Circular Splendor – The Jonathan Bowers Round House in Lowell

( Editor’s Note: This story was originally featured in the Spring 2013 issue of Merrimack Valley Home. ) Bob Roach was comfortably settled in his refurbished Victorian home in Waltham in 1986, when a real estate ad for the Jonathan Bowers Round House in Lowell caught his eye. He fell in love with it the first time he drove past the 15-room manse on Wannalancit Street. Then, touring it with the real estate agent, he saw the circular staircase and knew he had found a new home.

“I looked up the staircase and said, ‘I have to have this house,’” says Roach, an interior designer. The staircase, curling up continuously from the entry hallway to the cupola – which has gold stars painted on a dark blue backdrop to mimic the night sky – four stories above, is what hooked Roach on the Round House. But its oval and round rooms, each unique, added appeal.  

Its history was another attraction. Industrialist Jonathan Bowers built the abode, originally known as the Wannalancit Castle, for $30,000 in 1872 as a place to hold his daughter’s wedding reception and as his residence. “He owned a carriage factory, a quarry and an amusement park,” Roach says.

Photo by Kevin Harkins.

Granite for the house came from Bowers’ Tyngsborough quarry; the interior woodwork was fabricated at his Lowell factory.  An architectural rarity, it is one of three round houses in Massachusetts known to exist from this period. The others are in Somerville and Plympton. The Round House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and is part of the Wannalancit Street Historic District, which itself was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

Exterior design features of the Round House include a mansard-style slate roof, arched windows, pedimented dormers, round bays and round granite chimneys. Roach purchased the Round House for $299,000, and moved in on October 17, 1986.  “It was livable, but the former owners had six dogs and five cats, so the fleas were horrible,” Roach says.He exterminated the fleas, refurbished the basement for his interior design business and upgraded the heating system, plumbing and wiring.

But, most dramatically, Roach used authentic design details, antique and reproduction furnishings and his many collections to re-establish the home’s 19th century splendor. “I didn’t want anything new-looking and was committed to keeping it true to the period,” Roach says.

A rosewood Richardson grand piano is the centerpiece of the third floor ballroom. “It is from 1843 and has German works, French styling and an English name — which is what people wanted then,” says Roach, adding, “I always wanted a grand piano.” He finished the room with custom-made heavy green velvet drapes with gold trim and reproduction Victorian gas chandeliers. A one-bedroom apartment, built by previous owners in the former billiard room, is also on the third floor. Vintage newspaper clippings, which Roach owns, report that Bowers’ daughter displayed her wedding gifts on the third floor. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

The first-floor parlor features vintage drapes from the French Consulate building in Toronto, Canada and British artifacts that Roach treasures, as his paternal great-grandfather emigrated from England. 

The dining room — the one truly round room — retains the original embossed Lincrusta wall covering and the alcoves where Roach displays his Wedgwood collection.

The first-floor dining room — the one truly round room — retains the original embossed Lincrusta wall covering and the alcoves where Roach displays his Wedgwood collection. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

The adjacent morning room is a relaxing space done in blue and white, the place where Roach showcases his Flow Blue, Blue Willow, Royal Copenhagen, Meissen and Dedham Pottery plates and bowls, and cobalt glassware.

Roach updated the kitchen, which had been damaged by a fire, with Victorian touches that include a beadboard ceiling, redwood cabinets and an antique oak hutch that holds his copper teakettle and molds, and Victorian majolica.

One of the second-floor bedrooms — dubbed the “King of Siam” room by Roach — is decorated in an oriental palette. He dedicated the room to the king, who is said to have stayed at the house during a visit to Lowell’s textile mills in the late 19th century, according to a story told to Roach by his late neighbor, Elizabeth Lambert, who was an amateur historian and Lowell history buff.

Roach decorated the master bath to be a relaxing respite from the stresses of daily life. He chose warm multi-colored paisley wallpaper, imported from France, a tile floor and Oriental rug. The arched window features shutters for privacy. The reproduction copper tub with brass legs, while not original, looks vintage. There is also stall shower, not pictured, facing the window. In addition, Roach created the sink, across from the tub, from an old buffet, adding a soapstone top and faucets saved from the old Boston City Hospital. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

A new, but vintage-looking copper tub and Victorian sink faucets salvaged from a Boston hospital enhance the master bath. The third-floor ballroom and star-studded cupola, which offer a bird’s-eye view of the city and Merrimack River, are the home’s crowning glories and cause a stir whenever visitors tour the Round House. 

“I love seeing it through other people’s eyes — their reaction as their eyes light up the first time they come through is what I enjoy the most,” Roach says. In his 26-plus years as owner of the house, Roach has made it a showplace. He also has generously opened its doors for parties, political fundraisers and benefits for institutions such as the Lowell Association for the Blind, the House of Hope, the Lowell General Hospital Auxiliary and the Whistler House Museum of Art, where he serves on the board of directors.  “It’s a wonderful house — I like sharing it with others,” Roach says. 

Candles light up the windows of the Round House each evening, offering a welcoming beacon to passers-by on Wannalancit Street. Roach keeps them lit year-round, following the custom in historic homes he has visited in the South. Photo by Kevin Harkins.

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