The Switchboard of History

During a recent visit to the Mayor’s office in Room 50, former city manager Brian Martin spotted a familiar sight.

Resting on the windowsill was a large rectangular marble slab with a 24 slots and buttons that once served as the original Lowell City Hall switchboard.

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Martin immediately recognized the historic artifact and recalled uncovering the switchboard during an extensive cleanup effort of the City Hall attic in the early 1990’s while he was the assistant city manager.

“I couldn’t get off the elevator.  Files and debris were piled to the door. I had to climb over everything,” Martin described in a 1992 brochure for an exhibit entitled “A Light in the Attic: Treasures of Lowell City Hall” at the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center.

Martin similarly recounted his experiences last week in describing the cluttered nature of the attic and the need for a coordinated effort to organize and preserve Lowell’s hidden historic documents and items.

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Brian Martin shares stories of the City Hall attic with Mayor’s office intern, Sevy (who was a student at LHS during his time as Head of School)

CharterIn addition to the switchboard, Martin pointed out that the original charter establishing the town of Lowell in 1826 was once buried in a nondescript box in the attic.  Rediscovered in the cleanup effort the document was restored and framed at the Lowell Gallery and is now one of the first items on display next to the doorway when you enter the mayor’s office.

The 1992 Mogan Center exhibit featured a wide array of historic documents and photographs from the city’s records including annual reports, payroll sheets, antiquated items like “records of Married women in business (1881-1910).

Military records were a key aspect of this examination, which is fitting in part because the city’s veteran services office used to be located in the time period prior to the attic being closed off to the general public and repurposed for storage only.

LightintheAtticAt the time the attic stored the hard copy records of City Council proceedings dating back to Lowell’s incorporation as a city in 1836.  In a sign of how times have changed, the exhibit’s brochure notes that just earlier in that year on April 14, 1992, did Lowell City Council meetings begin to be televised.

“The next generation of scholars will study videotape,” the brochure notes.

Another generation took another stab at the original stuff in the early 21st century.  In 2014, Mehmed Ali was named the official City Historian by a vote of the Lowell City Council.  Ali used that volunteer role to dig even deeper into the records of the City Hall attic, with a particular focus on the 10 years that Lowell spent as a town from 1826 to 1836.  

PreludetoProminenceA 2015 exhibit at UMass Lowell, Prelude to Prominence: Documenting the Town of Lowell from 1826 to 1836, was the result of Ali’s work with students at the university as they poured through over 400 documents from Lowell’s earliest days.

The exhibit includes some routine town business as well as major milestones such as a reproduction of the charter that saw Lowell’s transition to a city in 1836.  Among the key figures in that transition was Luther Lawrence, the second mayor of Lowell, whose portrait remains prominently displayed within Room 50 (both the blog and the office itself).

The City Historian led a team of volunteers to continue organizing the records in 2015 and estimated at the time that the attic was home to “millions” of records, and not just of the municipal kind either.

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A photo contact sheet from Coalition for a Better Acre’s Acre Clean Up Day featuring Rosemary Noon found in the attic in December 2018

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Looking through records in the Clerk’s office prior to going to the Attic

Last December, City Councilor Dave Conway and I took a trip up to the attic to look for photographic records relating to a former school committee member from the 1950’s who had recently passed away.  Although the City Clerk’s office contains a register with signatures of all city councilors elected since the 19th century, school committee records were not kept in the same way.

Ultimately the records Councilor Conway sought weren’t found, but the ability to get lost in the history and the mystery of the City Hall attic was still very much intact.

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In addition to the interesting history inside, the unique views out of the attic can’t be beat.

But back to the switchboard…

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The historic artifact might have first been rediscovered in the 1990’s but as of 2010 it was back in the attic.  That’s where it was when then-Lowell Sun reporter Jen Myers came across it during a visit to the hallowed space on the 4th floor of City Hall hosted by then-City Manager, Bernie Lynch.

“Amazing doesn’t begin to describe the depth of history in the attic,” said Lynch who in 2010 was in the midpoint of his term as the longest serving city manager of the modern era.

Among the unique items cited during the visit were “emergency drinking water from the Cold War, a leather football helmet and immigrants’ passports.”

And yes, the switchboard.

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City Hall switchboard Circa 2010

Her photos from that visit recently resurfaced in some facebook groups specializing in historic Lowell photos.

Two years later, Jen found herself back at City Hall in a new role, as the assistant to Mayor Patrick Murphy. During another visit to the attic, the aide showed the new mayor the unique piece of City Hall’s past.  Mayor Murphy promptly flung the bulky stone item up on his shoulders and carried it down to its new home during his term.  Room 50.

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Room 50 during the term of Mayor Patrick Murphy, notice the switchboard on the windowsill

Sometime after Murphy left office, the switchboard found itself tucked away once again.  This time in the Mayor’s office “vault” or storage area which is used to house old documents, office supplies, and the many flags used during city flag raisings.

It wasn’t until an office redecoration under Mayor William Samaras that the switchboard would see the light of day again.  Restored to its earlier location on the windowsill, the item would receive some context to its display courtesy of the Lowell Historic Board’s Steve Stowell.  

Looking through the building’s photo archives, Stowell came across a photo of the City Hall messenger’s office that clearly shows the switchboard in its original use (now the outer section of the City Manager’s office).

Messenger's Office 1894

City Hall Messenger’s Office Circa 1894

Today, that photo is displayed in a frame alongside the switchboard to provide the historic context for guests to the office.

Last October, the switchboard, and Lowell City Hall itself, turned 125 years old and the City Council recently approved a motion by Mayor Samaras to establish a Bicentennnial Commission in anticipation of Lowell’s 200th anniversary in 2026.  (Celebrations will begin with anniversaries of the precursor events such as the establishment of the Merrimack Manufacturing company in 1821).

Sharing the history of the building and making it accessible to the public is one of the most important and fun aspects of working in the Lowell Mayor’s office.  The Mayor’s Guestbook is undoubtedly one of the primary examples of this role.

It truly is an honor to work in such a historic place and occasionally get to sneak a peak at the hidden history locked away up above.  But there is still one unique place in City Hall to which I have yet to make the trek…

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Stay tuned…

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