“…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.