Preservation in Lowell

National Roots

Lowell is similar to many communities across the country that have sought to identify, protect, and preserve their historic resources.  In 1931, the first historic preservation review board in the United Stated was created in Charleston, South Carolina to preserve and protect the historic resources of the Old and Historic Charleston District.  Other early efforts included the establishment of the Vieux Carre Commission in New Orleans' French Quarter in 1937 and the creation of preservation ordinances in San Antonio, Texas in 1939. 
Today, more than 2,300 communities across the nation have created historic preservation commissions like the Lowell Historic Board (LHB) to protect their historic resources and are a critical component of community planning and environmental efforts.

Lowell Beginnings

Urban disinvestment and decline were a familiar sight in America's older cities in the mid-20th century.  Lowell was no exception as the collapse of the city's once-thriving textile industry in the 1920s and 1930s resulted in empty mill buildings and a decaying downtown.  During the 1950s and 1960s, federal urban renewal funding became available to Lowell but unfortunately, this funding did not stimulate economic renewal and resulted in the demolition of some of the city's most significant millyards and tore apart several ethnic neighborhoods.
However, some in Lowell saw the city's history as a means to its revitalization.  In the early 1970s, planning efforts began to focus on preservation as a core element of the city's revitalization strategy.  In 1971, the City Council authorized the creation of an historic district study commission that resulted two years later in the creation of the city's first historic commission and two local design review districts downtown under Massachusetts' historic district enabling act.  In addition, the City began to invest in pedestrian improvements downtown that reinforced the area's 19th century setting and provided design assistance to businesses and property owners.

Two districts were also placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  In 1975, the City Hall Historic District was listed that encompassed a small portion of downtown and included a variety of commercial, residential, religious, and public buildings.  A year later the Locks and Canals Historic District was listed and included the city's 5.6 mile canal system, surviving millyards, and other industrial-related resources.  In 1977, the Locks and Canals district was designated a National Historic Landmark, the nation's highest level of historic significance and recognition.

The establishment of the Lowell Heritage State Park in 1974 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts further reinforced ongoing City efforts and projects, adding credibility to efforts to establish a National Park in Lowell.

Growth and Expansion

The establishment of the Lowell National Historical Park (LNHP) in 1978, along with the simultaneous creation of the LHNP's sister federal agency the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission (LHPC),  solidified and expanded the city's preservation efforts.  The LHPC was created to assist in the park's development, stimulate preservation of Lowell's downtown buildings, and develop cultural programs.  
Strengthening and expanding historic preservation review and regulations was a key requirement that Congress placed on Lowell when creating the LNHP in order to ensure that community actions and development activity would be consistent with the establishment of the National Park, the federal investment in Lowell, and preservation goals.  The Lowell Historic Board (LHB) and the Downtown Lowell Historic District (DLHD) were created by Special Act of the Massachusetts Legislature in 1983, satisfying the federal requirement placed upon Lowell. As part of this action, the original historic district commission was abolished and the two 1970s design districts consolidated and expanded as part of the DLHD.

Success and National Model

Today, preservation is the basis of much of Lowell's economic development, tourism, and marketing efforts.  The community's revitalization is a tribute to the highly-successful public/private partnerships that have been a central ingredient in every project undertaken. 

Since the creation of the LHB in 1983, over 2,400 permits have been issued in the DLHD, indicating an extraordinary level of change.  Nearly $1 billion in development activity has taken place within the DLHD while nearly 98% of 5.2 million square feet of mill space has been rehabilitated.
A second design review district, the Acre Neighborhood District, was created in 1999 to assist in the implementation of the Acre Neighborhood Revitalization and Development Plan.  Eight additional neighborhood districts were created in 2005 in already-existing National Register districts, with one other in 2011, in order to review demolition and new construction, bringing to 11 the number of LHB review districts.

In addition, since the mid-1970s the number of districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places has grown to 14 and individually-listed properties to 26, spread throughout downtown and the neighborhoods.  The City has also  been instrumental in the preservation and rehabilitation of historic landscapes in these districts including Tyler Park and Rogers Fort Hill Park.
Extensive public programming, interpretive and educational programs, wayside exhibits, and public art add to the vibrancy of the city and reinforce Lowell's history and culture, helping weave together the significant areas, vistas, and structures along the LNHP Canalway path system, Riverwalk, and throughout the DLHD.  Cultural events such as the Lowell Folk Festival, Boarding House Park Summer Music Series, Doors Open Lowell, and Winterfest encourages the community to celebrate its rich heritage in the midst of Lowell's historic buildings and sites.

Lowell has succeeded in reclaiming the attributes that makes it a special place, using heritage as a very successful economic development strategy.  The city has set a standard and model for excellence that other communities have sought to follow.