By Richard P. Howe Jr.
The Pulitzer Prize winning biologist E. O. Wilson has said that anyone who turns over a random patch of turf with a shovel and scrutinizes the result will enter a world teeming with organisms both large and small. Wilson calls these ground dwellers “the heart of the earth.” A similar technique can be used to study local history. Closely scrutinize any block in an established city and you will discover the heart of the community. Such is the case with the South Common neighborhood, which is teeming with history that stretches back nearly 350 years.
The rapid industrialization of Lowell during the first two decades of its existence caused many to long for the soothing effect of green space within the city. In 1845, when the Proprietors of the Locks and Canals disposed of surplus land at auction, the city purchased a 22 acre parcel bounded by Thorndike, Summer, South and Highland Streets for use as a public park. This became the South Common.
Along with trees and grass, the city immediately added a granite pond and a fountain to the South Common. In 1905, a track and a baseball field were also added. By 1922, wooden stands had been built along the third base line. The annual report of the Lowell Board of Park Commissioners for that year observed that while baseball fans appreciated the stands, the seats could not stand up to the “destructive tendencies” of others in the off-season and urged their replacement with a more substantial structure. Unfortunately, the fountain, the pond and the baseball field have all been lost to history although a soccer field, a running track, and a public swimming pool do remain.
While the grassy common is the centerpiece of the neighborhood, it is the buildings that surround it that are infused with history. On the southeast corner of the common sits the sprawling Rogers School which was built in 1962 on the spot that a much earlier school, the Edson, had long sat. The new school was named for Edith Nourse Rogers who represented Lowell in Congress from 1925 until her sudden death in the fall of 1960. Although she was a Republican, Rogers was a strong supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and is best known for her sponsorship of the post World War Two GI Bill and her support for the VA hospital system. The Rogers School operated as a middle school up until 2009 when it was closed due to declining middle school enrollment in the city. The school now serves as the Lowell School Department Headquarters.
Connected to the Rogers School is the James Scondras Gymnasium which is named for a young man from the Acre who seemed to excel at everything but especially sports at Lowell High School and at Holy Cross College in Worcester. With the start of World War Two, Scondras became a forward artillery observer in the Marines. He was killed by enemy fire on Iwo Jima and is buried in Lowell’s Westlawn Cemetery alongside his brother David, an Army infantryman who died in action in France in November 1944.
The former Keith Academy
Across Thorndike Street from the southwest corner of the common sits the twin turrets of the building known as Keith Academy. Built in 1856 as the Middlesex County Jail, the center portion contained 90 cells for male inmates. The north wing (closest to the train station) contained 12 cells for female prisoners, 4 for solitary confinement, and the jail’s infirmary. The south wing (closest to the YMCA) contained living quarters for the county sheriff and the jailer. The building continued to be used as the county jail until 1919 when it was sold to the Archdiocese of Boston. Using funds donated by theater magnate B. F. Keith, the Archdiocese left the exterior intact but completely renovated the interior, converting it from a jail to an all-boys high school named Keith Academy. The high school closed in 1970 and was sold to a private developer in the 1980s who converted the structure to residential condominiums, a use that continues today.
Proceeding north on Thorndike Street, the next structure is the four story red brick structure that once housed C I Hood & Company, one of the largest patent medicine manufacturers in America. Charles I. Hood, no relation to the dairy family that bears the same name, had began working as a teenager in a Vermont pharmacy and eventually made his way to Lowell where he built this state-of-the-art facility on Thorndike Street because of the site’s proximity to one of the city’s most important railroad terminals.
The former C I Hood Company
Continuing on to the hill on the north side of the common we find the Eliot Church which was first organized in 1831 to provide a place of worship for the workers who lived in proximity to the nearby Hamilton and Appleton Mills. The current red brick version of the church was constructed in 1873. The church’s name comes from John Eliot, an English minister who repeatedly visited this area for many decades during the seventeenth century to try to convert the resident Native Americans to Christianity. Eliot’s original log meeting house reportedly stood on this site as late as 1823.
Swinging around to the east side of the common is the site of the former St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. Designed by noted church architect Patrick Keeley, St. Peters was constructed between 1892 and 1900 to house parishioners who had worshiped since the 1841 founding of St. Peter’s parish at a brick church built at the corner of Gorham and Appleton Streets. St. Peters closed as an active church in 1986 and was demolished in 1996 after a portion of its granite facade had dangerously dropped to the ground alongside Gorham Street. The adjacent and surviving St. Peter’s rectory now houses the James Cooney Insurance Agency and several law offices.
Across Gorham Street from and slightly north of the St Peter’s site sits the ivy covered St John’s Episcopal Church, a Gothic Revival structure built in 1860 to accommodate congregants from the overcrowded St. Anne’s Church.
Directly across Gorham Street from the St. Peter’s site is the Middlesex Superior Courthouse which consists of two very distinct buildings. The original structure, a three story red brick building, was constructed in 1848 right on Gorham Street. Fifty years later when Middlesex County decided to enlarge the courthouse, the original building was moved sixty feet backwards and a new building was constructed in front of it. Ever since the new building’s dedication in 1898, the two structures have been joined together as one, providing a home for the Superior Court and for the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds which was created by the state legislature in 1855
This brief survey of the South Common ecosystem only scratches the surface of all the history contained in that neighborhood. But the South Common is not unique. Lowell has an almost infinite number of like spaces, all with their own fascinating stories.
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.