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Lowell History: Within These Walls: Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of City Hall and the Pollard Memorial Library

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City Hall and Pollard Memorial Library

The Town of Lowell

On March 6,1826, the newly incorporated Town of Lowell held its first town meeting at the Balch & Coburn Tavern near Pawtucket Falls.  Lowell's earliest political ventures were initiated by Boston investors who wanted local control of taxes in order to provide services to their workers.  With a vote of all residents then present, this meeting resulted in the election of three selectmen, a five member school committee, and a representative to the state legislature.  Although mill interests dominated the proceedings, the new municipality also allowed "old" residents to influence the future of their area.

For the next five years, Lowell's town meetings were held in the hall of the Merrimack Hotel.  Mayor John Pickman surmised that taverns were chosen as meeting places with a view to secure not only sufficient accommodations for the most largely attended gathering of the year but also to provide the means of satisfying cravings of thirst and hunger of those attending.

By 1830, Lowell had grown from a population of 2,500 in 1826 to 6,500 residents.  With a need for more meeting space and offices from which minimal public services could be run, Lowell constructed a town hall.  Town Hall reflected a long tradition of municipal building in the United States.  Combining a second floor for government use with a first floor public market, placed government in a secondary role to trade and business.  The Greek Revival style chosen for the Town Hall was intended to reflect the ideals of democracy and enlightenment which were thought by many Americans to be epitomized in the civilized society of the early Greeks.

Government operations at this time were limited to providing schools and passing legislation intended to protect the public welfare.  Actual services, such as police and fire, were provided byprivate citizens in the form of privately funded police patrols and volunteer fire companies.

Lowell's First Town Hall

The City of Lowell

With the incorporation of several new mills in the early 1830s, Lowell's population exploded to 12,000 by 1832.  Soon, the town meeting form of government, with every resident invited to attend and vote on each item of business, became cumbersome and unresponsive to the needs of the general public.  After local officials lobbied the state legislature, Lowell was granted the third Massachusetts City Charter on April 1, 1836.  The bicameral government which was created provided for a mayor, a six member Common Council, and a twenty four member Board of Aldermen, which combined, was referred to as the City Council.  Policy decisions were confirmed by the populace in annual elections of officials.

In 1844, the City Council voted to create a public library.  With a combined state and local appropriation of $3,500, the City School Library opened on February 11, 1845, in the western section of Town Hall.  An annual fee of fifty cents was charged for its use.  Other government services expanded at this time to meet the demands of a growing population.  Street paving at public expense began in 1844.  In 1845, the City developed the North and South Commons to provide open space within this increasingly congested city.  In response to epidemics of cholera and other diseases, a City water works was put in to operation in 1855.

This era of expanding public service brought, for the first time, paid city employees who applied professional skills to the operation of government.  Elected officials at this time significantly influenced the order and operation of the City which for years had been the province of individuals or corporations.  By the 1840s, government offices occupied the entire Town Hall.  In 1872, increased demands for space forced the Library to relocate to the Masonic Temple on Merrimack Street.  By the end of the nineteenth century, City government had taken on an identity.

The City Hall Commission

By the 1870s, city leaders recognized the need for more office space and, more importantly, they envisioned a new City Hall that would represent local government's independence and influence.  In 1879, the City Council voted to purchase a lot from the Merrimack Manufacturing company as the site for a new City Hall.  In 1888, the Mayor and City Council appointed a six member commission to oversee the design and construction of the new building, as well as the construction of a City Library that would also serve as a memorial to those Lowell men who had died in the Civil War.  In the interest of honest government and in an attempt to solicit the best possible designs for these 

City Hall  1893
public buildings, the commission organized a design competition for which 23 architects submitted proposals.  Drawings of Greek Revival, Gothic, Romanesque, Classical Revival, and Queen Ann structures were carefully reviewed for their styles and for efficiency in arrangement of offices.  Three architects received awards for their proposals, yet no single design submitted satisfied the commission.  Suggestions from the commissioners were incorporated into revised designs submitted by the winners.  Finally, the commission voted to award the construction of City Hall to the third place winner, the local firm of Merrill and Cutler.  The construction of Memorial Hall was awarded to the Lowell born architect whose design had been awarded first place: Frederick Stickney.

     Amid cries of taxation and extravagance, the commission successfully convinced voters and the City council to appropriate $150,000 and $300,000 respectively for the construction of Memorial Hall and City Hall.  Construction did not begin for several months, however, due to continued revision of designs and attempts to locate contractors to perform the work within the budget.  After several rounds of contractor bidding and a number of alterations to the designs to reduce constructions costs, the cornerstones of the two buildings were laid at a grand ceremony on October 11, 1890.  Three years later, the two buildings were open for use.

City Hall and the City Library

Yonder Memorial Building is not a soulless pile of granite; it is a monument to loyalty and valor; the library is a votive offering to education; the city hall is a temple of civil liberty.  Such influences as these should inspire a loftier standard of citizenship, making us realize that public affairs are a part of our daily life, not to be neglected or put aside, and that there are no more pressing duties or higher responsibilities or nobler privileges than the duties, responsibilities, and privileges of American citizen.

(Hon. Charles D. Palmer, City Hall Dedication 
Address, October 14, 1893.)

These monumental structures represented the highest hopes for municipal government and a new, independent and powerful identity for the citizens of Lowell.  City Hall's 360 foot clock tower was visible from all parts of the City.  Oak and marble interiors spoke of the importance of municipal activities, and the layout of offices and meeting rooms emphasized a new efficiency and cooperation among municipal agencies.  The stacks in the Library were of the most modern design, intending to hold a collection of over 20,000 volumes which would advance the intellectual and cultural awareness of a sophisticated urban population.  After fourteen years of planning, City Hall and the City Library stood as a crowning achievement of a city taking its place as a major urban center, separate from Boston and independent from the industrialists who had directed Lowell's past.

     As Lowell's government has changed, so has City Hall. When it was constructed, grand chambers for the Common Council and Board of Alderman were the focus of the building.  The Mayor's office and reception room were also furnished and decorated in a grand style, denoting the importance of these officials to the operations of the City.  In 1911, in response to rising taxes and political scandals, Lowell's residents voted to change the City Charter to create a governing body much like a corporation's board of directors.  Mayor and a four member commission, all elected at large, directed the workings of the government, with each commission being responsible for a separate department.  Thirteen years later, the City moved to a strong mayoral form of government and in, 1942, amid economic depression and political scandal, the City once again voted to alter its charter, this time to the Plan E form of government that we know today.  These changes in political organization are reflected in the physical changes to City Hall.  The original Common Council Chambers have been converted into office space and now house the Department of Code and Inspections. The original Mayor's offices have been divided to accommodate the Offices of the City Manager.

City Library 1893

Despite these changes, the original grandeur of City Mall can still be felt.  The Engineers Office and Office of the City Clerk retain their original functions and much of their historic fabric.  The City Council chambers retains its original finishes and reflects the monumental vision of early city leaders.

     Although the functions of the City Library have changed little through history, the building has seen alterations.  In 1915, a disastrous fire destroyed much of Memorial Hall.  When it was reconstructed, murals of significant military events and additional stained glass windows were installed.  In 1981, the City Library was named the Samuel S. Pollard Memorial Library in honor of the late Mayor and, in 1990, plans began for the restoration of the Library to accommodate modern operations.

Learning from the Library and City Hall

There is still much work for us to do, before we can completely and satisfactorily solve the problem how to attain perfection in gvernment.  As the builders will add stone to stone and brick to brick in the construction of this building, so let us with patience and industry gradually work out the solution of this great problem, until we can show the world a perfect model of municipal government.
(Grand Master of the Masonic Temple at     exercises laying the cornerstone of the new City Hall, October 11, 1890).

In looking at the grand granite monuments that are City Hall and Pollard Library, we understand the pride and optimism that was felt by officials and residents of an earlier Lowell.  And if we look closer at these public buildings, we can learn much about the history of our City and the men and women who shaped it.  The attic of City Hall no longer houses the office of the Inspector of Milk and Vinegar.  However, it currently serves a vastly more important function, for within the attic are tax books, payrolls, payment books, and Council records that document the 167 years of Town and City government.  We can discover how much local carpenter W.H. Wiggin was paid to build furniture for several City offices and learn how the city financed this payment.  And we can also learn why the Mayor vetoed the first Council vote to purchase land for the construction of City Hall. 

     By studying how our local government worked for us in the past, we can better understand our present and our future.  Civil liberty, education, and patriotism were the driving forces in the construction of City Hall and Memorial Hall.  On entering these buildings today, we can recall the ideals of the past and apply them to decisions in the future.

The Exhibit

Using documents which have been located and evaluated through an on going City Archive program, the History of City Hall and Pollard Memorial Library come alive through photographs, drawing, and municipal documents.  The exhibit shows the rich history of our public buildings, the complexities of government operations, and the vast resources available through the identification and organization of existing municipal records.

The Lowell Historic Board

The Lowell Historic Board (LHB) was established to promote the educational, cultural, economic, and general welfare of the public through the preservation, protection, and enhancement of the unique historic values of the City of Lowell.  LHB helps preserve buildings and places significant in the history of the City, the Commonwealth and the United States.

Mark Bograd
Arthur Eno, Jr.
Frank Grady
Richard Johnson
Gretchen Sanders Joy
Robert Johnson-Lally
Richard Leach
Paul Marion
Brian Martin
Martha Mayo
Juliet Mofford
Rosemary Noon
Anne O'Brien

Lowell Historic Preservation Commission
 Lowell Historical Society
 Lowell National Historical Park
  Pollard Memorial Library
University of Massachusetts Lowell
  Center for Lowell History

Photographs by Robert E. Wescott, "Monograph of City Hall and Memorial Building, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1893."

City Hall Clock Tower