North of Boston: The Portuguese American Experience Beyond the Hub

Opening remarks at the 2023 Saab Center colloquium

Earlier today I traveled to UMass Lowell’s South Campus for a program presented by the school’s Saab Center for Portuguese Studies. “North of Boston: The Portugues American Experience Beyond the Hub”, included presentations by academics and researchers from Lowell, Somerville, and Portugal. I was among the speakers. I promoted the use of registry of deeds records for historical research.

41 Chapel St, Lowell

To illustrate the value of land records, I selected a property in the Back Central neighborhood and traced its ownership history over time. The property was 41 Chapel Street which is pictured above.

Records indicate that the house was built in 1826 and was first occupied by Cyril French and his wife Sally. They had come to Lowell from Waltham so he could work as a machinist in the newly created Lowell Machine Shop (which was where the Lowell Justice Center is now located). French was very successful in his professional life, but also served as an alderman, a state representative, and as a bank trustee. Cyril died in 1864 but Sally continued to live there until her death in 1880.

In 1883, Sally’s two surviving children – she had three others who predeceased her – sold the property to Peter H. Donohoe, who immediately conveyed it to his father James. James P. Donohoe was born in Ireland in 1826. He married Alice Cassidy in Lowell in 1854. She had been born in Ireland in 1832. Together they had six sons: Charles, James, John, Joseph, Owen and Peter. All but Peter went into the family business as wine and liquor dealers. Peter went into banking. His 1933 obituary identified him as “a prominent banker and philanthropist.”

James died in 1893 at age 66. His widow Alice and four of their five sons continued to live in the house although the boys gradually married and moved to their own houses except for Charles who continued living with his mother until her death in 1913. Neither the 1916 nor the 1922 city directories list anyone named Donohoe living in the house, so presumably it was rented. In 1916, the brothers all transferred ownership to Peter who held it until 1925 when he sold the house to Angelo and Antonio Solazzo.

Angelo and Antonio Solazzo departed from Naples in their native Italy and ended up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they both married, Antonio to Lina and Angelo to Mary. Both women were from Italy, too. The families moved to Lowell in 1925 when they purchased 41 Chapel Street from Peter Donohoe. It’s unclear what they paid for the property, but they financed the sale with a $5500 mortgage from the Washington Savings Bank.

Although city directories and the federal census identify Angelo and Antonio as landscape gardeners, they were also real estate developers. On March 20, 1925, they recorded a subdivision plan at the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds in which they created 11 building lots from a large parcel of land they had purchased in Belvidere between Pentucket and Wentworth Avenues.

As was common for men who were self-employed in that era, Antonio and Angelo transferred ownership of 41 Chapel Street to their spouses, Lina and Mary. In 1934, the two women executed a mortgage to the Home Owners Loan Corporation of Washington, DC, a New Deal era federal agency created to assist homeowners. The Solazzo’s borrowed $6,702 at 5% interest. However, in 1943, the lender foreclosed on the mortgage and took possession of the property. The Solazzo’s vacated the home but they remained in Lowell, renting a home on nearby Central Street.

Just weeks after the 1943 foreclosure, Home Owners sold the house to Frank and Mary Santos. According to the 1950 census, Frank had been born in Hawaii and Mary in Portugal. Both worked as “silk weavers in a silk and rayon mill” as did their 19-year-old son, Frank Jr., who worked as a stock boy in the same mill. The same census shows that Frank Sr., Mary, and Frank Jr. lived in one unit of 41 Chapel while their other son, 27-year-old Augustine, lived in the other unit along with his wife Lydia and their daughters Diana, age 4, and Linda, age 2. Augustine worked as a carpenter in a wire factory; Lydia operated a stitching machine in a ladies’ lingerie factory.

Sometime prior to 1970, both Frank Sr and Mary passed away. Augustine conveyed his interest in the property to his brother Frank Jr. and to a sister named Mary Teixeira. In 1977, Mary Teixeira conveyed her interest to Frank Jr., making him the sole owner of the property. In 1996, Frank Jr. conveyed the house to himself and his wife, Doris, making her a co-owner. Frank Jr., who had worked as a draftsman at Wang Labs in Tewksbury, died in 2015 at age 84.

Shortly after her husband’s death in 2015, Doris Santos sold the property to Sophorn Meas and Phally Malm, a married couple, who continue to occupy the home today.

As is evident from the above, the ownership and occupancy history of this one house says much about Lowell. In collaboration with researchers from the Saab Center, we hope to do this for a significant chunk of the Back Central neighborhood. Collectively, the output of that research will disclose much about the history of the neighborhood and especially of the Portuguese community in Lowell.