It has been a while since we’ve written about the Jerathmell Bowers House, but it is becoming an interesting success story. I’ve been slowly learning more about the Bowers House, which hosted Lowell Historical Society meetings in the 1970s. The most recent chapter of the property’s history began in 2010, when the previous owners worked with the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust (LP&CT) to find a new use for the old house. LP&CT may be most famous for its work on the Concord River Greenway and offering programs such as the whitewater rafting trips. It also owns many open spaces and conservation restrictions, including the Spalding House on 383 Pawtucket Street, and is advancing restoration projects with a goal of creating exhibits about the house’s history. Much like the Bowers House, the context surrounding the Spalding House has changed: Once on a 10-acre parcel, the house was an inn for barge workers in the second half of the 1700s. However, the city grew into it, and now the house has a story of change to tell.
This made LP&CT a natural ally of the Bowers House. Jane Calvin, LP&CT’s executive director, was kind enough to share with me the story of how she lead tours through the house with agencies such as MassPreservation, Parker Foundation, and the City of Lowell. In addition, LP&CT assisted a Boston University student creating a report about the house. Although the exterior may seem unimpressive, the interior sports extra-thick walls purportedly for defense in King Phillips’ War, hand-hewn wall panels, and encased supports that typify pre-industrial construction. However, post-recession years have been tough for preservationists, and no developer could be found.
Finally, Kazanjian Enterprises, a well-known developer owned by a former City Councilor, bought the property and proposed an approximately 3,000 sq ft bank building and 6,300 office/retail building on the site in the summer of 2013. After talking with the City, they developed a site plan (Note the North Arrow is actually pointing west):
This plan preserved the historic house in its current location. However, transportation engineers believed the access on Wood Street was too close to the busy Westford/Wood intersection. They suggested moving or demolishing the Bowers House to locate a driveway there instead. This lead to the second proposal:
In this proposal, the driveway is a bit more than 330′ from the intersection. The developer was unable to find anyone willing to move the house to another property, so they identified an area on the lot to move the house. However, this was a preliminary proposal, as the proposed area is in a flood plain of the Black Brook and would require mitigation if the house were moved there.
The Conservation Committee discussed this proposal around the time we first reported on the Bowers House. When reviewing the meeting, I noted that the developer inaccurately stated the property was “not listed on the historical register or anything.” It was also interesting that the Conservation Commission wasn’t aware of the reason for moving the house, and the developer had to “play telephone” between the transportation engineering office and the commission. Misinformation and lack of communication is a common problem in board review, and many communities are moving toward coordinated development reviews to streamline the process for developers.
The discussion also highlighted another common “problem” in planning, described by a Conservation Commission member: “Often times historical preservation and environmental protection butt heads.” This is one of the most exciting parts of my profession: finding and negotiating solutions to competing interests, all of which have the public interest at heart. The regulating bodies may even disagree internally about priorities. For example, some Conservation Commission members felt alteration to the artificial wetland was preferable to demolition of the house. Others thought maintaining the current slopes took precedence over saving the house. Either way, there were serious doubts about whether the house could survive such a move and if it would still be historically valuable without the chimney and foundation.
Most recently, the developer and the City worked to create a third proposal:
This site plan, discussed at tonight’s Planning Board meeting, maintains the house in its current location (the area where the house could be moved is shown, but is no longer necessary). The developer reoriented the office/retail building to provide access about 285′ from the intersection. I hope to learn more about the story and who, if anyone, compromised. The developer must still work out details with the City, including the orientation of left turn lanes onto and off of Westford and pedestrian access, which was clearly expressed as a priority by the Planning Board. The Bowers House porch may be removed to improve sight lines at the driveway, but many consider the porch a nonessential addition. The hearing will be continued to the next Planning Board meeting, January 23. It will be exciting to see the next phase of the Bowers House’s history and learn about the work that ensured it could safely be preserved!