Lowell ARS Clubhouse Weathers the Storm

With a hiccup and a shuffle, the ARS Community Center continues to show its resiliency after 35 years as a mecca for Armenians throughout Greater Lowell.

Youngsters enjoy an activity at the ARS Community Center in Lowell, Mass.

You’ll find it woven inside a residential neighborhood at 142 Liberty St., a street that identifies the mission. On special occasions, you’ll see the Armenian and American flags displayed for all oncomers.

In silence, it maintains its steady vigil until a key unlocks the big wooden door. Used to be a time when the place was agog with activity. Youngsters showed up here to conduct their AYF meetings and conferences. Now, it’s all done at the local Armenian church.

The clubhouse continues to house the presence of the Gomideh and ARS, which has territorial rights to the building and refuses to leave, despite some resistance.

Neighborhoods change. So do people’s mentalities. But the center remains steadfast for all who continue to step inside for a meeting or a hantess.

The premises serve as a veritable conclave, museum, and clearing house. Check out the walls and you’ll see hung pictures that have defined time and commitment. Resting prominently are the three founders of the ARF above another photo of Lowell hamageers who left to fight for the cause a century yonder.

Photos of AYF athletes cover their footage in the basement below. Lowell “Ararat” teams featuring 30-35 athletes stand regal with their identity dating back to the 1970’s. Trophy cases rich with awards are testimony of success.

It is here where Merrimack Valley Armenians gathered to assist the impoverished of Armenia during time of need. Here where activists have entertained the political elite. Here where novitiates have come and taken their ARF oath. Some of the best Armenian food on this planet has aroused many a hearty appetite.

Once a year, our spaghetti suppers paid tribute to every athletic participant, in victory or defeat. No anniversary or commemoration ever went unobserved without an affair of some sort.

Drop by any July and you’ll see a beehive of activity preparing for the Lowell Folk Festival, the proceeds of which go to camperships, scholarships, and humanitarian aid.

My favorite time is Jan. 6 when the children gather for Armenian Christmas. To them, the clubhouse is a veritable Santa’s workshop. One day perhaps their children will be sitting on Santa’s lap in this very establishment.

You want Armenian music? Turn on the 8 mm. recorder and plug in an old Johnny Berberian cassette. No speaker system here. Just talk a little louder. No air-conditioning, either. Open a window and run a fan.

One of the best speeches I’d ever want to hear came from James Mandalian one May 28 when the former Hairenik Weekly editor made his visit.

It took him awhile to get his bearings but an instant later, he grew acclimated. He was mesmerized by the ambiance of this building. I remember him telling me that photographs define the true character of history.

By chance, he observed a photograph of himself outside the old Hairenik Building at 212 Stuart St., taken in 1936. There he stood, a young journalist and political activist. How the photo wound up in Lowell is anyone’s guess.

Mandalian happened to mention other agoomps in his travels, especially the one in Watertown, to which he was accustomed. “It’s a touch of Armenia in America,” he had described.

He then proceeded to give an electrifying talk as the rafters shook with intensity. One week it was Mandalian, another week it was Arthur Giragosian or Leo Sarkisian.

Growing up, this is where we met as members of the old Somerville “Nejdeh” Chapter. While the menfolk were upstairs enjoying a libation over tavlou and pinochle, we’d be meeting downstairs in our humble surroundings at this agoomp.

It was rent-free as I recall. The organizers were thrilled that members of the younger generation were being housed in an appropriate environment, ready to accept the charge. For them, it was a breeding ground.

Those days in the “inner sanctum” of Watertown were some of the best times I experienced. A church or someone’s home would never have cut it.

Its care and upkeep are entrusted to a handful of dedicated folks who refuse to abandon ship during challenging times. Though membership has dwindled and activities here are fewer than in previous years, the clubhouse continues to serve its constituency.

Who, among you, have savored a similar experience with clubhouses, whether in your youthful prime or now, with a place to gather and perpetuate the Armenian Cause? Practice your identity unhampered. And feel the spirit of Armenia seeping through your pores.

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Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
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1 Comment

  1. Another great story touching the inner self !   The first time I visited the ARS club house, I met the late Rev. Fr. Vartan Kassabian.  I happened to be in the front row aisle seat when he opened the proceedings with the Star Spangled Banner!  His vibrancy nearly bowled me over such that I will always remember the time, place and moment.

    The photo of adult males taken 1917-1918 shows my father, his brother, my best man’s father and members of my extended family who lived in Lowell at this time.  Lowell was home to many newcomer Armenians at this time who have been researched and reported by the “Center for Lowell History” UML.  (write me for the URL).  Several of my relatives have been cited here and have been very instrumental in rounding out my family history including a relative I only recently discovered! 

    The ladies Auxiliary hosted a generous Armenian dinner.  The slide show by Joe Bagdigian on a trip to Armenian was very entertaining and informative.  Being spirtually and in stomach full, and my first time in the neighborhood, I simply shut my eyes and gave my car the go ahead to take me home!

    The story reminded me of my Hyortik membership encouraged by my mother who basically wanted me escort my sister on the NYC transportation system from Brooklyn to 3rd Ave and 27th St. area. 

    We met in the ARF building which was under the survellance of the authorities at the time.  I remember several agents (FBI ???) checking over the residency sign and the members coming and going. 

    The President at the time was one of the sons of General Sebouh who held me spellbound.  And speaking of Generals, when Gen. Dro testified at the Senate Kirsten Committee meeting discussing the Communist takeover of the Balkans my cousin Vernon Callian asked to document the proceeding by way of sound movies. 

    One advantage to becoming a member was the many dances held at the time.  I would escort my sister to these.  One advantage was one of my sister’s girlfriends took pity on me not dancing and so volunteered to teach me the Fox Trot ! 

    But the single biggest advantage was in visiting my uncle who then lived in Watertown and checking out the Hye Ortiks where I had the good fortune to meet and fall in love with my wife of 62 years, “Helen Sanasarian Sookikian”. 

    Thanks again Tom for another great story.  “Vee”

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