These are my remarks from the 100th anniversary celebration of the Lowell Memorial Auditorium on September 21, 2022.
The Origin of the
Lowell Memorial Auditorium
By Richard P. Howe Jr.
September 21, 2022
The idea for a memorial auditorium in Lowell first surfaced within a month of the end of World War One at a meeting of the Lowell Board of Trade which was an organization composed of the chief executives of the city’s biggest companies. Its mission was to promote the city to other businesses that might locate here. At this December 10, 1918, meeting, the Board passed a resolution urging the city and the state to construct a large civic auditorium and to dedicate it to those who served in the war.
A month later at a meeting in the Mayor’s Reception Room at City Hall, a Board of Trade subcommittee presented the proposal to a joint meeting of the City Council and the city’s state legislators. Everyone supported the idea and State Representative Victor Jewett agreed to file a bill in the legislature.
Support for a memorial auditorium was widespread for several reasons. The city previously had a public auditorium called Huntington Hall. It had been built in 1853 as a public/private partnership between the city and the Boston and Lowell Railroad. Located at the corner of Dutton and Merrimack streets, Huntington Hall had a train station on the ground floor and a large function hall on the upper floor. However, Huntington Hall had burned down in 1904 and was never reconstructed.
There also was a precedent for constructing a public building as a memorial for those who had served in the military. In the 1890s when the city built its new library alongside the new city hall, the library building was called Memorial Hall and was dedicated to all from Lowell who had served in the Civil War.
More importantly, perhaps, World War One had touched everyone in Lowell in some way. From the start of the war in August 1914, the city’s textile mills had worked round the clock filling orders for uniforms and army blankets for the French and British. The United States Cartridge Company on Lawrence Street employed 9,000 people and became the largest producer of small arms ammunition in America. There were food shortages that caused people to dig up their lawns and plant vegetable gardens, and coal shortages that caused a home heating crisis in the winter of 1917-18, one of the coldest on record. Then in the fall of 1918, the influenza pandemic struck, killing 350 Lowell residents and forcing businesses and schools to close.
Several thousand people from Lowell enlisted or were drafted into the military. Most went to France and many of them saw combat. One hundred forty-six died and hundreds were wounded. Everyone in the city either served in the military, knew someone who served in the military, or held a job or engaged in activities that supported the military. People felt that a memorial auditorium would be a fitting monument to all that service and sacrifice.
The Lowell Auditorium legislation moved quickly through the State House and Governor Calvin Coolidge signed the bill into law on April 18, 1919.
Chapter 148 of the Special Acts of 1919 created a five member Lowell Auditorium Commission consisting of the Mayor and four members appointed by the Mayor with the City Council’s consent. The Auditorium Commission would have the authority to raise up to $1 million through the sale of city bonds, to take real estate by eminent domain, and to enter into contracts for the construction of the building. Upon completion, the Auditorium Commission would turn the building over to a three member board of trustees appointed by the Mayor.
On May 14, 1919, Mayor Perry Thompson, himself a member of the Commission due to his office, appointed the four other Commissioners. They were John H. Harrington, the founder and publisher of the Lowell Sun; Arthur L. Eno, a prominent attorney from the city’s Franco community who was himself a veteran of the war; Clarence Nelson, the president of the Lowell Mutual Fire Insurance Company; and Walter Parker, the owner of a manufacturing company and a founder of the Union National Bank.
The Commission’s first task was to select a site. They considered 13 including parcels now occupied by the JFK Civic Center; Cobblestone’s Restaurant; the Lowell Five branch on John Street; the Lowell Housing Authority’s Archambault Towers; and the Sheriff’s Office on Summer Street. All were rejected for various reasons and the Auditorium Commission selected a 100,000 square foot triangle bounded by East Merrimack and Brown streets and the Concord River. It was packed with housing that had been constructed by the Massachusetts Cotton Mills for its workers, but by 1900, the mills had gotten out of the housing business and sold everything to a handful of landlords who did not reinvest in the property. Consequently, the Commission was able take the land at a reasonable price, some of which was recouped by having the Sheriff auction the buildings to private individuals to demolish and salvage.
The next step was to select an architect. The Commission chose the Boston-based firm of Blackall, Clapp and Whittemore whose principal, Clarence Blackall, had designed the 10-story Sun Building at the corner of Merrimack and Prescott Streets a decade earlier which made his work well-known in Lowell. Blackall had also designed more than 200 theaters including the Wilbur and the Colonial in Boston.
To execute the design, the Commission chose William Drapeau of 17 Mt. Washington Street as the general contractor. Mr. Drapeau was an accomplished builder who constructed numerous auditoriums, schools, churches, and commercial buildings throughout New England.
On Saturday, September 25, 1920, a cornerstone laying ceremony was held. It featured a parade from City Hall, musical performances, speeches and the insertion of a sealed copper box into the base of one of the massive columns at the entrance to the building. Inside the box were copies of the Auditorium legislation, the bid documents, and the City Treasurer’s report for 1919 plus a list of everyone involved in the project, a 1920 City of Lowell directory, and a sampling of coins minted in 1920.
Two years later on September 21, 1922, the Lowell Memorial Auditorium was dedicated in an elaborate all day ceremony that featured Vice President Calvin Coolidge, Governor Channing Cox, Major General Clarence Edwards who had commanded the 26th Yankee Division in France, Congressman John Jacob Rogers, and Mayor George Brown. All who attended proclaimed the new building to be a magnificent structure. During its first twelve months of operation, the Auditorium hosted 194 different events that drew 350,000 people.
While the main auditorium was the centerpiece of the building, the heart of the Lowell Memorial Auditorium was intended to be the entry vestibule now called the Hall of Flags but originally named Trophy Hall. It was designed to hold artifacts that would honor those who served in the military and the sacrifices they made. In the 100 years since the building opened, the Auditorium Trustees in partnership with the Greater Lowell Veterans Council have done a superb job in filling that space with appropriate and meaningful items.
The Lowell Memorial Auditorium is one of Lowell’s most valuable assets. But it is the flags, plaques, and tablets in the Hall of Flags, and the achievements and sacrifices of those whose names are inscribed on them that make this building such a special place.