Appleton Mills and the Birth of LHP
By Jennifer Myers for the LHP 15 Year Report, The Power of Preservation
It started in early 2000.
One of the city’s most important mill complexes, the Appleton Mills, vacant and neglected for years, was headed for a date with a wrecking ball. Joan Fabrics, then operating in the building that is now the Loft 27 residences, was interested in expanding onto the Appleton Mills site and building a dye house.
Proponents argued the mills were a fire hazard and threatened Joan Fabrics’ business. The City Council was asked to redraw the boundaries of the Downtown Historic District, removing the Appleton Mills from Lowell Historic Board oversight, allowing for demolition and redevelopment without input from the public or Historic Board.
Where some saw crumbling bricks and unstable floors, others saw an important piece of the city’s industrial history. Preservationists like Fred Faust, former Executive Director of the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission (LHPC) and Stephen Stowell, administrator of the Historic Board, did not want to see the Appleton Mills go the way of the Dutton Street boarding houses, razed in the early 1960s.
They began to organize.
Community leaders convened at the 1760 Spalding House, originally the Moses Davis Inn, to craft a public response. Stowell recalls going into the meeting with the mindset of establishing a preservation-focused non-profit along the lines of Historic Seattle or Historic Boston, an advocacy group that could provide revolving loan funds. However, as the night progressed, it became clear that the coalition that was forming had an opportunity to be not only about historic preservation, but also about protecting and promoting natural resources and culture.
At the time there was, as long-time board member Paul Marion puts it, “a gap in the community infrastructure.” The legislative authority of the federally funded and staffed Lowell Historic Preservation Commission had expired five years prior, taking away what had become a critical public forum for discussion on historic preservation and other national park matters.
“The LHPC had funding, staff and legal preservation mandates. When it was dissolved there was disarray in the preservation area,” recalls LHP board member Marie Sweeney. “There were individuals, organizations, and institutions like the National Park Service, the Lowell Historical Society, Human Services Corporation /Lowell: the Flowering City, Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust and the like that had concerns and a vested interest in the concept of preservation of all kinds but there was no “neutral ground”—as Dr. Patrick Mogan used to call it—to get together for discussion, planning and action.”
The mission of the LHPC had been “To tell the human story of the Industrial Revolution in a nineteenth-century setting by encouraging cultural expression.” It was about buildings and the people in the buildings. For 17 years they were the organization that insured the “Lowell” in LNHP stayed true to the community. They were the local complement to the federal authorities that held decision-making powers over the future of the city’s past.
“There was a sense that the community was less engaged in a substantive way in the decisions,” says Marion. “Also, if there was one thing the preservation advocates had not done well since 1978 it was to organize a strong preservation booster club in the city. In a way it was too easy to defer to the federal agencies, particular on development issues. There was also the worry that complacency might lead to problems in the future.”
At the same time, the Flowering City charrette organized in the late 1990’s by the Human Services Corporation had put a focus on preserving and beautifying the city’s natural environment. The meeting at the Spalding House, prompted by the threat to the Appleton Mills and attended by many leaders who had been involved with the LHPC and the HSC, led to the birth of a new organization built to incorporate the missions of those that came before it—the Lowell Heritage Partnership.
“The LHP’s motto is ‘Caring for Architecture, Nature, and Culture’—that sums it up,” Marion says.
And what became of those Appleton Mills? The City Council took no action on removing them from the Historic District. However, eventually, two of the distressed buildings, were demolished. The rest of the complex was taken by eminent domain by the City as part of the $800 million Hamilton Canal District redevelopment project and sold to master developer Trinity Financial, which invested $62 million in creating 135 artist live/work units at Appleton.
“A prominent national mill developer recently told me that historic buildings like these are easier to do in this economy (due to the use of historic tax credits) and that we would see greater challenges to new construction,” says LNHP Assistant Superintendent Peter Aucella. “That is proving to be true in the Hamilton Canal District.”