I relearned how quickly news evolves today. I’ve been working on following up Aurora’s post on the Jerathmell (now that’s a name) Bowers House, when richardhowe.com posted letters in support of preservation from both the Lowell Historical Society and Lowell Heritage Foundation. The intended audience of the letters were city councils and boards, the developer, and the community at large, calling for cooperation to do as much as possible to “preserve the historic value that exists in the building.”
The Bowers House discussion reminds me of a higher-profile preservation debate in Lowell: The Pawtucket Dam. For those who don’t know, the US Department of Justice recently filed a lawsuit against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over FERC’s approval of replacing the dam’s historic flashboards with a pneumatic system. The controversies are different in nature as well as scale:
- Modification vs. demolition
- Within the National Historical Park boundaries vs. outside any historic district
- Part of a system that is interpreted to hundreds of thousands yearly vs. a structure whose context has been removed
- Legal challenges vs. a call to cooperate
Nevertheless, it raises the same questions:
- How do we value historically significant structures with no currently apparent economic development value?
- How do we weigh historic impacts vs. other impacts (flooding in the case of the dam, traffic in the case of the Bowers House)?
- Are we protecting everything we as a community value, and are those protections sufficiently comprehensive?
I know some bring up another question: Why does society get to impede on private property rights without buying that property or an easement? To me, this is a non-starter. Property rights are an abstraction created by society, only as real as the rights of a squirrel defending its territory. Just as squirrel society defines squirrels’ rights, human society defines “property” and the bundle of rights given to an owner.
In the case of preservation, there’s Supreme Court precedent that society can’t take all property rights away from an individual without reimbursement, but it can use police power to take many rights so long as it is rationally justified and leaves the individual with an economically productive use of the land (link to National Trust summary of Supreme Court cases). It is society’s job to balance these rights to produce a just and productive system. Notably, I’m not aware of any proposed regulatory action involving Bowers House, so this question might not even be relevant here.
Turning back to Bowers House, I often turn to a city’s comprehensive master plan to guide my thoughts about the goals of that micro-socety. The plan discusses a number of preservation efforts, but they largely concentrate on the mill buildings and downtown core. I could find only one applicable action item on page 71, as part of the objective to “enhance enjoyment, appreciation , and stewardship of Lowell ’s historic and cultural resources”:
Acknowledge and support efforts to expand Lowell’s historic preservation initiatives beyond the National Park and mill era to include recognition and stewardship of historic resources from all eras of Lowell’s past.
This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been other efforts involving the Bowers House. First of all, the property was listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. This doesn’t afford it universal protection: it merely qualifies renovations on income-producing properties for tax credits; requires federal projects or projects requiring a federal permit that impact the property must complete an environmental review process; and in Massachusetts, limited protection and some matching grant opportunities. I admit I haven’t seen the application, as it hasn’t yet been digitized.
In addition, Lowell Parks and Conversation Trust was working with the previous owners on preservation options back in 2010. I’m currently trying to determine what, if anything, came of that effort. It may shed additional light onto options the community can consider now. If anyone has any info, please let me know, and I’ll spread the word!
Although the potential for reuse is slim, the best possible idea we’ve come up so far is a themed restaurant. It’s in a commercial district and an entrepreneur could play up its living history, serving regional food from multiple eras! Of course, it’s far from where tourists interested in history would go; three in five restaurants close after three years; and I imagine a lot of work would need to go into getting it up to code. Nobody said preservation was easy!