Lowell Historical Society letter on Jerathmell Bowers House

In yesterday’s Lowell Week in Review blog post I wrote this about the Jerathmell Bowers House:

Constructed in 1673 at what is now the corner of Westford and Wood Streets in Lowell, the Jerathmell Bowers House is said to be the oldest structure in the city. There has been a billboard-type sign on the property for years advertising the site’s availability for commercial development. Recently, Kazanjian Enterprises has submitted a proposal that would call for the construction of two new commercial buildings on the site. One would house the Lowell Five Cent Savings Bank branch that is currently up the street at the Market Basket Plaza at Wood and Middlesex Street (adding a drive through feature) while the second building would appear from the plans to be a single story structure housing multiple retail establishments. While the initial proposal states that the historic Bowers House would be retained, there has been a flurry of interest in the historic preservation community about the fate of the home. Because the Lowell Historic Board only has jurisdiction over land within the downtown historic district, that board has no direct say in this decision. The Planning Board and the Conservation Commission do have jurisdiction and review of this matter is ongoing. All documents related to this matter are available on the city webpage (scroll down to the “150 Wood Street” project).

The Lowell Historical Society has now shared an open letter with the “Lowell Community” on the fate of the house. Here is the text of that letter:

November 2013

To the members of the Lowell Community:

It has come to our attention that the Jerathmell Bowers House located at 150 Wood Street may be demolished to make way for new office space. While the Lowell Historical Society firmly believes that our city is not a museum and that history is only written as progress occurs, we just as firmly believe in the preservation of our unique historical resources. Therefore, we must strongly urge the stakeholders of this project to do whatever is possible to save this home.

Although there is no definitive proof establishing the precise age of the Bowers house, it is commonly believed to date to 1673. While some evidence supports this claim, spelled out in its individual listing in the National Register of Historic Places, the oldest parts of the house are undoubtedly colonial. A 1673 date would make it—by a large margin—the oldest existent building in the City of Lowell.

While the house is small, in need of repairs, located in a commercial zone, and has been heavily altered across at least three centuries, our position remains that the demolition of buildings that date in part to before the Revolution must occur as an absolute last resort.

Various stories have been told about the Bowers family, owners of the house from the Colonial era until recent years. The family held over 100 acres of farmland in what was once Chelmsford and now Lowell, and during King Philip’s War family members purportedly found refuge from Indian attacks in the attic of the house. The earliest surviving structural elements of the wood-frame house are of mortise-and-tenon construction. Roof sections hidden under additions contain hand-split shingles. This one building contains technologies ranging from a central chimney and a beehive oven (and possibly a covered well under the kitchen floor), to knob-and-tube wiring, to three-pronged outlets. Some doors close with simple 18th century latches, while others use a Master Lock system.

As the huge Boott Mill downtown tells the story of 150 years of American textile mill construction, decline, and reuse, this little house outside Middlesex Village tells the tale of over 250 years of life for an American farming family. Its location in a great industrial city speaks to the encroachment on that way of life by an increasingly urban, industrialized America. We must remember that once this home is gone, it is gone. Lowell has learned this lesson the hard way in the past with much newer buildings.

Perhaps the house can be saved, restored, and repurposed. Perhaps it can be moved to a setting where it will be less in the way and less out of place. Perhaps its story really does end here. If it must be demolished, we would like to suggest the creation of extensive documentation per to the standards of the Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. This would include architectural measured drawings, large-format photography, and a history of the house and its environs. To this date, none of the studies we are aware of have cataloged the house to this extent.

In closing, we must simply re-iterate that while the colonial origin of this small house is not unique in the city of Lowell nor certainly in New England, it is a reminder of a time and way of life long past. It is the position of the board of the Lowell Historical Society that this house should be preserved at least in part if the current owners can at all find a way to do so.

If we can be of any assistance, feel free to contact us.


The Board Members of the Lowell Historical Society