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.”
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.”