Home for the Ages
Victorian-era Style & Craftsmanship Live on at the John Faulkner House
[ Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of mvm. ] Built in 1887 with exacting attention to scale, detail and subtle glamour, the John Faulkner House at 32 Belmont Ave. in Lowell is a home that is both family-friendly and extraordinary. The rise of the Industrial Revolution after the Civil War put unprecedented wealth into the pockets of Lowell industrialists. One mill owner, John A. Faulkner, used his new wealth to build a home of such sophisticated style and comfort that it has defied more than a century’s worth of social and economic upheavals and remains a monument to prosperity.
This late Victorian era house achieves all five core design elements of a great American home as identified by Joanne Kellar Bouknight in “Celebrating the American Home.” Site planning, scale, livability, craftsmanship and personality were carefully executed in a way that would be hard to duplicate today. Difficult zoning requirements were turned into an advantage when the house was positioned at a dramatic 45-degree angle on its corner lot. Attention to scale and livability meant that the large open spaces should inspire rather than overwhelm the inhabitants. A hybridized architectural fusion of the Queen Anne and Shingle Style Victorian designs, the Faulkner House harmoniously combines the best of both. Continuous, smooth shingles encase the exterior, uniting the jumble of turrets, an asymmetrical façade, and an irregular roofline.
The living hall, a combination of entrance and living space that serves as the anchor of the floor plan, is breathtaking. The grand hall impresses guests and welcomes returning family with a warm hearth, built-in settees, and a central staircase that is pure architectural theater. Pocket doors separate the main rooms off the hallway, allowing for greater ease of movement. Detailed wood panels in polished oak cast a comforting glow throughout the first floor. It is impossible to resist the urge to touch the rich wood. Thankfully, the staircase’s intricately carved newel posts and smooth handrails are readily available for sensory gratification. Perhaps the most delightful location in the house is the first stair landing, with its small, arcaded gallery, sun-filled windows, and enough room for a comfortable couch. This space can lend itself to a string quartet, a child with a book, or refuge from a raucous party.
The dining room is formal, without the excessive detail that would detract from the raw beauty of the wood. Three built-in china cabinets are made of the same cherry wood that covers the walls. The red tones of the rich cherry wood encourage the appetite while making everything and everyone look better.
In contrast to the darker tones of the hallway and dining room, the front living room is ablaze with natural light reflecting off walls of exquisite bird’s-eye maple. Seen today in high-end antiques and expensive guitars, bird’s-eye maple in this quantity is a rare treat.
It is not surprising that John Faulkner — born in 1853 to a well-heeled, seventh generation Billerica family and educated in public schools and at MIT — would build a family home that was progressive and singular in style. He defied the social confines of class when, at age 27, he married the daughter of a widowed boardinghouse owner. Family was central to the Faulkners. Father Luther groomed his sons, John and Frederick, to run the Faulkner Mills. John Faulkner’s skill at balancing the needs of his workers with efficient textile production earned him the respect of his employees at a time when labor relations were tense.
The domestic scene at 32 Belmont was a welcome relief from the stresses of running a mill. The three Faulkner children were the center of their parents’ attention, and they enjoyed birthday parties, neighborhood Christmas functions, and Fourth of July fireworks celebrations. John Faulkner’s time in his dream house was short-lived, and in 1899 he moved his family to a smaller home on Belvidere Hill, most likely for the same reasons we would downsize today. It is safe to assume that his fortunes were adversely affected by the financial Panic of 1893 and the subsequent sale of the family mills to American Woolen Company in Lawrence.
When Fred C. Church bought the home from John Faulkner in 1902, it was front-page news in the Lowell Sun. Owning this prestigious home was a way of telling the world you had arrived. Born in 1857, Fred Church would take a small business that began in his father Henry’s stationery store and build it into an insurance empire. Young Fred attended Lowell High School, was nicknamed “Dixie,” and played right field on one of the country’s earliest sandlot baseball teams.
Church got off to a successful start supplying fire insurance to the city of Lowell at a time when horrific fires routinely wreaked havoc in many U.S. cities. The Faulkner House served as a launching pad into Belvidere high society for this rising star of Lowell. Church hosted the expected events befitting a man of his station, but he was most famous for the elaborate Halloween parties staged for the children of Belvidere. Gregarious and athletically handsome, Church raised his equally gifted son to follow in his footsteps. Fred Jr. was a standout player for the Harvard football team of 1919 and received a silver cup from the city for bringing honor to Lowell. Off the field, Fred Jr. would join his father in bringing Fred C. Church Insurance to a cliental beyond the confines of Lowell.
Fred Church believed all the children of Lowell should have the same advantages of athletic involvement shared by the Church men, and spent much time in his later years developing the Lowell Boys Club. Though his son chose to live in Boston, Fred Sr. remained on Belmont Avenue in Lowell until his death in 1937 after a vigorous vacation in the woods of Maine.
In 1957, Harold Hirsch, a second-generation Coca-Cola executive, moved his wife, Doris, and young children to Lowell from Clarksville, Tenn. The Hirsch family would become such a fixture in modern Lowell society that the Faulkner House became known as The Coca-Cola House. Doris Hirsch was a Southerner by birth with modern tastes and an artist’s eye. Brimming with style and charm, Doris’ doings were regularly reported in the Lowell Sun’s society column, Sampasscoopies. Making this exceptional and older home livable for a young family was initially intimidating, but Doris found her solution with an eclectic mix of practical modern furnishings and tasteful antiques.
Son Butch Hirsch and daughter Honey Hirsch Burke remember their childhood at 32 Belmont Ave. with great fondness. The baby boom was at full throttle, and this ruggedly built house was able to withstand the legions of children who made it a neighborhood hangout. Now a fashion photographer, Butch says there was always something new to discover in the house. Carved patterns in the woodwork would repeat in unexpected places, or different lighting would reveal things not seen before. The house was easily adapted to the ages of its inhabitants. Butch remembers spending summers playing in the backyard stable building, while Honey recalls her father filling the attic playroom with model railroads. Later, that attic would be transformed into a teenager’s paradise, complete with black lights and rock posters. Doris chose to remain in Lowell after her husband’s early death in 1963. She would earn the affection of Belvidere society by contributing mightily to the city of Lowell through community involvement and fundraising. To Doris and her children, the house at 32 Belmont Ave. would always be home.