Category Archives: history

Lowell High’s Entrance Exam in 1865 – Difficult Questions and High Expectations

High school entrance exams during the Civil War era were hard, really.  For arithmetic, 14-year-olds in Lowell, Massachusetts were asked to calculate the diameter of a cannon ball weighing 250 pounds, if the diameter of a 128-pound ball was 8 inches.  In grammar, they were asked for the plurals of Mr. Smith, Miss Smith, and Dr. Brown.  In the area of geography, they were asked to draw the Merrimack River and its branches, and locate the important towns on its banks.    And in history, students were asked which European nation had been the first to acknowledge the independence of the American colonies, and to name the year in which it occurred.

The man behind the questions was Abner J. Phipps, a Superintendent of Schools in Lowell.  At a time when the very worth of his position was being questioned, Phipps was a firm believer in a good education for Lowell’s children.  Phipps had been known to say that ‘a parent who sends his son into the world uneducated, does as great injury to mankind as to his own family; he defrauds the community of a useful citizen, and bequeaths to us a nuisance.’  He apparently extended this responsibility to the Lowell school system.

The 1864-65 school year was Phipp’s second in the office.  Abner Phipps was something of a superstar in the Massachusetts school superintendent circuit of the mid-1860’s.  He had been superintendent of schools in New Bedford, Massachusetts for the four years prior to the same position coming open in Lowell.  When that happened, very late in 1862, a committee including Lowell’s mayor and other local dignitaries short-listed Phipps and decided, unanimously, that he would be the best (and could really be the only) man to lead the city’s schools.

But, would he accept?  His contract in New Bedford had just been renewed, and, worse, when the committee approached him regarding Lowell’s superintendent post, he declined, saying the salary was too low.  Lowell’s leaders were not deterred.  Showing an ingenuity not possible today, Lowell’s Mayor Hocum Hosford proposed paying Phipps whatever salary he required, and Hosford himself would pay the difference from his own pocket.  Phipps accepted and took up his post during the 1863-64 school year.

A successful teacher with a solid track record in Massachusetts and a member of the State Board of Education, Phipps took a personal interest in the quality of instruction at Lowell’s High School.  He personally prepared the questions delivered to eighth graders hoping for admission into Lowell High School and oversaw the grading of their answers.

Thanks to the recent digitization of Lowell’s municipal documents at the Internet Archive, we can now see the questions that Abner Phipps developed for Lowell’s eighth graders.  A sample of these questions have been reproduced below.  During 1864, 140 children were given the examination; 122 passed.  Of the 18 who failed, 14 were girls, 4 were boys.  The average age of the students was slightly older than today’s children entering eighth grade:  14.1 years.  Girls scored much better at spelling and grammar.  Boys excelled at the remaining topics:  reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography.

Abner Phipps included the results of his most recent Lowell High School entrance examinations with his 1865 Superintendent’s Report.

Phipps’ questions were difficult.  A sample of the questions from his Lowell High School admission exam have been included below:

Series of Questions Proposed for the Examination of Applicants to Enter the High School – July 1865

General Directions “No book or helps of any kind will be allowed on the desks, and none are to be used during the Examination.  All communication to be avoided.  Each answer should be numbered to correspond with the number of the question.  Attend carefully to the writing, and to the use of capitals and marks of punctuation.”

Arithmetic

1.  What is the difference between 15 ÷ .15 and .15 ÷ 15?

2.  If I should sell a wagon which cost me $85 for $95, on a credit of six months, what would be gained by the bargain, and how much per cent?

3.  Divide $1800 among A, B, and C, so that A shall receive $150 more than B, and B $75 more than C.

8.  What is the difference between half a cubic yard, and a cube whose edge is half a yard?

19.  If the City of Lowell tax rate were 1.5 per cent, and the State and County tax were .18 of one per cent, for what sum would John Smith be taxed, who pays $143.46, including a $2.00 poll tax?

20.  What will be the edge of a cubical box that will contain 216 times as much a box measuring 1 foot each way?

Grammar

1.  Write out correctly the following sentences:  He could not learn me to write good.  I never studied no grammar, but I can talk just as good as them that talk grammatical.  Many a youth have ruined their prospects for life with one imprudent step.

2.  Define a verb, and state the distinction between a transitive and an intransitive verb.

3.  State the different ways of distinguishing between the sexes, and give an illustration of each.

8.  What is a root?  A prefix?  A suffix?  Illustrate by an example.

19.  Fill up the blank with the third person plural, pluperfect tense, potential mood, passive voice, of the verb to steal.  These books

20.  Write one sentence that shall contain all the different parts of speech, or as many of them as you can.

Geography

1.  Through what waters must a vessel pass in sailing from New Orleans to Quebec?

2.  Bound British America.

3.  What city is on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario?

8.  Which of the Southern States extends the furthest east?

19.  Name the chief curiosities in Kentucky, Virginia, and California.

20.  Name three gulfs on the north of Asia, and three on the south.

History

1.  Describe the civil war in the colony of Virginia in 1676.

2.  Who became King of England in 1685, and how was he regarded in England, and in the American colonies?  Who succeeded him in 1689?

3.  In what years were settlements commenced in the following places:  Albany, Plymouth, Salem, Boston, Providence and New Haven?

8. What acts of parliament were passed in 1767, and how were these regarded by the colonists?

19.  When and where did John Quincy Adams die?  How many years had he been employed in the service of our country?

20.  What remarkable events took place on the 4th of July, 1826?

Abner J. Phipps’ questions were difficult, and must have been difficult for graduating eighth-graders hoping for admission into Lowell’s high school during the wake of the US Civil War.  Students, in 1865, scored worst in the areas of arithmetic (24% correct), geography (46% correct), and grammar (62% correct).  Their strongest areas were reading (92% correct), writing (91% correct) and spelling (83% correct).  Some differences emerged across Lowell’s different schools, and others between the genders (as shown in the above graph).

Abner J. Phipps didn’t stay long as Lowell’s school superintendent, leaving before the completion of his third year when he was named Agent of the Massachusetts Board of Education.  In the School Committee’s report for 1867, his short tenure in Lowell was memorialized.

“In closing their report, the Committee with profound regret, announce the withdrawal from office and the contemplated removal from the city, of Abner J. Phipps, Esq.  They feel that the education department of the city has met with a great loss.  The scholarship and culture of Mr. Phipps have been invaluable to our schools, while his uniform courtesy and geniality, his scrupulous faithfulness, fairness, and impartiality, his untiring industry, his zeal in educational matters and his intelligent interest in the city at large and its general welfare, have earned alike our confidence, our gratitude and our esteem.”

The digitization of Lowell’s City documents allows some great insights into many aspects of Lowell’s historical past, and into larger society as a whole.  Published in a series of volumes, each includes the annual reports from the various superintendents of the different departments included within Lowell’s city government.  Reports from the school committee, the directors of the city library, the superintendent of the alms-house, the superintendent of burials, and the superintendent of streets are all included, among others.  To see the directories, please follow the link:

http://archive.org/search.php?query=lowell%20city%20documents


Cornhill – Once Boston’s Literary Center, Today Replaced by Government Center

Cornhill (Quincy Market in background, Sears block in foreground), 1901 – (From BPL Flickr Photostream)

It wasn’t Cornhill Street, Cornhill Road, Cornhill Avenue, or even the Cornhill; instead, it was just Cornhill, and in its day, knowing this was just one more way that those in the know had to distinguish locals from those visiting Boston as tourists.

In its history, Boston has had two roads called Cornhill.  The first, named after its namesake in London, ran from Water Street to Dock Square, was laid out in 1708 as part of a winding road between Roxbury and Boston.  Some 80 years later, in 1789, George Washington drove over ‘Old Cornhill’ during his ceremonial visit to Boston as the country’s first president.  As part of the occasion and as part of a larger movement to rename Boston streets after the Revolution, this first Cornhill was renamed Washington Street.  Around the same time, State Street emerged from King Street, and Court Street replaced Queen Street.  Pudding Lane became Devonshire.

A generation later, in 1816, Uriah Cotting planned ‘New Cornhill’.  From Court Street to its terminus with Washington Street at Adams Square, the curving road was initially called ‘Cheapside’, later ‘Market Street’, and ultimately ‘Cornhill’ in 1829, thus resurrecting the street onto Boston maps.

This 1832 map of Boston shows the area that would one day become Government Center. At the time, Cornhill spanned from Court Street to Washington Street.

‘New Cornhill’ was planned in every way, from its curving design to the materials and methods of construction required for any buildings raised along its route.  The new road was admired by many luminaries of the day, including John Quincy Adams, who in 1817, called it an improvement to the city that ‘contributed to the elegance and comfort of the place.’

Burnham’s Bookstore, on Boston’s Cornhill. (From the Library of Congress)

Cornhill quickly attracted Boston’s best booksellers and publishers. With them came the best-known religious, social, and political thinkers of the day.  Cornhill soon became a mecca for Boston’s intellectuals during its mid-19th-century heyday.  Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier met at Burnham’s book store (later the Brattle Book Shop) on Cornhill, in the Sears Crescent Building.  Oliver Wendell Holmes kept law offices there.  And William Lloyd Garrison published The Liberator there, as well.   Angry mobs were twice seen dragging him from his office, subsequently tarring and feathering him.

Yet another Cornhill thinker, Horace Mann, became famous for his contributions to American education reform, creating the model eventually adopted by many states for their public school system.  Even the creator of the Graham Cracker, Dr. Sylvester Graham, claimed an office on Cornhill.

J. J. Jewett, also a Cornhill merchant and a supporter of the Underground Railroad, published the first American version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from Cornhill, selling 3,000 copies on his first day, and 300,000 during his first year.  During the Civil War, many runaway slaves were hidden in the basement under William Lloyd Garrison’s Cornhill office, a vital link in the underground railroad.  Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” there.

Sears’ Block, 72 Cornhill Street, Boston, Suffolk County, MA – (Via Library of Congress – Created by Crevin Robinson, 1962). Court Street Tavern is now the site of Starbucks, which today boasts above its entrance a 227-gallon golden kettle, rescued from nearby Scollay Square during its razing.

So the legacy of Cornhill continued through the middle of the 19th century.  As the 19th century came to a close, even Cornhill began to lose some of its luster as the preeminent location for publishers and booksellers, the street was still dominated by the city’s booksellers.  Scholars, casual browsers and even future personalities like Theodore Roosevelt, FDR and JFK all frequented the area as students.  The intellectual energy so synonymous with Cornhill may have subsided in the wake of the Civil War, but the days of the area’s booksellers continued until the coming of Government Center.

Intersection of Court Street, Cambridge Street and Tremont Street, at Government Center, today (via Wikipedia, contributed by M2545).  The Sears Block (tan) and the Sears Crescent (red brick) still stand at the intersection, the sole survivors of the location’s pre-Government Center history.

Today, the only surviving remnants of Cornhill are the Sears Block and Sears Crescent.  David Sears built the Sears Crescent in 1816, after being inspired by Charles Bullfinch‘s Tontine Crescent.  The building follows the gentle curve of Cornhill’s original layout.  The Sears Block, right next door and built in 1848, followed, and today houses a Starbucks known for its golden steaming kettle, cast in 1873 for the Oriental Tea Company.  The kettle, which originally hung in nearby Scollay Square (like Cornhill, also destroyed during the construction of the Government Center), became famous when the Oriental Tea Company ran a contest in 1874, encouraging those so-inspired to guess the kettle’s capacity.  Eight winners stepped forward to claim chests of premium tea when they correctly guessed that the kettle held 227 gallons, two quarts, one pint, and three gills.  The kettle was rescued from Scollay Square during its razing, and moved to the front of the Sears Block in 1967, where it remains today.

Cornhill, along with Scollay Square, was destroyed during the construction of Boston’s Government Center during the city’s 1960s-era Urban Renewal Scheme.  Initially, Government Center was lauded as “a model of how urban renewal, when imaginatively conceived and carried out, can bring new vitality and beauty to a city”.  Government Center even captured a special commendation from the American Institute of Architects in 1972.  Today, the aesthetic merit of the area is assigned, at best, mixed values.  Many view the area as a brutalist ‘brick desert’ in the heart of what was once one of Boston’s most picturesque Victorian neighborhoods.

Teapot on the “Sears Block” on City Hall Plaza, Boston, Massachusetts (Via Library of Congress, Contributed by: Carol M. Highsmith)


Forgotten Genealogy: A Letter Reveals Memories from Two Lifetimes Ago

Family trees, at first blush, aren’t so exciting.

Genealogists spend a lot of time immersed in old records – especially really old ones, from decades and centuries past.  These records yield valuable information in building family trees.  And, as any genealogist will tell you, every tree ends at its treetop, with the names of its brick wall ancestors, those whose parentage is unknown and likely unrecoverable from surviving paper records.  But, even paper records have their limits.  Beyond providing names of relatives, birth-marriage-death dates, and possibly military service details, very little is recorded about the person.

Sure, if I look at the surviving paper records for Martha Jane Harmer, my wife’s second-great-grandmother, I’ll learn that she was born in Bow, a London suburb, in 1858.  Her baptismal records reveal her parents’ names (John and Charlotte) and that she was baptized in the Anglican church.  UK census records show that she lived in the area until the early 1880’s when she married and moved to the United States.

Deciphering the handwriting of 19th-century records is a madness perfected among long-time genealogists. Above, the baptismal record of Martha Jane Harmer reveals that she was baptized on July 18, 1858, in Poplar, Middlesex, England.

But, that’s pretty much where the trail runs cold.  Sure, you can extend the treetops of your family tree by learning the names, locations, and vital dates of Martha’s ancestors, but, in the end, you’ll have a list of names.  These provide some interesting insights into the naming patterns of earlier times and surnames (and their histories) in your family background, but family historians wonder what their ancestors looked like (which physical traits have been passed down the generations), what their ancestors did (which talents come from earlier generations), and how their ancestors behaved and interacted with each other, and the larger world (what maddening vexations have been passed down the generations).

Studying genealogy for years, it’s so tantalizingly irresistible to blast photographs of ancestors with your brick wall questions – ‘where were you born?’  ‘who were your parents?’  ‘what was your mother’s maiden name?’, or ‘what did you see growing up?’  Any of those answers, recorded anywhere, would be invaluable.

A rare find for family historians, a labelled photograph can provide a face to the name in your family tree. On the back of this photograph, taken by a photographer in the London suburb of Poplar, writing identities the subjects as Martha Jane Harmer and her cousin Bob. Her age is given as 14, meaning the photograph dates from 1872.

It’s every family historian’s dream.  You come across an old box of photographs.  Inside, there might be a photograph of an ancestor, maybe even labelled.  My in-laws, descendants of Martha Jane Harmer, had just such a box.  And, with their family being much more cognizant of posterity than mine, someone actually took the time to label the photographs.  This is genealogical gold.

With that, Martha Jane Harmer, a young Martha Jane at that, has a face.  But, there was more.  Deeper in the box, there was a yellowed envelope, its paper made fragile by age.  Inside, there’s ancient paper, folded into thirds, lined, with light, uneven handwriting looped and swirled across its surface.  A careful unfolding reveals that it’s a letter – to the future – telling posterity about Martha Jane’s memories from her childhood in Poplar.  If only all ancestors in my tree were so informative to the future genealogist.

The letter, some five or six pages long, provides a view, deep into the 19th century, of Martha Jane Harmer, her life, and the lives of her family.  As I read through the memories of a woman whose passed away in 1934, I learned about her grandfather, Charles Harmer, who arose every Monday morning, readied his horse, and then drove through the English town of Acton to collect rents from his tenants.  I read about John Harmer, his son and Martha Jane’s father, who collected the money, running from door-to-door as Charles rode the carriage along the road.  I also learned that, one day, young John jumped from the carriage, twisting and breaking his leg on the curb.  So bad was the break, the story went, that even after the doctor set it, the leg healed shorter than the other.  For the rest of his life, John Harmer wore shoes specially made with an elevated sole.

Charles Harmer and his family in the 1841 England Census. John Harmer, who injured his leg around the time of this census, is noted as the 16-year-old male (‘J’) who appears in the third line down in this listing.

The letter next recalls Martha Jane’s maternal grandfather, Joshua Nunn, who saw his Harmer grandchildren often.  It also reveals that Joshua was deaf and dumb from birth.  An old Nunn family story told of how Joshua Nunn’s mother, when she was young, had wished for children who were deaf and dumb.  Family lore had it that she got her wish – twice over, Joshua and his brother could not speak or hear.  As I read through the letter, I thought this was just too fantastical, but the 1861 UK census proved otherwise:

The line labelled No. 135 contains Joshua Nunn’s entry in the 1861 UK census. The right-most column records that he was deaf and dumb from birth, providing supporting evidence to the Joshua Nunn portrayed in his granddaughter’s letter.

Some of the letter’s charms cannot be verified in surviving records.  They go beyond what was recorded, and would have been lost forever if they hadn’t been captured in those handwritten pages so long ago.  One tale records that Martha Jane’s mother, Charlotte, would put two raw eggs in egg cups for Grandpa Nunn each time when he came to visit them.  He would smile, get the eggs and suck them.  Martha Jane’s father, John, could be a prankster and, one day, put up two eggs that had been emptied.  Even though everyone thought it was a good joke, Grandpa Nunn looked so disappointed that Charlotte soon brought in two eggs to take the place of the empty ones.  Martha Jane also recalled how she and her two older sisters, Emma and Betsy, would pass their Grandma Harmer’s home each day on the way to school.  Grandma Harmer would invite them in for sardine sandwiches and make sure they used the outhouse before continuing on for home.

Martha Jane recalled the bad times too.  She remembered how, on Good Friday in 1866, her mother died, one day after setting up sponge for hot cross buns.  She was just 32 years old.  One day earlier, on Holy Thursday, she had the girls bring in the bread board to the bedroom.  She made the buns ready for the oven and then passed away the next day.  In the letter, Martha Jane recalled how, as the end came,  Grandpa Nunn stood looking at his daughter.  He then said the only words that he had ever spoken in his life. “Poor Charlotte.”  He died the following week.

The letter also records other memories from Martha Jane’s childhood.  When she was about three years old, she was playing at a curb by the alley with her sisters.  A man in a horse and wagon came along and the horse stepped on her jaw.  The neighbors thought she was killed and carried her into her mother.  The doctor was called.  In the end, although she recovered, when she would be busy sometimes, you could see that she held her mouth out of line.

After Charlotte’s funeral, John Harmer tried to keep the children and the home together.  Different relatives came to keep house.  Some took the nice sheets, pillowcases, and anything else they wanted.  John had a hard time taking care of their youngest daughter, Louise, who was just two years old.  He also had a hard time taking care of himself.  The letter recalls that he ‘just lost heart’ and died the year following his wife’s death.  When John died, the girls were still  young, between nine and thirteen years old.  Louise was just three, and went to live with relatives.

The letter continues from there, for several more pages, recalling Martha Jane’s years after her parents’ deaths.  She and her older sisters found work in town as servants.  Martha Jane worked in several homes and lived with a series of relatives, some of whom she recalled fondly, some not so much.  For a while, she lived with her cousin Mary Ann’s family.  Mary Ann is remembered as a ‘husky girl’, who would wake Martha Jane up at night to hold the candle while they went downstairs into the room where the family’s milk was cooling in a large stone jar.  Mary Ann would skim a cup of cream off the surface and drink it.  It wasn’t until years later when Mary Ann got married that Martha Jane’s Aunt Mary admitted to her that she knew it was her own daughter stealing the cream, and not Martha Jane.  Aunt Mary is also fondly memorialized as a woman whose temper grew so frightening that one day, she broke a large mixing bowl over Martha Jane’s head, which left Martha Jane in considerable pain for several days.

Martha’s ‘husky’ cousin, Mary Ann Nunn, was a young girl of 9 years old at the time of the 1861 UK Census. Her mother, the feared ‘Aunt Mary’ from the letter appears on the line above.

Martha Jane’s Aunt Mary is a formidable character, but at her house is where she met her future husband, James Williams.  He’s remembered as a young carpenter who boarded at Aunt Mary’s for a few years while he was building homes in London.  One day after completing a lot of the work, James went to the owner to draw some pay – only to learn that his construction partner had already drawn the pay for both of them, and spent it.  James confronted the other man, and left him to finish the work.  James departed for America soon after, promising Martha Jane that he would send her a ticket if he found that he liked it there.

A photograph of James Williams, taken later in life.

Keeping his word, he later wrote to Martha Jane.  She wrote back, saying she would come.  He sent the ticket.  Aunt Mary, of course, protested, telling her that no decent girl would travel that far alone and unmarried.  Martha Jane next enlisted the aid of her Aunt Ellen, a favorite aunt, who had a large family of children.  Aunt Ellen told her and Aunt Mary that if Charlotte had married the man she loved, then Martha Jane could do the same.  Martha Jane Harmer arrived in Chicago, Illinois on September 15, 1881.  She was 23 years old.

James and Martha Jane had a long and happy marriage in the Chicago area, and had five children of their own.  She lived to be 76 years old, passing away in 1934.  Letters and photographs add leaves to the bare branches of a family tree and help us understand our ancestors as people and not just a series of names, dates, and locations.  It’s never known where these gems will surface – in your basement, in the basement of a close relative, or somewhere entirely different, perhaps in the papers of a more distant relative you didn’t even know existed.


The First Years of Sacred Heart Parish: Lowell, Massachusetts, 1880’s

Decidedly more rural in the years before the construction of Sacred Heart Church, the land that would eventually sit under the parish’s buildings was then owned by the Meadowcroft and Andrews families.

Moore, Andrews, Whipple, Meadowcroft:  If you spent a good span of your childhood years in Lowell, Massachusetts attending school or church at Sacred Heart, all of these names will be familiar to you.  The streets closest to Sacred Heart carry those names, which date back to the decades before Sacred Heart’s founding when the area was much more rural, and formed the southern edge of the city.  But, who were they?  And how did Sacred Heart come to be built in South Lowell?

On June 7, 1880, James Meadowcroft owned precisely 39 acres of land on the southern side of Moore Street.  Some was tilled; some lay  fallow.  Meadows formed some of his land; the rest was forest.  Meadowcroft was a wealthy man.   He also owned the farming implements, machinery, and livestock to sustain a healthy income.  He had year-round help in running the farm.  And, his farm had produced hay, milk, butter, eggs, and potatoes during 1879.

By no means a young man at 63 in 1880, James Meadowcroft was what that age called a gentleman farmer.  He had retired from his profession as a blacksmith.  His wife, Alice, 60, was just a bit younger.  Both had been born in England.  He had become a naturalized citizen in 1852.  By 1880, all of their children had moved on; only a nephew, George Green, lived with them.  He was 48 and without occupation.  A servant named Sarah Moody saw to their needs.

Some years before, James Meadowcroft had cut out a small portion of his land for his oldest son, John, who lived in a home on the western edge of his Moore Street property with his wife Bertha.  John made his living as a real estate agent.  His other three children had grown up and moved on.  To steal a term from a much later age, the Meadowcrofts were ‘empty-nesters’ and were probably looking to move on from the Moore Street property they had occupied for at least three decades.  Across the street in the former home of William Andrews, a marble worker, the Litchfield family had just moved in.  Paul Litchfield, 46, listed his occupation as a mill owner in 1880.  He and his wife, Sarah, raised their family of five children on the future site of the Sacred Heart School, who ranged in age from 6 to 22 years old.

Moore Street was still a dirt road in 1883 when church officials approached the Meadowcrofts about selling their land to the church.  The street had at least been macadamized (paved with gravel) by 1891, when they approached the Litchfields about the sale of their land to allow for a parish school to be built.  The area had remained very rural and quiet, but the Catholic population was growing in what was then the city’s southern extreme.  By some accounts, the Catholic population in South Lowell had reached 3,000 by that time.  A church was needed, and St. Peter’s was thought to be rather distant for those living in the Bleachery and Ayers City sections of Lowell.  Some folks even came up from Wigginville, just down Lawrence Street – which, at that point, hadn’t yet been annexed from Tewksbury (and wouldn’t be until 1906).

Sacred Heart Church, just a few years after its completion – 1900 (From A City of Spindles – Lowell Trades and Labor Council)

Until Sacred Heart Church performed its first mass in 1884, those 3,000 Catholics remained assigned to the St. Peter’s Church district.  Ground was broken for the new parish on Eastern Sunday, 1884; church fairs were held to raise funds.  Construction progressed rapidly.  Father Joyce, an Oblate father and an assistant in the Immaculate Conception Parish, oversaw the founding of the parish, the buying of its land, and presided over the dedication of its basement, on August 10, 1884 by Archbishop Williams, after a solemn high mass was said by Rev. Father Lefevre of Montreal, the provincial of the order.  While the basement was used for services, the church proper was constructed.  Its corner-stone was laid in June 1896.

The Sacred Heart area, some 20 years later, in 1896. The area has experienced significant development, notably along the western side of Andrews Street and the south side of Moore Street.

The first Sacred Heart School building was constructed to accommodate some 400 students – though, initially, the school had far less.  It opened for the 1892-93 school year.  By 1899, 250 students attended.  Opposite the church, it fronted Andrews Street on one side, Moore Street on the other – though it was still separated by a single building, which was eventually razed and replaced in 1909 by what later became known as the “new old school” that burnt to the ground decades later, in 1967.  As the school neared completion in 1892, plaster was applied to the woodwork in each of its eight classrooms, each 32 by 24 feet.  Each classroom had its respective cloak room, measuring 4 feet by 18 feet.  Lots of attention was paid to the woodwork, to the doors, and to the circular transoms above each.  As the school was completed on its ‘garden lot’, a contemporary writer commented that the setting was ‘very quiet’, ‘surrounded by beautiful trees’ and had an open field in front of the building that was ready for construction to support the parish’s expansion.

Readers – Do you remember the gleaming hardwoods, the transoms, and the cloakroom of the 1892 school building?  Do you have other memories of the church, or any of the three Sacred Heart school buildings?  During my time there, the 1892 school building was used for the primary grades, with the 1968 building housing Grades 4 and up.  If you have any Sacred Heart photographs that you’d like to share, I will work them into a future post.    


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.


The Construction of St. Peter’s Church – Lowell, Massachusetts, 1892

Once located on Lowell‘s Gorham Street, St. Peter’s Church was founded in Lowell in 1841, ten years after the founding of St. Patrick’s, the city’s first Catholic church.  Many readers will remember the impressive edifice that once stood at 323 Gorham, across from Lowell’s courthouse building; however, this was actually the church’s third building.  St. Peter’s Church spent its first fifty years in two other locations.  The first church building, made of brick, was built at the corner of Gorham and Appleton Streets and served the congregation from its founding until 1890.

The Post Office building, located at the intersection of Lowell’s Gorham and Appleton Streets, marks the site of the original St. Peter’s Church, which had been demolished several years before this 1896 map was drawn. St. Peter’s Orphanage still stood on Appleton street, just two doors down from the original church location, at this time.

As Lowell’s Catholic population surged through the 1880’s, it soon became very obvious that St. Peter’s would need a newer, larger church building.  Rev. Michael Ronan, pastor since 1883, negotiated the sale of the land on which the first St. Peter’s stood, to the federal government for the construction of a new post office.   The funds from that sale allowed the church to build a larger building, but the timing of the new post office’s construction schedule did not allow St. Peter’s adequate time to construct their new building.  The first St. Peter’s came down, before the next could go up – and the congregation faced the threat of homelessness.

Rev. Michael Ronan pastored the church during the construction.  As the new Gorham Street building was constructed, a temporary wooden church was built very near the site, and served the congregation.  That building’s size was still considerable:  120 feet long by 90 feet wide, and it stood 18 feet in height.  The church moved its pews from the old church and seating was provided for up to 1,500 people.  Its first mass was held on April 27, 1890, not even one month before the old church came down, on May 20, to make room for the new post office.

The map above, from an 1896 Atlas, shows the new St. Peter’s Church, in gray, across the street from the Courthouse, and the temporary church, in yellow, located slightly up the street, where St. Peter’s School would stand.

Time passed and the congregation continued to use the temporary building for a couple of years.  The congregation acquired land further down Gorham Street, and worked to clear some frame houses that stood on the site.

St. Peter’s Church, which stood on Gorham Street in Lowell, as it appeared in 1905. The building stood until its demolition in 1996.

Construction began in 1892.  Local newspapermen estimated that some 10,000 people packed Gorham and South streets to witness the laying of the cornerstone for the new St. Peter’s Church on Sunday, September 11 of that year under delightful weather.  Even the floor that had been placed over the new foundation was packed with people.  Along South Street, an altar and pulpit had been temporarily constructed; Irish and US flags had been set up for the Mass.  Some 65 clergy helped in celebrating the Mass to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone, headed by Archbishop John J. Williams.  Others hailed from churches all over Massachusetts, some near Boston, some closer to home in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The granite church was completed in 1900, instantly became a local landmark, and dominated the local streetscape for nearly a century.  Its twin towers could be seen for quite some distance – one stood nearly 200 feet high, the other 176 feet high.  Due to declining enrollment, the church closed in 1986.  The building stood vacant for nearly ten years, falling into increasing states of disrepair while options for its next use were discussed.  Eventually, no new use was found and the building was demolished about ten years later in the mid-90’s.  Green space covers the site now, which is dominated solely by the courthouse.  Rev. Michael Ronan’s memory lives on in Father Ronan Terrace, a cross street connecting Gorham and South streets, near the church’s former site.  The church’s memory lives on in the building that once housed its rectory.  Still standing next to the former church site, its red brick exterior is barely visible in the photograph above, at right (to the left of the church).  An insurance agency now occupies the building.  St. Peter’s Convent, crumbling and beyond repair, was razed several years ago to add a much-needed parking area for a local funeral home.


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.