By Richard P. Howe Jr.
A centerpiece of Lowell’s under-development Hamilton Canals District will be the new judicial center which is to be constructed between the end of Jackson Street and Dutton Street near the intersection with Fletcher. Despite the unfortunate news that the estimated completion date of the new facility has been pushed back to 2016 because of the on-going fiscal squeeze, the new building will bring the Superior Court and the District Court together under one roof, making it the hub of the city’s judicial activity and culture. As for the buildings that currently house those two courts, the Lowell District Court on Hurd Street will likely become part of UMass Lowell or Middlesex Community College which both have other facilities in the immediate vicinity and are both cramped for space.
The Superior Courthouse on Gorham Street is a different story. While the building’s location near the end of the Lowell Connector and just across the South Common from the Gallagher Terminal make it a desirable location for housing, the age and complexity of the building will make its reuse a challenge to any developer. Nevertheless, the building’s rich history demands that it be preserved in some capacity.
Lowell’s first courthouse was jointly constructed by Middlesex County and the city of Lowell in the 1830s on Market Street in the heart of downtown. Through the years, this building served as the local police court and, when it sat in Lowell, the home of the Superior Court (then known as the Court of Common Pleas) and the Supreme Judicial Court. The rapid growth of the city – 6,400 residents in 1830; 21,000 in 1840; and 33,000 in 1850 – and a corresponding increase in legal business caused Middlesex County in 1848 to construct a new courthouse on Gorham Street on Chapel Hill, about a half mile south of the center of Lowell.
Completed in 1850 and constructed of red brick, the new Romanesque Revival style structure was designed by architect Amni Burnham Young whose previous work included Boston’s Custom House and additions to courthouses in Worcester and Cambridge. While the Superior Court immediately occupied the second floor of the building with its large, ornate courtroom, it was not until 1855 that the first floor became the home of the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds which was created by the state legislature that year to hold the land ownership records for the communities of Billerica, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Dracut, Dunstable, Lowell, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, Westford and Wilmington.
The two buildings
Although the Lowell Courier newspaper described the new Superior Courthouse as “one of the finest in the state”, Lowell’s explosive growth brought a corresponding increase in the volume of legal activity and more courtroom space was soon needed. Four decades later, the Middlesex County Commissioners decided to build an addition. Rather than add on to the rear or the side of the original courthouse which sat right along Gorham Street, the county decided to move the existing building sixty feet backwards and build a new structure in its former location.
Moving the three story brick building would be an amazing engineering feat in any era, doing so in an age before power equipment almost defies belief. The account of the move from the August 31, 1894 Lowell Daily Courier is worth repeating in its entirety:
Yesterday afternoon as the hands on the clock in the belfry pointed to 3:30 the court house began its journey to its new site in the rear of the present one. The distance is about 60 feet. For six weeks past workmen have been engaged in getting everything in readiness for the removal. The building has been raised so that it is supported by heavy beams and crossbeams with about 800 jacks. The lower tier of beams rests on rollers that travel on beams placed at right angles to the street. The force of propulsion is secured by jacks braced against the timbers attached to the lower portion of the building.
Of course the building moves slowly, and the speed attained yesterday was only about an inch an hour. By this method the building will be kept intact, and so little is the movement perceptible that work goes on in the registry of deeds office just the same as usual. Not a door is moved out of true, and there is nothing to indicate from its interior appearance that the building is being moved. When the building is in position the heavy timbers will be removed and the underpinning rebuilt again, so that the structure will rest as solidly as ever.
Superior Court, Estd., 1898
After four years of construction, the new building was ready for use and was dedicated in September 1898. Other than a slight change in the elevation of the floors of the two buildings, there is little evidence inside that it is anything but a solitary structure. From outside, the grayish sandstone of the new building and the red brick of the old make obvious the dual nature of the courthouse but there is no evidence either inside or out from which one would conclude that the rear building had once stood sixty feet forward of its present location.
Inside the building in 2012, the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds occupies most of the basement and half of the first floor. The rest of that floor is home to a courtroom which is used only part time for Housing Court and Probate Court. There is also a “jury room”, the place where the daily draft of jurors receives an orientation and awaits the summons to one of the courtrooms. The second floor consists of two full courtrooms, one used for civil trials, the other for criminal. The second floor is also home to the Law Library and the clerk’s office. Additional administrative offices are located on the third floor.
The Lowell Superior Courthouse is a vibrant, active place that is filled with history yet continues to serve the everyday legal needs of the citizens of Middlesex County. While it may not always be home to government operations, hopefully it will live on for decades to come in a manner that preserves its dignity and its spirit.
Richard P. Howe Jr. is the Register of Deeds of the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds. He is a graduate of Providence College and Suffolk University Law School and holds an MA in History from Salem State University. In the early 1980s, he served as a US Army Intelligence Officer in Germany. Mr. Howe is the creator of richardhowe.com, a widely read blog about Lowell history and politics. Three years ago, he succeeded the late Catherine Goodwin as the official tour guide of Lowell Cemetery. He has lectured frequently on the American Civil War and its impact on the city of Lowell and surrounding communities.