At the center of Lowell, Massachusetts lie the rivers, dams, canals, and factories which contributed to the growth of one of America's greatest manufacturing centers. Although considerable attention has been focused on the study of Lowell's central core, the majority of Lowell's residents in the mid-to-late nineteenth century resided outside the city center. The colorful names of Lowell’s neighborhoods - such as Chapel Hill, Belvidere Village, Pawtucketville, Centralville, and the Highlands - provide only a hint of the important role these areas had in shaping the city's history.
Among the earliest of these neighborhoods is Chapel Hill, with representative residential architectural styles from nearly every period of the city's industrial development. Enveloping a hilly site, Chapel Hill is bounded at the east by the Concord River, at the west by Gorham Street, and at the north and south by Charles Street and Hale’s Brook.
Chapel Hill's settlement began in the 1820s, when Lowell was emerging as a major textile center. Although many of the town's residents were employed in the cotton mills and lived in company-owned houses, the growing community attracted others: shopkeepers, carpenters, masons, policemen - who supplied the goods and services required by a rapidly expanding town.
For individuals wishing to build their own houses, Chapel Hill proved to be the only available land convenient to the center of Lowell that was neither in corporation ownership nor separated from the mills by a river. Unlike Centralville and Washington Square in Belvidere, which date from the 1830s, there was no predetermined plan for the growth of Chapel Hill.
Instead of following a previously laid-out grid of streets and house lots, the area grew organically, conforming to the topography and to the random sale and development of house lots. Paralleling the north-south axis of Gorham Street (the original colonial route between East Chelmsford and Billerica), Central Street wrapped around the hill, Chapel Street ran over its ridgeline, and Lawrence Street followed the Concord River. A network of short cross streets (Charles, North, Ames, Mill and Elm) soon connected them.
By 1831 over 50 buildings had been erected, including two churches. These early churches, on their hilly site, lent the area its name. Although the majority of residents lived in small single family.
Greek Revival and Italianate houses, Central and Chapel Streets hosted more sophisticated Greek Revival double houses erected for prominent individuals including a mayor, members of the city’s first government and prosperous merchants. Groceries and shop were also built along Central and Chapel Streets, usually located in the ground floor of a dwelling.
The small lots and closely-built houses of Walnut, Cedar, Linden and Keene Streets were the result of an 1845 auction of excess land held by Locks and Canals, the primary corporation for Lowell's real estate water power. The demand for housing proved so intense that the Locks and Canals lots were quickly built upon with small houses of nearly-identical appearance. Among the other parcels bought from Locks and Canals was the South Common, later laid out by the City as a public park.
By 1868 all of Chapel Hill's streets were laid out. As land throughout the city became scarce, the small-scale character of the neighborhood was slowly broken by multiple dwellings of three or four stories, a practice which continued to the turn of the century. Alleys and courts provided access to additional buildings which were crowded onto back portions of lots.
Although the earliest residents of Chapel Hill were primarily of New England ancestry, by the Civil War the neighborhood had become an attractive destination for upwardly mobile Irish-Catholic immigrants, lured to Lowell by work opportunities in the mills. Their numbers had been increasing steadily over the second half of the 19tb century; in 1842 they erected St. Peter's Church, a small brick structure just north of Chapel Hill. Fifty years later it was replaced by the present St. Peter's Church on Gorham Street.