Category Archives: City Life

Doors Open Lowell – 2012

Downtown Lowell sure has come a long way since the early 1980’s.  My earliest memories of Downtown Lowell involve weekend visits to my grandmother, who once lived in the large apartment building at the corner of Middle and Central streets.  During those visits, we would walk up Central Street to Merrimack Street, follow Merrimack up to the left onto Palmer, and come back down Middle.  We might have walked all the way to Shattuck on a particularly nice day.  One of my favorite games was to run ahead and try the doors of all of the storefronts.  Each had a unique doorknob or handle.  And each was locked, the stores behind them closed and dark.  I never got a chance to see what lay within the stores behind those ornate door handles and darkened windows.

Years later, Doors Open Lowell comes along.  What a wonderful idea!  Finally, I got to see what lies within some of Lowell’s grandest structures and homes.  I only wish I could have arranged to see more.  For no more than the cost of a tasty lunch at Abu Nawas (and the gas to get there), we visited Doors Open Lowell.  First, we saw Tremont Yard, a system of underground tunnels created by engineer James B. Francis in 1855 as part of his turbine experiments.  Today, the tunnels lie under the new and modern home of the Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union.  Outside downtown, we next visited the Franco-American School, once the elaborate home of Frederick Ayer.  The mansion dates from 1876, is one of the most ornate in the city, and is well-preserved by the school.

After the visit to the Ayer mansion, we next visited the Spalding House, a Georgian-style house dating from 1761, and the third-oldest home now standing within city limits.  The Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust is refurbishing the building, located on Pawtucket Street just a few doors down from the Ayer mansion.  Our tour of the building was self-guided, but many members of the Trust were on hand to enthusiastically and generously offer information on the house’s history and its significance to the area.  Of all of the historical homes I have visited, these folks definitely win the award for being the most welcoming.  I look forward to visiting again when I have even more time to explore.

Doors Open Lowell satisfies that curiosity that’s lingered within me from those days when I first peered into closed stores to catch a glimpse inside.  There were so many other great doors that were opened as part of Doors Open Lowell that I didn’t get a chance to see.  I hope to visit these next year.  Not only does Doors Open Lowell succeed in satisfying my curiosity about some of Lowell’s most storied institutions and homes, it also serves to showcase just how far Lowell has come from the streetscape of closed doors and empty storefronts I remember from the early 1980’s.


Once the Savoy Theatre, Then the Hathaway Theatre, First a Church – Lowell, Massachusetts

The site of the Casto Theatre, May 2012, Viewed from across Shattuck Street. (Photo by Author)

Parking lots aren’t usually very interesting.  And, as I found out this morning, it’s rather difficult to take an interesting photograph if your subject happens to be that parking lot.  And, usually, when one dives into the history of a parking lot, you find, as its predecessor, an open field, a burnt-out residence, or maybe a poorly constructed building that just outlived its usefulness.  There’s a parking lot in downtown Lowell with a much more interesting history, though.  It’s framed by the intersection of Shattuck and Market Streets and is adjacent to Lowell’s Athenian Corner Restaurant.

The lot’s days for parking can be traced back, rather precisely, to the first days of September 1933, when a rather nostalgic downtown Lowell community bade its farewell to a building that dated to Lowell’s very first days as a city.  Since the start of its construction in 1837, the building first served Lowell as a church, then as a theatre, later as a boxing ring, and ultimately as a warehouse for one of its leading department stores.  All of those incarnations were recalled fondly as the wrecking ball came for the building in September 1933.

Lowell’s Casto Theatre, as it appeared around 1903. (Source: Views of Lowell and Vicinity).  Located at the corner of Downtown Lowell’s Shattuck and Market Streets, the dark brick building directly behind it now houses the Athenian Corner Restaurant.

At the time of its demolition, the building’s past was best recalled by the time it was known as the Hathaway Theatre, a name it carried some 25 years before, from 1905 to 1912.  It was also well-known as the Casto Theatre.  But the building had many names during its century of existence.

Throughout its many years at the intersection of Shattuck and Market Streets, the building’s architecture proclaimed its origins as a religious institution.  Indeed, the building was first dedicated as the Second Universalist Church on November 15, 1838.  The building remained the Second Universalist Church for years, nearly 50, before it changed its name to the Shattuck Street Universalist Church in 1888.  By 1892, church leadership began talk of selling the church property and relocating to a ‘more desirable’ part of town.  And, the following year, the Shattuck Street Universalist Society changed its name to Grace Universalist and purchased a lot on the corner of Lowell’s South Canton Street and Princeton Boulevard.

As the new church went up, church leadership worked out a deal with prospective buyers that would lead to the opening of the Savoy Theatre.  As the Savoy prepared to move into the old church, the first stone of the Society’s new church was laid on April 11, 1895.

The site of the Casto Theatre, as viewed from across Market Street. This is roughly the same view as the historical photograph offers above. (Photo by Author, May 2012)

The Savoy Theatre and Musee opened on February 17, 1896 as a vaudeville house.  The novelty of converting a church to a theatre was not lost on the Lowell populace.  As the scheduled opening of 2:30 PM approached that day, thousands lined Market and Shattuck Streets awaiting the new theatre.  And, it was by no means certain that the Savoy would open.  Mr. White, the state inspector of buildings had already condemned the former church once as unfit for theatrical purposes.  Those downtown on the day of the Savoy’s scheduled opening prepared for quite a spectacle as Mr. White arrived, at 2 PM, and met with the theatre’s management.  Ultimately, he did allow the doors to open at the scheduled time of 2:30.  So large was the crowd that many had to be turned away.  Among those who arrived to the theatre’s opening were members of the former church, anxious to see the ‘grand transformation’ of their building.

An advertisement announcing the opening of the Savoy Theatre and Musee (Source: Lowell Sun, February 17, 1896)

That first show, in the converted church, promised some of the biggest names of the day in vaudeville.  And reports exist proclaiming the show’s grandeur.  They also record that the audience was timid in applauding in a church.  Or perhaps it wasn’t just that they were timid.  Those same reports recorded lots of issues with stage mechanics as the theatre worked out its ‘opening kinks’.  The Savoy gained some early notoriety when it found Miss Mamie Russell and her ‘Slide for Life’ act in early April 1896.  Her show, one of the Savoy’s most popular, featured Miss Russell sliding 400 feet, from the top of the theatre to the ground in front of the nearby YMCA building.

Despite the excitement surrounding its opening, the theatre soon ran into the red.  Management promised a change in the theatre’s “policy” and used advertising to proclaim that they were doing away with the “curio hall” attractions.  They promised “high-class vaudeville talent” only.

Similar promises, and a succession of managers, came and went over the next few years, each bringing a new policy or approach.  None were successful in making the Savoy a profitable enterprise.  Yet another new manager promised another new policy on March 26, 1897.  However, before the month was out, the theatre closed.  The Savoy stayed dark for about a year, before it reopened in February 1898, this time devoted exclusively to vaudeville.  A few short weeks later, the Savoy closed again, this time until December.  As part of this re-opening, the Savoy changed its name to the Casino – for about four months, before changing its name back to the Savoy in March 1899.

An advertisement announcing the opening of the Casto – October 1902 (Source:  Lowell Sun)

The openings and closings of the Savoy continued, with a re-opening in September 1900, and another in October 1902, this time as the Casto.  Al Haynes managed the Casto during those years, and had brought the theatre’s new name from Fall River, where he had made his name.  The Casto made headlines in January 1905, though whether it was the lollipops it gifted to patrons (the latest craze) or Miss May Belfort, an English star who attracted much attention, was not certain.

Just a few short months later, the Casto underwent another ‘grand opening’ and another new manager.  A newly hired company of actors and a newly appointed stage promised a much enhanced show.  It must have worked – maybe even a little too well.  The actors left the Casto within a few weeks and moved on to its more prominent competitor, the Lowell Opera House.  Casto management replaced them, but attendance waned, and, by Christmas Day, 1905, the Casto became the Hathaway.

The theatre’s new owner, Andrew Hathaway tried to resurrect a theatre that locals had begun to call the “white elephant’.  His program promised ‘refined acts of vaudeville’, and ‘the best the market had to offer’.  And, for a while, the Hathaway succeeded and became known as one of the region’s best houses of vaudeville.  By March 5, 1912, however, the Hathaway had followed its predecessors into financial hard times.  A newspaper article of the time announced that it had again closed its doors.  The theatre had been showing some of the day’s most popular shows, like ‘The Preacher and the Convict’.  Theatre management blamed the Lenten season for sluggish ticket sales.

Six months later, on September 16, 1912, the Hathaway became the Playhouse Theatre and Kendall Weston became its manager.  Weston had a long history with the location and had been connected to the Savoy.  He brought in an acting company known as the “Drama Players”, who performed such period favorites as ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ and ‘The Charity Ball’.  Weston also acted in some of the plays.  After some initial success, the Playhouse Theatre opened and closed, frequently, as well.  The theatre temporarily tried its hand at burlesque in March 1914, adopting it as its policy one week, and shedding it in favor of showing ‘moving pictures’ the next.  On March 29, 1914, the headlines promised that the Playhouse would show ‘the $40,000 five reel feature film sensation, ‘The Making of an Automobile Shown by Vivid Moving Pictures’.

Advertisement for the Playhouse – September 24, 1912 (Source: Lowell Sun)

The Playhouse fell quiet again after that.  Lowell High put on its annual play there. The Middlesex Women’s Club showed children’s movies there for a time.  After that, the Lowell Orchestral Society offered concerts there.  Movies came back for a while in March 1917.  The following month, the Playhouse made another go at showing burlesque and musical comedy.  This continued, through more openings, closing, and reinventions.  New movie houses like the Strand moved into Lowell, and the more influential Lowell Opera House began to corner the shrinking market for live shows.

The Playhouse eventually closed for good, in 1918, and opened only sporadically in 1919 to serve as a boxing ring for local boxing stars.  On August 7, 1919, on the same day the Lowell City Council expressed its support for Irish independence and invited Ireland’s Eammon De Valera to Lowell, the announcement came that the Playhouse had been sold to the Chalifoux Company for use as a warehouse and garage.  Fourteen years later, the building was demolished and replaced by a parking lot, which still exists at the site today.


When McDonald’s First Came to Massachusetts, 1960s

Although fast food restaurants seem less prevalent in our neck of the woods than in other regions of the country, it’s hard to picture a strip of suburban road, even in New England, without including a glimpse of those golden arches among the commercial landscape.  Today, McDonald’s employs 1.7 million people in more than 33,000 restaurants in 119 countries.

McDonald's opened its first restaurant in Lowell during the summer of '65, on Rogers Street - near the Tewksbury line.

During the same year that McDonald’s opened its first Lowell-area restaurant in 1965, the chain also celebrated its 10th anniversary and became a public company with its initial public stock offering.  By 1965, McDonald’s had grown to 700 locations in the US and had become famous for its 15-cent hamburgers.  No item on its menu of the mid-1960’s sold for more than 20 cents.

McDonald’s strategy mirrored that of the Detroit automakers:  churn out hamburgers with assembly line efficiency – high volume and low overhead.  Then, hope that customers will continue to wait at the self-service window as long as they can continue to enjoy discounted prices.  Even in the mid-60’s, a burger at fifteen cents was still a steal.

The original model of the McDonald’s restaurant involved self-service windows, rather than today’s familiar eat-in restaurant (introduced in 1962) and drive-thru, which debuted at a McDonald’s located near a military base in Arizona so that soldiers would not need to violate a rule that prohibited them to leave their vehicles while wearing fatigues.

McDonald’s first television advertisement hit the airwaves in 1966, the year after its entry into the Lowell, Massachusetts market.  The ads below tout such forgotten McDonald’s delicacies as Roast Beef on a Roll and McDonald’s own Home Fried Chicken.  There’s also a spot showcasing what’s since become a rare scene:  kids piling into the back of a station wagon.  In this era of car seats and seatbelt laws, there’s something nostalgic about the idea of sitting in the back of a station wagon with five or six of your favorite neighborhood friends.

The second set of McDonald’s ads also dates from the late 1960’s, and captures the debut of the Filet-o-Fish, originally introduced to help revive flagging sales on the “meatless Fridays” practiced by Roman Catholics.  Warning:  The “McDonald’s is Your Kind of Place” tune is the sort of jingle that may stay stuck in your head for a while.

McDonald's first location in Fitchburg, Massachusetts predated its Lowell location by several years. This ad dates from 1963.

McDonald’s today has grown into a multinational corporation that brings what many view as a kind of “Americana” into countries far from America’s shores.  Over the last 15 years, living in Western Europe for extended periods of time and spending stints of time in Latin America too, I sought out McDonald’s when I needed a temporary escape from the local fare.  Whether you love them or not, it’s hard to deny that McDonald’s has had an indelible impact on American culture of the past fifty years.


Pollard’s Department Store – Lowell Born . . . Lowell Owned . . . Lowell Managed

Arthur G. Pollard, Founder of A G Pollard Department Store in Lowell, Massachusetts and Native of Plaistow, New Hampshire

Late on a Thursday afternoon on June 3, 1926, every available firefighting resource raced to Pollard’s Department Store on Merrimack Street in Downtown Lowell.  All of Lowell’s fire department was joined by men and equipment sent from Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut and Lawrence in the fight to save Pollard’s from a raging fire.  Pollard’s, also known as A.G. Pollard Co., traced its beginnings to 1836 when Hocum Hosford founded a dry goods store on Lowell’s Merrimack Street, in the same location that would one day house the much larger Pollard’s Department Store.

The fire did not result in any deaths, but many firemen were temporarily overcome by the billowing smoke and illuminating gas.  Others were cut by flying glass or hit by falling debris.

The fire had been discovered at 4:40 PM by workers from the nearby Lowell Electric Light Company.  Four hours later, despite firefighting efforts, only the walls remained of the 90-year-old institution known as the A G. Pollard Department Store on Merrimack, Palmer, and Middle Streets.

With his entire store gutted by the city’s worst fire on record, many expected 83-year-old Arthur Gayton Pollard to retire from retailing after what had been a lengthy and successful career.  Instead, barely a month later, he opened a temporary store, at the Number Six mill of the Bigelow-Hartford plant on Market Street.  Just months later, in 1927, he reopened his full store, at its historic Merrimack Street location.

Arthur Gayton Pollard lived long enough to oversee the return of his store to full operations.   He died on June 4, 1930, just one day after the fourth anniversary of the devastating fire.  So great was his reputation among the Downtown Lowell community that the merchants division of the city’s chamber of commerce voted to close downtown stores for one hour on June 6, during Pollard’s funeral.

Even the Bon Marche, one of A.G. Pollard's main competitors, closed in observance of his funeral on June 6, 1930.

Arthur Pollard’s influence stretched far beyond his department store.  During his working years, he was involved many of Lowell’s companies and institutions.  Pollard served as president of Lowell’s Union National Bank, Stony Brook Railroad Company, the Lowell Hosiery Company, and Lowell General Hospital.  He was also a trustee of the Lowell Cemetery Association, Lowell Textile School, the Ayer Home for Little Children, Rogers Hall School, and the Young Men’s Christian Association.  He was also active in the Republican party.  Although he never held or sought office, he served as treasurer on the Middlesex County Republican Committee for nearly 20 years.  In 1900, he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, which nominated McKinley for a second term.  Pollard had also amassed quite a reputation in free masonry, and attained high honors in the York and Scottish rites, both in Lowell and nationally.

A Pollard's Ad from 1944 touts its Lowell heritage.

Arthur Pollard was a native of Plaistow, New Hampshire.  He was born on January 5, 1843, the only son of Colonel Joseph Smith and Luella Josephine (Tucker) Pollard.  He moved to Lowell at 11 years old, and, five years later, began working, first with Hilton, Keyes & Lewis of Lowell, and next with the Lowell Board of Assessors.  By the time he turned 18, he had found work with Hocum Hosford, a prominent Downtown Lowell dry goods merchant and sometime mayor of Lowell.  (Hosford Square carries his name).  After three years, Pollard became a partner in Hosford’s firm.  Hosford and Pollard continued their partnership for two decades, until Hosford died in 1881.

A WWI-era advertisement for A. G. Pollard's Department Store

Until 1886, Pollard continued the firm as he had when Hosford was alive, but then bought out his interest from Hosford’s estate and became its sole owner.  Arthur Pollard renamed the concern, A. G. Pollard & Co.; his department store was born.  By the 20th century’s first years, the A.G. Pollard Company had become one of the largest stores in Massachusetts, rivaled only by a couple of stores in Boston.  Pollard became so well-known in Lowell circles that hundreds gathered on Lowell’s Merrimack Street to watch him be the first man in Lowell to drive an electric car.  In retailing innovations, Pollard was credited with the invention of the bargain basement.

From the 1943 Lowell City Directory

Despite his many successes in Lowell, Plaistow, Pollard’s hometown, was never far from his mind.  Over the years, he became known as the “father’ of the town.  Some of his many gifts to the town included a tower clock for the Town Hall, a flagpole for the Village Improvement Society, a site for a school building, and an oil painting of his father, Colonel Joseph S. Pollard.  He also funded the creation of a soldiers’ monument erected in Plaistow’s Pollard Square.  Its pedestal was made of granite and topped with a bronze figure, standing some eight feet in height.  The pedestal bears four bronze tablets, containing the names of 102 citizens of Plaistow who served in the Civil War.

Pollard's Logo, circa 1965

Pollard’s Department Store held on long after Arthur Pollard’s death.  During his lifetime, Pollard admitted his son, Harry G. Pollard to the business, who later succeeded his father as its president.  And, in the decades following Pollard’s death, his other descendants played prominent roles in the department store’s management.  By 1961, two of Pollard’s great-grandsons, William Pollard Bartlett and Sheppard Bartlett managed the company as its executives.

A November 1970 Advertisement for Lynch's Department Store (Formerly Pollard's)

After 133 years of existence and 88 years under the ownership of Arthur Pollard or his family, the store eventually came to be sold on August 21, 1969, to Dexter D. Gould of Manchester, who owned and operated a chain of stores spread across Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  At the time of the acquisition, Gould controlled the Miss Lynch Shop, located across the street from A. G. Pollard.  He also controlled Lynch Co. of Manchester and Kimball Company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  As the sale was announced in the local press, promises were made that Pollard’s would retain its name.  Sadly, this didn’t turn out to be the case.

Merrimack Street - Lowell - in Fall 2011. Pollard's was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph. The adjacent Hosford Block stands just beyond.


Downtown Lowell’s “Uncle” Dudley Page: The Man behind Page’s Clock

From the 1939 Lowell City Directory

If you’ve spent any time in Downtown Lowell, you’ve surely passed Page’s Clock in Kearney Square on Merrimack Street.  The clock, refurbished in the 1990’s, has been a Downtown Lowell landmark since the D.L. Page Company moved its operations into the nearby building at 16-18 Merrimack Street in May 1913.

As its advertisements claimed, the D.L. Page Company had been “makers of fine candies since Lincoln’s Time.”  By the time the late 1930’s had rolled around, Dudley L. Page had run his business for nearly 75 years.

“Uncle Dudley”, as he was affectionately known throughout Lowell, always proudly recalled that his first day in business was March 17, 1866, which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day.  Uncle Dudley founded his first candy shop on the corner of Lowell’s Middle and Central Streets, in the basement of a building that then housed Richardson’s Clothing Store.  He had returned from service in the Civil War just one year before.

In its years before the move into its Merrimack Street location, the D.L. Page Company housed its operations in various Downtown Lowell locations:  the basement of the Hildreth Block, a store opposite St. Anne’s Church on Merrimack Street, on the street floor of the Fellows Block, and in the old Masonic Building, also on Merrimack Street.  Uncle Dudley also opened branch locations at 9 West Street in Boston, as well as in Lynn and North Chelmsford.

Lowell Sun Advertisement for DL Page & Co, March 16, 1931

Born in New London, NH in the mid-1840’s, Uncle Dudley moved to Billerica when he was six.  At an annual meeting of the Lowell Historical Society in 1934, he delivered a paper on his childhood in Billerica recalling his boyhood ambition, which was not to be a baker and maker of fine candies, but to be a locomotive engineer.  In the decade before the Civil War, Uncle Dudley recalled a life where stagecoaches were the preferred manner of travel to reach the outskirts of town and where he followed the actions of Wendell Phillips, the ‘crusading abolitionist’.  He also recalled timeless childhood antics like skipping school in favor of visiting the swimming hole and hobbies that don’t seem so timeless, like catching eels in the Shawsheen River and pitching quoits.

Barely a decade later, Uncle Dudley went on to join the Union army, and even stood inspection before President Lincoln.  Soon after returning from his Civil War service, Uncle Dudley opened his store, and went on to specialize in candies of all kinds.  Over the years, he added a restaurant and  a luncheonette to his shop.  In the late 1870’s, he even completed a Doctor of Medicine degree at Philadelphia’s Jefferson College.

Even as he neared his 100th birthday in the 1930’s, Uncle Dudley continued to actively bake, make candy, and oversee all of the daily activities of his shop.  And, with each year, Uncle Dudley celebrated the St. Patrick’s Day anniversary of his store with special offerings, including stick candy.

Well into his nineties, Uncle Dudley was often seen pushing slush from his store’s sidewalk, and was used by downtown officials to encourage his fellow merchants to do the same.  He figured prominently into the city’s social scene too.  In August 1934, local papers ignited with the gossip that only scandal brings when Uncle Dudley secretly wedded Miss Ella Calderwood.  Miss Calderwood had been a bookkeeper for his firm for several years, but had retired some 15 years before.  In her retirement, she worked as a piano instructor, and had acquired a reputation among local musicians.  Miss Calderwood had also served as a housekeeper for Uncle Dudley for some time.  Their marriage in August 1934 satisfied the rumors about their romantic involvement.  When they married, she was 85; he was 89.

Dudley L. Page (Courtesy: Lowell Sun - 8/11/1934)

After more than 75 years in business, Dudley L. Page died on November 20, 1942, at his home at 427 Andover Street in Lowell’s Belvidere section.  He was 98. At the time, he was one of the last two remaining Civil War veterans living in Lowell and had served as an honorary marshal in the city’s Memorial Day parades for years.  He had retained active management of his store up until his very last years, and kept an active interest in the store up until his death.  The store held on for a short period afterward, but in December 1947, the location was sold, and eventually became Brigham’s.

Uncle Dudley’s clock remains on Merrimack Street outside his store’s former building.  The clock fell into disrepair for a while in the late 20th century, but since its refurbishing in the 1990’s, it has once again rejoined the Downtown Lowell landscape as a link to the area’s vibrant past and to one of Downtown Lowell’s most influential long-time merchants.

Merrimack Street, Lowell Massachusetts

Merrimack Street, Lowell Massachusetts. Page's Clock appears in the middle left of the photo, along the sidewalk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia, John Phelan)


What was before – What once occupied the site of today’s Pru?

From the South End, the Prudential Center towers above the newer 111 Huntington Building (Photo via Fogster / Wikipedia, Public Domain Image)

Seen from any approach to Boston, the Prudential Tower has figured prominently into Boston’s skyline since its construction in the early 1960’s.  And, with 52 floors, the Pru stands as Boston’s second-tallest building, just behind the John Hancock Tower‘s sixty.  The Tower, completed in 1964, rises 749 feet, or, with its radio mast (pictured atop the building), 907 feet, making it the 77th tallest building in the United States.  The Pru contains some 1.2 million square feet of retail and commercial space, the highest observation deck in New England (that is currently open to the public), and a restaurant on its 52nd floor, Top of the Hub.

Announced in 1957, the plans for the new Prudential Center were seen as ‘a rebirth’ for a section of Boston that had been considered dated and in need of renovation.  Mayor Hynes announced that the construction, led by Prudential Insurance, proved that “the  city of Boston [was] about to be reborn.”  At the time, the new skyscraper promised to be the tallest in Boston, dwarfing the nearby John Hancock Mutual Life building, built by its rival and standing 26 stories.  (Hancock eventually got its revenge several years later when it constructed the slightly taller Hancock tower.)  Prudential planned to build a structure standing 45-50 stories for its new regional home office, citing that the construction as a good long-term investment in Boston.

The Prudential Tower is just one of twelve buildings that were planned to be built as part of the Prudential Center, which occupies 31 acres on a site bordered by Exeter Street on the east, Dalton Street on the west, Boylston Street on the north, Belvidere Street on the southwest, and Huntington Avenue on the southeast.

But, what stood on the site of the Prudential Center before its construction?  Twenty-eight acres came from land belonging to the Boston & Albany Railroad and used as a freight yard.  Another half-acre came from the Mother Church, First Church of Christ, Scientist.  The remaining two-and-a-half acres came from Mechanics Hall, described in 1957 with such words as “grim” and “dated”.

Mechanics Building, Huntington Avenue, Boston, and the Boston & Albany Freight Yard. Future Site of the Prudential Center. (Taken: 1920 - Courtesy: BPL Flickr Photostream)

The Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics’ Association built Mechanics Hall on Huntington Avenue in 1881.  During the Victorian era, it was one of the city’s largest halls with a seating capacity of 8,000 people and housed many of the day’s exhibitions and fairs.

Even by 1881, the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics’ Association had deep roots in Boston, dating to the association’s founding in 1795.

The Association’s annual income went to providing relief to mechanics and their families who had fallen upon hard times.  Any funds left were used for loans to young mechanics and to establish schools and libraries to support the profession and further the education of apprentices.

Mechanics Hall covered an area of over 110,000 square feet.  Its frontage on Huntington Avenue was 600 feet; on West Newton Street, 300 feet.  Its tower, 90 feet in height and 40 feet in diameter, formed the eastern end of the structure.  The Hall’s two entrances, one from the sidewalk on Huntington Avenue and another from the carriage porch, were made from a combination of brick and stone.    Following the Hall westerly along Huntington Avenue, the next section after the tower was the administration building and then the exhibition hall, which boasted spacious galleries and a large basement.   Past the exhibition hall was the grand hall, which formed the west end of the building.  It was the grand hall that sat some 8,000 people, and which held the Hall’s famous Roosevelt organ.

Mechanic's Building, Interior - March 1911 (Photo from BPL Flickr Photostream)

The administration building had, on its first floor, offices.  Small dining rooms filled the second floor.  The third floor contained another large, ornate hall.  Within Mechanics Hall, exhibitions frequently showcased the latest innovations in the field of science and mechanics.  During its 19th-century heyday, visitors to the hall saw a strength-testing machine, railway electric safety signals, and a postal stamp cancellation machine.

The destruction of Mechanics Hall in 1958 and the subsequent construction of the Prudential Center were seen as supporting the urban renewal embraced by many mid-century Bostonians.  This same urban renewal scheme brought Boston such ‘modern’ architecture as Government Center and left a lasting mark on the city’s historic West End.  Today, the Prudential Center is a vibrant commercial and retail hub, frequented by many residents and visitors to the city.  Still, there’s a certain sense of loss that one considers when viewing photographs of Mechanics Hall, which once stood on the site, when Huntington Avenue was a much quieter place.

A quieter time on Boston's Huntington Avenue - 1897 - (Courtesy: BPL Flickr Photostream)


Yesterday’s Telephone Numbers: GLenview, MOntrose, and ULysses

In those long ago days before cellphones, speed dialing, and stored numbers, folks like Tommy Tutone telephoned girls like ‘Jenny’ by actually dialing 867-5309.  If he was a modern type, he may have even punched the number into the telephone’s touchtone keypad, an innovation that was several years old by the time the song was released in 1981.

And, 20 years earlier, in 1962, Gladys Horton and the Marvelettes sang of a woman who urged men to call her at BEechwood 4-5789 so they could “have a date, any ol’ time”.

A generation before, in 1940, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, memorialized the phone number of Manhattan’s Hotel Pennsylvania with the song PEnnsylvania 6-5000.

Do you find it easier to remember the telephone numbers of your childhood home or friends, than those of any one of the ten cellphones and landlines in your family today?  There was something about dialing a telephone number (or even punching it into a touchtone number pad) that helped commit it to memory.

The telephone companies didn’t always think so, though.  As seven-digit phone numbers were introduced during the middle of the 20th century, companies like New England Telephone and Telegraph added exchange names to existing phone numbers to help people remember the two digits added to the beginning of their phone numbers.  Locally, the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company called its telephone exchange names ‘central offices’ when they were implemented in the early 1950’s.  In September 1954, in Massachusetts, along came GLenview for Lowell, ULysses for Tewksbury, NIagara for Tyngsboro, and MYrtle for Westford.  (ALpine for Chelmsford came soon after.)  The two initial letters of the central office names, always capitalized, represented the two initial numbers of the phone number to be dialed.  Hence, as it’s explained below, GL3-2181 becomes 453-2181:

New England Telephone, 1954

The idea behind central office names, beyond helping memories and expanding the pool of available numbers, was to enable ‘wide range dialing’, or allowing people to dial American and Canadian numbers directly into their telephones, without the assistance of an operator. The new system also standardized the numbering system and ensured that each telephone received a unique number.  Under this system, telephone numbers contained three components:  an area designation (now known as an area code), a Central Office designation (consisting of the first two letters of the central office name and the first number thereafter, and the station number (or the last four digits of the telephone number).

New England Telephone and Telegraph, 1964

So, how did it work?  If you were dialing within a central office (or telephone exchange name), you needed only to dial the five figures, as explained above.  If you wanted to call outside of your central office, the two letters were added.

There’s something nostalgic and ‘mid-century sounding’ to a phone number like BEechwood 45789, or more locally, GLenview 8-6361, which was the telephone number to reach one of Lowell’s largest department stores, the Bon Marché.  Today, in an era of Skype and email and text messages, it’s hard to imagine the same sort of nostalgia being attached to a phone number.


Remembering Downtown Lowell’s Bon Marché through the Years, 1878-1976

To mourn the loss of the Bon Marché Department Store in Downtown Lowell is almost like mourning the loss of a beloved grandparent.  On the day the Bon Marché closed, its faithful came out one last time to reflect on their relationship with the store, and to discuss among themselves what its loss would mean to Downtown Lowell.  As the Bon Marché prepared to close its doors for the final time at 5:30 PM on January 10, 1976, customers picked through its remaining inventory and expressed their mixed feelings about the new Jordan Marsh branch that would open in its place.  As she shopped in the Bon Marché one last time, Anita Angers told the Lowell Sun: “This is awful.  I’ve shopped here for years.  Oh, I like Jordan’s.  I go to the mall for Jordan’s, but I don’t like Bon Marché leaving.  It’s a sad day for Lowell.”  Betty Cook offered The Sun a different perspective:  “I think it’s great.  I’ve shopped here for 10 years, but I’m glad Jordan’s is coming.”

Merrimack Street looking east, Lowell, Mass. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Bon Marché Store Directory from 1928

For generations, the Bon Marché offered six floors of wares to Downtown Lowell.  Below ground, on its basement level, the store sold kitchenware, groceries, and electrical household equipment.  Walk in from the street and you would find  hosiery, gloves, and shoes on its first floor.  One floor up, dresses, coats, and corsets were sold.  The third floor featured the gift shop, mirrors, and dinnerware.  Music was the theme on the fourth floor, where radios, Victrolas, and records could be found.  The top floor included the beauty shop, barber shop, and the store’s executive offices.  The Bon Marché offered it all.

But, to tell the real story of the Bon Marché is to tell the story of Downtown Lowell.  If you’ve grown up or spent any time in Downtown Lowell, you’ve heard of the Bon Marché department store, which operated for decades on Merrimack Street.  Its takeover by Allied Department Stores, the same chain that owned Jordan Marsh, mirrors the same fate that happened to lots of independent, locally-owned department stores in the mid-20th century.  And, its eventual demise on Downtown Lowell’s Merrimack Street mirrors the fate of many long-time downtown merchants as mid-century Lowell rolled into the 1970’s.

The Bon Marché was born during Downtown Lowell’s heyday.  Its founder, Frederic Mitchell opened his first store on Merrimack Street in 1878.  A native of Lowell, Mitchell was educated in the local schools and, in the wake of the Civil War at the age of 16, became a pattern maker.  Soon after, he decided to try his hand at the dry goods business and found work with A. C. Skinner, who then owned and operated a small Merrimack Street store.  Mitchell eventually left the dry goods business and went to California where he speculated in cattle and sheep.  Upon his return to Lowell in the late 1870’s, he opened his first dry good store named ‘This is Mitchell’s‘ on Merrimack Street.  He traded for his first merchandise, exchanging his ranch in California for his new store’s first wave of inventory, sight unseen.  From humble beginnings, the store grew into the Bon Marché of later years, eventually acquiring its well-known name within a few years.

The store’s initial merchandising efforts followed the trends of the day, and much of the store’s wares were sold outside, on Merrimack Street in draped packing cases.  Mitchell could predict with reliable accuracy that his millworker customers would descend on his storefront once monthly, right after they received their monthly wages.  Millworkers waited until ‘the ghost walked’, as they said, and then went to the stores of the day to buy the wrappers, yards of cloth, and silverware that they had been eyeing during the entire month before.  During the three weeks between pay days, Mitchell and his counterparts chased tramps away from their racks of clothes and planned for the next onslaught of millworkers, each one armed with newly-earned cash.

The history of the Bon Marché can be traced through its advertisements to Lowell residents through the years.  Even in its early years, the Bon Marché billed itself as the largest department store in New England and touted its great deals, often obtained through efficient bargaining with its own suppliers.  The Bon Marché got its name from French words translating roughly to a ‘good bargain’.  A typical ad from the time, published during the Christmas season of 1898, was entirely text-based and announced a combination of its offerings to customers and its superior negotiations with suppliers.  Intermixed with offers for china, dolls, men’s suspenders, and ladies’ shirt waists were transcriptions of correspondence from suppliers who had been ‘forced’ to accept ridiculous offers received from the buyers of the Bon Marché, the savings from which had been passed along to customers.

A Lowell Sun advertisement from December 1898

An advertisement for The Bon Marche, 1908

An advertisement for the Bon Marche, 1918

While Lowell progressed through the first years of the twentieth century, the advertisements of the Bon Marché evolved to make use of advancing technology.  Pictures of the store’s merchandise were added to its ads, and the spare heading of its late nineteenth-century ads was substituted out for the more-familiar cursive-based heading that remained the store’s logo well into the twentieth century.  By 1908, the store’s advertisements (at left) carried offers of ice cream, which could be bought by the gallon for a dollar, or in smaller portions with hot chocolate for a more affordable five cents.  And, while Greater Lowell lived through the first World War, the Bon Marché offered its patrons an opportunity to support the US war effort by buying thrift and war stamps (at right).  The Bon Marché also collected peach pits that were used by the government in gas masks.  As the Bon Marché celebrated its 40th anniversary during that year, it continued to offer the latest trends in coats, suits, dresses, muffs, and petticoats, all first quality and at prices that ‘could not be duplicated’.

An advertisement for the Bon Marche, 1928

By 1928, the Bon Marché had become an established member of the Downtown Lowell retailing community and heavily touted its anniversary celebrations.  In 1928, at its fiftieth anniversary, a ten-day sale was prominently advertised in the local press.  The Bon Marché continued to sell the latest in fashions and also began to carry radios, at prices which were good for the time, but high in comparison to today’s prices.  According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, that $137.50 you would have spent for a radio in 1928 would set you back something north of $1,800 in today’s money.

Ten years later, in 1938, the Bon Marché planned another ten-day celebration, with a focus on remembering its founders.  Store managers decorated the store’s interior and exterior in patriotic colors.  Clerks were asked to wear badges that matched the theme.  Sales were advertised in all six floors of the store and streamers had been strewn throughout.  The sixtieth anniversary celebration also honored its employees at a pre-sale banquet at the nearby Rex Grille.  Also, pins were awarded to employees who had more than five years of service with the store.

In a testament to Bon Marché as an employer and to the long-term employment mentality of the time, the Bon Marché and The Lowell Sun ran a special feature on September 30, 1938, showing all employees who had more than 10 years with Bon Marché.  There were 62.  All appear in this full-page advertisement, produced below:

From the Lowell Sun, 9/30/1938, Bon Marché employees with 10 or more years of service

A few years later, as the Bon Marché and the rest of the downtown community lived through WWII, the store instituted wartime hours and again offered war bonds and stamps to its customers to support the war effort.  Lowell experienced a brief economic boom in the war years, mostly from the increased need for clothing produced by its remaining textile mills and its involvement in munitions manufacturing.

January 1943

Later in the 1940’s, as the Bon Marché celebrated its 70th anniversary, the wartime business boom that had fueled increased sales slowed and sale levels returned to normal.  By the time of its 70th anniversary sale in 1948, the store heavily advertised its ‘rock bottom’ prices and the convenience offered by its charge account.

1948

The economic difficulties experienced by Lowell’s downtown merchants continued into the 1950’s.  The city’s last two major textile mills, the Boott Mills and the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, both closed before the Bon Marché 80th anniversary celebration in 1958:

1958

And, the economic malaise continued in Lowell past the store’s 90th anniversary sale in 1968:

1968

1976

The Bon Marché Department Store closed its doors for the last time on January 10, 1976, after surviving several decades of Lowell’s declining economic climate downtown.  Lowell’s unemployment rate entered double digits.  The store’s closure marked the end of a Downtown Lowell institution that had survived nearly a century.  From its small-time beginnings as “This is Mitchell’s” in the last years of the nineteenth century to its last years as a subsidiary of a larger corporation, the Bon Marché Department Store served generations of Lowellians as they sought to buy clothes, housewares, and electronics.  During the changeover in 1976, rumors emerged that Jordan Marsh, the store that replaced the Bon Marché, had only committed to a three-year trial period in downtown Lowell.  In the end, Jordan Marsh stayed in Downtown Lowell, for more than a decade – not leaving until the early 1990’s.  The Jordan Marsh chain, itself with deep New England roots, disappeared in 1996, when the last of its stores were converted to the Macy’s name.

The story of the Bon Marché follows closely the story of the rise and subsequent fall of downtown Lowell as it lost the textile industry to which it owed its founding.  The Bon Marché survived several economic slowdowns, the Great Depression, the loss of the city’s mills, and the loss of downtown shoppers to suburban strip malls.  Unfortunately, the Bon Marché didn’t live to see Lowell’s resurgence, which began in earnest with the establishment of the city’s National Historical Park, which occurred just after the store’s closing.

Readers, do you have memories of the Bon Marché that you would like to share?  Please add them to the comments below.

1976


The Immigrant Experience in 1892: New York’s Cholera Scare and its Effect on Boston

The emigrant ship Moravia crept into its dock in New York late on the night of August 30, 1892.  The ship was sent straight to quarantine.  On its ten-day voyage from Hamburg, Germany, 22 of its 358 passengers had been buried at sea, victims of Asiatic Cholera.  Two more passengers convalesced in the ship’s hospital, suffering from similar symptoms:  vomiting, nausea, and excessive diarrhea.  Those aboard ship did not know that cholera had been discovered in their departure city in the days after their ship left port. Consequently, they did suspect cholera was aboard ship with them as they travelled toward the United States.

Photograph of working class people crowding two decks of a transatlantic steamer, ca. 1907 (Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

The Moravia set sail from Hamburg, Germany on August 17, 1892.  Less than a day later, a small boy aboard ship in steerage began suffering from severe and excessive diarrhea.  No one yet suspected Asiatic cholera.  Sickness among emigrant children in steerage was common on transatlantic steamships.  By the end of the second day, however, the little boy suffered convulsions of increasing severity and eventually became rigid and died.  Hours later, a nine-month-old girl succumbed to similar symptoms.  Those aboard ship did not comment much on the deaths of the youngsters as their bodies were sewn into weighted gunney sacks and cast into the Atlantic.  The deaths of five other children soon followed and the hospital filled.  Within days, more children began to develop diarrhea, cramps, and cold chills.  Their skin began to blacken from their illness.

The ship’s doctor, Dr. Israel, observed the sick infants and children aboard the ship, but dismissed their illnesses as the more common and non-epidemic cholera morbus instead of Asiatic Cholera.  The doctor blamed the children’s symptoms on the hot August weather and the tight conditions within steerage.  Dr. Israel called for all children to come on deck, thinking the open air and sun would help them.  The next day, though, two more children died, and, on the day after, one more perished.  Deaths were common aboard immigrant ships, especially among children; but when four more deaths occurred two days later, people began to grow nervous; two of the four deaths were adult passengers.  The rapid onset of death was also troubling to the passengers.  All of the deaths occurred within 48 hours after the first symptoms began to show; most died within 12 to 16 hours.

The Ship Manifest listing passengers aboard the Moravia: top of the first page.

As the Moravia approached New York toward the end of its journey, Joseph Roth, a pilot for the port of New York, boarded the Moravia carrying news of Asiatic Cholera’s spread into Hamburg, the ship’s origin.  He noted some sickness aboard ship, but was reassured by the Moravia’s medical personnel that all of it could be attributed to the non-epidemic cholera morbus.  The Moravia’s medical personnel learned from Roth that the spread of cholera into Hamburg had been announced.  The officers and passengers aboard the Moravia had no idea of the panic that had since surfaced on both sides of the Atlantic.

22 passengers died from cholera during the Moravia's voyage from Hamburg to New York; their causes of death were noted on the Moravia's Ship Manifest

Passengers began to grow alarmed as the ship was turned away from New York and toward quarantine.  The following morning, its passengers were removed from the ship to Hoffman Island, where they were bathed and their clothing was fumigated.  After that, they remained in quarantine while doctors waited to see if cholera would develop among them.

While the Moravia languished in quarantine, other steamers approached New York, the Rugia – three days behind with 300 passengers, the Normannia, five days behind that with 700 aboard, and the Scandia, which had left two days after the Normannia with nearly 900 aboard.  The US quickly determined that the country was at risk of a cholera outbreak.  The US Consul ordered the steamship lines to fumigate the baggage of all incoming passengers with sulphur fumes for no less than six hours.

Boston nervously listened as news reached its streets that cholera had been identified on board the Moravia, and that 22 cholera victims had been buried at sea.  Older residents recalled the city’s cholera outbreak of 1849, which resulted in 611 deaths.  Boston port officials had been enforcing stringent health regulations at immigration ports, singling out Russian steerage passengers, and enforcing the disinfection of all arriving vessels that contained them.  Disinfection was eventually extended to include all ships arriving from Havre and Hamburg too.

At Boston, all luggage belonging to immigrants was steam-heated to 230ºF for 20 minutes. Also, all immigrants were removed from the ships while it was washed and disinfected.  Any cholera patients among them were diverted to Gallop’s Island.  In the city, health precautions extended beyond those aimed at immigrants  Filth was removed from city street, cellars, and dirty tenement houses.  Plans were laid to prevent the spread of cholera to New England were it to surface in Canada.  In this case, health officials planned to stop all Canadian immigrants arriving by train, where they would be examined.  They, along with their clothes and belongings, would be disinfected.

Several days later, another ship, the Catalonia, arrived at Boston’s quarantine station at one o’clock on the morning of Monday, September 12, 1892.  One thousand passengers were aboard, including 700 immigrants.  Even though an order had been issued prohibiting the transport of immigrants, the order had taken effect after the Catalonia had sailed.  Bostonians nervously read the 692 of the steerage passengers came from Europe, and that some of these likely hailed from Hamburg.  Health officials watched the steamer as it approached Boston and noted no signs of cholera.  Soon, a port physician boarded and carefully examined steerage passengers.  Still, no traces of cholera were detected.  The ship was eventually diverted to Gallop’s Island where immigrant passengers, 30 passengers from second class included, were administered a scrubbing as part of the disinfection procedures.  At Gallop’s Island, the Catalonia was delayed for two or three days before it was allowed to dock.  Non-immigrant passengers from the ship’s first- and second-class cabins were brought to Boston a few days earlier on tug boats.

New hospital building, Ellis Island; quarantine buildings on Swinburn Island and Hoffman Island (Courtesy: Library of Congress)

As September progressed, officials reassured the public that the cooler weather would slow the spread of cholera.  Steerage passengers aboard the Moravia and the other infected ships remained under quarantine at the Swinburne and Hoffman Island hospitals.  By September 12, deaths from cholera had slowed considerably.  The Moravia had not had a new case in nearly a week.  Officials vowed to hold the infected ships away from the city for at least ten more days, which soothed the fears of those in New York and beyond of the immigrants carrying cholera to their wharves and into their streets.  Steerage passengers aboard the Moravia did not reach dry land until September 22, 1892, over three weeks after they had first approached New York, and over a month since they had left Hamburg.


The Memorial Hall and Public Library of Lowell, Massachusetts, 1893

Lowell's Memorial Building and Public Library, ca. 1905

Today, Downtown Lowell’s Memorial Hall is mostly known for the Pollard Memorial Library it houses, named for the city’s late mayor Samuel S. Pollard.  For its first 90 years, until its renaming in 1981, Lowell residents and visitors knew it as the Lowell City Library.

The library’s building, Memorial Hall, was built to remember the sacrifices of Lowell’s Civil War dead.  Local surviving members of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) expected that the Hall would provide them a meeting place, at least for special occasions, if not on a regular basis.

As early as 1887, veterans and citizens of Lowell were considering a memorial to the city’s Civil War dead.  At that point, Lowell residents and the memorial committee of the G.A.R. hadn’t yet decided whether the memorial would be a monument or a building.  The idea of a memorial hall soon gained traction, as the members of the local Grand Army posts needed a place to meet.  The Lowell Sun wrote:  “”The veterans are growing old; they are paying heavy rent for halls, and now that a memorial building is erected, they expect to be made in some respects the beneficiaries of the city’s good will.”

Several different proposals emerged.  One involved constructing a building with an observatory that would overlook the city from

Lowell's Monument Square predates the Memorial Hall and City Hall buildings, which were constructed on the site of several frame buildings owned by the Merrimack Manufacturing Company

Fort Hill.  (This option was eventually dismissed as Fort Hill was seen as too remote for veterans, and was the location most likely to attract loafers and vacationers, rather than the veterans it was meant to serve.)  Another option would have created a municipal building with the upper floors dedicated to G.A.R. meetings.  (This option eventually morphed into Lowell’s City Hall building, which was completed a few months after Memorial Hall.)  The last, and winning, proposal called for the building of a new city library that included space for G.A.R. meetings.  All agreed that the Memorial Hall should be a ‘grand and imposing edifice’, to adequately recall the men and deeds that they hoped to commemorate.

The history of Memorial Hall is firmly intertwined with the City Hall building next to it.  (Its tower can be seen in the postcard view, above.)  Their cornerstones were laid on the same day:  October 11, 1890, and both took nearly three years to complete.  The Memorial Building opened to much fanfare on June 3, 1893.

A procession marched through Highland, Elm, Central, Merrimack, Moody, and Colburn streets, ending at the new Memorial Building.  Prayers were offered by Rev. Dr. Chambre.  An American quartet sang songs, and the keys to the building were presented to Mayor Pickman.  Speeches were delivered by the Mayor, members of the local posts of the G.A.R., and former mayor and future governor Frederic T. Greenhalge.

Memorial Hall and public library, Lowell, Mass, ca. 1908: Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

A bust of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler was next presented to the people of Lowell by a group of African-American Bostonians who wished to see it placed in the new hall.  In a speech by their spokesman, they said the bust would be “dedicated to the memory of those who gave their lives that the union might be preserved, and all men made free and equal under the law.”

The Hon. F. T. Greenhalge closed the ceremony by saying: “Long may this Memorial Library stand.  May the sun shed its brightest and softest radiance upon it.  And while one stone remains upon another, may it stand as a witness of valor and patriotic devotion – of liberty and wisdom – of the loyalty of your fathers and the love and gratitude of their children.”

As the exercises concluded, the officials opened the new building for public inspection while the quartet played “”Soldier’s Farewell”.