“Doors Open Lowell” a big success

The Middlesex Superior Courthouse in Lowell was one of 31 historic buildings open to the public this weekend during Doors Open Lowell. With nearly 60 people visiting the courthouse between 10 am and 1 pm, the event was a huge success from our perspective. An informal survey disclosed that the visitors were split 50-50 between Lowell residents and visitors from nearby suburbs, with folks from Lexington, Mass and Nashua, NH being the visitors from the most distant locations.

For the event, we set up a museum-like display of historic photos and documents of the registry, the courthouse, and the people who have used them through the years within the registry space. Once a group of visitors would congregate, I would then lead them on a tour of the interior the building. Of the six tours conducted, the largest group was 20 and the smallest (right at the end) was two. The highlights of the tour were seeing the interior to the two stately courtrooms, seeing the exact location where multiple scenes from “The Fighter” were filmed, and getting an overall appreciation of the magnificent interior architectural details of the nineteenth century building.

That last point would more accurately be “buildings” since the story of the construction of the courthouse is perhaps most fascinating of all. For those unfamiliar with the tale, the original courthouse, a three-story, red brick, Romanesque-revival structure was constructed in 1848, a little more than 20 years after Lowell’s incorporation as a town and ten years after its becoming a city. That building was constructed right along Gorham Street where the entrance to the present courthouse is now located. In 1894, the Middlesex County Commissioners voted to enlarge the courthouse. Rather than add onto the back of the existing structure, they decided to move that structure – all three stories of it – backwards a distance of 60 feet and to build the addition in front of it. According to an article in the August 31, 1894 edition of the Lowell Daily Courier, the original building was propped up on 800 jacks and then other jacks were used to propel the building backward. It moved at an inch an hour and “progress was so slow and steady that work continued in the registry of deeds as before.” By my calculations, if they worked for 12 hours each day and they moved it one inch each hour, that would mean they covered one foot each day. Working seven days per week, it would take two months to cover that distance. The entire project took four years to complete, for the dedication exercises of the new courthouse (shown above) were held in September 1898.

Today, those who work inside the courthouse have heard this tale so often that the magnitude of this engineering accomplishment is sometimes lost on us. Seeing the looks of amazement on the faces of our visitors yesterday when they heard this story was a refreshing reminder of the fascinating history of this building.