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, planner 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 apparent 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.
And 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 of the well-being of 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 the aspirations of him and 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 and an unfortunate over-reach that couldn’t be sustained economically or socially. Ironically, it would be Ayer’s reorganization of the woolen industry that would cause Faulkner to abandon his mansion.
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 for Andover and his work building the “New Lowell” downriver, the soon-to-be City of Lawrence. 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.

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