On Facebook, some people on the Lowell Live Feed and Innovative Cities group pages have been writing about the prospects for renewal of the historic Smith Baker Center, a former Congregational Church dating from the 19th century, across from the public library, Pollard Memorial Library, on Merrimack Street. The City of Lowell’s current creative economy development plan and a report from a task force organized by former mayor Edward “Bud” Caulfield both call for the redevelopment of Smith Baker (named for the late Rev. Smith Baker—one name) Center as a community arts center. The broad vision has been to create a medium-sized performance venue with excellent acoustics, seating about 500, in the upstairs church hall, with the first level given over to a combination of exhibit area, office space, and a cafe. The building has stellar arts roots, having been the scene of events drawing up to 1,100 people, featuring Patti Smith and her band, Maya Angelou, John Updike, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lowell Opera Company, UMass Lowell’s tribute concert for notable Lowell-born composer George Chadwick, political rallies, small-scale theater productions, and more.
A few years go, there was so momentum to get Smith Baker on the redevelopment drawing board. Photographer, film-maker, and multi-media producer Jim Higgins provided these images to help us imagine what is possible and to show activity that was recent at the time. The building has been closed up for a few years now. The City of Lowell planning department did a study about ten years ago to show what it would take to rehab the building as a performance center. The building analysis needs to be updated, but there remains strong interest in the cultural community for exploring what is possible to get this building back contributing to the cultural vitality in the city. We don’t have a similar-sized venue, 500 to 600 seats, with excellent qualities that could be a stage for classical, jazz, folk, world, and other musics; readings and lectures; storytelling and stand-up comedy; maybe film and video screenings; and other activity—not to mention the possibilities for the first floor and basement. (Click on the images for a larger view—it is worth seeing these large. On the imaginary banners featuring Bette Davis, James Whistler, and Jack K. , the K-C-C is for Kerouac Center for Creativity, an idea for a name that some folks at the time thought might open opportunities for fundraising and branding.)