Back in the spring of 1996 I didn’t spend much time in my office at the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds within the Superior Courthouse on Gorham Street in Lowell. It was too noisy and dusty. Contractors were demolishing the once-stately St Peter’s Church which had been located directly across the street.
A variety of factors in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century caused the Archdiocese of Boston to close St Peter’s Parish and the church stood vacant for years. Unfortunately, the upkeep of the building was seriously neglected. Those familiar with St Peter’s might be shocked to learn the church was not made of granite. The structure itself was red brick encased in a thin granite veneer. Because the roof was not kept in good repair, water infiltrated down between the brick and granite layers and when it froze, it pushed the granite away from the brick. Eventually, a couple of granite blocks, thin by building material standards but still heavy enough to do serious damage, cascaded down to the street below. The city closed Gorham Street in front of the church and tearing down the church became a public safety necessity.
While I welcome the coming construction of a new judicial center in Lowell, I fear that the court’s movement out of the Gorham Street courthouse will sentence that building to the same fate as St. Peter’s – what I call “demolition by neglect.” And so when an opportunity arose last week to conduct a tour of the building for a Lowell Sun reporter and others, I was happy to oblige. The resulting story in today’s paper will hopefully bring much needed attention to the future of the courthouse.
Like any other Nineteenth Century building that’s to be adapted for Twenty-First Century use, the Superior Courthouse presents challenges. It is in fact two different buildings. The red brick one to the rear was constructed in 1848 right along Gorham Street. When a bigger courthouse was needed, the original structure was moved sixty feet backward to its present location and the limestone, Greek Revival structure opened on Gorham Street in 1898. The architecture both inside and out is amazing and there is a huge amount of room, much of it tucked away in upper floors and in the basement. It’s location is a definite plus – it’s just off the highway, a ten minute walk from the train station, and not much farther from the Hamilton Canal District and downtown Lowell.
I’m not sure what future use would work best for the courthouse. The Registry of Deeds could easily stay right where it is but we’re also fully prepared to move into new quarters when the Trial Court departs. Over the past ten years we’ve scanned all 10 million pages of documents at the registry, so our space needs are much diminished and our operational requirements are much more flexible in the electronic age than they were in the paper era. What I do know is that if we wait until the courthouse becomes vacant to start discussing it’s future uses, the wrecking ball won’t be far behind. To avoid that fate for the building, the conversation should begin now.