‘Generator Room’ (1998)

Between 1990 and 1993, a very different kind of public-art project happened in the power house of the Boott Cotton Mills. This was part of the growing Lowell Public Art Collection. UMass Lowell art students and dozens of volunteers joined San Francisco-based artist David Ireland (since deceased) in his effort to transform the power house into a room-sized artwork. The cavernous three-story space with large skylights and relics of machinery was envisioned as a kind of “industrial chapel” where people would encounter a restored interior of gleaming yellow-tinted walls and preserved factory fixtures. David Ireland had created evocative places like this in California. Financial problems at the mill complex prevented the owner from funding the effort as expected, so the project was not completed. With remaining grant money from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, UMass Lowell Professor of Art Jim Coates and I produced a documentary book in 1998, using David Ireland’s proposal as the main text and images by photographer Jim Higgins and others. Following are two quotations used in the book.—PM

David Ireland


“All looks cheerful and pleasant . . . especially in the large engine rooms where, to my astonishment, I noticed the walls were frescoed. I do not believe that in the whole of Lancashire [England] there is a room more fitted for a reception or a ballroom than this engine room in the Boott Cotton Mills would be if the immense Corliss machinery of  1,000 horsepower were taken out.” — New York Herald, 1878

“When Ireland looks at this room he does not see a derelict remnant of the Rust Belt, but a space whose ample dimensions capture the faith of the Machine Age as surely as the Gothic Cathedral captured the faith of an earlier time.”—-Miles Unger, The Boston Globe, 1990

“Generator Room” (c) by James Higgins, reprinted by permission, www.higginsross.com

Detail from an Ireland project at the Headlands Institute near San Francisco (photo by Richard Barnes courtesy of artpractical.com)

One Response to ‘Generator Room’ (1998)

  1. Marie says:

    Thanks for this post Paul. It brings back memories of the efforts and process to establish a variety of public art projects in Lowell. The David Ireland project was certainly among the more unusual and capivating. Ireland saw that Boott space through a different prism. I also remember well the trip to San Francisco with the Lowell Historic Preservation and other city folks. The trip to the Headlands was a highlight. For anyone interested in seeing art in puiblioc spaces – Lowell offers some teriffic examples.