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FROM:  Harvard Architecture Review,  MIT Press, Cambridge, Vol 2, Spring 1981,

From Building to Architecture,

The Emergence of Victorian Lowell

(C) Randolph Langenbach, 1981


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26.  Merrimack Mills, Lowell, 1850, showing the "New Mill" of 1845 behind the original 1820s mills

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27.  The Merrimack Dressing Mill, ca. 1865. The Dressing Mill was built in 1863 as a two-story structure and later was raised to six stories, with the tower probably jacked up in the process.

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28.  View of the Merrimack Canal, ca. 1880, showing the Dressing Mill

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29.  View showing the Merrimack boardinghouses and Dressing Mill in 1929

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30.  The Amoskeag Mills, Manchester, New Hampshire

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31.  The Salmon Falls New Mill, 1845.

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32. The Boott Mills, 1850, as they were originally designed.

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33.  The Boott Mills, ca. 1870. This view is similar to that of Figure 32 and shows the millyard in the 1860s. The mills were joined together with the distinctive stair towers, including the bell tower, which remains a landmark in Lowell today.

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34.  The Appleton Mills, ca. 1880-1920. Overbuilt within their confined layouts, many of the Lowell millyards failed to achieve the design distinction of the Merrimack or the Boott Mills.

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35.  The mills, powerhouse, and chimney of the Lowell Manufacturing Company, Lowell.

Return to PART I



It is remarkable how durable Lowell's basic architectural and planning strategies were, surviving into the 1850s at an enlarged scale but in a form that otherwise differed little from Lowell's earliest millyard developments. What is more significant, however, is the fact that during the very period that Lowell's formula was being applied to the planning of Lawrence and Holyoke, additions to existing millyards in Lowell were already varying substantially from the original mill type and layout. The Merrimack Manufacturing Company provides two very important examples of the architectural changes that were taking place. First, in 1845, the same year that the original Bay State Mills were planned in Lawrence, the Merrimack Company constructed a large New Mill in an elaborate Greek Revival style, complete with pilasters between every window. And the stairs, instead of projecting from the body of the structure in a separate ell, were absorbed so as to preserve the architectural effect. The mill with its central, pedimented gable was placed directly at the foot of the tree-lined Dutton Street, making it a visual focus from the railroad station in the city center.

This new emphasis on architectural style and effect culminated in the late 1860s with the construction of the new Dressing Mill in the same millyard. This building affected the scene far more dramatically than did the New Mill, transforming as it did the most important vista in the oldest section of Lowell, the view down the Merrimack Canal.

The Merrimack Dressing Mill became an important element in terms of urban design as well as architecture. The view looking down the Merrimack Canal toward the Dressing Mill from the center of Lowell - with the original City Hall behind, the original church to the right, and the home of the company agent to the left - must have been one of the most impressive architectural compositions in America during the nineteenth century. The corporation boardinghouses formed a long, almost unbroken row on the left beginning with the modest, wooden dwellings of the first phase and ending with the larger, more dramatic "Long Row" constructed in the 1840s. The house of the first Boott Mills agent, the high school, and more houses were lined up behind the church on the right. The Dressing Mill was the tour-de-force, commanding the elm-lined canal space and providing a focal point (slightly off-center) with its tall Italianate Victorian tower. The total view was a masterful composition of elements that fit together into a wonderful hierarchy of form and detail.

Originally the view down the canal was terminated by one of the five 1822 Merrimack mills. The space formed by the canal and Dutton Street was not conceived then as architectural space with its own unique or dramatic character. Built behind the older row of mills, the large New Mill marked the beginning of a substantial architectural effort to distinguish the millyard. And it was the Dressing Mill that established a dramatic architectural symbol befitting the Merrimack Company's prestige as the largest and oldest corporation in Lowell. In the process the canal became more than a utilitarian source of power, it became a vital part of the visual composition terminated by the mill with its tower. This act of establishing an architectural "sense of place," specifically designed to impress, marks the emergence of a community within the city concerned with the corporate and civic image -not the same image of decency and moral purity remarked by Dickens and Chevalier, but of local identity, pride, and economic prowess.

A strong local community had emerged from the domination of Boston residents and at times even found itself in conflict with those interests whose authority seemed threatening. Even though the mills remained under the ownership of Boston-based corporations until the twentieth century, people who lived in' Lowell, whether they worked for the companies or not, had an increasing influence on the architectural form of the city, with much of the design and construction of the mills and other structures in the city becoming the responsibility of Lowell residents.

In Manchester, founded twenty years later than Lowell, it is interesting to note that much more power and responsibility was delegated to local managers earlier on, and greater political autonomy was given to the local community sooner than in Lowell. The results in terms of design are marked. In no cities other than Manchester did the prestige architecture of the Victorian era -with the towers, gateways, and elaborate iron details -find such a close and sympathetic integration with the simple, late Federal-style detailing of the Lowell mills and boardinghouses of the first generation of growth.

An important social force was beginning to affect all of the cities, providing a powerful incentive for architectural expression beyond the Lowell mill and boardinghouse formulae. This force may be seen especially well in the experience of Salmon Falls, a smaller mill community modeled on the Lowell plan. In about the same year as the Merrimack New Mill in Lowell, the Salmon Falls Company constructed a mill in an almost identical Greek Revival style. The new mill was credited by the local paper as having "a more finished appearance than we recollect ever to have noticed in a factory . . . more elegant in outward appearance and interior finish than any other similar structure in America."

The 1851 Salmon Falls Company Directors Report reveals that Salmon Falls in the later 1840s and 1850s was competing with Lowell for factory workers, whereas formerly: "a preference was shown for Salmon Falls (especially by the parents) over the large towns in that vicinity and especially over Lowell." (fn4) Initially Lowell had been beyond the region of Salmon Falls, but by the 1840s, the center of gravity had shifted from the rural areas like Salmon Falls to the urban - even cosmopolitan setting that Lowell had by then become. The 1851 Directors Report continues:

"The workers do not include so large a proportion of girls from the respectable farmers' families. They can find employment at home. . . . The Preference is now given to Lowell and the largest manufacturing towns."

The large and impressive brick mill was a clear reflection of the Salmon Falls Company's desire to impress people with its importance and urban sophistication, and the new mill's similarity to the Merrimack mill was probably more than coincidental.

The building of the Merrimack New Mill and later the Dressing Mill mark a larger shift taking place at this time. The competition, which Lowell began to experience, is part of the inevitable process marking the growth of an industrially based society. Hitherto the machines had competed with handwork, and thus had the market to themselves. During this time, spanning the first two decades of Lowell's growth, the mills were made as inconspicuous as possible so as to be more easily accepted by an uncertain public, thus accounting for their lack of individuality and up-to-date architectural expression. By the 1840s these halcyon days were over and the market began to reach the saturation point. Wages began to drop and the New England native women gradually left the mills, to be replaced by immigrants for whom the lower wages were acceptable. From the standpoint of attracting buyers and investors, the stature of a company became more important than the amenities for attracting workers, as the different companies were thrown into increasing competition with each other, and this began to be expressed in the architecture of the mills for the first time.

While Salmon Falls felt threatened by the cosmopolitan attraction of Lowell, Lowell was feeling the pressure of a new economic context. It was the first and largest textile-producing city, but the time was rapidly approaching when it would cease to hold a favored position and instead would have to compete as an equal against its neighbors. Lowell responded to the competition from hundreds of places like Salmon Falls in both areas of production and prestige. Moreover, having developed sufficiently to attract a local community of major strength, the town of Lowell began to assert its civic individuality; it was the town's effort to give the Merrimack Company and itself a visible identity that led to the building of the New Mill in 1845 in the prevailing architectural style, which made it almost identical to the one in Salmon Falls.

Was there a relationship between the decline of Lowell from its so-called utopian first period and the architectural changes which emerge from the same period? Frequently the architectural quality of a place is seen to parallel its social decline, yet these new mills were far more elaborate and distinguished examples of their architectural style than the earlier mills had been. In the case of Lowell, the relationship of the changes was more complex. The fact that many mill buildings such as the Merrimack New Mill and the Dressing Mill achieved a sophisticated architecture does not necessarily mean that the environment became more livable, or even more attractive. The shift was in two directions: While the principal mills became more elegant and the simple, repetitive designs of the earlier mills gave way to unique building forms with their elaborate bell towers, the millyards on either side often became darker and more congested. Additional mills were built with little thought toward an ultimate planning goal. Many of the amenities and landscaped spaces around the boardinghouses ceased to be improved or even maintained and eventually when the demand for space exceeded what was available in the millyard, cotton warehouses began to replace even the boardinghouses.

In examining the historical drama of the Industrial Revolution for its causes, one is attracted to the supposition that the invention of the machines precipitated the industrial period. But, critical as that invention was, it is also important to understand that this revolution would not have occurred in the form that it did, or expanded so rapidly, had it not been for both the prior accumulation of capital and the concurrent expansion of the market. For a time, a unique condition existed in the economy of textile production. The first Lowell corporations were able to produce cloth in industrial quantities while distributing it in a market whose price structure was still shaped by a pre-industrialized economy. As long as machine goods competed with hand goods, profits were enormous and even wages were high. The time soon came, however, in the 1840s and 1850s when machines began to compete with machines. It is at that point, and not at the moment of invention, that the age of industry as we know it was launched. Only then did the discipline of industrial life become complete. The need for maximum speed of production had become a principal ingredient of success, and wages, the one flexible cost within the factory, had been forced by competition into a major decline. The maturation of the industrial economy was a two-stage process, and Lowell's so-called idyllic period fell within the first. It is upon its transition to the second that the city experienced fundamental changes and gradually lost its reputation as a utopian industrial community.

At its best the architecture of the late nineteenth century mills and public buildings of Lowell stood as an almost heroic expression of individual and corporate pride and sense of purpose; at its worst it created a dense urban environment which was oppressive without relief. Taking its place in the context of the early, staid, conservative environment of the Lowell Chevalier called "decent, peaceable and sage," the best architecture of the late Victorian period added drama and enriched the city's appearance, giving it much of the visual character which survives today.








1 For a thorough and creative study of the architecture of early Lowell, see John Coolidge, Mill and Mansion, 1931.

2 C E Potter, History of Manchester, Manchester, N.H., 1856

3 This should not be confused with the results in Manchester and other cities where urban design of a high quality resulted from the subsequent extension and rebuilding of the mills, etc.

4 Gordon Grimes, "Portrait of Salmon Falls," New Hampshire Profiles, November 1974, p. 30

5 Grimes, "Portrait of Salmon Falls," p. 30