Saving the Courthouse

Middlesex Superior Court, Lowell Mass

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.

14 Responses to Saving the Courthouse

  1. Barbara Bond says:

    Dick…would you consider setting up tours for the public? I’d love to walk through the building and hear about its history. Thank you!

  2. DickH says:

    I love giving tours, but because it’s a working courthouse folks can only be in the building during regular business hours due to security considerations. Maybe some Friday afternoon . . .

  3. Paul@01852 says:

    Good for you for leading this initiative and to Jen Myers for jumping on the bandwagon! Jen has done some significant stories in the past few months on some of Lowell’s hidden historical niches including the attic and basement of Lowell City Hall. Keep up the good work!

  4. DickH says:

    Jen Myers has written some great stories on Lowell’s history although this story about the courthouse was written by Lyle Moran.

  5. Barbara Bond says:

    I love reading about the Nooks & Crannies of the old buildings in Lowell….touring any of them would be great ;-)

  6. KM Murphy says:

    What a shame if it was torn down!! So, who do we look to…..we look to ourselves. Has there been any real talk about what it would take and how much it would take to get it in a condition for future use…sorry if I’m asking questions that have already been covered. I’m a north shore Lowellian who has just recently found out about this…Is there a web site where this is being specifically discussed.


    KM Murphy

  7. Shawn says:

    I’m more interested in saving those Record books than the building. The picture of the stack in the stairway is frightening.

    I love the vault that Hillsboro County, NH has available for researchers.. all the books are laid out well, in an air-conditioned vault.. yet they are also being scanned for online access as well.

  8. Prince Charming says:

    Saint Peter’s was Demolition by Deception. The granite skin of the building was peeling. The brick interior, though slightly damaged by water, was rock solid (pardon the pun). The mighty Archbishop wanted it gone and it is gone. That building could’ve been turned into one of the premiere concert halls in the Northeast. Let’s hope your building gets a reprieve.

  9. Dean says:

    Why is that SUV allowed to park in front of the court house like that ? There could be a problem ,especially after 9/11.

  10. DickH says:

    Sean, the books pictured in the article have been stacked in a remote corner of the basement where they’ve been piled for more than 15 years during which no one has looked at them even once. As I understand it, they are incremental books that were quickly consolidated into permanent volumes. They have no value so you’re welcome to come pick them up anytime you’d like. You can build your own air conditioned vault for them although for some governmental entity to do that would seem like a substantial waste of taxpayer funds since it’s completely unnecessary. The actual record books – going as far back as 1629 – were all fully scanned as early as 2001 and have been available online ever since. Those books are safely stored in an environment that will preserve them for many years to come.

  11. Shawn says:

    “Incremental books that were later consolidated into permanent volumes” to a genealogist means “primary records” — of great value.

    have you considered donating them to a historical society?

  12. Roger Cryan says:

    Is the Cooney building, across from the old courthouse, the old St. Peter’s parsonage? My great-grandparents were married in the St. Peter’s parsonage in 1893. Is that the same building?

  13. Marie says:

    Yes it is… it was renovated to be the residence for the Merrimack Valley Regional Bishop back under Bishop John McNamara back in the 1990s.