Lowell Since '45
The Butler House: An Opportunity Missed
The Butler House: An Opportunity Missed
What makes a house historic? Is it the accomplishments of the people who lived there? The architectural uniqueness of the structure itself? The events that took place under its roof? The Benjamin Butler House that stood at 333 Andover Street in Lowell until 1979 had some of each but it was not enough to save it from the wrecker’s ball.
Benjamin Butler may be a somewhat forgotten historical figure these days, but he was one of the more colorful leaders of the second half of the 19th century. Known as “Beast” Butler, at least south of the Mason-Dixon line, the Lowell native and civil war general imposed a particularly harsh occupation on wartime New Orleans. In addition to seizing Southern cotton and shutting down the city’s free press, his infamous Order Number 28 in 1862 said that any woman insulting a soldier shall be regarded, and be held liable to be treated as a "woman of the town plying her avocation.” Another Butler nickname, “Spoons,” referred to an incident when he seized a 38-piece set of silverware from a woman attempting to cross Union lines.
A strange mix of strong principals and curious (and often corrupt) means to reach his ends, Butler was a strong progressive (or “Radical Republican”), supporter of woman’s suffrage and fervent abolitionist. He was also the ringleader of the drive that came within one (extremely corrupted) vote of impeaching and removing Andrew Johnson from the presidency. Butler’s rather odd appearance --- he was marred by a crossed left eye with a drooping lid, which led to yet another unfortunate nickname, Old Cock-Eye. --- might have hampered him in this media age, but old Spoons served as a congressman and Governor of Massachusetts and made a reasonably strong bid for the presidency in 1884.
Flash forward more than a century and the 134 year-old mansion that was once Butler’s home was now at the center of a local debate that not only considered the fate of this one aging mansion but also stood in as a kind of proxy war for Lowell’s respect for its own history in general. As Senator Paul Tsongas and others were pushing for the kind of historical preservation that would eventually result in the creation of the Lowell Historical Park, many, including Tsongas himself, saw the fight as a test of whether the City of Lowell would honor its legacy.
Built in 1843, the Butler house was occupied by the quirky general, and then later his family, for nearly a century. The Regency-inspired Greek Revival mansion also put forth its bone fides as a rather rare and sophisticated architectural specimen that was also originally constructed by the same Lawrence family that helped found another famous mill city in the Merrimack Valley.
When the property was bought by Michael DeMauro, a former landscaper on the grounds who had gone on to make vast profits in Saudi Arabia, the historic mansion seemed to conflict with DeMauro’s hopes for a California style dream home. Still, the city and DeMauro had seemed to reach a deal in July of ’78 when DeMauro agreed to donate the old house to the city and build his own home elsewhere on the property --- for a catch, of course. DeMauro wanted a free pass on paying local property taxes.
But when a three-alarm fire set by an arsonist destroyed the carriage house of the old Butler property and concerns were raised about both the illegality and practicality of DeMauro’s proposed tax deal, the city basically gave up the fight. On March 6, 1979, the Kidder Building and Wrecking Company started demolishing the home, devastating Tsongas and the historic preservation community. Not only did Tsongas feel that the incident might seriously jeopardize the viability of the Lowell Historical Park Project in Washington where the senator was trying to push through legislation, he called the episode “a sorry indictment” of his hometown. “Here we have a city allegedly concerned about its history and it cannot even summon the pride to save the Butler House.” Luckily for Lowell, Tsongas would later summon the pride to save much of the rest of the city’s history.