At last night’s Planning Board meeting, it became clear that things are looking grim for the oldest house in Lowell. The Bowers House, which probably dates to somewhere between the late 1600’s and the early 1700’s, is on land that has been purchased by the Lowell 5 bank. My understanding is that they originally promised to preserve the building, but since then either their thinking has evolved or they’ve become more honest about their intentions. You can listen to the discussion yourself at LTC.
I’m picking up on this after reading several conversations going on about it on Facebook. I wanted to make sure and get a public blog post about it, so nobody misses the discussion, but I’m jumping into this in the middle, and I’m hoping somebody more knowledgeable than me is working on their own post about it. Corey Sciuto, in particular, seems like he has a lot of good information about the history of the Bowers house. I’d love to be corrected if I’m getting any of this garbled.
As I understand it, the Lowell 5 bank was trying to come up with a way to move the house within the site, but their suggestion wasn’t a hit with the conservation commission, because they didn’t allow for enough floodwater storage capacity. So now they’re hoping that somebody else will step forward and move the house so it can be preserved elsewhere.
Easier said than done. It seems so simple to say “We’ll make it a museum!”, but starting a museum is no small deal. Trying to save a building by starting a museum is like trying to save a marriage by having a kid: it’s not a solution, it’s a whole new set of stress and responsibility. It’s important to note that even the most profitable museums are on the razor’s edge, and small historical museums will probably always need financial support and heavy volunteer dedication. It’s not a good solution for the vast majority of cases.
Often, as Lowell has found, adaptive re-use is the best option available. But in this case, it would be be tricky to find funding to move the house and make it functional, and trickier still to find a good way to use it. It would be no small feat.
What would make the house worth saving? If you assume that we can’t save every house, we should come up with some criteria. It’s old, there’s no doubt about that. It’s arguably the oldest house in Lowell, and that seems sad to lose. It survives from Lowell’s rural days, before there even was a Lowell. Is it important to preserve the house so we can tell the story of that period in Lowell’s life? Even though it’s not the most “important” era for the city, and even though other cities in the region have nice examples of the period preserved? It’s not an easy question.
Here we reach a second dilemma. The house has been heavily, significantly altered over the years. If what you want to tell is an early American story, both the inside and outside have been changed enough that it’s not really a good example of that period. That’s true of a lot of historic houses that survive, so it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. But there’s no denying that it’s not ideal. Essentially, the house would need either heavy restoration, or some really stellar interpretation to be a good way to teach this history. When we add in the confusion and sense of disconnection that’s caused when a historic building is relocated? It’s looking to me like a hard row to hoe.
Not everything can be saved. But what’s really important is that these difficult decisions are made out in the open, with as much input and care as possible. We may not be able to save the house, but we owe it our consideration.