A Forgotten Part of Back Central


Gray Fitzsimons, Research Associate, Saab Center for Portuguese Studies, UMass Lowell

Marie Frank, Associate Professor and Director, Architectural Studies, UMass Lowell

April 5, 2024

credit: Lowell City Engineer's Collection, Center for Lowell History

credit: Lowell City Engineer's Collection, Center for Lowell History

This view shows the north side of Charles Street taken in 1925 for the City Engineering Department.

credit: Gray Fitzsimons

Taken in 2023, this view of the rear of Central Plaza, is from the same vantage point as the photograph above and on the left from 1925.

Although overshadowed by the demolition of tenements and commercial blocks in the Acre neighborhood in the 1940s and in “Little Canada” in the 1960s, two major urban renewal projects that the City of Lowell initiated in the 1950s, Bishop Markham Village, followed by the Church Street redevelopment (later called Central Plaza), took out a swath of the Back Central neighborhood. These two projects differed markedly from each other, with Bishop Markham Village planned as a major public housing facility, while the Church Street redevelopment aimed to generate commercial growth. But both represented attempts by local political and business leaders to remake a city that was losing population, suffering economic decline, and plummeting in prestige as a place to live and thrive.

The section of Back Central for Bishop Markham Village extended along Gorham Street, west to the South Common and ran, north to south, from Winter Street through Summer Street, to the grounds of St. Peter’s Church. For more than four generations, this densely populated area was home to many Irish families and it contained nearly 60 tenements and multi-family houses. A large number of the buildings dated from the pre-Civil War period. Several tenements along Gorham Street were of brick construction, but most dwellings were wood-frame buildings. By the late-19th century many considered Winter Street among the most impoverished parts of Lowell.  Local newspapers often commented on the various brawls, muggings, and drunkenness, as well as the constant presence of “street urchins,” in this locale. This reputation persisted well into the 20th century.

In 1954, with federal funds and under the auspices of the Lowell Housing Authority, all of this area’s residential and commercial blocks were demolished to make way for the Bishop Markham Village. It was named in honor of Msgr. Thomas F. Markham, a well-known and distinguished Catholic clergyman, who was born in Lowell and served as pastor of St. Peter’s parish. (The bishop died suddenly in 1952 at the age of 61.) Bishop Markham Village was the city’s third large-scale public housing development and when completed in 1958 it had two seven-story and four-six story high-rise apartments, along with the several three-story units.  All were stark, unornamented beige brick buildings, typical of the period’s public housing architecture.

Just as Bishop Markham Village was nearing completion, the Lowell Housing Authority began razing another section of Back Central, along Church Street. This would become known as the Central Plaza project and was exclusively a commercial redevelopment initiative. Leading the project, Charles Zettek, hired to lead the city’s planning department at its inception in 1954, proceeded with the strong backing from the City Manager as well as from Lowell’s political and business elites. Similar to the area where Bishop Markham Village arose, the two blocks south of Church Street, from Tyler to Charles streets, featured a large number of ante-bellum dwellings and tenements.

When first developed in the 1830s and 1840s, this part of Back Central was a suburban neighborhood physically removed from the massive mills in the downtown. It possessed some of the finest homes in Lowell, with outstanding examples of Greek Revival architecture. By the 1870s, the neighborhood had changed from one populated by New Englanders to a primarily Irish section of the city. Forty years later, Charles and Tyler streets constituted the heart of what was called Lowell’s “Portuguese colony.” The vast majority of these Portuguese immigrants worked in the city’s textile mills and came from the Azores.

By the early 1950s the Charles and Tyler Street blocks were among the more ethnically diverse parts of Lowell. Portuguese, Armenians, Lithuanians, Poles, along with a few Irish and French Canadians, and a few African-American families lived here and were displaced by the Central Plaza project. The property appraiser hired by the city to establish property values as part of the eminent domain procedure noted that “at the time of the taking the district had become infiltrated with Negro families who were either attached to soldiers at Fort Devens or by families who came up from the South seeking employment.” Joined with this racist perspective, the appraiser stated that this part of the city “could be termed on the  downgrade due to the present character of the occupancy,” but then pointed out that real estate values were, in fact, increasing because newer residents were willing to paying higher rental prices than families who “usually occupied the area.” Among the many buildings torn down was the Lithuanian Citizens Social Club located in a former single-family, wood-frame home built in the Second Empire style with a distinctive mansard roof. The one landmark spared the wrecking ball was the First Baptist Church, an ornate Greek Revival, wood-frame structure originally built in 1826 and enlarged after 1900.

As if to accentuate, however unintended, the contrast between god and mammon, the vast majority of the seven acre site surrounding the church was developed as a modern shopping center. A strip of commercial buildings ran from Central to Lawrence along the north side of Charles Street fronted by a spacious asphalt parking lot. The strip was anchored by two regional chains—a Stop and Shop grocery at one end and a Zayre Discount Store at the other with smaller businesses in between. The buildings embraced the modern style of the period, forsaking any reference to historic ornament and instead relying on concrete, steel, and large plate glass windows, along with brick infill walls punctuated with repetitive diagonal patterning.  Most audacious, a sweeping rigid-steel frame supported the roof of the western section of the plaza permitting a vast open interior free of columns. 

Prior to this commercial strip, however, the first structure to be completed, and standing across from the First Baptist Church, was a branch of the Union National Bank. Designed by one of Lowell’s premier Mid-Century Modern architects, Eugene Weisberg, the building featured an accordion-fold roof not only providing more natural light into the main bank lobby, but also evincing an aerodynamic quality that represented a sharp break from traditional architectural forms that dominated the city.

In its totality, Central Plaza, completed in 1962, mirrored a common post-World War II, suburban-centered phenomena of automobile-oriented commercial strips. Advertisements boasted of the convenience it afforded city residents although its orientation towards Church Street, with public entrances into the shops facing the parking lot, cut off easy pedestrian access for residents of Back Central. Despite this drawback, the sparkling new Central Plaza center was entirely novel. It also represented, for many Lowellians, progress in the face of a community long struggling with capital flight and the loss of industry and jobs.

For more on the Back Central neighborhood see Back Central Project | UMass Lowell (uml.edu)

The Lowell Sun published this architectural rendering of the Bishop Markham Village project. Construction was carried out in two parts and this drawing depicts the first of the two phases of the work, concentrated South of Summer Street and extending to St. Peter's Church in the lower left. (Source: Lowell Sun, May 9, 1954).

credit: Gray Fitzsimons

This view along Gorham Street shows the six-story units of Bishop Markham Village recently renamed South Common Village. (Photo Credit: Gray Fitzsimons)

This aerial view of the Central Plaza redevelopment project appeared in the Lowell Sun, November 13, 1960. Formerly located in the vicinity of the empty field, seen in the center, were the many dwellings on Tyler and Charles streets demolished by the City of Lowell.

This is Central Plaza and surrounding area in 1962. Zayre is at the far end of the building.

credit: Marie Frank

A current view of Central Plaza

credit: Marie Frank

The former Union National Bank branch office, currently Vinfen

For more on the Back Central neighborhood see Back Central Project | UMass Lowell (uml.edu)