Lowell Since '45
The Worthen House: Stories From an Old-Timer
The Worthen House: Stories From an Old-Timer
Exploring the history of an old building in a city like Lowell can be a bit like sitting at grandfather’s knee as he recounts the story of his life. There are ups and downs, lean years and flush years, new beginnings and changes in purpose. Maybe even some tall tales. Take the structure that resides both at 143 Worthen Street and on the National Register of Historic Places. Currently known as the Worthen House Café, and for many years as the Old Worthen, the 1834 structure was around nearly seventy years before it even began serving food.
A single story at its birth, the brick and rubble stone structure was laid down for Henry C. Johnson and Hiram Nicholas for a price of $992 and began operation in the 1830s and ‘40s as Nichols and Johnson’s West India Goods. By 1847, a couple of Southborough carpenters bought the property, added two frame upper floors and our young building had grown full-sized.
By 1898, its days as a home for carpenters and workmen were over, as liquor dealer John O’Donnell opened the Worthen House, a hotel and tavern. It was in these flourishing days of the early twentieth century that the Worthen obtained its famous tin ceilings, high-backed booths and venerable 25-foot bar. It also assumed the triangular lot size known today.
The Worthen House has had its closet skeletons as well as its upstanding moments. During prohibition, it appears it ran afoul of the law, operating for a time as a speakeasy. The Lowell City Directory provides some clue that the activities of the 1910s might have continued unabated into the 1920s, as such occupants as “Mathew J. Stowell Beverages” and “Arthur J. Sensy Soft Drinks” are listed. More revealing evidence can still be found behind the bar where a bogus wall next to a built-in icebox reveals where beverages were kept that did not exactly conform to the 18th Amendment.
But the structure also had its heroic moments, serving as a boardinghouse and place of inspiration for Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allen Poe and Jimmy Breslin. Legend has it that Poe may have penned sections of The Raven while rooming in its upper stories (A sandwich called “The Raven” adorns the current menu). And the Worthen House has played a key role in Lowell’s development. A block from City Hall, it was a primary hang-out for the politicians and VIPs of early 20th Century Lowell. Many say more key decisions about Lowell’s future were made at its bar and in its booths than in City Hall itself.
In middle age, the Worthen House hit upon hard times. By the 1970s, as Lowell was really struggling, the Old Worthen was too. Toni Parsons, writing in the Lowell Sun, told readers that “It looks like an old rundown building from the outside. Most of the upper story windows are boarded up and the façade is weather-beaten.” A 1981 story in the Lowell Sun reported that four teenagers were arrested for throwing rocks through some of its remaining upper-story windows and by 1984, the Worthen House was run by Jimmy Espinola, a local fence who police said preyed on junkies and was linked to numerous local crimes. Tough times indeed.
But despite the increasingly troubled neighborhood outside and the rundown interior, there were many who saw its potential. In 1989, things began to turn around when experienced restaurant renovator Manny Silva bought the place. He found the Old Worthen’s personality hidden just below the surface. In the attic there is a tiny nook so small that just one man can fit inside. The special string that can be pulled closed from the inside has made some speculate that this could have been a hiding spot on the Underground Railroad. Upon renovations, other discoveries were made --- signs welcoming home World War I veterans, a now-restored pully-driven fan system (one of just four to be found in the U.S.) and a fragment of a wall that once held up Hadley’s Stable next door.
In 2002, Nicholas and Penny Hamourgas brought the Worthen into their family as daughter Penelope left for college, attempting to fill their empty nest. On the day of the Grand Opening, Penny found out she was pregnant despite being told she could not have more children. Nicholas passed on in 2013 and Penny and Penelope now run the Worthen House Café, which (like Lowell) has come a long way since the nadir of the 1970s.
Today, one can stop by and find Bulls-Eye burgers and beef quesadillas on a menu that included beer-boiled wieners in the 1980s, golumpski and Russian-Polish cabbage in the 1970s and perhaps an illegal cocktail or two in the 1920s. For the Old Worthen, it’s truly been a wonderful life.