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