By Jennifer Myers
In the 1670’s it was the site of the wigwam of Wonalancet (better known around these parts today as Wannalancit), sachem of the Penacook Indians and son of Chief Passaconaway.
In the 1820’s, it was home to Captain Phineas Whiting’s mansion, barns and general store. In fact, industrialist Kirk Boott, one of the founders of Lowell, lived with the Whiting family in 1823 while awaiting the completion of his home, where the Boott Mills now stand downtown.
In 1855, a businessman with humble beginnings as a country store clerk in Baldwinsville, N.Y. arrived in Lowell to join big brother James Cook (J.C.) Ayer, who ran a very successful patent medicine company. His name was Frederick Ayer.
Four years later, Ayer purchased the house and land at the corner of School and Pawtucket Streets from Captain Whiting’s widow, Sarah, for $11,250. He and his first wife, Cornelia Wheaton Ayer and their four children lived in the former Whiting house, which they enlarged and renovated, until their dream home was completed on the site in 1877.
The Ayer mansion at 357 Pawtucket St., a 67-room, 2.5 story manse built in the Second Empire style was designed by architect S.S. Woodcock.
The first floor included a drawing room, library, sitting room, dining room, kitchen, music room, smoking room and other smaller rooms — a real-life game of “Clue” just begging to happen.
The second floor housed six bedrooms and their accompanying dressing rooms, of course. While the third floor included 10 additional bedrooms.
The grounds were home to stables, barns and greenhouses. A horse trail surrounded the property.
Ayer was a very busy man. In addition to working with his brother, in 1871 he bought controlling interests in the Tremont and Suffolk Mills (also in the Acre, of course). The site of the Tremont Mills now houses Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union’s headquarters, while the Suffolk Mills are now better known as the Wannalancit Mills, which houses offices as well as the Lowell National Historical Park’s Suffolk Mills exhibit.
He also had interests in the Washington Mills in Lawrence and the Lowell & Andover Railroad, among other endeavors and served on Lowell’s Board of Aldermen and as Chairman of the Board of Health.
Despite his jam-packed calendar, Beatrice Banning Ayer, one of the three children he fathered with second wife Ellen Barrows Banning Ayer, recalled in “Reminiscences of Frederick Ayer,” he was never too busy for her.
“He worked all day at the J.C. Ayer Company and spent only an hour at home at noon,” she recalled. “But there was always time to lead me around the driveway on his horse.”
Fred was also a bit of a romantic, according to Beatrice, who said this about her father’s relationship with her mother:
“Ever since their engagement, when in answer to the question of what gift she would like best from him, she had said ‘roses,’ he always showered her with flowers,” she said. “The greenhouses at Lowell had been built for her.”
Beatrice went on to marry George S. Patton on May 26, 1910 in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. Patton, of course, became a famed U.S. Army General who led the American troops in the Mediterranean and European theaters in World War II.
The Ayer family moved out of Lowell in 1899, to a mansion on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Their ornate Lowell estate remained empty from 1899-1908, when it was purchased by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate for $1 up front and $45,000 at 4.5% interest to be paid over 10 years.
An orphanage, for Franco-American children and old people’s home was established there. The orphanage was managed by the Grey Nuns of Quebec.
A four-story brick addition was built on the back as the population of the orphanage grew in 1912.
It officially became the Franco American School in 1963, teaching both live-in and day students. In 1978, it became a day school only.
Over the years the school and grounds have been visited by luminaries including future First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (campaigning for her husband in 1958), music legend Bob Dylan and beat writer/philosopher Allen Ginsberg.
The school closed in June 2016 and was sold to a partnership between Brian McGowan’s TMI Management & Development and Coalition for a Better Acre.
The building is being restored and renovated. The site, once complete, will include a mix of market rate and affordable housing units as well as some commercial space.
CBA was awarded a $500,000 grant by Project Reinvest to create a public park along the Northern Canal at the rear of the 4.5 acre parcel at the site of the existing grotto built by Jean-Baptiste Moran in 1911. The 14 Stations of the Cross, which date back to 1912, will be relocated to the new green space, creating a more accessible and welcoming area for the public to reflect and relax along the water.
The park will include a canal way, connecting to the existing Northern Canal Walkway owned by the Lowell National Historical Park, providing additional access and visibility to that beautiful, yet underused, resource.
Come see the beautiful Ayer Mansion yourself. Coalition for a Better Acre will be hosting its 3rd Annual 6 Degrees of the Acre fundraiser there on June 28. Stay tuned for tickets and more information. It promises to be an evening of glamour and surprises!
Special thanks to Steve Stowell of the Lowell Historic Board for providing the source information used to write this post.