuilt, but this would not be the end of the story.


William T. White Reconstruction of the Faulkner House, 1902

White was much like Faulkner. He was the son of a local self-made industrialist, and he worked in the family firm White Brothers and Sons, a tannery complex on Perry Street soon to be swallowed by the huge conglomerate American Hyde and Leather. White and Faulkner certainly were well acquainted, but White clearly didn’t share Faulkner’s boldness or appreciate his urgency to be disentangled from Lowell. So when he bought the house site, he deferred on buying the rest of Faulkner’s land. He said he’d think about it but he thought Faulkner’s price was too high. Impatiently waiting for another two years and growing tired of seeing unproductive land taxed (although he didn’t pay the taxes,) Faulkner devised a scheme to prod the indecisive White. On October 13, 1903, White and stunned neighbors woke up to what the press gleefully called the “Siege of Quality Hill.” Faulkner had thrown up on the adjoining lot the first of a threatened forty prefabricated cottages, shanties really, threatening to make the castle an architectural Gulliver engulfed by slapdash Lilliputians.
Up in Arms

Neighbors were scandalized. They’d always thought of Mr. Faulkner as a pleasant neighbor, and this ungentlemanly business was out of character with the charitable leader they remembered. But Faulkner’s circumstances had changed. He had been separated from his wife since 1901, and his brother John had sold his own elegant house the previous year to Fred C. Church for $14,000, once again the value of the mortgage. As the days passed and White dithered, Faulkner increased the pressure, first by building a fence along the property line that blocked White’s access from the back door and then letting it be known that he even tried to hire two different Lowell architects to remodel his stable into a 12-unit tenement. ( Both had politely refused.) Technically speaking, none of this was Faulkner’s doing. He’d transferred the properties to John J. Haskell, a local lawyer, but everyone knew that Haskell was Faulkner’s fixer. The press delighted in the discomfort of the swells on Belvidere Heights.

Faulkner Photo

Lowell Daily Courier 11-17-1902

The impasse ended anticlimactically in May of the following year, when White bought the lots with a mortgage from Faulkner’s father. Significantly, White’s reconstructed house would be the last of the great houses of the Gilded Age to be built in Lowell. The debacle on the Heights had proved that the economics of these houses in this town were unsound, and the age of the big house, it was declared, was over.

Big House

Now firmly established in Stafford Springs as a local business leader and sporting gentleman, Faulkner rented “Woodlawn” on Highland Terrace in 1902,  the grandest house in town and possibly all of Tolland County.

Woodlawn Stafford Springs

Woodlawn, Stafford Springs

But it would be no happy substitute for the family; Faulkner sued his wife Emma for divorce in late 1904.  His claimed abandonment arguing his wife had refused to leave Lowell and follow him to Connecticut.  The decree was issued on December 21, 1905 but Faulkner was not lacking for company because just a month later in January of 1905, he remarried, this time to a former English housemaid, thirty years his junior. Several years later, he built a more modest house for his new bride in a prominent location overlooking his Connecticut mills.

Highland Terrace House

Faulkner’s modest “bungalow’ was prominent enough to warrant a post card.


The Faulkner Bungalow in 2019

Once again in 1913 fire stalked Faulkner  destroying his Stafford Springs mills. This fire was indisputably arson. It was started in three different locations and conveniently the hydrants had been shut off. Faulkner leased but didn’t own the mill buildings and they had fallen into receivership. This time an uncertain Faulkner wasn’t sure he’d rebuild and he sold his machinery in 1916 and died in 1925 and perhaps not surprisingly, he didn’t warrant  an obituary in the Boston Evening Transcript, the journal of the Boston Brahmin elite. Coincidentally, Woodlawn,  the great house, now owned by the town was torched by an arsonist in 1929 and burned to the ground.

Stafford Springs Fire



The Woman Who Invented the Central Artery

It was a seasonably mild spring evening in 1950 with a touch of rain, but not enough to dampen the spirits of the 300 of Boston’s civic, political and business leaders gathered for a grand testimonial dinner at the elegant Copley Plaza Ballroom. They’d assembled to commemorate the retirement of one of the most influential figures in Boston. This kind of grand, testimonial dinner seems particularly anachronistic these days, but then it was a genuine expression of admiration and affection for a singularly accomplished person who had quietly guided the city and the region’s planning and development for the past thirty-five years.
Central Artery El ViewWilliam Morrissey, Commissioner of the Metropolitan District Commission presided over the dinner. Governor Paul A. Dever was on the dais, along with former Governor James Michael Curley and the indomitable Commissioner of Public Works, William F. Callahan. It was no surprise to the dinner crowd when Mayor John Hynes credited the evening’s honoree with conceiving the long-awaited public works project – finally underway – that would forever transform Boston: the Central Artery. The effort to build a highway through the center of the city had slogged on for nearly forty years, so how was it that here, among the most powerful men of the city, the credit should fall disinterestedly on an up-country dairy farmer’s daughter? Modest Elisabeth May Herlihy, daughter of Irish Famine Era immigrants, would seem an improbable candidate for this distinction, yet this evening was to commemorate the close of the remarkable career of the woman who quietly, but confidently shaped every major planning initiative of the first half of twentieth century Boston.
By the early twentieth century, the art of American city planning was aspiring to a science; it had broadened from the great aesthetic impulses of the “City Beautiful” movement of Charles Burnham and his peers to encompass the determined reformers, generally upper-class, of the “Good Government” movement, disparaged by populists as elitist “goo-goos.” These were urban and social reformers with a moral certitude that the most vexing problems could be solved, and the under-classes raised, not by aesthetics but through impartial scientific observation and analysis in pursuit of clean water, sanitary sewerage, decent housing, better education, and relief from dense, congested conditions. For them, the disadvantaged were victims of their physical environment. Correct those deleterious conditions, as often as not, by grand public works or renewal schemes and a good bit of secular evangelical zeal and the uplift would follow. As Herlihy herself would write in the periodical The American City in 1919: “People cannot be compelled to live rightly until right living conditions are available.”

The young Herlihy came from far different circumstances than the typically aristocratic reformers when Mayor John F. Fitzgerald appointed her Secretary of the first Boston Planning Board in 1914. She was not born in Brookline or Wellesley, but in Wilton, New Hampshire, the youngest of eleven children of John Herlihy and Catherine Hannon. Perhaps ambition runs in the family. Her parents, he from Cork and she from Limerick, were married a year after John bought the first of three farms he would own in Wilton, a singular accomplishment for a young immigrant. Her older brother Charles studied, first in Lowell and then the law in Boston, and with his brother Joseph established a major milk distribution network. But Elisabeth would eclipse her older siblings’ accomplishments if not their wealth. After studying at Bryant & Stratton Business College in Boston, she established herself as a public stenographer, a position which brought her in contact with leading business and civic figures. Following the election of John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald as Mayor of Boston in 1910, she began working for the city as a clerk, and within a few years she rose to chief clerk and ultimately the new Board’s Secretary.
The distinguished architect, Ralph Adams Cram, was the first Chairman of the Planning Board. Those first years of the Board must have been a master class for Herlihy, and an equal and possibly greater influence undoubtedly came from Board member Professor Emily G. Balch, head of the Economics Department of Wellesley College. As Secretary, Herlihy was a shrewd choice. She provided a gentle buffer and intermediary between the sharp elbows of gritty ward politics and the fervor of the reformers. She spoke the languages of both worlds. In later years as a lecturer to students or civic groups she would advise her listeners to embrace, not shun, politics as the vehicle to accomplish reform. One politician who would prove crucial to her career would be James Michael Curley and she cheerfully returned the esteem writing speeches and thanking him for his support.

For reformers, Boston’s narrow, discontinuous, and congested streets were complicit in the degraded living conditions of the poorest citizens. “Right living conditions” would require congestion relief, primarily through roadways widening and realignment. Thus in 1918, taking up the cause of the reformist “Boston 1915” movement the nascent Planning Board presented an ambitious plan to address the dense conditions of the North End. The Board focused on a perceived lack of light, air, and playground spaces. The North End, not unlike other neighborhoods, had grown denser over the previous century with infill structures. Razing them, widening streets, and creating green spaces and playgrounds would bring welcome and uplifting change. But by far the most ambitious (and costly) element of the plan was a new cross-town street, the “Main Thoroughfare,” which would run across the North End from Atlantic Avenue to the Washington Street Bridge.

1918 Light & Air

Boston Globe 12-12-1918
The thoroughfare was less ambitious than the one recommended by the Joint Board for Metropolitan Improvements in 1911, (which essentially followed the route of the modern Central Artery but included a rail tunnel beneath to link North and South Stations.)  The 1911 plan failed on cost, despite the New Haven Railroad’s pledge to pay for the tunnel.    The1918 proposal ran exclusively through the North End and was to be located further east, between higher-value and lower-value real estate, and the combined impact of the new roadway and the clearance efforts would undoubtedly pay for the improvements by increased valuations and resulting taxes.  The thoroughfare was part of a larger scheme that included numerous other roadway widening intended to transform the North End.   It was suggested that the new road be named for the Marquis de Lafayette, but despite the French name, the proposed road, with its many crossings, lacked the clarity and elegance of one of Baron Haussmann’s Paris boulevards or the power of an Emperor to make it happen. It too would fail, although various North End improvements did take place.

By 1923, just seven years after her appointment, a determined Herlihy had become a recognized planning authority, and she led Boston through the adoption of its first comprehensive zoning ordinance. She was an observant Roman Catholic, and some of the evangelical zeal of the reformers can be found in her explanation of the need for zoning. “Order is Heaven’s first law, and zoning is but an attempt to bring about order in civic development,” as she explained to a reporter for the Sunday Advertiser. An earlier zoning effort 1905 was a reactionary effort limited to regulating building heights, but this new plan would be more comprehensive, regulating uses and density of structures. When William J. McDonald, the influential developer of the Park Square District and a Curley supporter, lambasted the height cap as a drag on growth, the limit was increased from 125 feet to 155 feet. Heaven’s order could be consistent with political necessities.

Herlihy’s sense of order looked beyond Boston. When asked by a Boston Evening Traveler reporter in 1923 for her predictions for 1930 she answered:
My first hope is that by 1930 the forty cities and towns comprised in the Metropolitan District may have outgrown local prejudices and conservatism, and become banded together under a centralized form of government as a metropolitan Boston… <with> a comprehensive plan covering the entire district… <for> the preservation of order and beauty in the physical growth of the entire region.

She gained a new ally toward this vision that same year, when the Legislature created a Division of Metropolitan Planning within the new Metropolitan District Commission, with Henry I Harriman of the Boston Chamber of Commerce as its chairman. The Division was responsible for the study, planning, and recommendation of potential transportation improvements, both road and rail, for the entire Metropolitan District.
The unprecedented surge in private autos only aggravated existing congestion and inspired searches for new fixes. The previous idea of a grand boulevard to ease traffic between the rail terminals and the wholesale markets resurfaced. In February 1925, the Legislature created a special recess commission that included Harriman and Frederick Fay, then Chairman of the Boston Planning Board. The commission recommended an “interim thoroughfare” with two segments, but by March the proposal had morphed into the “Loop Highway,” a broad thoroughfare running from Kneeland Street across Haymarket and linking up at the Charles River Dam to the newly built “Northern Artery” which ran through Cambridge and Somerville. Cost estimates ranged from $33,000,000 to $50,000,000. Not everyone thought that a new roadway was necessary. Opponents, led by Representative Henry Shattuck, powerful chairman of Ways and Means, imagined that congestion could be solved by banning on-street parking, if not completely, at least before 10AM, since arriving commuters and shoppers in search of on-street parking certainly compounded the traffic problem. Why, they asked, should the city surrender this valuable real estate to all-day parkers? Shattuck also believed that the cost of a roadway would be better spent on extending the subways. The powerful legislator Martin Lomasney, the “Mahatma of the West End,” was certain that this was a scheme to benefit rich real estate speculators and his opposition insured death of the plan in April of that year. But before the project was killed the New York traffic engineer Henry M. Brinckerhoff suggested an intriguing idea to place the roadway on an overpass above Haymarket Square. New roadway proposals to follow would now take to the air.
Early 1927 brought another attempt, this time an ambitious all-elevated highway that would run from the Cottage Farm Bridge (today’s BU Bridge) along the Boston and Albany tracks to South Station, where the Atlantic Avenue Elevated train structure would be repurposed as a highway to North Station terminating as before at the Charles River Dam. The necessary legislation failed yet again due in no small measure to the opposition of Martin Lomasney.

In 1929, a new idea came out of left field, when Boston businessman Charles Curry proposed a spectacular bridge from South Boston to Charlestown across the harbor, eliminating the road through the city. The plan included a second bridge from downtown to East Boston, and the two would intersect under an Eifel Tower like “aeroplane beacon.” It was preposterous, but the East Boston bridge, not a new idea, had caught the interest of some powerful supporters particularly Mayor Curley. In fact, in 1926, the Metropolitan Planning Division had proposed a more realistic yet still dramatic suspension bridge along with a practical tunnel alternative. Curley was convinced that a bridge would allow him to drop the ferries which were an expensive liability for the city; his opinion would shadow all future proposals.

Curry Bridge Plan Globe 11-29-1929

Boston Globe 11-29-1929

DMP 1926 Bridge

Division of Metropolitan Planning 1926 East Boston Bridge Proposal

Metropolitan Planning and the city Planning Board in 1928 again filed legislation for a more modest elevated highway which yet again failed but this elevated highway introduced the new term “Central Artery.” This Artery would form the core recommendation of the ground-breaking “Report on a Thoroughfare Plan for Boston,” an unprecedented, comprehensive city-wide, thirty-five-year highway plan. Proposed roads terminated tantalizingly at the city limits, because a companion metropolitan plan had been quashed.

Central Artery 1930

Central Artery. Thoroughfare Plan 1930
Often referred to as the “Whitten Plan” after Robert Whitten, the planning consultant who assisted the plan however it was largely the work of the Boston Planning Board’s staff. Elisabeth Herlihy officially contributed only a chapter on the history of Boston’s streets, but her influence is apparent throughout the plan. Its recommendations were developed from actual traffic counts and observed traffic corridors identified through origin-and-destination studies analyzing drivers’ habits. The plan was what we might today call a data-based plan. It was meant to be a solid, pragmatically engineered rationale for a major roadway program with a twenty-five-year construction schedule. It even included traffic estimates and flows for 1965 -, thirty-five years into the future – which were, in hindsight, grossly underestimated. And although most experts favored a tunnel, Herlihy wisely proposed a tunnel or bridge alternative for East Boston.
The arrival of the plan at the beginning of the Depression should have been propitious. Governor Ely and the Legislature would shortly initiate an unheard-of “superhighway” program for Depression relief that would include the futuristic Worcester Turnpike (Route 9), the Southern Circumferential Highway (Route 128), and the Providence Turnpike (U.S. Route 1.) But when the vast construction program bogged down in controversy and failed to deliver the hoped for economic boost, Ely and the legislature abandoned further work. Large-scale highway construction through the rest of the ‘30s would languish until the arrival of the Federal WPA funded program. Up until the Depression, roadway funding in Massachusetts, with few exceptions, had been “pay-as-you-go” and the Legislature held wide-ranging control over Boston’s budget and debt. Thus the Legislature, leery of Curley and debt averse, authorized only $3,500,000 of the $31,000,000 he’d requested for his ambitious “thoroughfare plan.” Curley’s bridge proposal too would fall in the face of opposition from the War Department. The tunnel would be built instead but ironically it would be a financial albatross for Boston for most of the ‘30s.

Curley succeeded his intra-party Democratic rival Ely as Governor in 1935. He established a State Planning Board in 1936 in compliance with the Federal Works Progress Administration, and he turned to his long-standing ally Elisabeth Herlihy to head it. From this new position as the state’s leading planning expert, she would oversee coordination of planning efforts across the state. Her staff, swelled by WPA workers, developed detailed statistical profiles of Massachusetts cities and industries to help ensure eligibility for the Federal aid. She would be pivotal in flood protection plans along the Connecticut River following the disasterous hurricane of 1936, staring down the recalcitrant governors of Vermont and New Hampshire, and she would continue to be intimately involved with highway planning with a statewide plan in 1937 and worked with Mayor Tobin of Boston in 1940 for a yet-again revived Central Artery.

It was in the post war period however that Herlihy made some of her most important contributions to the effort to build the Central Artery. In 1947 the State Planning Board, in conjunction with the Department of Public Works, put together yet another comprehensive plan for roadway construction in Metropolitan Boston. It was commonly called the “Duffy Plan,” after Harold Duffy, the State Planning Board engineer who developed it. But the Duffy Plan ran into critical opposition from Mayor Curley, who favored a competing scheme of a waterfront artery and, yet again, that bridge to East Boston.

The competing bridge plan was proposed by the real estate investor William J. McDonald, a long-time Curley supporter. Senator Staves, the powerful Southbridge Republican chairman of the Highways Committee, was eager for a comprehensive highway program and urged Mayor Curley to find a compromise. Curley called a luncheon conference at the Copley Plaza hotel where Herlihy, a key member of the committee, undoubtedly influenced her old friend Curley to back a new compromise plan that included a second harbor tunnel rather than a bridge.

In late 1947 a group including Herlihy and led by Senator Bowker of Brookline, travelled to New York to consult the great highway oracle, Robert Moses. “Moses is taking a deep interest in Boston’s problems,” Bowker reported eagerly. Herlihy commented politely on Moses’s “information” and “cordiality” and while Moses was a proponent of bridges over tunnels, Herlihy subtly checked his influence through an unassuming comment that ‘[he] would not like to advise on the Boston situation until he had studied local conditions.” It appears that he indeed never did. She commented that Moses “he has not much faith in origin and destinations surveys,” but she pointedly observed that he did depend on engineer’s reports “and they…do rely on origin and destination counts.” For her, sound engineering trumped oracular opinion.

Without benefit of Moses, Massachusetts moved forward a new study, the “1948 Master Highway Plan for the Boston Metropolitan Area” prepared by Charles A. Maguire under the supervision of a joint board comprised of Herlihy; William T. Morrissey, Commissioner of the MDC; William H. Buracker, Commissioner of Public Works; and Harold Duffy as Secretary. The plan was influential in the final passage of Senator Staves’ $100,000,000 highway finance bill, the first of several bond bills for an “Emergency Highway Program” beginning in 1950. The long-awaited Central Artery was an early element of the program. Had the full plan been fully implemented, it would, of course have wreaked havoc on a scale similar to the disruption Moses’s handiwork caused in New York.

1948 Met Plan

1948 Master Plan

Herlihly’s role in the realization of the Artery was acknowledged but this testimonial dinner was much more than that. It was an acknowledgment of her abilities, political acumen, dedication to the public good and her achievements as a nationally recognized planning expert. Her success was even more remarkable in a time when all related fields were overwhelmingly dominated by men. Modesty and gentility wedded to self-confidence and curiosity appear to have defined her. In 1934, when her expertise and skills were already notable, she could still self-effacingly write to Harvard’s Landscape Architecture program for suggestions for further study beyond what she accomplished on her own. ‘Planning is just common sense,” she would tell Louis Lyons, the legendary Boston Globe Reporter, in a self-effacing way, even as he emphasized “She is one of the most widely sought authorities on city planning in the country and is the only woman regularly elected to the American City Planning Institute.”

Despite her roadway planning, she was no single-minded highway champion, and her opinions mattered to decision makers. In 1935, she quickly ended an idea to widen and straighten the Riverway and Jamaicaway parkways. This would have meant massive tree loss and degradation of the Emerald Necklace. She made it clear that the trees were not the cause of “driving trouble. It’s the driver himself…save the beauty and warn the driver to be careful.”

Like other rare successful women of her time, Herlihy’s competence and expertise would necessarily be offered in an unthreatening manner. “She has retained a feminine charm that has made hundreds of staunch friends for her,” wrote Lyons. “A woman need not be masculine to hold down a man’s job. That is another superstition long ago exploded,” she explained. And in a time with limited options for bright, ambitious women and tightly defined gender roles, she was sanguine about her choice and its cost:
“Well, no one can make a success of two jobs at the same time…Many women are trying to do too much today and are unable to do anything well. It is not fair to expect a woman to be a homemaker and a business woman at the same time. I have not tried to be a homemaker.”
And yet she held homemakers in high regard. When a New York publication asked Mayor Curley to list the top ten women of “greatest achievement,” a list she no doubt would top, she convinced him not to do it, because “everyday mothers of families” equally deserving of honor were not eligible.

Throughout most of her life she lived with her sister‘s family in Everett or her brother’s family in Jamaica Plain. It is curious to us today that such an accomplished woman influential in her times and consequential to our cityscape is now nearly forgotten. Her modesty and endurance is an interesting contrast to her contemporary, William F. Callahan, the master builder of Massachusetts highways. Like Herlihy he also began as a stenographer with big ambitions. His career rose and fell to rise again and he was dogged by controversy and shadows of corruption. He bullied through by his will and stubbornness. She was equally ambitious in her own way but she didn’t dominate headlines. Her thoughts were several paragraphs in, but generally the most considered and reasoned. His name lives on in concrete; hers is found in footnotes. Perhaps it’s because for her the joy was in the doing and not the recognition. “When one is absorbed in one’s work, it is not hard” she simply explained.

When Big Bill Callahan Tried to Move the Charles River

Turnpike CardBy late 1962, William F. “Big Bill” Callahan was in a rush to finally build the Boston Extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike — and he was ready to move the Charles River, or a good portion of it, to do it. There were few obstacles, natural or political that could contain his ambition. “When we start we go. We don’t waste time.” He’d already moved the Sudbury River when it proved convenient for his plans, and the Charles would be no different.
Callahan had been trying to build the turnpike to Boston since its inception in 1953. When opposition from Waltham and Watertown proved overwhelming, he dropped a planned eastern terminus outside of Watertown Square, retreating back to Route 128 in Weston. This was no rout but merely a temporary fallback. He was determined that his road would continue east to meet the new Central Artery, and he fought a concerted battle particularly from 1960 on to make it happen.
Even at 71, Callahan, the “Maharajah of Macadam,” was one of the most powerful men in Massachusetts politics — although he never held or sought elected office. The shoemaker’s son from Stoughton, the once ambitious young stenographer, was now driving the highway policy of the state. One critical legislator dubbed him the “Fourth Branch of State Government.” And Callahan was often likened to his contemporary Robert Moses the storied New York powerbroker.
“The nearest thing Massachusetts has to the dedicated, ruthless, unrelenting drive of New York’s Commissioner of Parks Bob Moses is Bill Callahan.”
Norton E. Long, Visiting Professor of Political Science, Harvard University
As a Democrat, Callahan had twice served as the Commissioner of Public Works. He was removed in 1939 under accusations of scandal by the incoming Republican Governor, Leverett Saltonstall. He returned triumphant in 1949 under Governor Paul Dever to oversee the “Accelerated Highway Program” of the early 1950s, a program most remembered for the “Northern Circumferential Highway,” Route 128. He learned, like Moses, to build and consolidate his power base and insulate himself from his opponents through a nearly autonomous agency, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA), virtually created for him in 1952.
Also like Moses, Callahan augmented his power by becoming Chairman of the Massachusetts Parking Authority and the State Office Building Commission and serving on the Mystic River Bridge Commission. As Chairman of the MTA, he oversaw construction of the largest highway project undertaken in Massachusetts to date, a toll road from the New York State line to the new Route 128 in Weston, a road he’d built just a few years earlier. Simultaneously, he built a new tunnel under Boston Harbor which he named for his only son, a World War II casualty.
Callahan worked with teams of professionals, including financiers and in-house and consulting engineers, but he always promoted himself as the man in charge, calling the shots. His admirers believed his self-burnished persona and promoted him as the “man of action.” “Let Callahan do it” read the headline in 1934 when he first joined the Public Works Commission after building his reputation in marine engineering; tough, public projects needed “a man like Callahan,” “the greatest builder of public projects in the state’s history.” He was personally formidable as well. He had survived a laryngectomy ten years earlier and arduously learned “diaphragmatic speech.” He used the disability to his advantage in his often-repeated joke, “In 1952 I had my throat cut – by a doctor. I’ve had it cut in many other ways, in many times since.” When in 1963 an intruder disguised as a Catholic priest invaded his Waban home and pistol-whipped him, Callahan shook that off as well. His critics thought him fast and loose. Fast wasn’t the problem but loose was.
“He gets things done but…he is convinced that the end is more important than the means and …will exploit all devices to get what [he] want[s].” Elliot S. Richardson, U.S. Attorney
“He has bought power over investment houses, bankers and insurance companies and he has bought it with public money.” Senator Phillip A. Graham
Callahan was a master power broker and political operator with deep support in the legislature, which he cultivated through financial and political favors. He was also reputed to be a prodigious political fund-raiser. He boasted that he’d never lost a legislative vote regardless of the party in the majority. His MTA, as created by 1952 legislation, was virtually autonomous, accountable to no other state entity — not even the Auditor. As Commissioner, Callahan could negotiate contracts directly, unburdened by competitive bidding. Only the DPW held any oversight, and that was to approve the location of the turnpike. The always savvy Callahan stayed on as DPW Commissioner until the Public Works Commission which he chaired, approved his proposed route, a highway lay-out developed largely in secrecy. If he could sell the bonds, he could build it and apparently no one and nothing could constrain him.
Even as what Callahan would call the “initial pike” was still under construction in 1955, a compliant legislature changed one word in the original legislation to permit him to continue the highway into Boston. He was seemingly at his peak, but the limits of his power were at last showing and there were efforts to restrain him. He’d stepped down from the Parking Authority, reportedly voluntarily, and he was  forced to resign from the State Office Building Commission on reaching mandatory retirement age. (the subsequent building would be named for his one-time political nemesis, Leverett Saltonstall.) Still he managed to block the creation of a regional planning agency for several years for fear of interference, until he got the road he wanted.
Before the 1960 gubernatorial election, Democratic Governor Foster Furcolo pushed through Callahan’s reappointment as Chairman of the MTA months ahead of the expiration date, and in advance of the Republican John A. Volpe’s election as Governor. Volpe was well-liked and respected; he was one of the rare Republicans to survive the Kennedy Democratic wave of 1960. His election was a challenge for Callahan and his Boston Extension plan when Volpe committed himself to a competing freeway in his inaugural address. The two would spar over their road schemes for the next two years.
Volpe had succeeded Callahan as DPW Commissioner in 1953 and often leavened his measured criticism of Callahan with muted praise. In 1958, a politically ambitious Volpe criticized Callahan for his inaction on the proposed Turnpike Extension, even though the 1958 Recession had stymied any bond sales. Taking aim at the vanity of a man who boasted that he didn’t “waste time,” Volpe again lambasted Callahan in 1960 for making no progress since the 1955 legislative green light.
Volpe’s criticism was both political and targeted to promote his own competing road scheme, the “Western Expressway”. Since 1956, it was understood that Callahan wanted to continue the Pike into Boston along the right-of-way of the Boston & Albany Railroad (B&A), now controlled by the struggling New York Central Railroad. The B&A had been eyed as a highway location at least since 1930, when the “Boston Thoroughfare Plan” debuted. But in 1948, the DPW, the State Planning Board, and the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), under Republican Governor Robert F. Bradford collaborated on a new “Metropolitan Highway Plan,” which proposed a comprehensive ring of radial highways from the city to the suburbs. Unlike the 1930 Boston Thoroughfare delimited by the city line, the more ambitious 1948 plan proposed a new “Western Expressway,” largely paralleling the Charles River and terminating near the Boston University Bridge at an Inner Belt, a ring road arcing from Roxbury to Somerville. But just as the 1930 plan hadn’t anticipated or ignored the prospect of the Worcester Turnpike “Super Highway” of that same year, the authors of the 1948 plan didn’t foresee of the Massachusetts Turnpike of 1952 or expect the return of the formidable Bill Callahan. The “Metropolitan Highway Plan” might be the putative highway policy of the Commonwealth but the master builder had his own plans.1930 Plan1930 Plan1948 Met Plan1948 Plan
Supporters of a toll-free expressway, including Volpe, argued that it could be built with 90% federal reimbursement and that Pike extension would only worsen traffic in the center of the city. Callahan countered that he could deliver a roadway in two years, while the rate of federal funding would mean years of delay in constructing the Western Expressway and Inner Belt. He also knew he had the support and independence to build his road. His only notable opposition came from the City of Newton led by Volpe allies Mayor Howard Whitmore and his successor Donald Gibbs. Callahan characterized the opposition from wealthy suburbs as “smug selfishness.”
Callahan’s plans were boosted in 1959 when the Department of Public Utilities, dominated by three Furcolo appointments, approved the B&A’s petition to drop statewide train service from 30 trains daily to 4 freeing up his preferred location. Complicating matters but again adding to Callahan’s advantage — was the Prudential Insurance Company’s massive redevelopment plan for the B&A railyard in Back Bay. In one a failed strategy, Callahan sought legislation that would permit the MTA to acquire the railyard site, construct and operate the three levels of the garage, and lease out air rights to the insurance company. Prudential would commit to buying a portion of the turnpike bonds. The state Supreme Court however killed this idea, and the race was on between Volpe and Callahan.
Volpe requested that the Interstate Commerce Commission delay approval of B&A’s plan to drop service; Callahan’s longtime ally, state Attorney General Edward J. McCormack, deemed the Western “Freeway” “unconstitutional” because the Turnpike Authority had an exclusive right by legislation to build the Extension. When Volpe tried to test this opinion before the Supreme Judicial Court, Callahan pressured the Executive Council, the bane of every Governor, to block the request.
This was a battle that Volpe couldn’t win. The urgency of the Prudential project to lift a depressed city was compelling and no one wanted to block it through confusion or delay. Callahan’s influence in the legislature was also too great; Volpe would never get the necessary funds and his Western Expressway had a critical flaw. It required the Inner Belt which was hugely unpopular in Cambridge and Somerville. Callahan argued persuasively that the Inner Belt and Western Freeway would be hugely expensive and starve needed highway projects across the state. But in an ironic parallel, Callahan’s only real obstacle too was financial as well. If the cross-state turnpike had been the most expensive road project to date, the cost of the Boston Extension would dwarf it with a per-mile cost four times greater than that of comparable roads. The original turnpike ran a deficit for its first eighteen months of operation, and financiers were increasingly skeptical of turnpike bond issues as reliable investments. Academics at Harvard and MIT deemed the road and its financing plans financially unworkable. Indeed, just as Callahan awarded construction contracts to three firms, the first attempt at a bond issue, for $175,000,000, failed to sell out in April of 1961. A second bond issue of $183,000,000 in June failed as well. In a surprise October announcement, Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters Union announced that he had put together a syndicate of labor unions that would buy a portion of the Extension bonds for their pension funds. The Teamsters represented Turnpike workers but in the background, the AFL-CIO was attempting to take over representation of the turnpike workers, with Callahan unsurprisingly backing Hoffa in the fight.
At last in January 1962, the third $180,000,000 bond issue was proclaimed a success — which was only technically true. It would take several more months for the underwriters to resell the bonds. To celebrate the long delayed start, Big Bill inaugurated construction on March 5th and with his usual bravado personally set off the first blast of dynamite at Weston end of the project.
Time and money and perhaps his secretly failing health – he’d undergone surgery the previous year – were now the dynamic factors for Callahan.. He must build within the terms of his bonds and there were no contingencies in his budget. Thus he began looking to shave costs and they found what appeared to be easy savings in Allston where the Extension must wedge between Commonwealth Avenue and Soldiers Field Road within the narrow railroad right-of-way. He needed to maintain two railroad tracks preserving the minimal remaining commuter rail service but that required a viaduct with an ICC mandated clearance of 18 feet over the tracks. Better, he decided, to eliminate the expensive structure and lay his new road over the adjoining stretch of Soldiers Field Road which would be pushed out into the neighboring Charles River by filling eight acres with the effect of twelve lanes of traffic across the two roadways, along with necessary medians and barrier, all between the rail tracks and a shockingly narrowed river channel. For good measure, he could save disposal costs by using stone blasted away in Newton as the fill. Narrowing the river’s width from 500 feet to 320 feet was no issue for the Chairman. Still, the threat of flooding caused by reducing the river was something Callahan would not be able to ignore.
Callahan often boasted of the beauty of his roads; he likened Route 128 to Connecticut’s storied Merritt Turnpike but he was no environmentalist. His plan was”… the best and cheapest way to [do} it.” As for filling the Charles River, he wondered, who would want to “save eight acres of a polluted, muddy river bottom?” But the Charles River would in fact swamp his plans for a time. He had dismissed Republican opponents handily. He’d swept powerful politicians like Governor Volpe and Senator Howard Whitmore out of his path. Republican Mayor Gibbs of Newton was no obstacle. Gibbs managed to gain some modest concessions through an appeal to the Interstate Commerce Commission but those concessions were mostly face-saving items – Callahan had his road across Newton exactly where he wanted it. It would be a fellow Democrat and sometimes ally who would ultimately check Callahan’s overreach.
It’s hard to conceive now, over half a century later, the kind of autonomy that Callahan’s Turnpike Authority enjoyed. “Neither clapping nor tears will move this authority,” pronounced Associate Commissioner Grout at one public hearing. There was a near total lack of oversight over its activities and plans and absolutely no environmental stewardship. NEPA, MEPA, EPA, DEP, 4F, ACHP, SHPO- the alphabet soup of environmental regulators we rely on today – none existed in Callahan’s day. Negotiations occurred out of the public view among the most powerful political and financial figures of the day — all men — in a complicated game in which Callahan usually held the advantage.
Two years earlier in October 1960, and just weeks before the gubernatorial election, Governor Furcolo reluctantly appointed Lieutenant Governor Robert F. Murphy as the MDC Commissioner in response to a scandal at the agency. Reluctantly, because Murphy was a political rival and the MDC Commissioner was a powerful position, overripe with opportunities to grant political favors through its important responsibilities overseeing the water supply and sewage collection systems for the metropolitan area, tens of thousands of acres of regional parks around Boston, skating rinks, pools, beaches, a police force (whose policing responsibilities included the Central Artery and over 150 miles of key regional roadways), hundreds of thousands of acres of watershed land in the center of the state; and numerous flood control facilities, none more significant than the Charles River itself. InkedSoldiers Aerial_LIAerial view not to scale
Murphy was alarmed by the flooding risk potential of Callahan’s scheme and dismissed it as “an eleventh-hour effort to cut construction costs…” The construction of Storrow Drive several years earlier had filled sixty-four acres of river, and a study by the Charles B. Maguire engineering firm warned that the river’s flood storage capacity was now at a critical level. If the locks couldn’t be opened during a large storm, due to a high tide or storm surge or both, there was no way to draw down the flood-swollen river basin. (That capability wouldn’t be added to the system until the construction of the new Gridley Dam and Pumping Station opposite the Museum of Science nearly twenty years later.) In a compromise and to avoid the need for filling, Murphy suggested that Soldiers Field Road be relocated over the river on pilings, as MDC had done just a few years earlier in 1958 with the Cambridge Parkway Extension beside the Longfellow Bridge. Callahan dismissed the flood risk and objected to the cost of Murphy’s solution. The Army Corps of Engineers, the sole regulatory authority over the project, agreed that the river could be filled with the condition that a commensurate area be dredged in compensation. Callahan proposed to excavate the necessary amount and even fifty percent more on the Cambridge side, essentially moving the Charles for three-quarters of a mile, and for good measure straightening out a bend in the river. What loss was Magazine Beach, MTA representatives asked? The beach was abandoned to pollution and now was only used as free parking for Boston University students! Alarmed Cambridge forces organized to protect Magazine Beach and a contemptuous Callahan pledged that he would “not touch a single weed or tin can on the play fields of Magazine Beach.”
To win over Murphy, in June 1962, Callahan finally settled an MDC lands claim from years earlier and conceded a design modification in the planned turnpike bridge over the Muddy River that would save the MDC $400,000 on its Charlesgate bridge – today’s Bowker Overpass. But Murphy did not relent. By December 1962, with the roadway construction to the west well underway and negotiations over the river deadlocked, the MTA took the unprecedented step of attempting to seize the disputed river acreage by eminent domain. Callahan boldly (and preposterously) announced the contractor would be at work in the area within two weeks.
Murphy succinctly observed:We are a state agency; they are a state agency. The state cannot take land from itself.”Murphy’s attorney, Harvey E. Weir, was sworn in as a special assistant to Attorney General McCormack to procure a temporary injunction, and he called out the cops, directing the MDC to block any work in the disputed area. Callahan, bluffing or perhaps convinced that he would win the fight with Murphy as he had with others, continued engineering and design on his plan. In February, MDC police chased Turnpike Authority surveyors off the frozen river, purportedly for safety reasons. Legislators, beholden to both men, chose to sit out the battle, eliminating one of Callahan’s familiar options.
Time also worked to Murphy’s advantage. The Authority was reportedly paying $22,000 a day in interest, so a significant delay would be expensive — and of course the construction contracts included penalties for delays as well. Callahan bluffed that if he was denied the river, he would shift the road to the south, taking millions of dollars of taxable properties along Commonwealth Avenue in Boston and Brookline. In reality, he had no reasonable options for relocating the extension, because he couldn’t afford anything else financially or politically. He was anchored by his massive Allston interchange and the freight and tandem-trailer yard on one end and the constraints of the BU Bridge area on the eastern side, where construction work had already begun.
At last on June 20, 1963, after six months of dispute, the state Supreme Court appeared to resolve the issue by finding that the Turnpike Authority lacked the authority to take the river acreage, but Callahan wouldn’t yield until the following September when he announced a plan for a 3000-foot viaduct, from the Allston intersection to just west of the BU Bridge, to carry the Extension over the railroad tracks. Callahan had been bested by a surprising adversary he couldn’t overcome, — a neglected river abetted by its champion in Murphy.
Callahan wouldn’t live to see the completion of the Extension in 1965. He died on April 20, 1964, just months afterwards the first segment of the road from Weston to Brighton was opened on September 3rd. There would be no dynamite this time, the subdued ceremonies were a muted celebration of the road’s opening and a commemoration of Callahan himself. At the unveiling of a plaque in his honor, the rarely concise Richard Cardinal Cushing, in a bit of uncharacteristic understatement, commented, “I doubt if this could have been built without him.” Newton Mayor Donald Gibbs was present and peevishly commented, “What does one say who fought the road for five years?” Years earlier he asked, “Why should we be forced to pay tribute to one man named Callahan?” Now they were memorializing him in bronze.
The dynamite this time would be the explosive announcement by Callahan’s successor, John T. Driscoll, that the Extension had cost $35,000,000 more than projected. The Allston viaduct wasn’t the only factor in the increase. In his customary “build fast” improvisational style, Callahan hadn’t anticipated the special construction precautions through the Copley Square portion of the project necessary to protect the likes of Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library. Another casualty of the budget and the rush to build was the promised lush parks, complete with sparkling fountains, proposed for the unsightly cleared parcels, the site of today’s Copley Place. One thing did more than meet the promises, the 90,000 vehicles expected to use the Extension daily which in fact was easily exceeded. Despite Callahan’s assurances and confidence, the traffic chaos at the Extension’s intersection with the Central Artery predicted by the critics also ensued. Forty years later the massive Central Artery project, whose notorious costs far surpassed the record-breaking cost of the Extension, would attempt to remedy it.

The Finest Motor Road in the World

DPW ViewFinest Road HeadlineWaiting out multiple traffic light cycles in an endless queue at Eliot Street in Newton, or weaving through the mad traffic along the once heralded “Miracle Mile” of Natick and Framingham, you might find it ridiculous to imagine that the Worcester Turnpike (Route 9) was once hailed at the Finest Motor Road in the World — or even more incredibly, America’s first “Super Highway.” And yet, at the time of its construction and for several years afterward, it was the most sophisticated and technically advanced roadway of the day. It introduced many of the characteristics of the expressway that we take for granted, and it wouldn’t be equaled for nearly a decade. It initiated a new era of highway development that changed everything — construction techniques, policy, the road bureaucracy, and means of funding. Moreover, it inspired a wholesale rearrangement of the landscape of the state and its communities to create a new style of living — the expansive suburbanism of today. The comprehensive bureaucracy to plan, build, and oversee a statewide network of advanced highways would emerge with construction of the Worcester Turnpike.Overpass
But first let’s answer the question of what to call it. Is it the Worcester Turnpike or Route 9? In this piece we are talking about the Turnpike and not the cross-state Route 9 which it also generated. In the simplest terms, roads have names and routes have numbers. But more specifically, routes are itineraries that direct drivers — often over numerous roads. In the early years of motoring, recreational enthusiasts and automobile clubs began identifying and marking routes as wayfinding tools for intrepid new drivers, routes sometimes identified by names, symbols, colors or numbers. Before then, few people had reason to explore the roads beyond their own neighborhoods, relying instead on railroads and streetcar lines for travel of any distance. With the adoption of cars guidebooks proliferated, filled with routes and lists of critical facilities like garages and hotels and inns.
Road construction and maintenance was scattershot but generally the responsibility of local communities, with counties often providing regional connections. Roads were usually better in cities and more established towns, but there was often no coordination beyond municipal boundaries. In 1922, the New England states adopted a cooperative system of route marking which is still largely in use today. This was complemented in 1927 by the “voluntary” network of so-called interstate routes identified by the U.S. shield. Under this new program, the principal east-west route across Massachusetts was designated U.S. 20. Still today it runs from Kenmore Square in Boston across the nation to Newport, Oregon. In Massachusetts, it passes through Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield, and from Boston to Worcester, it largely follows the historic Boston Post Road, an artifact of the 18th century, running through intervening town centers. It was perhaps a charming and practical drive in the early auto days but less efficient for distance travel with each passing year.
Cars made a huge contribution to the fabled roar of the 1920s. The number of vehicle registrations tripled over the decade, and with this explosion in autos and driving came new developments, in roadway engineering, regulation and as well as driver education. Accompanying these new developments were , along with increased expectations and the inevitable impatience for speed. Virtually everything we understand about driving now had to be developed in this brief time. 1920 arrived with no official highway network, standard signage, traffic lanes, or signals. Even the most basic traffic regulations were lacking, and chaos ruled the rudimentary roads. Yet by the end of the decade, most of these necessities were in place as the automobile assumed a central role in modern life.Cartoon
By the ‘20s, bustling Worcester was the brash and wealthy “second city” of Massachusetts, and city leaders were demanding a more direct and express route to Boston to bypass the intermediate town centers clogged with local auto traffic and trolleys, trucks, and pedestrians. The need was clear: the Boston Post Road carried the highest traffic of any state highway. What Worcester Mayor O’Hara, neighboring towns, and the influential Bancroft Auto Club wanted was unprecedented: “a super type of roadway with two traffic lanes elevated at the intersecting streets.” It was a dream of a road type that did not yet exist, the “super highway.” What’s more, the resources, financial and legal, necessary to build it didn’t exist either, at least not yet.
Massachusetts was an early leader in traffic engineering theory if not always practice, aided by resources like the Erskine Bureau for Street Traffic at Harvard University. The state established a state highway commission in 1893, the second in the nation, following New Jersey’s lead. But progress in road improvement was hampered by the Commonwealth’s notorious parochialism and local resistance to state leadership. There was also a lack of significant financial resources dedicated to roads, and a conservative mentality among the state’s engineers that favored piecemeal development connecting existing centers over large schemes. Henry Ford’s privately funded $200,000 bypass skirting the historic Wayside Inn in Sudbury was one of the few new ideas outside of Metropolitan Boston. A so-called “Good Government” reorganization of the state created a Public Works Division in 1920, and in 1925 the legislature created a “highway fund” drawn from fines, fees, and local maintenance assessments. Still, the Republican-dominated state government was averse to debt and refused to issue bonds for roadway construction, insisting instead on a “pay-as-you-go” policy. Funds were so limited that new construction was constrained to no more than ten miles per county per year. As one Worcester booster wryly noted, at that rate it would take ten years to finance their grand scheme of a new road.
But from calamity comes opportunity. Worcester’s scheme got a providential boost with the petition by the Boston, Worcester Street Railway Company on January 28, 1927 to drop service to Boston. The streetcars largely followed the old Worcester Turnpike, a nearly forgotten relic of the turnpike enthusiasm of the first decade of the 19th century. The Turnpike had been chartered and laid out in 1807 as a private toll road, and like other turnpikes of the era, it followed the straightest, most direct route and deliberately avoided town centers. It was dissolved in 1841 in the face of insurmountable competition from the faster railroad, foreshadowing the streetcar’s future demise in the face of automobiles. The very next day, Franklin T. Miller, the receiver of the streetcar company, petitioned the legislature for a resolve to study a new state highway on the Turnpike route. The proposal of course would also include “compensation” to the company. (The compensation issue would inevitably spark contentious partisan politics.) It would take another two years, replacement of a reluctant Highway Commissioner, and the eventual establishment of a gasoline tax (a measure in which Massachusetts lagged 44 other states) before the Worcester super highway dream would come to life. But the ultimate factor in favor of the road was an even greater calamity, the great stock market crash of October 29, 1929 and subsequent Great Depression, and the desperate need to create “material relief to the unemployment situation.”Road Plan
1930 was an election year, and the Democrat Joseph B. Ely successfully challenged the Republican incumbent’s poor record of highway construction. Ely’s inaugural address signaled a momentous departure from “pay-as-you-go” and called for a $20,000,000 bond issue for public works, including finishing the Turnpike. Adding to the urgency was $80,000,000 nationwide in Federal aid to be spent by September; Massachusetts was determined to get its share. Ely eventually won nearly $13,000,000 in short-term notes and an increase in the gas tax from the Republican legislature. With these state funds and Federal aid, he pursued an ambitious “super-highway” program across the state. Grander in scope than the Worcester road, the program also included a new turnpike to Providence, the Southern Circumferential Highway to the south of Boston, and a new bypass around Worcester, the Southwest Cut-Off – a portion of the multi-state trunk road between New York City and Boston. But first, and unsurpassed in scale, engineering sophistication, and controversy, would be the Worcester Turnpike.Features

.Everything about the Turnpike was exceptional, especially its cost: a staggering $200,000 a mile, or $3,000,000 for the first seventeen-mile leg between Worcester and Southborough, “the most expensive piece of highway building the state has ever undertaken.” The cost was just one of its wonders. The new super highway, straight-arrow and almost without curves, would cut perhaps five miles off the trip between the cities and save twenty or even thirty minutes. Plus it would be the safest road imaginable. With three ten-foot-wide travel lanes, a ten-foot landscaped median to prevent head-on collisions, no grade crossings, and cloverleafs or innovative rotaries to eliminate left hand turns, it was expected to be serenely safe. Remarkably, there was no set speed limit. As one report put it, “Go as fast as you like…within reason” because “As a matter of fact, it’s difficult to see how, with normal conditions, good judgement and fair luck, any bad accident could happen on the Worcester Turnpike.” Reality, as always, differed from theory, and when an early segment was unofficially opened to traffic, it had to be closed again immediately because of excessive driving speeds. When the road was officially opened, neophyte drivers were intoxicated by its novelty, and speeds as high as 85 miles per hour were recorded. Drivers added to the recklessness by wandering wildly across the roadway, contemptuous or uncomprehending of the concept of fixed travel lanes.
“…every known trick of building safety in the roads – and still the motorists mowed down 28 persons last week on the new Worcester Turnpike within the limit of Wellesley alone,” noted one reporter in 1933. This was only mild hyperbole — 28 were indeed injured, but only one death recorded. Driving was inherently dangerous and still a kind of extreme sport, with Sundays seeing the heaviest traffic. By the end of November 1933, there had been 731 fatalities in Massachusetts, and 1934 would bring 953 road deaths, with the total number of vehicles in the state hovering just below 800,000. (By comparison, the number of highway deaths in Massachusetts 80 years later in 2013 was 351, for around 2.4 million vehicles.)
In the face of this rolling disaster, in the early 1934 Registrar of Motor Vehicles Morgan T. Ryan announced a crackdown, “a campaign” which would “severely” penalize “flagrant offenders.” Dorchester-born Ryan was an ambitious young attorney and close associate of Governor Ely when he was appointed Registrar. He introduced several safety measures, including regular auto inspections and mandatory insurance, and he was not slow to suspend the driving licenses of offenders. Among his less successful initiatives was his naive New Year’s resolution for drivers – not effective then and likely not now either:
I resolve that during 1935, I will drive sensibly and courteously with due regard for the rights and safety of others, both motorists and pedestrians.
After one accident, he required President Roosevelt’s son to pass a Massachusetts driving exam, and at different times he suspended the licenses of James Michael Curley’s sons Leo and Paul. Those last actions, along with political rivalries within the Democratic Party, drove the newly elected and vengeful Governor Curley to demand that “Big Bill” Callahan, new Commissioner of Public Works, later known as the “Maharajah of Macadam,” fire Ryan. Curley replaced Ryan with Frank Goodwin as a reward to an erstwhile Republican and ally, himself a former Registrar and, as Sinclair Weeks pegged him, a “stooge” opponent to Curley in the Governor’s race.
If the Turnpike failed to insure safer driving, it did pioneer a number of roadbuilding innovations, some successful and others not so, including portable concrete mixers and a curious system of paving over burlap to theoretically ease future resurfacing. This “burlap road” would be used by the Republican Lieutenant Governor Youngman, possibly at Curley’s behest, to discredit Governor Ely. And as the construction moved eastward towards Boston, the unanimity of Worcester County waned, pockets of opposition arose, and unavoidable compromises followed. The City of Marlborough, afraid of being bypassed by the new road to the south, fought the project. To appease the city, the U.S. Route Number 20 would remain on the Post Road and not be moved to the new superhighway as might logically be expected. The village of Oak Hill in Southborough protested and blocked an underpass, concerned that it would ruin the character of the community. Many other dreaded grade crossings would remain only to be closed up in future safety campaigns. The “super” qualities of the roadway were also compromised as it passed through Framingham Center, where trolley tracks persisted, albeit in a center reservation. While an extensive underpass s pared Wellesley Hills from Turnpike traffic, the stubborn Lally sisters, in one of the more humorous highway-building episodes, fought the state over the value of their house. The state announced it would take the necessary half by eminent domain and the resolute sisters insisted they would remain in the surviving half. More densely settled Brookline rejected the state’s plan of underpasses and overpasses and choose instead a narrower roadway with a novel system of synchronized stop lights—traffic signals were still rare, particularly outside the city center.
turnpike FraminghamBrookline’s opposition was pecuniary rather than aesthetic, since the town was to be responsible for a large portion of the cost of the road, which Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Charles F. Rowley fumed was “…an example of extravagant public expenditure.” “One would assume that every vehicle travelling upon the road was tearing madly between Boston and Worcester …The great majority of the vehicles … are pleasure vehicles… which will in no way be financially affected [by] arriving three or four minutes later at their destination.” Brookline’s plan saved two-thirds of the cost of the state’s proposal. It also didn’t hurt that it would spare the Longwood Cricket Club and the now-defunct Chestnut Hill Golf Club.

lost reportMore controversy would follow construction, when the roadway between Framingham and Brookline started deteriorating almost immediately. It was suggested that the resulting cratering was caused by calcium chloride de-icing. A $20,000 study by Charles Breed of MIT was commissioned and its results then suppressed for eight years. When the study was finally made public, it revealed that the real problem was construction deficiencies cause by poor oversight and missing and poor quality concrete. The collapse of one approach to the new Huntington Avenue overpass in Boston a week before it was scheduled to open to traffic was also met with great cynicism. There was also  criticism that the road was overbuilt, too large for the traffic it carried although it was never characterized as a ‘White Elephant”  like the Sumner Tunnel that was bleeding tens of thousands of dollars monthly in deficit.
“You know every time a new highway is built, you see hot-dog stands, gasoline filling stations, and dine-and-dance spots popping up overnight,” commented DPW Commissioner in 1938, while speaking on plans for a new super highway between Boston and Lowell, doubtless alluding to the experience of the Worcester Turnpike. Contemporary accounts describe the “decentralization” – which we would recognize as “suburbanization – that immediately followed the opening of the Turnpike. “A modern cry of freedom from cramped house lots and city traffic congestion…” as new subdivisions followed the roadway to Brookline, Newton, Wellesley and beyond. It was a model that would be replicated many times over. The department store Jordan Marsh joined with local builders in producing model homes to demonstrate the advantages of this convenient new dispersed and leafy style of living. Even if unaware of the full implications, the pioneering influence of the Worcester road was immediately apparent to contemporary observers:
“What the Worcester Turnpike has done to boom building from Brookline Village to Framingham in only seven years, the Concord Turnpike is expected to do shortly for the territory that lies between Lexington, Arlington, and Concord.”Highlands9
In 1948, Jordan Marsh itself would follow the new homeowners along the Turnpike to Framingham and into the first regional shopping center. A year later, competitor Filene’s would build its largest store outside of Boston along the Turnpike in Chestnut Hill. Ironically, the development drawn magnetically to the Turnpike would ultimately destroy its “super” luster, abetted by a flaw in its original conception. The Turnpike was built on an existing right-of-way, so abutting property owners could not be denied reasonable access to the public road. Thus the “express” road eventually turned into a congested boulevard just like the ones left behind in the crowded city. Massachusetts passed a “freeway” bill in 1944 to permit total control of access, facilitating the construction of a new state-wide turnpike in 1954. The free-wheeling Federal highway spending of the following decade would create the network of highways that make the Worcester Turnpike seem almost quaint today. But for better or worse, modern highway system of the 21st Century found its inspiration in “The Finest Motor Road in the World.”paving

The Architect of “the handsomest buildings of Lowell”

With this post I return to the historic architecture of Lowell sooner than I’d expected but I answer a question that has puzzled me for fifty years and one that also eluded John Coolidge when he wrote “Mill & Mansion” some seventy-five years ago.  Who was the architect of two of the most sophisticated houses of Lowell’s first half century? The answer  upends some of Coolidge’s assumptions about the architecture of Lowell and one of its principal practitioners in the decades before the Civil War. What follows reclaims  the legacy and reputation of James H. Rand, architect of the Lowell Jail, whose significance and abilities Coolidge got so wrong.

Nesmith ModelJohn Nesmith House Model c.1842. Courtesy of the Lowell Historical Society

The distinction as Lowell’s first professional architect surely belongs to the enigmatic and overlooked James Hovey Rand, whose body of work in Lowell is largely unrecognized and whose reputation is unfairly tarnished by  controversy surrounding his most notable surviving work, the 1857 County Jail. The truth is that Rand was a determined and respected designer with ambition and substantial talent and the designer of what John Coolidge declared “the handsomest buildings in Lowell…” But first, why not Kirk Boott? Certainly the indomitable Kirk Boott, the multi-faceted factotum of the Boston investors who founded Lowell, designed many of the city’s first structures, according to John Coolidge the architectural historian in his seminal 1940 book on Lowell architecture, “Mill and Mansion.” Coolidge ascribed the Town Hall and Saint Ann’s Church and Boott’s own imposing home along with mills and boarding houses to him. But if Boott had any architectural ambitions, they were subsidiary to his primary role as an engineer and agent. Boott’s work, other than his own house and Saint Ann’s, did not aspire to architectural distinction; it was founded in expediency, utility and economy and informed by his military engineering training. He perhaps though should be appropriately termed, “The Architect of Lowell” since he determined the original form and plan of the City and those choices would shape and direct what was to come for decades.

Overlapping with Boott and beginning in Lowell’s second decade, the enterprising James Hovey Rand deliberately and aggressively pursued a career as an architect and  unabashedly assumed the title of architect at the age of twenty-one.   Coolidge in “Mill and Mansion” is sparing  in his comments of Rand’s best known surviving work, the 1857 design for the Jail. “Clumsy” as he fulminates, “The design is a matter of rote. The architect knew all the answers.” Coolidge is equally dismissive of Rand himself,  suggesting  “He seems to have been a local person, perhaps a builder who arrogated to himself this more pretentious title [architect]” But in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, there was no other way to develop as an architect or an engineer except through apprenticeship in the building trades.  Coolidge was perhaps unaware that the Jail was the culmination of the a twenty-five year career in Lowell.  Still Coolidge had restrained if qualified praise, for Rand’s grand house of 1850 calling it “The most splendid mansion of the Italian style...” The house was destroyed decades before Coolidge’s writing and it appears that Coolidge’s familiarity with the house may have been limited to a small image on the margin of a map. But he goes on to describe it as “a ponderous structure, reflecting in its cubic form some influence from the neighboring Nesmith and Lawrence [(Butler] houses.” Coolidge’s admiration for these two works however is unrestrained. “In both houses the details are of purity of form and delicacy of execution unmatched anywhere in Lowell.” He continues, “It is regrettable and significant that these two houses, perhaps the handsomest buildings in Lowell, should stand completely alone. Their designs must have seemed too subtle, too reserved to the average man of the time.” What Coolidge did not realize was that the influence of these two houses on the design of Rand’s own house was more than coincidental for Rand was in fact the architect of all three. An 1843 account of Rand’s design for the new Nesmith House revealed as well that Rand’s design was more than “subtle” aesthetics, but technologically advanced as well. It included an early, unprecedented central heating system, just three years after steam heating was introduced into the Merrimack Corporation,  along with a four season conservatory amidst, in the spirit of Andrew Jackson Downing, two acres of gardens containing ‘‘…fruit trees, shrubs and flowers of every variety, [and] an artificial pond …” The house cost a substantial $15,000 and it was expected that Samuel Lawrence’s new house to the east would cost at least as much.  It’s also worth considering a role for Rand for the Oliver Hastings House on Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge.  Hasting’s house is another exceptional example of Regency Greek Revival was built in 1844 a year after Rand’s design for Nesmith and the same year as the Lawrence House.  The three houses share remarkably similar massing and architectural detailing.  Hastings was a lumber dealer and he and Rand,  also a sash and blind maker, almost certainly would have known one-another in the then small world of Middlesex County.  The lumber wharf on the Pawtucket Canal and the Merrimack River timber runs from up-country would have brought Hastings to Lowell frequently. In fact, Hastings took a mortgage on a Lowell house owned by two local carpenters in 1843.  If Rand was not the architect of Hasting’s house, then the design was certainly influenced by Rand’s Nesmith House.

An exploration of Rand’s work and career reveals a far more interesting and talented professional capable of a broader range of expression than Coolidge presumed and certainly for whom the title of architect is no arrogation.

James Nesmith House

John Nesmith House 1843

My beautiful picture
Samuel Lawrence House 1844 (General Benjamin F. Butler House)

James Hovey Rand was born in Boston in 1814 to Gardner Hammond Rand and Sally Frothingham both descended from original settlers of Charlestown. Rand’s father was a sail maker with a sail loft  in the Charles Bulfinch designed India Wharf. Tragedy stalked the young family, first with the 1815 death of James’s two year old brother George of “worm fever,”  followed by the death of “dropsy in August of 1817  of his infant sister  Abigail, ”and finally by the death of his father in Havana in November of that same year.

1837 Directory AD
James  did not follow his father into sail making, but first appears in a booming Lowell in 1832 as the eighteen year-old junior partner of fellow housewright Cyrus Frost. That year the pair contracted to erect a house on South Street for Cyril Coburn a lumber dealer and sometime carpenter. All three were boarders at the widow Catherine Parker’s place on Appleton Street. Coburn in fact had recently married Parker’s daughter Harriet. Coburn would go on to be a real estate investor and speculator; He later bought and quickly flipped the important Merrimack House in the great Locks and Canals land sell-off of 1845; he would have at least one more significant dealing with Rand in future years.

Housewrights are a nomadic crew but Rand was settled on Lowell and by 1834, in the enterprising spirit that would characterize his career, the ambitious twenty-year old started a sash and blind business as the junior partner with another housewright William Field. The more valuable, exacting and detailed joinery required to craft window sash and blinds requires high degree of skill; this skill would influence a distinctive aspect of his architectural practice, a penchant for making detailed models of his more substantial designs. Sash work however would only be a step and means to pay the bills as he strived for professional advancement as an architect. And in his 1835  record of his marriage to Laurinda Moore, the twenty-one year old Rand boldly declares himself an architect.  He must be studying architecture assiduously on his own immersing himself in the pattern and style books of the day, including the Englishman Peter Nicholson’s ‘Dictionary of Architecture.”  His wife Laurinda herself was a well-established dressmaker and the daughter of a farmer from Bolton in Worcester County.

In 1836 young Rand, running his sashworks alone, was sufficiently successful to hire housewright Joseph Buswell to build his own modest first house on the corner of Fayette Street and Andover Street. From this house he  graduated to his 1841 house on the corner of Andover Street and Harrison Street. Still surviving, although altered, this second house demonstrates his growing expertise and exhibits design features and qualities seen in his better known works.

Rand Ad In Cowley
By 1844, following the celebrated success of the Nesmith and Lawrence houses, Rand confidently advertised his services as an architect and clearly he’s a successful one. An 1845 news account boasts he has offers for designs of 20 houses and it’s at this time that, he brings in Isaac Place as junior partner in the sashworks, freeing Rand to focus on his growing architectural practice.

Beyond simply designing their houses during the 1840s, Rand had numerous business affairs with both John Nesmith and Samuel Lawrence so it’s reasonable to assume that he designed more buildings for both. Rand is the most likely candidate as architect of Nesmith’s “New Block” the Italianate style commercial building that wraps from Merrimack Street to John Street.  And from 1845 onward Samuel Lawrence is concentrated on his new venture, the Essex Company and the development of what will be the new City of Lawrence, ten miles downstream from Lowell. It’s likely that Rand designed buildings on behalf of Lawrence in the eponymous new City but it doesn’t appear that Rand designed another house for Lawrence who bought a prominent historic house in Andover for his new residence.  It was in this decade that Rand designed the double agents’ houses for the Boott Mills and the Massachusetts Mills on Kirk Street, known more commonly as the Linus Child House and he was designing school houses and engine houses for the City of Lowell along with one of the many remodeling’s of the Kirk Boot designed Town Hall.  Rand was also building houses on speculation for sale including a trio on Harrison Street.

Rand HouseAmerican Cottage & Villa. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

1850 and subsequent years are pivotal for Rand when he builds his own admired house on Andover Street, the subject of Coolidge’s measured praise. His third residence,  it sat between John Nesmith’s house and the estate of Samuel Lawrence; In 1860, he sold it to the Merrimack Manufacturing Company which used it as an Agent’s residence until it was destroyed in a raging fire in 1894.  1850 was also the year that James C. Sidney, the noted Philadelphia cartographer, civil engineer and architect, along with partner James Neff, published their exceptional, illustrated map of Lowell. Sidney was the original designer of Philadelphia’s celebrated Fairmount Park. Rand’s house, was one of the principal buildings that illuminated the map’s margins. Sidney must have been significantly impressed because he not only included it on the map but also as a model in his, American Cottage & Villa Architecture, A series of Plans and Views of RESIDENCES ACTUALLY BUILT. Intended as models for those about to build, as well as Architects, Builders, etc. published that same year as a subscription series. Unfortunately, the copy in the Library of the Peabody Essex Museum is missing the floor plan but the perspective view better demonstrates the architectural finesse that Coolidge admired and showcased Rand’s talent to a wider audience beyond Lowell.

Villa Cover

Rand may also have had a large hand in the Sidney & Neff map.  The handsome map is peculiar because while it illustrates the major corporations, missing are important local landmarks such as churches or railroad depots.  It does include substantial, impressive residences of which three were designed by Rand and stylistically it’s quite possible that Rand designed more if not all of the houses illustrated such as the Fletcher House and Moody House which share stylistic elements of his know works.

Rand’s business entanglements with Samuel Lawrence are hinted at in their many real estate transaction and particularly the 1844 house on Andover Street. It’s been wrongly assumed that Ben Butler acquired the Rand designed Samuel Lawrence House in conjunction with the 1857 collapse of the Middlesex Corporation, itself precipitated by Lawrence’s personal insolvency and the scandalous failure of his firm, Lawrence , Stone and Company.  In fact, records show that Rand purchased the house and its fourteen acres from Lawrence in 1850 at a greatly reduced price in conjunction with the construction of Rand’s adjoining  house.  Lawrence  was deeply committed to his new city downriver. Rand in turn sold the Lawrence house and remaining acreage at a substantial profit to Cyril Coburn, his initial client from eighteen years prior, but when Coburn defaulted on the mortgage, Rand was forced to foreclose and the ever-shrewd Ben Butler redeemed the mortgage for two-thirds its value and acquired for himself one of the most imposing houses of Lowell along with it’s twelve acre estate.  Butler would later acquire more of Lawrence’s properties to add to his own.




A6194 CN 02 - Appleton Bank Block Sketch [LHS}

Appleton Bank Block  1848 as rendered by Millard Davis in 1877 at the time of the Otis Merrill designed reconstruction. Courtesy of the Lowell Historical Society

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Rand was increasingly entrepreneurial, an incorporator of the Appleton Bank as well as the architect and part owner of the Appleton Block. When building his fourth house, across from the celebrated mansion,  he lived with the Reverend Edson and family in the Gothic styled stone “Manse” built originally for Reverend Atkinson.  The Manse shares many design characteristics with Rand’s style so it’s possible that he was also the designer of this house as well.  Rand went on to incorporate the Prescott Bank on  Central Street and kept an office above the bank so it’s highly  likely that he was also the architect of the  picturesque Italian style bank.  He was also a director of the Traders and Mechanics Insurance company and other major design of this period include a reconstruction and expansion of the American House hotel on Central Street and the Lee Street Unitarian Church which survives today as the older portion of the  Saint Joseph’s the Worker Chapel.

Rand even shows up in London in 1851, a visiting American architect staying at the London Coffee House near to Saint Paul’s Cathedral.  He may have gone there to study architecture but it’s more likely he was there for another purpose.  In 1847 he joined the new Houghton Association formed to investigate the story of a great unclaimed inheritance in England owed to Houghton descendants in the United States.  It was of course a hoax and when the agent originally sent to England to investigate submitted an ambiguous report to the Directors and was suspected of being a con man, Rand may have decided to investigate for himself.

When the  City of Lowell and the Boston and Lowell Railroad built the new Merrimack Street depot and Huntington Hall in 1852, the job went, not to Rand, but to Edward C. Cabot, a rising young Boston architect who had won acclaim for his design for the Boston Athenaeum on Beacon Street. The depot construction was supervised by Samuel K. Hutchinson, the closest to a Lowell competitor for Rand. Largely supervising construction of other’s designs, Hutchinson would however be the acknowledged architect of the 1858 Tyler Block on the corner of Central and Market Streets. But Rand would play a significant role in the early fortunes of Huntington Hall when in October of 1856, during an overcrowded Democratic rally assembled to hear Rufus Choate speak, the floor of Huntington Hall terrifyingly settled once and then once again causing a panic and rush for the doors. Rand riskily investigated the underside of the floor as the grandiloquent Ben Butler reassured the agitated crowd. Subsequently both Rand and James B. Francis, the Locks & Canals engineer, were called to propose structural solutions. Rand’s solution cost about one-quarter of Francis’s plan and subsequently Rand and fellow members of Lands and Building Committee of the City Council went to lengths to reassure an apprehensive public.

Prescott Bank Building

Prescott Bank Block c. 1850

He also became increasingly involved in Democratic Party politics but appears to have maintained cordial relations with the Lowell’s Whig leaders who drew a distinction between his professional skills and his political sentiments.  He was elected to the City Council in 1856 after several unsuccessful attempts.

Citizen 11-19-1856 Rand Certifies Hunt Hall

In 1856, Rand’s design for the new Myrtle Street School (Varnum School) was rejected and a new design by engineer J.W. Phillips was substituted.  The new design barely satisfied the critical Charles Cowley, then a school committee member, criticized the design for inadequate blackboards and deplored the location of its belfry, but the real motivation for the contentious Cowley’s petty discontent was more likely the underlying conflict between the City Council and School Committee over the authority to design and build schools. Coolidge comments on the similarity of this school to the five other schoolhouses that preceded it as surprising but the explanation again may be a simple one. Rand was also the architect of the 1845 Branch Street schoolhouse and may well have been the architect of the nearly identical old Moody School of 1840 (demolished 1964) but his attempt to break with the tradition met with opposition as  noted above. The conservatism in school design likely also resulted from the influence of Henry Barnard’s 1848 design manual, “School Architecture or Contributions to the Improvement of School Houses of the United States.”  which in 1849, the Massachusetts legislature distributed to every city and town.  Among the examples included was Lowell’s high school of 1837.

Barnard Lowell High

Lowell High School 1837 form Barnard’s “School Architecture


1856 was also the year Rand undertook his most noted but then controversial design in Lowell, the County Jail. As discussed previously, John Coolidge is dismissive of the design citing its “bulging heaviness” and “insensitivity.” This is in notable contrast to his unrestrained affection for the “charming” county courthouse of 1850. He deliberately contrasts the two buildings to the detriment of Rand’s jail.

Ammi Yound Court HouseIMG_5138

Lowell Court House 1850                               Lowell Jail 1857

Coolidge apparently was unaware that Ammi Young was the court house architect but Rand certainly would have known Young’s authorship and the quality and character of the design. He also would have been aware that his jail would sit opposite the court house across the new South Common.  In fact Middlesex County acquired both sites in 1847.  The future court house site was quite controversial.  Local attorneys derided the location on the outskirts of the young city and complained bitterly about the prospect of walking up Chapel Hill.   The discontent didn’t subside; when the court house opened in 1850 the local bar refused to organize a building dedication.  Rand made his own pitch for the design of he building with an unsolicited model in 1847 whose design was described as “Athenaeum Doric Temple” style demonstrating that Rand was up-to-date on current trends in Boston architecture.  He didn’t get the design.  As noted, that went to Ammi Young who had also designed an addition and renovation of the Bullfinch designed courthouse in East Cambridge.  Young also designed the Concord court house and a scheme to relocate the State House to Worcester.

When designing the jail, Rand must have deliberately chosen, not to mirror the delicate design of the courthouse, but chose a heavier more muscular counterpart as more appropriate for a jail. H.H. Richardson would do as much decades later in his design for the Alleghany County Court House and Jail where the contrast between the courthouse and attached jail is immediately obvious and deliberate. The contrast between Rand’s muscular, rusticated granite block structure and Young’s more delicate courthouse would have been even more pronounced in the earliest days. he courthouse is now exposed red brick but originally the brick was covered with an intonaco, scored and finished to resemble cut and dressed sandstone or brownstone.

More significantly though, Rand was unquestionably influenced by Gridley Bryant’s 1851 Suffolk County Jail (Charles Street Jail) in Boston. Rand’s design shares with Bryant’s, not only the monolithic rusticated granite  but more pertinently the advanced humanitarian features of reformed prison design of the time including provisions for adequate light and air, beds and hospitals rooms and separation of male and female inmates. But Rand parted from Bryant’s distinctive plan, an octagonal central tower with radiating wings to form a cross.  This plan was quickly the standard for jails and prisons in eastern Massachusetts with contemporary examples in Lawrence and Dedham.  One detriment to the Bryant plan is that it lacked an suitable street front.  Rand solved this with a central gabled block with grand entry stair to mirror the courthouse across the Common.  He placed two substantial, conical roofed towers on each side in place of the courthouse tower-like cupola. A subsidiary cell block to the north and a keeper’s resident to the south gave the entire ensemble a distinctive massing that enhanced the central block and its architectural relationship to the courthouse which is now largely hidden by the Wait & Cutler designed addition of 1898. The jail’s architectural grandeur  was grudgingly acknowledged as a new landmark but unfitting for prison which coddled its miscreant denizens.

Rand entered a model of the new Jail in competition in the Middlesex Mechanics Association Exhibition of September of 1857 but when the award winners were announced, Rand took umbrage with the characterization of his work by John Wright:
One of the few ornamental structure of our unadorned city; affording evidence of a very creditable amount of architectural skill in its constructions and arrangement, and furnishing a safe and commodious habitation for that large and increasing class, whose energies seem mainly and assiduously exercised in securing for themselves an abiding interest in such institutions; and affording moreover on the part of those who have sanctioned the erection of that costly and imposing edifice, an example of unwise, extravagant and unjust administration of public affairs; in giving to the abode of the criminal a magnificent outside appearance and imposing on the home of frugal industry, and even struggling poverty, burden and retrenchment that crime may be cooped in a palace.
The incensed architect took the extraordinary and rare step of responding in writing over his own signature in a letter published in several Lowell newspapers. He responded:
I did not enter the new jail on the doings of the commissioners or a premium; but simply a design, plans and model of the Jail, as an architect supposing that should the Judges find my design new and useful, they would award me a diploma which would benefit me in my profession; instead, however, my contribution to the exhibition, was made an excuse, seemingly, for censuring the commissioners, deeming this opportunity to good to be lost.

The impetus of the criticism, which Rand had alluded to, was likely an effort to discredit County Commissioner Leonard Huntress of Tewksbury, by among others, his political rival the Sherriff John Keyes (whose brother Joseph Keyes would serve as the new Jail Keeper.)   Huntress had overseen the project. The assertions of extravagance continued. The censorious Charles Cowley would carp  ten years later of the Senseless manner in which the county commissioners wasted the people’s money on this jail…
How legitimate was the charge of extravagance? A comparison of the county’s capital expenditures during this same time period suggests it was groundless. The County had spent $100,000 on the 1851 courthouse to little criticism (although the location was maligned.) The new court house in Cambridge cost the same and the Cambridge jail, with additions, cost $175,000. Overall the County’s debt was substantially reduced during this time. Further, the Lowell Jail was somewhat more than a third of the size of the contemporaneous Charles Street Jail in Boston (eighty-four beds versus two-hundred and twenty-four) so its $150,000 cost seems commensurate when measured against the $460,000 expense of the Boston jail.  Good old political rivalries, unease that the grandest building in the city should be a jail and a profound disapproval of the more humane features of the facility fueled the criticism and resentments. The residue of these criticisms may have colored Coolidge’s observation however subtly nearly a century later.

Ella Flemming School

This dismissal of his work as extravagant may have dogged Rand. Earlier in April of 1857, the Trustees of the Lowell Cemetery balked at the presumed cost of Rand’s design for a new stone gateway.  Eventually, in 1861,  the Cemetery would build a design by Charles Panter, a young landscape architect who also designed the gates for the Forest Hills Cemetery in West Roxbury. The sum of these criticisms, the Myrtle Street School rejection, unwarranted criticisms of his actions at the Mechanics Hall emergency, the Cemetery dismissal and the incessant complaints about the jail,  may have influenced Rand’s startling decision in May of 1858 to depart Lowell for Boston and Roxbury. The precipitous departure is more confounding because Rand was well entrenched in Lowell affairs. He was elected an alderman for 1858 and he was selected to design the schoolhouse in North Tewksbury (Ella Fleming School.) His name had also been circulated as a competitor to Fisher Hildreth’s reappointment to the remunerative postmaster sinecure but this may simply have been political mischief by Republican opponents. It seems unlikely that Rand would antagonize his political ally Ben Butler or the Colonel’s brother-in-law Fisher Hildreth. Ultimately what may have been the deciding factor was his selection as the architect for the Portland City Hall and Courthouse which would be the most important work of his career.  He may have calculated that it would be better to develop a growing architectural practice from Boston rather than Lowell.  He shared an office on Devonshire Street in Boston with the renowned architect Richard Bond, the architect of Gore Hall at Harvard and Brookline house for A.A Lawrence among much other celebrated work.  Their arrangement appeared to be informal and not a partnership.  When Bond died in 1861, Rand continued to maintain the office in the City Exchange for more than ten years.  By 1860 he settled in Charlestown where he designed a school, a bank and redesign of the “Harvard” or Second Church of Charlestown and numerous houses there in the growing South End and the new Back Bay; he remained politically active petitioning for the annexation of Charlestown to Boston.

Family issues might also have influenced him; his father-in-law died in Roxbury shortly after the departure from Lowell. Rand too, like others, may also have suffered financial problems in the wake of the Panic of 1857 as well as the Samuel Lawrence financial scandal. In early 1858 he’d abandoned his office above the Prescott Bank. His departure from Lowell was abrupt.  He had sold  his celebrated house on Andover Street in 1854 to the lumber baron Nicholas Norcross and built a fourth house for himself diagonally across the street which he built and sold in 1857 to the manufacturer Charles B. Richmond who’s misfortune is to be best known as the husband of Edgar Allan Poe’s paramour “Nancy.” This house too is now long gone and there are no known images of it.

A September 1857 run on the City Institution for Savings in the wake of the panic, the savings bank foreclosed on the Norcross house mortgage.  The Merrimack Manufacturing Company redeemed the mortgage in 1860 and transformed it into the agent’s house.  It remained in this use until a disastrous fire nearly completely destroyed it.  The Lowell architect Fred Stickney designed to replacement and incorporated the salvaged rear ell into the new house.  When the Joseph Ludlam, the Merrimack Agent died in 1897, his replacement, John Pead decided he wanted a newer house, the lot was subdivided, a new Neo-Classical mansion was built to the east; the Rand/Stickney designed house was sold to Alfred Rose, the treasurer of the J.C. Ayer Company.  Rose would later default on the house as earlier owners had.

Rand does not appear to have returned to Lowell until  his death in 1883 for burial in an unmarked grave in the Lowell Cemetery  His contributions to Lowell were not completely forgotten as the Daily Courier noted of his death:
He… made the plans for the Lowell Jail. He also designed several of our best residences.

Portland City Hall JHRandPortland City Hall 1858

“…at the expense of of General Butler’s Quarry” and “…a peculiar protest.’

Clean Globe pic

Merrill & Cutler may have secured the City Hall contract but they may not be in full control of the design as Prentiss Webster says, “The Commission had ideas of its own in regard to the building…” and the Daily News could provocatively ask, “Who are the architects of the new city hall anyway? Some say Merrill & Cutler have the honor; others say the city hall commissioners have drawn the plans and that they, and they alone, are responsible for the abortion.” Fred Stickney may have been the real winner after all. His design and construction of Memorial Hall will proceed quietly except for one incident instigated by the Commission.
When plans for both buildings are ready to bid in January of 1890, there are several notable changes. The City Hall estimate is now $300,000 and the Memorial building has grown to $150,000 an increase of 50% for both. The city hall floor plan more closely represents a Clough design with an open courtyard and the Merrill’s plain hipped roof has now sprouted gables but perhaps most significantly both buildings are now to be built in granite. And there’s the matter of the bid form; contractors will be required to identify the granite companies so that the Commission may select their preference. That’s not how architects do these things.
Webster says that the unconventional bidding format will inspire competition among quarries. The most obvious competition is among the Commissioners themselves as some appear to favor Butler and his Cape Ann quarry and others appear to want to exclude his company. H.H. Richardson has made the “reddish and pink colored granites” from Milford Massachusetts fashionable; the Commission has selected the similar “reddish hue colored granite” from the White Mountain range. This would appear to eliminate General Butler’s Cape Ann quarry and its grey stone but it may also be an attempt to shut out the respected Norcross Brothers contracting firm with whom Commissioner Runels appears to have a business relationship. Norcross Brothers has an arrangement with alocal firm, Sweatt and Davis, to do stone cutting in Lowell and Runels has a finger in that firm.

Prior to the first bid, there was agitation from labor, local contractors and the press that the work for such large and lucrative contracts should go to local firms. But when bids were opened on February 10th all bids for City Hall, local and out-of-town, were substantially over the estimate, as much as $90,000 over. There’s no choice but to rebid.
Worth noting however, among those discarded bids is one curiosity. The second lowest “local” bidder is that firm called Sweatt and Davis. Covering all options, this company reportedly is a sub-contractor on Norcross Brothers’ bid to cut stone for the Worcester firm here in Lowell. But it’s not clear just who this firm actually is and where it may be located. There was a Simeon Sweatt, a local stone cutter, but he died in 1861. Nor is there a Nathaniel Davis in Lowell in 1890, although there was one who worked for George Runels many years before. An advertisement says the firm located on Thorndike Street, near the Jail, but there’s only stone concern in this area and it’s George Runels business. Sweatt and Davis’s address is a post office box in Lowell and there’s a mail drop at the Master Builders Association on Devonshire Street in Boston.  Any one might think it’s a paper company run by Charles Runnels, son of Commissioner George Runnels from the father’s stone yard. In subsequent bids in fact, the firm will be identified as “Sweatt Davis and George Runels.”

Sweat&amp;Davis 1890 Directory
When the second set of bids is opened in late February, Norcross Brothers is the apparent low bidder at just $14,000 over the estimate. This should be good news. Norcross Brothers is perhaps the most respected contracting firm of the day. They are Richardson’s preferred contractor their business and reputation growing with him from their first collaboration the Worcester High School of 1869 (incidentally considered the worst of his early work.) In fact it’s easily argued that the genius of his architecture owes as much to their skill and craftsmanship as much as to his design talents. But Norcross has failed to specify the source of their granite in the bid as required. This should be no surprise to anyone. Norcross owns their quarries. Their Milford quarry supplies the fashionable pink granite in such high demand and used in Richardson’s designs. They also quarry sandstone in Longmeadow and marble in Connecticut. But to everyone’s astonishment, they are disqualified. There’s some funny business going on though and it’s not just the mysterious trip by the City Messenger to Norcross Brothers in Worcester. Finally, on a motion by Commissioner Phillips, the contract is tentatively awarded to the second lowest bidder, Darling Brothers, also of Worcester. Per bid rules, Darling Brothers have identified several granite sources and the Commission also selects the Cape Ann Granite option. Phillips will later claim his first motion was to award to Norcross but it failed. Darling Brothers hadn’t offered Cape Ann stone in the first round of bids but they did this time for the second round and on good advice. Jaspar Darling will testify later in the law suit against the City:

“I had a conversation with Mr. Webster…Mr. Webster told me to see Col. French and get the best prices on Cape Ann Granite and said we would have a good show on this bid, as our estimate was the lowest on the first bid.”
The Commission, as secretive as ever refuses to release the bids to the public. But we do learn that Mayor Palmer and Commissioners Welch and Webster voted for Cape Ann option and Commissioners Howe and Phillips voted against it; Commissioner Francis abstained. Commissioner Runnels was out of town at his Florida house.
“Jobbery!” Claims the News and asks further “Must the taxpayers suffer at the expense of General Butler’s Granite Quarry?” Sentiment around town says if the work didn’t to go to a local firm, then it should have gone to Norcross Brothers. The recently formed Master Builders Association meets and fumes that their members have been deliberately excluded from bidding by the form of the bid process. If the Commission had bid the components rather that the buildings in their entirety, we hear repeatedly, the buildings could be built for the budget and local builders would have a better chance of winning work. And of course, bidding by trades increases the burden but also the control by the Commission. One contractor says, speaking clearly of Butler and Webster, that he has “nothing against old soldiers but there is a drummer boy on the commission and he drummed the members into line as he wished.”

Local contractors are demanding that Commissioner Runnels return to Lowell quickly. Commissioner Howe goes on record as opposed to the contract and claims that Runnels and Francis share the same opinion.
And then there’s the problem of The Darling Brothers themselves. They are brashly telling the Worcester papers that they’ll have the building up and roofed over by winter. Jaspar Darling has been bold enough to call on Norcross in Worcester to tell them to withdraw or else. Nobody has a good word to say for them. The Central Labor Council calls a meeting at Jackson Hall and all hell breaks loose. It’s reported that the Darling Brothers have threatened local labor unions not to interfere. Labor groups slam Darling Brother’s bad reputation and poor working conditions. They hire scabs. Even the bricklayers of Worcester, who know the Darlings well, have nothing good to say for them.
Lowell’s fractious bicameral City Council weighs in. The Common Council resolves for a committee to investigate the Commission. In a bit of political theater in the Board of Aldermen,  Alderman Fuller and Alderman Drury thunder against the Commission but then the Aldermen unanimously vote down the investigation idea. But when the Common Council refuses to approve any additional appropriation, the City Hall Commission has no choice but to throw out the bids along with the bids for the memorial building, even though a local contractor has come in under estimate for that work. Darling Brothers will follow through on their threat to sue the City but ultimately lose. Commissioner Prentiss Webster astonishingly, is the attorney defending the City in the suit.
For the third bid, a chastened but wiser Commission announces that it will give preference to local bidders and both projects will be bid in their entirety and in parts as the local contractors have demanded. Plans are modified again to bring bids in line with the appropriation and greatest change is the substitution of a low tower for the original tall one. But keeping all its options, the Commission includes an option for the high tower as well.

Low tower, high tower quarry options, general bids and bids by trades, preparing bids might take as long as the actual construction. Significantly, contractors must again supply bids with different granite options and now the granite companies have the chance to bid directly on the stone work. This “inspiration” to competition seems to provide more chances for one firm to snag the prize. When bids are opened on June 18th, Norcross Brothers is once again the low bidder for the overall City Hall job yet again failing to specify its granite source, but because the combination of individual trade bids is lower,  Norcross Brothers is again pushed aside. Because the lion’s share of work will go to local contractors, there’s no controversy and perhaps least surprising, Cape Ann is the lowest bidder for the stone work.
John Murphy, low bidder for Memorial Hall in the last round and this one too, complains that he has made a mathematical error of $10,000 but the Commission will not allow a correction. He says he will honor the price error but when requested, he refuses to name his sub-contractors and so he is disqualified. Murphy held back because he had hoped to renegotiate with his subs to recoup some of the loss. Murphy is so angry that he threatens to write a letter to the Commission that will blow open the selection of Merrill as the City Hall architect but he doesn’t do it. Both jobs are awarded to multiple contracts by trades. Cape Ann hasn’t won all the stone work; Maine and New Hampshire Granite Company of Conway N.H. is the supplier of stone for the Memorial Hall. But to supply the desired reddish granite for City Hall, the Cape Ann Company will need to open its own quarry in Conway, N.H. and thus will begin a new round of controversy and delay.

“…a peculiar protest.”
But even before the extent of the granite problem reveals itself another quarrel breaks out, this time over the cornerstones. By early fall, the foundations have progressed sufficiently to allow the setting of cornerstones an important ritual in the 19th Century building; ceremonies are scheduled for October 11th. Mayor Palmer appoints a sub-committee of Commissioners Welch, Philips and Webster, all good Masons. But when the Catholic community discovers that the Masons have been invited to lay the stone in their typical grand ritual, vigorous protest errupts. Over 4600 individuals sign the petition which is read from the pulpit of every Catholic church in Lowell but one: St. Peter’s. No doubt because Fr. Rowan, the pastor, has his hands full with his plan to replace his current church with a new one;  to fund the new church, he has collaborated in a scheme with leading businessmen from Ward 4 to locate the new post office on the site of his current church at the corner of Gorham and Appleton Streets. The Saint Peter’s conflict is a conundrum for General Butler. The Catholic parishioners of are part of his Democratic constituency, but he has allied with corporate interests to block the scheme and grab the new post office for a site owned by the Massachusetts Corporation on Merrimack Street. (He fails and George Runels will pick up the site for his impressive new block.) Now the cornerstone protest can only further offend his Catholic supporters.
The Catholics ask why is a secret organization granted this honor? Why isn’t this ceremony a purely civic event? The organizers claim to be dumbfounded. No one has ever objected before, but this protest is reported sympathetically around the country despite local efforts to dismiss it. Coincidentally, the Pope will issue an Encyclical on October 15th of that year, “Ab Apostolic Solii Celsitudine” condemning the Masonic influence in the Italian government. The City Council refers the petition to a sub-committee, essentially burying it but a compromise of sorts is in the works. The Masons won’t set the Memorial Hall cornerstone. Instead it will be undertaken by the Grand Army of the Republic an organization that embraces both Catholic and Protestant veterans of the Civil War.
General Butler sends a telegraph to the City that unfortunately he has an engagement in the west and so cannot otherwise accept their kind offer that he make an oration.
“A peculiar protest” says the Vox Populi, but this protest explains the second half of the title of Webster’s memorial book: Webster is a Mason himself and he wants to discredit or diminish the significance of the protest. The “peculiar flurry of opposition…” Vox Populi reports “…had the effect to bring out a much larger number of that fraternity than would otherwise have appeared; and other people who resented this attempt to control the city-authorities made it a point to demonstrate their feelings in unmistakable ways.” “One of the grandest pageants in Lowell’s History” it crows. And it indeed must have been grand with six bands and a grand parade of thirty-eight carriages full of past and present Masonic Grand Masters.

Prentiss Webster, Mason himself, minimizes his fellow Democrats’ discomfort and give the grandiose ceremony detailed coverage in “The Story of the City Hall Commission: including the Exercises at the Laying of the Cornerstones.” But it falls to former Mayor Jerimiah Crowley in his remarks at the Memorial Hall stone setting to give perspective and find common ground: “…sometimes people, through mistaken zeal for the cause of liberty and religion will fan into life the dying embers of almost forgotten prejudices and for a moment they will burn with all the fierceness of the hated past…”
By early 1891, with the new construction season ahead, there’s a problem at the City Hall site. Memorial Hall construction is humming along, but City Hall is lagging and anyone paying attention can see that the stone is not arriving in sufficient quantity. Each month, less than half of the needed forty cars of stone arrive. Some months, it’s been as few as twelve carloads. In early February, Architect Merrill offers reassurance that the delays of the fall will not be repeated. The Cape Ann quarry in New Hampshire he explains had layers of defective stone that had to be quarried out to reach suitable material and now a second quarry has been opened and no bad stone has been found. But he’s been misinformed.
ON March 20th Colonel French,  himself of the Cape Ann Quarry, of the  is summoned to the City to explain the delay. When French meets with the Commission, members Howe, Runnels and Phillips are absent. Webster, Welch and new Mayor Fifield will need to sort out the mess. French tells the Commission that he cannot supply them with the necessary stone from New Hampshire and that they must finish with Cape Ann stone from Gloucester. But the Cape Ann stone is bluish in color, not red, and the basement level of the Hall has been completed in the redish Conway stone. One wit suggests that the solution is build the first floor in white marble and finish above with Cape Ann. In that way the City will have a patriotic monument in red, white and blue, but nobody’s laughing.
The local granite cutters say that there’s enough stone at North Conway to build ten city halls and that Cape Ann needs to honor the contract terms. A rumor claims that the real problem is that Cape Ann has another contract with a delay penalty of $100 a day – far more than the $25 daily penalty in the city’s contract. But it’s worse; both explanations are true. The quarry stone is inferior and Cape Ann is favoring another contract with higher penalties. Architect Merrill files his own protest with the Commission objecting to the stone substitution and disavowing for the bad effect that will occur. Webster mildly mocks Merrill for this.
The public is briefly distracted by a new controversy over the wording on the lintel stone of the memorial building. The Commission has voted that it will read “City Library.” In the face of protests by the Grand Army of the Republic and others the Commission will quickly backtrack and change the inscription to “Memorial Hall.’ And then on March 31st, James Francis abruptly resigns from the Commission. It’s not because of the Memorial Hall controversy as some suggest; he explains that he has a relative working for the Cape Ann company and he does not want to be appear to be taking actions that might favor the company and impugn his reputation. The relative is his son-in-law, Henry H. Bennett who has recently taken a job with the Cape Ann granite company. Perhaps it’s simply an innocent coincidence but for many years prior, Bennett was the postmaster at the Bay View station in Gloucester and you don’t get a job like postmaster in the General’s front yard without Butler’s support. Francis’s resignation must be the catalyst needed for the Commissioners to reject the substitute stone as Webster tells us they do, but what he omits to write is that the delays will continue for months until August, when Cape Ann is compelled to acquire the necessary stone from the neighboring New Hampshire and Maine company quarries, the suppliers to Memorial Hall. But even before the stone problem is solved, the Commission is faced with another decision but with a happier outcome, under the terms of the contract, if they want the high tower they must commit by June 30th so on May 19th they request and additional $30,000 from the City Council for the taller tower and the attic dormers.
Memorial Hall is completed and dedicated in April 1893, a full six months ahead of City Hall which is dedicated finally in October to general relief and celebration. Even the new Daily Sun can say:
“Grand, gorgeous, massive in proportions, perfect in details; such is our new city Hall.” (with nary a mention of grain elevators.)
There were two more flare-ups first over furniture and then when the Olmsted landscape architecture firm proposed moving the Winged Victory statue to the side of City Hall as part of its overall landscape plan.
It’s no wonder that battle weary Prentiss Webster feels the need to write that criticisms, were “printed on wood pulp,” [which will] “crumble to pieces within one quarter century, … the buildings … stand as the result of the work of the Commission and as an instructor to the children of the critics, when the critics …[are] no more.”

“…the first shall be last and the last first…” The Lowell City Hall Architectural Design Competition of 1889


Perspective City Hall - Copy

In 1878 Lowell’s City Hall, built in 1830, is patched up yet again for another ten years of service, but no one is particularly satisfied and there’s a sense that Lowell is falling behind.  It’s a matter of civic pride.  William Kitteridge the sash and blind maker says of the City Hall that it’s the “meanest on the continent for the number of inhabitants”[i] but there’s still no rush to replace it  as the coal dealer Josiah Peabody pragmatically notes “our pride may have outgrown the present building but our necessities have not.” [ii]

Still, when the opportunity arises in late 1879 to buy the “Burrows Lot,” from the Merrimack Corporation, the City seizes the chance.  This sale is no charitable gesture by the Corporation. Shrewdly they know a new city hall will substantially enhance the value of their neighboring real estate and the city has paid top dollar, $83,400, for the site. By one calculation it’s determined that the cost of the site will be over $146,000 [iii] when the ten-year sinking fund is retired. But there is never a question of any other location.  This is the symbolic heart of the City, made sacred by the Ladd & Whitney monument and ringed by the leading civic, industrial and religious institutions of the city.

But a new city hall will wait ten years until 1888, at the start of a new city government, headed by the reform mayor Charles Dana Palmer. Palmer is a Harvard educated corporation man from a prominent Boston family and married to Rowena Hildreth. [iv] The intervening years have been good ones; wages and capital have doubled[v] and the booming city is full of confidence and no longer afraid of debt.

Ordinarily a new city building would be the responsibility of the City Council’s joint committee for lands and buildings but Mayor Palmer wants a commission, a commission of impartial and civic-minded leaders who will transcend politics and personal gain, a commission dedicated to its noble cause and which will survive the annual changes in city government for what’s expected at most to be a three-year long enterprise.  It will take twice as long to complete it’s tasks.

Reformers love commissions which are presumed to be apolitical, efficient and free from partisan battles. For the likes of Charles Eliot,  President of Harvard, they are the preferred form of government and Palmer is a Harvard man. Democrats despise commissions.  For them they are elitist affronts to democracy.  So while the City Council passes the resolution in April, Palmer won’t announce his City Hall Commission until August 3.  He’s got a lot riding on this board because he wants to replace the Lands and Buildings with a public works commission; the City Hall Commission will be its stalking horse.

When the members are announced , the sententious weekly Vox Populi will effuse “It would have been difficult for Mayor Palmer to improve upon the commission he has appointed.”[vi] Only later will the Vox editorialize for members to resign.

But it does indeed seem to be “a commendable selection of gentlemen”[vii] of age and experience, one for each of the city’s six wards and headed by the mayor who will serve ex-officio.  The irreproachable, James B. Francis, Chief Engineer of the Locks and Canals corporation and world-renowned hydraulics expert, represents Belvidere; and there’s George Runels, the wealthy stone contractor, who returned to Lowell fifty years earlier from a whaling boat shipwreck and the south seas adventures to make his fortune as a stone contractor .  He built the Jail.  Equally experienced an influential is John F. Howe, the contractor and lumber dealer who, with his brother, seems to have built just about everything in town.  John F. Phillips, Agent for the Boston & Maine Railroad, who will tragically die by a fall from his window in the Merrimack House. John Welch the former senator for the Irish neighborhood the Acre and one of the two Democrats is on the Commission who will grouse loudly about his treatment by the Press.

Lastly, representing Centralville and the Secretary of the Commission is the enigmatic Prentiss Webster, the youngest of the group and Welch’s fellow Democrat. Webster is an attorney, the legal partner of the inimitable General Benjamin F. Butler and for good measure he’s also Butler’s nephew; In fact, he’s also Mayor Palmer’s nephew.  Both Palmer and Butler married daughters of  prominent Fisher Hildreth.   His grandfather was  Humphrey Webster, a cousin of Daniel Webster, and the carpenter for Town Hall. After graduating Lowell High School, Prentiss followed his attorney father to Germany where William Prentiss had been appointed a U.S. Consul.  Prentiss attended university in Germany and after his father’s death served for a brief time as an American consul as well.

Consensus among this olio of opinions, experience and interests may not prove easy and the Daily Courier is nearly prophetic when it notes, “There is no immediate pressure for a City Hall and the Commission can afford to ‘go slow.”[viii] The board will be mired in indecision and controversy, competing agendas, hobbled by questionable decisions and poor practices. The last, the decision to repeatedly meet in executive session with no press or public present, will  fuel endless speculation of scheming, conspiracy and  calculating secrecy decried as  “dark-lantern” tactics.  Suspicious types will later assert that the purported reformer Palmer’s intended all along to benefit General Butler’s Cape Ann Granite Quarry, the Boston & Maine Railroad and his friend, the architect Fred W. Stickney[ix].  What will become clearer is that Palmer is Stickney’s sometimes lone patron that Webster is looking after Butler’s interests closely and that the often absent George Runels, friend of architect Otis A. Merrill,  has his own agenda.

Almost as soon as it begins, the Commission’s work is expanded to accommodate a request for a hall to memorialize the City’s Civil War Veterans.  The initiative is a petition to the City Council from city notables headlined by General Butler. More that a petition, the demand includes  detailed specifications for a fine granite memorial that will incorporate the city library as well.

In February of 1889, the Commission announces that it will hold an architectural design competition with cash prizes for the top three winners.  Competitions like this are increasingly popular.  Rival city Cambridge held one the previous year for its City Hall and that contest may have  been Lowell’s inspiration, but competitions come in different formats; the Cambridge competition was a closed one, only five firms were invited to compete.  Lowell’s contest will be open and blind.  Coincidentally, just three months earlier a  similar, controversial State House additional architectural competition drew a letter of protest published in American Architect and Building News, signed by architects from across Massachusetts and beyond and including both of Lowell’s leading architects Frederick W. Stickney and Otis A. Merrill.  Among the architects’ grievances is that it’s not promised that the contest winner will also receive the contract.  Lowell’s contest will lack a similar guarantee.  Otis Merrill’s indignation over the State House contest terms will not carry-over to the Lowell exercise.

Sixty-seven architects express interest and twenty-three make anonymous submissions in a prescribed format to insure anonymity and allow comparison.   Webster’s writes in The Story of the City Hall Commission published the year after the dedications, that the Commission deliberates and narrows down the competitors to five,  eliminates two more and then does something surprising.  They reveal the three finalists for the final ranking, until now known only as “Three Rings,” ”Triangle” and “Utility.”  Astonishingly, the Commission members now know the identities of the three even as they choose the first, second and third place winners.  It takes four votes to select the first-prize winner with a four to two split and a single vote for the second prize winner, again split four to two.

When the winners are announced on April 2nd to the city’s delight, two of the three winners are Lowell architects.  Fred W. Stickney the popular, young  designer, has taken the first prize of $1200 for the most original design.  He’s also the only one who’s proposed solving the awkward building program with two separate structures: a city hall and a memorial building and library. (He may come to regret this later.)  Lowell’s favorite young architect has also beaten Arthur Vinal, the well-connected former City Architect of Boston who receives the second prize of $800.  Merrill & Cutler, Lowell’s other leading firm by default is third with a $500 prize for a competent design modeled after a well-known H.H. Richardson work.



In fact all three prize-winning designs are some variation of the currently popular Romanesque, a style of architecture which will abruptly fall from fashion in just three years in the wake of the Chicago Exposition of 1892 which ushers in a new classically inspired style.  Webster acknowledges as much when he states of the winners, “originality of design was not apparent…”

Second A - Copy

Vinal’s design is the same as much of his other work to date.  He readily appropriates fashionable architectural details and materials from Richardson, like just about everyone else. Stickney’s plan is  more original in composition. Merrill & Cutler’s design “Utility”, a motto particularly appropriate to his work,  is an obvious scaled down interpretation of Richardson’s masterpiece, the Allegheny County Courthouse.  For good or bad, Richardson’s work, has created models and fashions that the public expects for all types of structures particularly railroad stations, libraries court houses or city halls.

Third - Copy

There’s no guarantee that Stickney will get the actual commission, but he’s the first prize winner and isn’t that how these things work?  The local press carefully describes both Stickney and Merrill’s designs in minute detail. Vinal’s design is barely mentioned and not even illustrated.  Curiously though, at Stickney’s insistence, Mayor Palmer forbids Stickney’s perspective to be photographed for an engraving so an image of Merrill’s design is published first.[x] An image if Stickney’s winning design is published days after it’s description.  But with the praise, comes the first criticism of Stickney’s design and the competition.  An anonymous letter to the Daily Mail, signed only  “Artist” acidly comments that ‘if this is the best of the 23 submitted, the other 22 must indeed have been an inferior lot.”  “schoolboy work, ” [xi] the writer calls it and provocatively asks  why haven’t the actual designs been made public?  It’s a good question. The losing entries have been returned to their authors with no public viewing.  We don’t even know who competed but for one entry from the firm of Wait and Cutter, later  published in American Architect and Building News.

Prior to the competition it was expected that the building would be built of granite.  Quincy Granite as Councilman Sullivan suggested.[xii]  Butler’s Memorial Hall petition imagined a granite building as well. Several of the Commissioners want granite as well but likely for different reasons. But Stickney’s plan calls for brick buildings with red granite trim.  Merrill’s building  design is Ohio Sandstone with red granite from North Conway. They both have designed cautiously for the budget of $300,000. The cost difference between a brick or even sandstone structure and a granite one is substantial principally because granite is hard to quarry and to work with. Merrill has even told the Vox Populi that the budget didn’t allow granite.

Webster writes that “…none of the architects…could demonstrate the possibility of the erection of the buildings for $100,000 and $200,000.”  Surely this can’t be true because both Lowell architects have economized in their designs and how then could the Commission select winners at all if “possibility of erection of the buildings for the sums named…” was the first criterion of the competition? The budget question must be a red herring because the cost will grow to $450,000 under the Commission’s direction.  Something is missing in the winning design and it’s granite. When it becomes clear that Stickney is not the automatic winner, American Architect and Building News editorializes that this is “humiliating treatment”[xiii] to an architect of his standing.  He’ll need thick skin because a lot more is on the way.

Stickney will have a chance to fight for the bigger prize when he is invited to develop a revised plan under the supervision a sub-committee of Mayor Palmer and Commissioner Howe.   In another strange turn, the Commission also invites the Boston architect George A. Clough to also revise his plan but Clough hadn’t even entered a complete submission to the competition just a hurried floor plan.[xiv]  The historian Walter Muir Whitehill describes Clough as “a competent but not very talented practitioner.”[xv]  Clough is credited for adopting the German system of building large public buildings around interior courtyards for light and air.  He was also Boston’s first city architect in the 1870s. At the time of the City Hall competition, he’s the architect for the new Suffolk County Superior Courthouse in Pemberton Square which, coincidentally, is being built with Cape Ann granite. Clough is invited because Commissioner Howe, the old builder, it’s suspected, doesn’t think Stickney is experienced enough. “What will we do when all the old architects have died?”[xvi] another Commissioner mocks.

But unexpectedly, when the Commission meets to review Stickney and Clough’s new plans, there’s a third set. Someone has tipped off Otis Merrill who’s pushed his way to the table with his own revised plans. That someone is undoubtedly Merrill’s friend, George Runels.   Now with three architects in contention, the Commission will stalemate for two more months through seven meetings and forty-seven votes. Clough, it’s rumored, had three votes initially which included Welch and Howe and possibly Webster, but at some point he’s out of contention, voluntarily or  dropped perhaps because he was too stubborn for a board with strong opinion .  He’s paid $700 for his efforts and the next year he will be in a heated conflict with the Court House Commissioners and will announce, “I disown the building and will not be responsible for it.”[xvii] He will also sue the City of Boston for $20,000 in unpaid fees.[xviii]

The Commission may be meeting in executive sessions but rumors are spreading and in early July, the Republican-leaning Daily Mail claims that the “mouse in the meal”[xix] is partisan politics.  Commissioners Welch and Webster, both Democrats the  Mail claims, are delaying by voting doggedly for  Arthur Vinal, undoubtedly, a fellow Democrat and it’s allegedly their plan to continue to delay until there’s a new city administration, a Democratic one so they can give the job to a Democrat.  There are a few problems with this claim.  Vinal is a Republican and substitution of a Democratic Mayor for Palmer alone won’t provide a Democratic majority on the Commission.  Welch is incensed and demands that the Commission respond; he claims he supported Clough as long as Commissioner Howe supported him and then with Clough gone, switched to Vinal as the best man.  Mayor Palmer tells him to let it go, and the Commission votes down Welch’s proposal to open meetings to the press and public. Only Webster votes with him. The Commission is deadlocked: Welch and Webster supporting Vinal, Howe, Runels and Phillips voting for Merrill and only Palmer, and possibly Francis backing Stickney.  With growing public exasperation at the inaction, this can’t go on and a solution is finally brokered among the Republican members.  The contract will be split in two with Palmer joining the others to award the City Hall to Merrill and the Memorial building to Stickney.  Welch and Webster abstain.

A “log-rolling scheme”[i] says unapologetically Democratic  Daily News  cynically asking: “Is the City Hall to be built on the “good fellow plan?  Is it to be erected merely to fatten the pockets of a few pet architects?”[ii]  And in yet another surprise, the Commission, stung by criticism that the design competition was a folly, announces that the two architects have agreed to return their prize money.   Stickney refuses saying he knows nothing about any arrangement but Merrill acknowledges that he had agreed, suggesting  that he was deep in the deal.[iii]  The Daily News satirically sums it up: “The City Hall Commissioners believe that the first shall be last and the last first.  This is why the man who won the last prize was placed in the first and the man who received the first prize was pushed to the rear.”[iv] If selecting the architects was an ordeal, building City Hall will be a similar trial.

The Lowell Architects

Stickney and Merrill could not be more different in education, background, style or temperament.  They compete for public work,  but for their commercial and residential design work will come from very different sources.  They are both ambitious and competitive and both are descended from old Yankee families that trace their lineage back to the 1630s.  Merrill takes particular pride in his descent from a line of ministers and deacons and finds common ground with the newly affluent, self-made Yankee businessmen and small manufacturers of the Lowell Highlands, men like himself from the New Hampshire countryside. Stickney is the favored architect of Belvidere, the worldly community of inherited and corporate wealth.

Merrill comes to architecture self-taught from carpentry.  It’s a traditional path declining with the introduction of organized professional training. Stickney is among the first generation educated at MIT and he has trained in leading Boston firms before striking out on his own.   Practicality will define Merrill’s work throughout his career.  Stickney’s work will mirror popular architectural fashion but with originality and skill.

Merrill is a sober man, a decorated Civil War veteran nine years Stickney’s senior and a Deacon in the First Congregational Church. In many ways he’s more typical of Stickney’s father’s generation.  Fred is the Lowell-born son of a successful businessman.   Merrill  is acknowledged for his public piety. The Deacon, as he is often called, will design meeting houses not only for his own First Congregational Church but also the Highland Congregational Church and the Central Congregational in Chelmsford. Fred Stickney’s  family belongs to First Universalist Church a liberal denomination; they believe in universal salvation not predestination. It’s is also one of the most prestigious and perhaps wealthiest congregations counting Freeman Shedd among its members; Shedd will be an important patron for Stickney.

Deacon Merrill

Otis Merrill is born in Hudson N.H in 1844 the son of a carpenter and Deacon and the eldest of at least nine children but as a teenager he lives and works on the  farm of a neighboring widow.  Just before his 18th birthday in 1863, he enlists in the 7th New Hampshire Regiment, serves in multiple battles in the Carolinas, and is promoted first to a corporal and later sergeant; In one battle he  is injured but not too seriously and is decorated for bravery.  Like his religion, his military service will be a defining feature of his life and  career providing valuable business contacts and commissions.

He arrives in Lowell in 1868 to practice carpentry and study architecture after a three year apprenticeship in Haverhill.  In 1870 he and his first wife Jennie Moore move into their new home of Wannalancit Street where he will live for over thirty years. He’s doing well; it’s an enviable location. Wannalancit Street is a not wealthy Pawtucket Street, but close by.  After Jennie’s death in 1882, he marries Annie Smith, ten years his junior. When Annie dies prematurely in 1886, he marries in 1889 for a third time  to Annie Boynton.  He will have six children with his three wives.

By 1874 Merrill is confident enough to call himself an architect and he sets up shop in Stott’s Block on the Depot end of Middlesex Street. Important work is still going to Boston architects but he will learn from their examples.  George Meacham the designer of the Ladd & Whitney Monument, and best known as the architect of the Boston Public Garden, is the architect of the 1868 Green School. a building whichMerrill will cite the school some  twenty years later as still  the best public building in Lowell.[i]  Charles B. Atwood fresh from the Boston firm of Ware and Van Brunt, designs the 1873 Five Cent Savings Bank Block on Merrimack Street, a Venetian Palace in High Victorian Gothic done up in white marble. Years later, Atwood is called one of the “three or four best designers in the country” known not just for the Vanderbilt Cottage in Newport but also his work as Charles Burnham’s partner at the Chicago World’s Fair.

In 1878 Merrill is selected as  architect for  the  important Appleton National Bank Block and he  moves his offices to the better located Fisk Block on Central Street.  He now has a popular practice designing houses for Lowell’s business elite such as an 1879 house on Wilder Street for Asa C. Russell, the head of the Thorndike Manufacturing Company.  His work is safe and conservative.  Merrill is not an original designer and the best work from his office will be by his junior partners and other young architects.  But draftsmen and architects don’t stay for long and he will have four professional partnerships over his active career.

In 1878 Merrill enters into his first partnership with Charles C. Eaton; Eaton is an odd choice for a partner.  He’s just graduated from MIT, not the special architectural program but  with a full degree, but has no obvious experience, but he is the son of Samuel C. Eaton the beloved local popcorn dealer, a temperance leader and a fellow Deacon of the First Congregational Church.

It’s hard to imagine what contribution the young Eaton makes to the firm because he spends much of 1879 travelling in Europe with his new wife. His real interest is engineering and after patenting a switching device in 1880 that he sells to Bell, he leaves the firm and moves to Boston, settling in the fashionable Hotel Cluny. With his brother-in-law, he establishes a ‘temperance spa” serving medicinal waters such as Vichy and soft drinks, which becomes the  Boston institution, Thompson’s Spa. In his later years, he’ll be entangled in a scandalous, cross-continental divorce to the delight of the Boston and Los Angeles press.

Merrill forms a new partnership in 1882 with Arthur S. Cutler.  Cutler is a native of Andover and a talented draftsman who has been with Merrill since 1875.  He too is an active member of First Congregational Church and will serve as the superintendent of the Sunday School for years.  Some important works from this time include an 1882 laboratory building at Phillips Academy and The Old Ladies Home of 1882.  Not all their work is accomplished but the awkward Wilton Town Hall of 1884 may be the result of its difficult site.  Cutler’s own house on Niccolet Street showcases his talent and his 1894 Odd Fellows Hall is one of the finest works from the office.

The firm’s work is greatly enhanced  when the young Scottish architect, Alexander Hay joins the office in 1888 and his influence can be seen in the Armory and the Palmer Street firehouse and particularly the City Hall design. With its powerful, simple geometry, stripped of superfluous ornament it looks towards the modernism of the early 20th century.  This new confident design is evident in  the 1889 addition to the Central Block with it’s bold, modern gesture of a wide curving glass wall that faces up to Merrimack Street.. Hay is a young architect with ambitions; he submits his own entry to the 1889 competition for the Cathedral of Saint John the Devine in New York. He remains with Merrill and Cutler until 1893 when he relocates to New Orleans to become one of that city’s premiere architects.

“…an architect of taste and ability.”

Fred Stickney’s father Daniel arrives in Lowell in 1849 from Pelham, New Hampshire. First a clerk but in 1853 he joins Albert Wheeler as the junior partner in a West Indies goods and grocery firm on the corner of Merrimack and Tilden Streets. In 1862 he starts a new partnership in Centralville with his brother-in-law Frederick Spofford. Fred is the younger of two children; bright and talented, he passes the rigorous entrance exam and graduates Lowell High School in 1871.  In the fall of 1873 he enters MIT as a Special Student in Architecture, a five old program at the eight year old school and the first professional architectural training in the country.

Fred may have found his way to MIT thanks to a new 1870 state law that requires communities of over 10,000 inhabitants to offer courses in drawing for free to anyone over the age of fifteen.  Lowell offers the requires drawing in its evening school beginning in 1872.  The instructor is Channing Whittaker, a Civil War veteran and recent MIT engineering graduate.  It’s easy to imagine an ambitious Stickney in this class encouraged by Channing to study further.  The links between the Lowell classroom and MIT are strong; William E. Ware, an MIT instructor himself and partner in the firm of Van Brunt and Ware teaches the advanced architectural class in 1875 and Whittaker will later teach at MIT himself. Stickney will take over the Lowell evening program in 1880.

MIT in 1873 is the center of American architecture. Richardson’s Trinity Church is rising, fitfully across Boylston Street.  Fred distinguishes himself by winning one of the two class prizes awarded by the Boston Society of Architects and in 1875 he begins working in the Pemberton Square offices of Hartwell & Swasey. Some accounts say he studied with H.H. Richardson.  Richardson regularly brought young MIT draftsmen and students to his Brookline studio so it’s conceivable that a prize-winning student like Stickney was invited to work for a period  with Richardson.

Fred may be training with Hartwell’s Pemberton Square office but his focus is on Lowell.  The architectural historian James O’Gorman says that Richardson moved his practice from New York City to Boston to be closer to his Harvard college classmates who were the source of many of his commissions. Stickney has made a similar strategic choice to build his practice among his friends and acquaintances in Lowell.  With the  Vesper Boat Cllub and later with the founding of the Yorick Club the grocer’s son for Centralville and his Belvidere friends are  trying to create in Lowell a facsimile of the metropolitan world of the “club men” and  for Stickney this will be  a social network that will nurture his practice. His association with Freeman Shedd will provide important local work and his friendship with Julian Talbot also will result in numerous projects. Young and athletic, Fred is a regular champion in races and  Vesper regattas. He’s something of a hero himself when he and two fellow boaters rescue a boater who’d gone over the Pawtucket Falls.  He’s chummy with the Butler boys, Ben Israel and Paul and the Nesmith sons; more so  it seems there’s not a ball or party or society wedding that doesn’t include him.  In fact he designs an admired Tea housefor a Japanese themed ball in 1878.  The first known completed design by Stickney is, in fact, the 1879 Vesper Boat House a beautiful, compact Stick Style structure that  still ranks among his finest and most original works.  In 1879 he also designed  an exuberant Stick Style house for Elizabeth Burrows, the widow of Henry Burrows, former agent of the Merrimack Print Works.

When the firm of Hartwell & Swasey is dissolved in 1881, Hartwell forms a new partnership with George C. Richardson.  We don’t know whether Stickney was invited to join the new firm, but Richardson was from Lawrence and was Fred’s MIT classmate and the other BSA prize winner of 1875; this may not have sat well with  the competitive 28-year-old Stickney who boldly opens his own Boston office on Devonshire Street. He shares space another distinguished former Hartwell & Swasey employee, Ludvig Ipsen, a Danish-born architect who will gain greater fame as a book illustrator for Mark Twain.  Ipsen’s son Ernest is a renowned portrait artist and the painter of the portrait of Stickney that hangs in the Memorial Hall.   By 1883 Stickney is confident enough open a Lowell office and of course he opens it in the newly built Hildreth Building, designed by Van Brunt and Howe and the most prestigious address in the city.  A local newspaper account assures readers that it will be the best looking office in the building.” [i]

The 1880s, will be a productive and creative decade for Stickney and his work will be far reaching, incluidng houses for three of the most prominent men of Topeka, Kansas, Rosemary Hall in Water Mill New York and local commercial work including in 1884 a business block for Taylor and Cook and a new building for the Hoyt and Shedd firm. During this time he  develops a reputation for school design with the Butler School in 1881 and the Pawtucketville School in 1884. But he’s also working further afield  as seen in the 1887 Alice Keyes House in Cincinnati the grand resort hotel, the 1887 Senter House in Centre Harbor, New Hampshire, an  1889 a country house in Manchester, Vermont for Edward Isham, the Chicago law partner of Robert Lincoln.  The 1890 Eliot Hospital in Manchester, New Hampshire and the 1892 Woodstock Inn in Vermont.  Two of his best works from this period are the 1890 Kennebunk River Club and the 1891 Talbot Hall in North Billerica. In 1887 he designs his only known church, the First Baptist Church in North Tewksbury which faces James Rand’s school house of 1858. In1892 he beats out two competitors for the design of the Highland Club. When envious Belviderites across town propose a club of their own, they know where they want it. Stickney’s 1890 Lamson House on Nesmith Street.

Stickney’s office in these days always had at least four or five draftsmen, among them is George Mansur, a Lowell native, also the son of a grocer who significantly had worked for several years as a draftsman for George Clough on the Boston Courthouse.  In 1892 Stickney also enters into a partnership with his MIT classmate, William D. Austin. In that same year, Henry Greene, of the future California firm of Greene and Greene, will apprentice in Stickney’s office after completing the MIT program much as Stickney may have apprenticed in Richardson’s studio.

Law Enforcement Association

Meanwhile, Otis Merrill’s public life takes a consequential turn 1892 when the notorious Reverend Hugh Montgomery, of the Anti-Saloon League, takes the pulpit of the Central Methodist Episcopal Church and brings his war on whiskey to Lowell.

Abetting Montgomery is the Reverend George Kengott, another ardent reformer, newly installed at the First Congregational Church.  This war will have no more determined foot-soldier than Deacon Merrill.  If they can’t prohibit alcohol then by damned they will see the licensing law rigorously enforced and so the Law Enforcement Association begins its crusade to save Lowell from itself. These self-appointed guardians of the public welfare and morality will inspect, spy on and file complaints on license violators and will in turn become subjects of scorn and ridicule.

“I might almost say that some of these places,” thunders Merrill at a hearing, “ are just as much licensed by the authorities of our cities as though they had licenses of prostitution,” [ii]The increasingly blue-nosed Deacon will  complain about theater as well. When n 1893 the City investigates extending Dummer Street, Merrill wants to make sure that they take the neighboring Bijou Theater in the process to eliminate the “plays dangerous to our people … . the quiet of the Sabbath is disturbed.” Although with coy reticence he’d rather “say nothing about the character of the plays…[iii] he will eventually be sued in 1894 for false imprisonment.

Montgomery’s ally as Merrill’s church, the Reverend George Kengott, proves too disruptive for a good number of the members of the First Congregational Church and a substantial number, including Arthur Cutler, Merrill’s partner,  will call for his dismissal but Otis Merrill will lead Kengott’s defense and a bitter battle over control of the church and property.  With two partners on opposing sides their professional partnership is shattered.

Merrill will form a new firm with another young draftsman from Andover. The new firm of Merrill and Clark will last for only three years and Merrill will join with Perley F. Gilbert to form a yet another new firm, Merrill and Gilbert. After only a few years he retires from architecture to his third wife’s family farm in Pepperell, where they will raise their four children until his death in 1931.  Arthur Cutler will finally find stable work as a building inspector for the city but will die tragically of a stroke or heart attack while vacationing with his family in the summer of 1903

Fred Stickney will continue to practice architecture in Lowell until his death in 1918.  His cause of death will be listed as Bright’s Disease, the same as with H. H. Richardson. But in a burst of frankness on the eve of Prohibition, the secondary cause will be listed as “alcoholism.”  Merrill’s firm will continue-on as Gilbert Associates and Stickney’s legacy will be carried on in part by the work of his partner William Austin and in Lowell by Henry Rourke a former employee, competitor and partner.

[i] Lowell Morning Courier 5-23-1883

[ii] Lowell Morning Courier 4-29-1892

[iii] ibid

[i] Lowell Vox Populi 2-4-1888

[i] Lowell Daily News 7-11-1889

[ii] ibid

[iii] Lowell Daily News 7-19-1889

[iv] Lowell Daily News 7-24-1889

[i] Lowell Daily Citizen 10-27-1879

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] Eliot Samuel Atkins; “Biographical History of Massachusetts:1916

[v] Lowell Morning Courier 10-19-1892

[vi] Lowell Vox Populi 8-4-1888

[vii] Lowell Morning Courier 8-17-1888

[viii] ibid

[ix] Lowell Daily News 3-7-1890

[x] Lowell Vox Populi 4-6-1889

[xi] Lowell Daily Mail 4-8-1889

[xii] Lowell Morning Courier 2-14-1888

[xiii] American Architect and Building News 4-20-1889

[xiv] Lowell Vox Populi 6-29-1889

[xv] Walter Muir Whitehill. The Making of an Architectural Masterpiece: The Boston Public Library. American Art Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Autumn, 1970)

[xvi] Lowell Daily Mail 7-10-1889

[xvii] Boston Globe 9-22-1890

[xviii] Boston Globe 1-12-1894

[xix] Lowell Daily Mail 7-10-1889

[xx] Lowell Daily News 7-11-1889

Building Blocks

The impetus for this blog was a talk I gave over forty years ago, or more specifically, I talk I redid in 2017. Way back in 1977, I gave a talk to the Lowell Historical Society on the 1889 architectural design competition for the new Lowell City Hall. Chatting one day over lunch with my old friend Lewis Karabatsos, I tossed out the idea of revisiting it forty years later and before I knew it I was chin deep in research. The story I’d found interesting years earlier turned out to be a great one aided by the the benefit of years of hindsight, better researching skills and improved access to historical materials.
After I’d given the talk I wondered what I would do with this great story and that’s how the blog came about.

The City Hall saga was the subject of my first two posts. I’d toyed with the idea of a blog on architecture, planning and design before but wasn’t sure the world wanted or needed opinion pieces from me. But great stories about forgotten or overlooked architects, builders, planners and others might just be something that others could enjoy. I called the blog “Building Blocks” because while these posts might seem random, I think that they build on one another to tell the story of the how and why things in the built environment came to be and the connections between remarkable people who made them happen.

The initial Lowell research got me looking at architects in Lowell and made me want to clear up a few vexing mysteries (at least to me.) Little did I know when I started looking at the early 19th Century architect James H. Rand, that it would cause me to reconsider much of what John Coolidge wrote in “Mill & Mansion,” his pioneering work on Lowell and its development and architecture. It has also brought me new insights into the development of architecture as a profession and the difficulty of building a career and a practice that has interest far beyond Lowell.
The Worcester Turnpike piece is a reconsideration of a talk I gave at the Historic Roads Conference a number of years ago. The roadway has always intrigued me and I had a sense that it had a greater historical significance that’s largely forgotten now and I hope I conveyed that. I’m also deeply interested in the history of public works and the extraordinary efforts required to see them to completion. This is something I know well from my own career but again something not fully appreciated. As former MDC Commission Bill Geary (my favorite all-time boss) would often comment, “People look at the Charles River and imagine that it’s just as God made it,” not knowing, of course that what they see today is an artifice of human imagination and an engineering puzzle that requires constant tending. The post on Bill Callahan and his fight to build the Turnpike Extension through the Charles River Basin is an exploration of that puzzle and an exposition of the power of a single individual from the era of so-called “Great Men” and how one person can shape policy and action in the face of official policy and presumed institutional consensus through keen political maneuvering and apparently sheer will. Elisabeth Herlihy, a contemporary of Callahan, is a deliberate contrast in style and achievement. The two stenographers, Herlihy and Callahan, through their intellect, curiosity and drive, both enjoyed great achievements, but where Callahan’s power was raw and obvious, Herlihy’s power was referential authority but no less effective. It was a pleasure to “rediscover” Herlihy, a remarkable planning pioneer who helped define a profession for generations and in a time when women’s public roles were considerably constrained.

if I strayed back to Lowell with my post on the 1877 Boston & Maine Railroad Depot it was in the same character of explaining the why of a thing and the repeated difficult efforts to see its realization. It helped that the architects had a quirky edge to give some life and fun to the story. But the many decades-long story of the fight to create this railroad illuminates a theme that I think distinguishes Lowell from all the other industrial cities that followed. Lowell offered abundant opportunities for local entrepreneurs who competed with the Boston-based capitalists for the control of the fortune and future of the city. The latter were focused single-mindedly on the well-being on their industrial investments. The former however had a more immediate and personal investment in the city and strived to diversify and raise the place to build their idea of a community.

The story of Frederic Faulkner’s white elephant of a house in some ways is a continuation of that theme. His house though represents his aspirations and those of his peers for the City when others, notably the capitalist Frederick Ayer decamped from Lowell for an equally ostentatious Tiffany-designed mansion in Boston’s Back Bay. Faulkner’s House is a great Gilded Age story of ill-conceived excess melded with strong personalities for an unfortunate over-reach that couldn’t be sustained.

The Faulkner story is an adaptation of a talk I gave this past June to the Lowell Historical Society which continues to indulge me. Lew Karabatsos is a great sounding board and Walter Hickey is an incredible researcher who generously surprises me with his treasures. That talk included more about the architect James Rand and his extraordinary houses and Samuel Lawrence, the youngest and most scandalous of the storied Lawrence brothers whose now forgotten deeds had a near-devastating impact on the City. Ben Butler perhaps appropriately gained possession of Lawrence’s grand country home overlooking Hunts Falls on the Merrimack after Lawrence departed Lowell. Fittingly, it would be Butler who would rescue Lowell several years later from Samuel Lawrence’s great fraud.

I’ve got a few other stories that I’d like to explore that I hope will prove as interesting to others as they are intriguing to me.