Neighborhood Historic Districts
By Jennifer Myers for the LHP 15 Year Report, The Power of Preservation

By 2005, the city had managed to preserve and redevelop a good deal of the historic mills and other structures in the downtown, but historic homes in the neighborhoods beyond the downtown remained without protection. That was made very clear when a wrecking ball tore through the 107-year-old Alexis Sargeant House in the city’s Belvidere neighborhood. The developer who had purchased the 2.2-acre YWCA/Rogers Hall complex had planned to clear the parcel in the Rogers Fort Hill District for a 10-lot townhouse development.

Resident Michael Ready, with assistance from Marion and then-LNHP Ranger Mehmed Ali, led the charge to expand the Historic Board’s powers to include control over demolition of historic homes (those 50-years-old or older) and design review powers over new construction within the city’s eight neighborhood historic districts. The districts, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, include: Andover Street; Belvidere Hill; Rogers Fort Hill Park; South Common; Tyler Park; Wannalancit Street; Washington Square; and Wilder Street.

On the night of July 12, 2005, members of the LHP joined other supporters of historic preservation in packing the Council Chamber at City Hall. In the days leading up to the meeting the feeling in the city was the council was not keen on supporting the expansion of the Historic Board’s powers.

“Any time you raise the prospect of preservation control there is a worry about being seen as anti-business or interfering with private property,” Marion says.

There was some talk about using one district as a test district, a trail balloon quickly popped by advocates and the newspaper, with a Lowell Sun editorial calling the idea “divisive” and “elitist.” Twenty speakers addressed the City Council, some persuading them with passionate speeches about preserving the history and culture of the city’s neighborhoods and others with blunt common sense.

“If you don’t do something to approve this modest approach, you’re screwing us,” artist John Greenwald, a former Sun editor told the council. “Make a small change that will make a big difference.”

“After the parade of speakers and with people practically hanging off the lights on the upper floor, the councilors one by one spoke in favor and then voted unanimously,” Marion recalls of that July night. “It was a triumph of community organizing.”

“I think that vote was important not only by preventing 24-hour demolition for these interesting properties but also for declaring to the entire city that the neighborhoods are just as historically important to Lowell's story as the downtown is,” Ali says.

Look around the city to see the impact expanding the Historic Board’s oversight has had in the last decade, Stowell says. “You wouldn’t have the quality of construction and design that is seen today in areas like Fort Hill.”

 

The LHP’s interest in the city’s unique neighborhoods spans beyond preserving the history. The group has also encouraged visitors and locals alike to explore the neighborhoods, enjoying those preserved relics of the past as well as the marks left by various ethnic groups and the modern day delights found in neighborhood restaurants and bakeries, as well as the beauty of the city’s green spaces and waterways.

In 2003, the LHP with funding from the Theodore Edson Parker Foundation, the Greater Lowell Community Foundation and Lowell National Historical Park, published Lowell’s Special Places: Exploring the Neighborhoods.

It provided history about each of the city’s seven major neighborhoods, walking tours of each, a guide of restaurants by neighborhood and pamphlets outlining each of the city’s National Historic Register Neighborhood Districts.

Although somewhat outdated today, the guide remains the most comprehensive packet of information about the history and character of the city’s neighborhoods that has been published.