Lawyers Journal

Bearers of the light

Lowell's Gallagher & Cavanaugh LLP

A historic renovation appears to have yielded some unexpected dividends for Gallagher & Cavanaugh LLP, a Lowell law firm with deep city roots.

The firm's purchase and renovation of a two-story brick building at 22 Shattuck St., formerly owned by the Lowell Gas Light Co., has created a living legacy space that has quickly become an attractive meeting venue for outsiders.

"I do think that the setting matters," says firm principal and co-founder Michael Gallagher. "We hoped to create attractive, functional spaces that are respectful of the building's and company's history, but we also wanted an office that clients and others would feel warm and welcoming."

While those with local ties seem to appreciate the effort to preserve the building's structural history, he notes that the responses of visitors new to the city have been especially interesting. In the spring of 2012, he recalls, he conducted about 30 interviews of applicants for a senior lawyer's position in Lowell. Most of the applicants were from out of town.

"To a person, they commented on how much they liked the feel and visuals of the cobblestoned streets and 19th century brick facades as they walked to our building and also how much they enjoyed the reinforcement and celebration of that history through the images on our walls," as well as the interior appointments and fixtures.

While it's difficult to quantify how much of the firm's client base has a Lowell connection, he says, "we're fortunate to have client relationships with many of the major local businesses and non-profits, as well as lots of involved and active members of this community, but we also have longstanding business contacts from outside the area. Whenever we can, we seek to get those out-of-the-area contacts to Lowell so that we can show them how much this city has to offer."

Context and memory

Gallagher & Cavanaugh bought the Italianate building in the summer of 2011, when the law firm's lease on rented space in the renovated Boott Mills building nearby was due to expire. The firm, seeing good prospects for downtown, wanted to create its own stakehold.

Gallagher says he had always thought of the building as the home of the Revolving Museum, a nonprofit artist venue, the most recent previous occupant, which had formerly taken up the first floor for many years. But the real story turned out to be the building's first owner, the Lowell Gas Light Co., which built it in 1859 and owned it until 1948 (see sidebar). Thousands of Lowell families have parents and grandparents who worked for the gas company.

After the purchase, a round-the-clock, top to bottom renovation took two months, and included a complete revamp of the electrical and HVAC systems and the from-scratch installation of a sprinkler system, all while adhering to historic-preservation-sensitive renovation measures.

Partnering with architect Jay Mason, principal of Architectural Consulting Services, and designer Cathleen Stewart, principal of the Stewart Design Group, the team transformed the space to strict specifications. The interior paint color is consistent with the mid-1800s Victorian Italianate style, and the walls and arches hold replicas of authentic gas light sconces, now powered by electricity.

Once the law firm had finished and decorated the space, including vintage panoramic photographs of gas company work crews, clients and visitors would relate to the photos. Some would recall how they, as children, would visit the front office with their parents to pay the gas bill. And they remembered the space.

The past is prologue

The setting communicates that "people have been here before," says Gallagher, who believes that history should not be confined to museums, but should breathe life and context into today's activities.

Officers of the firm have taken on the mantle of tour guide for prospective visitors and meeting holders. Michael Gallagher clearly takes pleasure in bringing visitors through. But the tour is not just about architecture. It's about people and economics.

On the walls in the front hall are newspaper ads, one of which seeks $500,000 in investment in the nascent gas light company - serious money back then. A blazing war-headline proclamation, "We have COKE!" refers to the carbonized coal product that produced gas for local use, before the advent of natural gas, pipelined in from around the country.

A chance to make a difference

Lowell has a strong academic and nonprofit presence. But the nonprofit community does not have the resources to support renovation of historic buildings. Gallagher expresses the hope that more investors will follow his firm's lead and make thoughtful, informed investments in downtown buildings, now that a recovering market is creating a new wave of buying opportunities.

If you and/or your colleagues underwent an extensive office space renovation or practice law in a historic or otherwise interesting structure, Lawyers Journal staff would like to learn more. E-mail information or photographs to [e-mail lawjournal].

Christina O'Neill is editor of custom publications for The Warren Group, publisher of Mass. Lawyers Journal.

A testament to industrial heritage

The Lowell Gas Light building was deemed garish when it was built, because its curved walls and dormers were a departure from the conventionally-square building design then prevalent. The Lowell Gas Light Company was one of the first municipal gas-production companies to be chartered in the United States, in 1847, along with Chicago and Detroit. It introduced commercial gas lighting in 1850 and residential gas lighting in 1852. Its fortunes took off after the Civil War, when growing industries needed a continuous lighting supply that obviated the need for candles or kerosene.

The low owner turnover ensured that most of the historic elements were still intact when the law firm purchased the building.Firm Principal Michael Gallagher credits Ann Cavanaugh, Richard Cavanaugh's wife, as being the catalyst for the effort. General contractor Delphi Construction Inc., architect Jay R. Mason, AIA, LEED AP and Stewart Design Group played a part, as did Murray Plumbing and Heating and R&R Electrical Services Ltd., Inc.


The walkable city

Lowell's downtown was built with an eye to plan. The 19th century commercial architecture is of classical design and proportion. Red brick and cobblestones are its signature materials. The streets are wide enough to give a sense of space but human-scale enough to give pedestrians a sense of proximity and comfort. The canal system that powered 19th century textile mills is still intact, complemented by a network of trolley tracks which come into frequent use during the many cultural events to which Lowell is host.

The city has capitalized on downtown's walkability with such events as the annual Lowell Folk Festival, a free performance venue which captures and holds an audience of 200,000 for three days on the last weekend of July. Its national park, canal-boat tours and museums, as well as the 3,200-seat Lowell Auditorium, enhance a planned urban community which has encouraged a specific outreach to artists to relocate to Lowell. Commuter rail provides a 40-minute ride to Boston's North Station, and for those who must drive, the intersections of Interstates 495 and 93 and Route 3 are close by.

The city has long been an ethnic melting pot, beginning with Irish and French-Canadian immigrants who worked in the textile mills. The most recent ethnic group to arrive is Cambodian; the city's website provides a list of supporting community organizations, including a Community Development Corporation specifically serving Cambodians. Long-time visitors have "discovered" Asian-owned businesses, which have grown and evolved from hole-in-the-wall operations to established enterprises -- without having to move out of town. They exist cheek by jowl with classic Lowell landmarks such as the Owl Diner, proof positive that Lowell has successfully avoided the fern-bar syndrome and kept its diversity.

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