Saying Goodbye to Lowell Superior Courthouse

Middlesex Superior Courthouse 360 Gorham Street, Lowell

Yesterday we moved the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds from the Lowell Superior Courthouse at 360 Gorham Street to the brand new Lowell Justice Center at 370 Jackson Street. It was a complicated operation, made more challenging by coming in the midst of a pandemic, but it went very well.

On most Mondays over the past 25 years, my destination was 360 Gorham Street. Tomorrow it will be 370 Jackson Street. Because this also signals the closure of the Superior Courthouse after 172 years of continuous operation, this morning I’ll offer some history of the courts in Lowell and my own experience with them.

During a pandemic, the phrase “terminal leave” has ominous implications, but it is a familiar term to anyone who has served in the military. It means using all of your accumulated unused leave just prior to separation or discharge from the service.

In 1984, I was a captain in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Devens with my term of service scheduled to end in mid-May. But with the help of my terminal leave, I took off my uniform for the final time in April 1984. I immediately went to work as a paralegal at my dad’s downtown Lowell law office. I had started going to Suffolk Law School at night the previous September, so I was one-third of my way through law school.

Part of my job as a paralegal was to do legal research. Back then in the pre-internet days that meant going to the Law Library on the second floor of the Superior Courthouse. It also meant researching titles or recording documents at the registry of deeds (located on the first floor and basement). Thus began my frequent visits to 360 Gorham Street.

Daniel Webster Courtroom Lowell Superior Courthouse

In December 1986, after completing law school and passing the bar examination, I added court appearances to my reasons for visiting the Superior Courthouse.  I was drawn to criminal law, so after a few years of handling matters at Lowell District Court, I began trying cases to juries in the Daniel Webster Courtroom on the second floor of the rear of the courthouse. Being on trial requires you to be at the courthouse for long stretches of time so you get to know the people who work there; court officers, employees of the clerk of courts office, other defense lawyers and assistant District Attorneys. I made some good and lasting friends.

After eight years of practicing law, I was ready for a change and so when incumbent Register of Deeds Edward Early announced in March 1994 that he would not seek re-election, I jumped into the race along with 10 other candidates: Karin Theodoros, Fred Simon, Dennis McHugh, Patricia Kirwin Keilty, Ed Kennedy, Buddy Flynn, Dennis Scannell and Dave Shaughnessy in the Democratic Primary; and Republican John Noonan of Billerica; and Unenrolled Patrick O’Connor of Lowell in the general.

With a lot of help from family and friends, I prevailed in a very close primary and a more comfortable general election. I took the oath of office on Wednesday, January 4, 1995, and moved into the Register of Deeds office just to the left of the main entrance of the courthouse and have worked there ever since – up until Friday, that is.

Lowell Justice Center in 2017

The Lowell Justice Center has been a long-time coming. People in Lowell began talking about it nearly a decade ago, first on Davidson Street but then on Jackson Street in the Hamilton Canal District. Over the past few years, its seven stories have loomed over the Jackson-Appleton-Middlesex skyline. The first occupant – the Lowell District Court – moved in three weeks ago; the Superior Court and the Juvenile Court moved in last weekend, and the Registry of Deeds took possession of its space yesterday. The final two occupants, the Probate Court and the Housing Court weren’t scheduled to move in until late April even before the pandemic, so their arrival will likely be delayed.

I think because I’ve been so busy planning and helping to execute the registry’s move, it hasn’t fully struck me that I won’t be going to Gorham Street anymore. This morning, I thought it appropriate to share not only my personal connections with the now vacant courthouses of Lowell, but also some of their history.

Lowell District Court

Lowell received its town charter in 1826.  Legal matters were the concern of several justices of the peace who lived in the area and who held hearings in public houses (bars) in the vicinity.  In 1833, the state legislature created a Police Court in Lowell and authorized the governor to appoint “one learned, able and discreet person” to be the justice of the court.  Because judges back then only worked part-time and maintained their own legal practices, the legislation also allowed the appointment of two special justices who could hear matters when the presiding justice had a conflict.  The space for this new court and all amenities was to be paid for by the town of Lowell.

Contemporary view of Lowell Police Court on Market Street (across from Brewed Awakening)

Pursuant to this act, in 1837, the city conveyed to Middlesex County portions of the second and third floors of the city market building on Lowell Street which later became known as Market Street.  The conveyance included a stove for warming the space, a carpet and several tables. Except for brief absences due to renovations and repairs, the police court sat in the building for nearly 90 years.

Lowell District Court

That changed on May 9, 1924, the legislature passed “An Act to provide accommodations for the District Court of Lowell,” authorizing Middlesex County to purchase or to take by eminent domain sufficient land on which to construct a building for the district court of Lowell.  The county was also authorized to borrow up to $250,000 to finance the project. Pursuant to this act, the County acquired two parcels on Hurd St, one from Kirkor Sahagian, the other from Katie Welch, and the District Court of Lowell was constructed there. In 1926, all the business of the Police Court moved from Market Street to Hurd Street where it remains to this day.

In 1945, the County acquired several other lots along Williams St which served as a parking lot of the district court. On August 11, 1967, the legislature passed “An Act authorizing the County Commissioners of Middlesex County to borrow money for planning, constructing, equipping and furnishing an addition to and for the alteration of the District Court of Lowell.” The county took by eminent domain several parcels on Hurd and Williams Street.

It was in 1968 acting under new authority granted by the state legislature that Middlesex County took by eminent domain parcels on either side of the existing district court.  These were used for additions that now house the probation department on the east side and the clerk’s office and jury session courtroom on the west side.

Although the police court handled relatively minor matters, Lowell’s explosive business activity and population gave rise to so much serious litigation that the legislature made it a shire town of Middlesex County and authorized the construction of a superior courthouse in the city.

 

Middlesex Superior Courthouse on Gorham Street in 1848

Superior Courthouse

To obtain space for a new courthouse, Middlesex County purchased a 106,380 square foot parcel along Gorham Street on Chapel Hill from James Dana of Charlestown, and Thomas Nesmith and Andrew Wheelock of Lowell on May 4, 1847. The purchase price was $11,032 and the lot ran 550 feet north along Gorham Street from the intersection with Elm, then 150 feet easterly to Linden Street; then 466 feet along Linden to Elm; then 280 feet along Elm to Gorham.

Designed by Amni Burnham Young, whose previous work included Boston’s Custom House and additions to courthouses in Worcester and Cambridge, the was completed in 1850. The local media called the Romanesque Revival-style building “the finest in the state” and “one of the handsomest courthouses in the country.”

Changes came quickly. In 1855, the legislature created the Middlesex Northern District Registry of Deeds to maintain custody of land records for the communities of Billerica, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Dracut, Dunstable, Lowell, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, Westford and Wilmington, with the registry occupying quarters on the first floor of the courthouse, where it remained up until yesterday.

On September 4, 1860, Middlesex County subdivided the courthouse lot to create a 16,439 square foot parcel north of a “contemplated street from Gorham to Linden” (which street is now called Hobson Street). The County conveyed that lot to the Trustees of Donations to the Protestant Episcopal Church on the condition that it “be always used as a Protestant Episcopal Church.” St. John’s Episcopal Church was soon constructed on this new parcel. It remains in use as a church today.

Middlesex Superior Courthouse, 360 Gorham St, Lowell

As Lowell continued to grow, so did the amount of litigation that arose in the region. In 1894, the Middlesex County Commissioners voted to expand the courthouse. Rather than add on to the rear of the existing building which sat right along Gorham Street, the Commissioners instead chose to move the 1850 building 60 feet backward and build the addition – in the form of a completely new building – in the vacated space.

North elevation of Superior Courthouse showing 1848 (red brick) and 1898 (gray sandstone) buildings joined together.

To move the three-story red brick building, workers dug underneath and propped it up on heavy wooden beams supported by 800 jacks. Other jacks, placed perpendicular to the side of the excavation, pushed the entire structure backwards. The building moved one inch each hour. According to a contemporary newspaper, “. . . so little is the movement perceptible that work goes on in the registry of deeds office just the same as usual. The project took four years to complete with the new building being formally dedicated on September 12, 1898.

From the outside, little appears to have changed in the 120 years since the opening of the “new” Superior Courthouse. One exception came in 2011 when an elevator was added to make the building more accessible. An elevator shaft was constructed outside the south wall of the 1850 building. The shaft’s brick walls, windows and molding match almost exactly their much older counterparts on that side of the building.

Inside the building, the main walls, hallways and stairs are much like they were a century ago, however, more recent updates to heat, electricity and plumbing make the building habitable by twenty-first century standards.

Lowell Justice Center, 370 Jackson Street

Lowell Justice Center

The new Lowell Justice Center is a seven story building designed by Finegold Alexander architects with Dimeo Construction as the general contractor. The building will house the Superior, District, Probate & Family, Juvenile, and Housing Courts of Middlesex County. There will also be a Law Library/Court Service Center and space for the District Attorney and the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds. The building has 265,000 square feet of space and 17 courtrooms.

The building had its “soft” opening on Monday, March 9, 2020, with the Lowell District Court as its initial occupant. The Superior and Juvenile Courts moved in over the weekend of March 14 and 15, but the opening of those courts was delayed for two days when the Supreme Judicial Court ordered all courts in the Commonwealth closed for two days in response to the pandemic. The courts opened for limited operations on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 (primarily for telephonic and electronic transactions).

That brings us to this weekend, when the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds moved into the building. Like the courts, the Registry will be open for limited operations beginning tomorrow, although the building is not open to the public. The Probate and Housing courts were scheduled to move in April, but that may be delayed by the pandemic.

This morning I awoke with a mild pandemic-induced state of dread that has become a constant of life today, but I also felt a sense of elation for having completed the registry’s move into the new building. Not only does that give the registry of deeds a new address, it also signals the start of a new era of service to the legal community and the public. For 25 years, I have tried to use technology to make registry records and services more accessible to the legal community and to the general public. There is much more that can be done. Ironically, the enforced isolation of social distancing that is our new normal is forcing everyone to look to technology for communications and information gathering and sharing which creates a fertile environment for even more innovation.

For more information about the Registry of Deeds, its operations during the pandemic, and events related to the Lowell Judicial Center, please visit the new LowellDeeds website and my LowellDeeds blog.

15 Responses to Saying Goodbye to Lowell Superior Courthouse

  1. Rosemarie Surprenant says:

    I hope To come see your new office and some of my old friends like Stephanie when This is safe to do so.

  2. Mary Jo Brown says:

    What is planned for the Superior Court and Juvenile Court buildings on Gorham Street?

    Thank you.

    Mary Jo Brown

  3. Paul Lambert says:

    Thank you for sharing this history of the Courts and the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds Register Howe!

    This was an excellent read and I look forward to visiting the NEW Registry in the near future.

    Best,

    Paul

  4. Khien Awasom-Nkimbeng says:

    Thank you very much for the updates Mr Howe. I can’t wait to get to the new court house and eventually serve there. We love and appreciate you.

  5. Joe Clermont says:

    Congratulations on a successful move during trying times. I look forward to seeing the new registry, hopefully in the not-to- distant future.

    Thank you for all you have done to make the registry a user-friendly experience.

    Stay safe!

  6. Maureen says:

    Ten years ago I went to my niece’s moot court event at the courthouse and there was an oil painting (portrait) with a hole in it. Was it ever repaired? If it’s still there and going to be thrown away, I’d love it.

  7. DickH says:

    Both Superior and District Court buildings will first be offered to any state or city government that wants them. If there are no takers, there will be some kind of public bidding process for each building. I think everyone’s focus was getting the new building opened, the new parking garage built, and now the pandemic. Once things settle down, there should be more activity on the reuse of these buildings.

  8. DickH says:

    Regarding the paintings displayed in Superior Court, I understand that they are to be moved to and displayed in the Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn because there are some restrictions on wall hangings in the new Justice Center. However, the Greater Lowell Bar Association (and others) are actively seeking ways and means to keep and display these paintings and other photos from District Court somewhere in Lowell.

  9. Nancye Tuttle says:

    Thanks for sharing the history of Lowell’s courthouses and Registry of Deeds office in such an interesting and complete post. I remember serving jury duty in the Superior Court building and marveling at the old structure’s history and beauty. I hope it won’t be torn down 🙏

  10. Frank T says:

    I can’t believe it’s been 25 years, Dick.
    But, I’m betting you already have multiple plans to improve the delivery system you brought into the 20th century.

  11. Moe Finegold says:

    Richard ,
    A wonderful valedictory!
    I especially enjoyed reading of the purveyors if the various land plots and their dimensions, a nice testimony to the exactness of the information you hold in the Registry.
    I do hope the new location and space will encourage your continued pursuit if digitizing those records which I believe you told me start in 1626.
    A beautiful article and my very best wishes to you. Stay safe during this challenging days.
    Moe Finegold, FAIA, Finegold Alexander Architects for the new Justice Center.

  12. DickH says:

    Moe – thank you so much for your kind words. More importantly, congratulations on a splendid building. It’s magnificent. I look forward to seeing you at the ribbon cutting, whenever that may be.

  13. Emily Ferrara says:

    Dick, What a great post! I love learning the history of the buildings that housed the courts, past and present!

  14. Kevin Coffee says:

    Hello Dick,

    Thanks for this great survey of the history of public architecture and the law in Middlesex County!

    I look forward to our resuming Walks as soon as safely possible. Meanwhile, be well, everyone!

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