“The building is beautiful and amazing, but deteriorating,” CBA Director of Real Estate Craig Thomas told members of the Smith Baker Advisory Board at the inaugural meeting last week. “”It is not heated. There is significant water damage and it needs to be weatherized and stabilized.”
The 50-member board, chaired by Jim Geraghty, made up of business leaders, philanthropists, educators, non-profit executives, elected officials and community members will be integral to CBA’s upcoming capital campaign to raise the funds needed to restore and preserve the Smith Baker Center, turning it into a vibrant community center and performance space.
In 1884 the First Congregational Church, an imposing four-story 12,458 sq. foot brick High Victorian Gothic style edifice was erected on the lot that is now the corner of Merrimack Street and Cardinal O’Connell Parkway.
It replaced a smaller meetinghouse-style church that had been built in 1827, a year after a group of 50 people from the corporation boarding house, interested in the traditional forms for New England orthodoxy, had secured the land from the Locks and Canals Company. Founding father and industrialist Kirk Boott was not thrilled with this turn of events, as it went against his order that all mill operatives attend his church – St. Anne’s, which had been built the previous year.
The new First Congregational Church of 1884 was designed by famed architects Merrill and Cutler, who also designed Lowell City Hall, the Central Firehouse on Palmer Street (where Fuse Bistro is now) and the Howe Building in Kearney Square.
Fully furnished – including the pipe organ, the building’s price tag was $57,390.
It remained a church until 1968, when the congregation merged with the Highland Congregational and All Souls Churchs to form the Christ Church United on East Merrimack Street.
On December 14, 1969, it was dedicated as the Smith Baker Community Center by the Acre Model Neighborhood Organization, as part of the Model Cities Program. Rev. Smith Baker (a descendant of Mayflower passenger William Brewster) was the pastor of the church from 1870-1890 and returned as pastor emeritus from 1907 until his death in 1917. He and his wife, Isabella, are buried in Lowell Cemetery.
The building served as the city’s Senior Center until the new center on Broadway opened in April 2003. It has remained vacant since that time.
Over the years the performance space, that is said to have near-perfect acoustics, has played host to an impressive line-up. In 1988, Lowell Celebrates Kerouac brought poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti to read to a packed house of 1,000; in 1989 poet and inspirational speaker Maya Angelou was brought to the Smith Baker by Middlesex Community College; in 1995 as part of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, Patti Smith performed with Thurston Mooe of Sonic Youth. The historic stage has also seen performances by the Lowell Opera Company and Angkor Dance Troupe.
In 2016, the City of Lowell chose CBA to bring the Smith Baker Center back to life. Known as “Lowell’s Cathedral,” the 133-year-old building located at the gateway between the Acre neighborhood and Downtown Lowell, has the potential to be a community center for all Lowellians, as well as a sought-after performance venue.
CBA’s plans restore the cathedral’s chapel as a performing arts center and the offices as a community center. The building will become home to CBA’s workforce development, afterschool, and financial education/counseling programs and be anchored by CBA’s offices. Having this space will allow for the expansion of CBA programming to serve more people. The large space and commercial kitchen will also allow it to become a place to take Zumba, yoga, dance, art, cooking and other continuing education, cultural, and enrichment classes.
While the bulk of our work centers on serving low-income families in the Acre neighborhood, the Smith Baker Center will be a community center with classes, programming, events, and performances for all of Lowell.
We envision it becoming a center for cultural exchange, with residents from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds having the opportunity to, for instance, take a Cambodian or Greek cooking class; learn some Bhutanese or Irish dance moves, or pick up a few conversational Spanish phrases. It will be a place where the city’s celebrated diversity can shine in action every day.
It will also become a focal point at which residents and visitors can celebrate the life and works of Lowell’s favorite literary son, the legendary Jack Kerouac and a place for organizations and institutions like the Angkor Dance troupe, Middlesex Community College, UMass Lowell, the Moses Greeley Parker Lecture Series and countless others to hold events, meetings and performances.
The 600-seat performance hall is an excellent small to mid-sized venue for local acts, small regional touring acts, and other special events such as speaking engagements, poetry readings, weddings and other celebrations. Not only does the size sit right in the middle of the larger auditoriums and smaller school buildings available in town, the use of a commercial kitchen with room for a bar makes it a perfect place for events with culturally appropriate food.
Redeveloping the building will drive investment in a neighborhood in Lowell that has shown enormous potential for improvement, but still remains underdeveloped and under-resourced. As Lowell has recovered from the economic recessions of the 1980s, low-income and moderate-income working-class residents have been left behind. In the Acre neighborhood, 35% of residents live below the poverty line and 42% speak a language other than English at home.
The project’s total cost is estimated at $16,518,372. CBA will use a combination of New Market Tax Credits, Federal and State Historic Tax Credits, grants, and individual donations to fund the project.
The operations and the programming for the building will be funded through grant money, ticket and concession sales, as well as rental income including that from having the CBA offices on-site, keeping the center sustainable.
Our vision is inspired by the success of Manchester Bidwell Corporation, a set of community-based organizations that is creating pathways through education to employment in a neighborhood in need and using arts programming to inspire urban youth and innovative career training to support struggling adults in Pittsburgh, PA. The founders of Manchester Bidwell believed that bundling job training, arts programming and exhibition space for youth with a performance space open to community members would combat the devastation wrought by the collapse of the steel industry. Today, Manchester Bidwell’s programs have grown into nationally recognized enterprises and serve nearly 3,900 Pittsburgh youth every year, providing a unique haven that fosters a sense of interconnectedness in the city. Closer to home, we are looking closely at the model employed by the New England Center for Arts and Technology in Boston, which developed as a replica of the Manchester Bidwell model and opened its doors in September 2013.
Bringing life back to the Smith Baker Center is in line with CBA’s mission to revitalize the Acre neighborhood. A vibrant community center and destination performance space will spur economic growth in the neighborhood. At the same time, the variety of programming available and events held, will both help Acre families become financially self-sufficient and build community as both Acre residents and those from other parts of the city come together to learn, share culture and enjoy art and performance.