What is today Fitchburg was once the western part of Lunenburg that was first settled in 1719 and incorporated in 1728. When people out by this part of the Nashua River became weary of the time it was taking to walk to church and town meetings it became a separate town called Fitchburg in 1764. John Fitch was an early settler and innkeeper. His town would fare better than poor Mr. Fitch. In 1748 Fitch, his wife and five children were attacked and captured by Indians. Although they were set free, his wife died on the trip back to Fitchburg. Fitch eventually became destitute and was passed throughout New England by towns who could no longer afford to care for him and he died on April 8, 1795. No one knows where he is buried.
From the early days this was farming and dairy country but the hilly terrain around town and the tumbling waters flowing through the valley always held the promise of industry. In the first years of the 19th century textile manufacturing had taken hold and paper mills that would become dominant in Fitchburg had started. The locally financed Fitchburg Railroad pushed out from Boston in 1845 and soon there were rail connections to the north, south and west as well. By 1860 there were 136 industrial companies recognized in the town business directory. Over the next 50 years the population, fueled by immigration to man the factories, would explode 400% from less than 10,000 to about 40,000.
The wealth generated by this economic boom showed up on the Fitchburg streetscape in richly ornamented Victorian architecture. Many of the choicest commissions went to Henry Martyn Francis who was born in Lunenburg in 1836. After apprenticing as an architect and working as a carpenter he helped design buildings in Portland, Maine after the Great Portland Fire of 1866. He put out his own shingle on Main Street in Fitchburg in 1868. Before he died forty years later he left behind some 30 schools, 25 churches, several dozen public buildings and hundreds of private residences in a variety of architectural styles.
Our walking tour of Fitchburg will bump into several Francis buildings but we’ll start in an architecturally rich nook of the city that doesn’t feature any of H.M Francis’ work, Monument Park...
bounded by Main Street, Elm Street, Wallace Avenue and Hartwell Street
Fitchburg’s memorial to its fallen Civil War heroes was dedicated in 1873. Fitchburg sent 824 men to battle in the Civil War and 142 were killed. The allegorical figure of America that tops the monument is flanked by a figure of a Civil War soldier and a Civil War sailor, all designed & sculpted by Martin Milmore of Boston. Within the base is a box containing historical documents and records such as the contract for the monument, an 1873 city directory, and copies of the Fitchburg Sentinel, the Boston Globe, and the New York Herald.
WALK OUT TO MAIN STREET AND TURN LEFT TRAVELING EAST.
569 Main Street
Christ Church started as a mission at Easter in 1863 and was designated a parish that year. America’s leading proponent of Gothic Revival architecture, Richard Upjohn, designed the gray stone church building. Beginning in the 1920s a chancel, sanctuary, and Norman-Style chapel were added. A Tudor building, with space for offices, church school, and choir replaced the original Rectory, completing enclosure of a full block in the middle of the city.
520 Main Street
In the late 1800s the name Iver Johnson came to stand for quality engineering and reliability in firearms and bicycles. Johnson came from Norway to Worcester in 1863 at the age of 22. It was the height of the Civil War and found his skill at gunsmithing in great demand. In 1871 he joined Martin Bye to form the Johnson Bye & Company in Worcester and the two were awarded multiple patents for firearms in the years to come. Johnson eventually bought Bye out and moved the operation to Fitchburg as Johnson’s Arms & Cycle Works in 1891. The company would operate under the same name while drifting out to Arkansas until 1993. Iver Johnson died in 1895 and his wife, Mary, constructed this five-story hotel as a memorial to her husband shortly afterwards, taking care to display the same reputation for craftsmanship as the products that came out of Johnson factories. Built of Indiana sandstone in an Italian Renaissance style, it was one of the largest buildings in town. The Johnsonia became the final word on elegance in Fitchburg; today it carries on into its second century as stately apartments.
TURN AND WALK BACKUP MAIN STREET, HEADING BACK TOWARDS MONUMENT PARK, ONE BLOCK AWAY.
The Fay Club
658 Main Street
The Park Club formed in 1881 for the men of north-central Massachusetts to “gather for personal, intellectual stimulation and friendship and promote the well-being of each individual, their businesses and the communities in which they live and serve.” The clubhouse was donated by Lucy Fay Griffith in accordance with here father’s wishes. George Flagg Fay, who came to Fitchburg in 1858 as a bookkeeper in the office of the paper-manufacturing firm of Crocker & Burbank. quickly became a member of the enterprise that would come to include seven mills. Fay, a founding member of the Park Club, also dabbled in banking and held a large interest in the Vermont and Massachusetts Railroad. On October 29, 1910 the Park Club unanimously voted to accept the gift and change its name to the Fay Club.
715 Main Street
From the 1880s through the 1950s, there were times a performing arts enthusiast could find as many as ten theaters in Fitchburg. The state-of-the art Fitchburg Theater opened in 1927 with a modern Art Deco design and seating for 1700, one of the largest indoor screens in New England. The Fitchburg fell on hard times like all downtown theaters in the 1970s. The balcony was sectioned off to two individual theaters and the main floor became the larger main theater but the movie house did not survive.
Fitchburg City Hall
718 Main Street
The Fitchburg City Hall was dedicated on January 7, 1853 to replace an aging structure built 60 years earlier on Upper Common. The town appropriated $20,000 for the land, construction and furnishings but all the bids came in higher than that amount. Rather than go over budget, as might be the accepted course today, one of the members of the building committee, Colonel Ivers Phillips, resigned and assembled his own team of local craftsman to do the job. The two-story Italianate brick building picked up an additional four stories in the rear in 1879. A major renovation in the 1960s kept the slender Italianate windows and ornamental window hoods but added the Ionic pilasters and general Greek Revival appearance. Surrounding buildings were not so lucky; all of City Hall’s 19th century neighbors have been leveled leaving it as an island in the cityscape.
781 Main Street
The Fitchburg Mutual Fire Insurance Co. hired H.M. Francis to design its headquarters at this conspicuous location near the Upper Common. Francis delivered a Renaissance Revival style building studded with classical decorations on practically every inch of the facade. Completed in 1893, the Phoenix was typical of modern commercial blocks of the day with retail shops on the ground floor, business offices on the second floor and residential apartments on the upper floors. The Fitchburg Historical Society purchased the building and surrounding properties in the 2000s with intentions to renovate the Phoenix as its new headquarters. The adjoining building to the east with the unusual upper facade is the Proctor Block, another Francis creation.
Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise
808 Main Street
John Garfield published the first edition of the Fitchburg Sentinel on December 20, 1838 and the paper remained a family enterprise almost continuously through the 19th century as it became the town’s leading newspaper. Over in Leominster, F.N. Boutwell opened a printing shop in 1869 and three years later gave the town its first regular newspaper since 1810. At first the Enterprise published on Wednesday and in the 1890s it went daily. The two papers merged to provide coverage to northern Worcester County in 1973.
Calvinistic Congregational Church/Faith United Parish
820 Main Street
Preaching began in Fitchburg in 1766 but incorporation of the Calvinistic Congregational Church took place in 1805 and the congregation’s first meeting house shortly followed. This is the third Calvinistic church building, all constructed on this site. It was the project of H.M. Francis who was a member of the church. Francis used brownstone to create his version of the brawny Richardsonian Romanesque style spawned by the work of Henry Hobson Richardson of Boston. It features such hallmarks of the style as towers, open faced belfries, rounded arches and clusters of miniature classical columns. The church was completed in 1897 and is graced by magnificent stained-glass windows. The Rose Window, representing the Angelic Choir, 20 feet in diameter and located over the front entrance, is by Redding, Baird & Company. Five Tiffany stained-glass windows, gifts of the Rodney Wallace family, beautify the sanctuary.
The long oval in the center of Main Street was land owned by the First Parish Church until 1882 when the congregation deeded it to the city. The first improvement came in 1888 with the installation of the Boys and Turtles fountain sculpted by Vermont artist Herbert Adams. It was one of the 30-year old sculptor’s first notable works; he would go on to create busts and statues in important locations in boston, Philadelphia and New York City. Adams sculpted two bronze doors in the Library of Congress and returned to Fitchburg in 1928 to design the town’s monument to World War I veterans on the Upper Common.
The Rollstone Boulder
Upper Common, Main Street
This glacial erratic was famously deposited on the summit of Rollstone Hill by the last retreating glacier about 10,000 odd years ago. A granite quarry at the top of the hill provided most of the stone for the walls and buildings across Fitchburg. The quarrying operations threatened the 110-ton granite boulder so it was exploded and reassembled on this triangular pocket park next to the Upper Common.
The First Parish Church Unitarian Universalist
923 Main Street
A 1797 meetinghouse was moved off this site on Upper Common to clear space for the construction of this Greek Revival church in 1837. Its gable end looks down on the common and it is crowned with a multi-stage steeple.
CROSS THE STREET BACK TO UPPER COMMON AND WALK BACK DOWN MAIN STREET. TURN LEFT ON MERRIAM PARKWAY. WALK TO THE END INTO THE PARKING LOT OF THE FITCHBURG ART MUSEUM.
Fitchburg Art Museum
185 Elm Street
Eleanor Norcross, daughter of the first mayor of Fitchburg, was an artist and collector who spent the majority of her adult life as an ex-patriate artist in Paris. When she died in her late 60s in 1923 she left money founding the museum with the wish that it assemble art objects from around the world for the benefit of those in her hometown who would not enjoy the chance to travel abroad. Her will designated two women friends as trustees and they in turn hired women architects to convert a french Provincial-style brick stable into an art museum. It now occupies three buildings with 14 galleries housing permanent collections of American, European and Asianpaintings, prints, drawings, ceramics and decorative arts as well as Greek, Roman, Egyptian and pre-Columbian antiquities.
EXIT THE ART MUSEUM ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE YOU ENTERED, WALKING DOWN TO ELM STREET. TURN RIGHT. TURN LEFT ON ACADEMY STREET.
B. F. Brown Junior High School
62 Academy Street
Fronted by a quartet of Ionic columns this Classical Revival brick academic building was constructed in 1922.
Academy Street School
76 Academy Street
This roomy three-story French Second Empire structure, sited on a knoll overlooking Academy Street, was built in 1869, one of the first commissions for Henry M. Francis after he opened his architectural firm on Main Street in 1868. Built of brick with brownstone trim and corner quoins on a granite foundation, the school is covered in a slate roof. Sited on a knoll, Francis created a projecting pavilion for an entrance that overlooks Academy Street, destined to become the hub of education in Fitchburg.
Fitchburg Middle School
98 Academy Street
This building was constructed in 1937 as the Fitchburg High School and served that capacity for most of its existence. The building is distinguished by a long flight of granite stairs leading from Academy Street down to Prichard Street.
TURN RIGHT ON WALLACE AVENUE.
60 Wallace Avenue
Helen Stratton, head of the English Department at Fitchburg High School, founded the Fitchburg Amateurs’ Workshop and put on the first production, Mr. Pim Passes By, a comedy by A. A. Milne, in 1925. The 1840s Greek Revival building that became their playhouse was donated and used for the first time in 1939. The opening took place without Helen Stratton, who had been killed in an automobile accident in 1929. The Stratton Players is one of the oldest community theaters in the United States and also one of the few which has its own theater.
northwest corner of Elm Street and Wallace Street
This outstanding Classical Revival building was constructed if Indiana granite in 1902 as the federal post office. This was the town’s first post office - for the previous 92 years mail service in Fitchburg originated from various postmasters’ homes and rented space. It features a Doric portico and rooftop balustrade fronted by a symbolic eagle. In recent years the building has done duty as a court house, honoring Judge Andre A. Gelinas and his father, A. Andre Gelinas, “for their many contributions to the judiciary, the bar, and the city of Fitchburg.”
TURN RIGHT ON ELM STREET AND WALK ONE BLOCK TO ITS END AT GROVE STREET.
Fitchburg Historical Society
50 Grove Street
This is another Francis building, but not Henry M.’s. His sons Frederick and Albert joined their father’s practice in 1902, six years before he died. The commission for the Historical Society, which had organized in 1892, came in 1910. The distinguished Georgian Revival brick building, wrapped in quoins and featuring a hipped roof, was dedicated on June 4, 1912.
TURN AND WALK BACK DOWN ELM STREET.
The Fitchburg Armory
14 Wallace Avenue at Elm Street
In 1840, the state militia was disbanded and replaced by the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia (MVM). The MVM enforced federal and state law, suppressed riots, took part in parades and ceremonies, and attended drills and two-day camps and fielded 6,000 men organized into ten regiments. Most units were assigned quarters in town halls and commercial buildings but some towns offered their own armories. This one was built in 1891 for Companies B & D of the Sixth Regiment and designed by Robert Wait & Olin W. Cutter.
The Worcester County Courthouse
84 Elm Street
In the 1860s the townships in northern Worcester County began voicing their displeasure with traveling down to Worcester to transact legal business. They proposed breaking away and forming their own county, to be called Lincoln County. Instead, a new Superior Courthouse was proposed for the northern district and Fitchburg’s town fathers offered this site. The Gothic style courthouse was built with gray granite blocks quarried from the local Rollstone quarry and carted to the site by oxen. The final cost of the building, considered to be as fireproof as could be constructed, was $125,000. Behind the courthouse is the original stone boiler room that pumped hot air into the main building.
THE TOUR STARTING POINT IS ACROSS THE STREET IN MONUMENT PARK.