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In 1857 Worcester was a very different city than it is today. Imagine the hustle and bustle of an unpaved Main Street and its incessant urban traffic exploding with energy. Lining the street were the many shops, markets and factories all catering to the residents of this up-and-coming industrial city. The driving force behind all this, of course, was the steam engine. After years of stifling logistical problems the steam engine presented Worcester with the answer to its transportation and power dilemmas, essentially jump starting the industrial revolution in the heart of the commonwealth (Erskine 58). The pride of Worcester's industrialists was, of course, Mechanics Hall. Standing tall above the other buildings of Main Street the Mechanics Association had grand visions of how Mechanics Hall was to serve the population of Worcester.
The Mechanics Association was officially founded on November 27th, 1841 during a public town council meeting. The association espoused the principles of "the moral, intellectual and social improvement of its members; the perfection of the mechanical arts, and the pecuniary assistance of the needy" (Denny 63). Its president, Ichabod Washburn and his executive board were all prominent men in Worcester. Members such as William T. Merrifield encouraged small business growth by renting shops on Union Street. As did many civic associations at the time, the Mechanics Association began building a library and arranging lectures relevant to their creed. The first lecture given by Elihu Burritt, in particular, would shape involvement in the community. Burritt spoke on the necessity of educating the mechanics and working men in America because all men were capable of succeeding at high levels with the proper education. This speech inspired the Mechanics to dedicate themselves to educating other mechanics and craftsmen (Denny 64). The Association began to provide classes in the mechanical arts as well as cultural and political events for all members of the community.
The Association grew and after a few trade shows it was clearly outgrowing its rented spaces. Under the guidance of Washburn, who made a $10,000 contribution, the Mechanics retained renowned Worcester architect Elbridge Boyden to design and construct a new building. The grand total cost to build the hall, including the purchase of the land and the cost of to build the hall, was $140,129 (Denny 64).
Boyden used many different materials, some being sand, bricks, iron, and mahogany wood. Iron was included at part of the materials for this building to add strength. Iron at the time was a controversial building material and many critics thought it was inappropriate for elite buildings. The Mechanics, however, did not think that industrial practicality and elegance were incompatible. Iron was used for the inner layer of the columns on the façade. The iron supported the columns and then they were covered with cement. In 1858, a prominent architect, Henry Van Brunt, articulated progressive thinking about the use of iron in architecture, " iron was a material peculiarly adapted to meet many modern emergencies of practical building, so it contained within itself a facility for pure architectural decoration" (Spencer 187). The Worcester Mechanics were frugal people who saw practicality and economy as relevant building principles. Brick was used on the sides and back of this building but the front façade was built with sandstone.
The Renaissance Revival style selected stood for universal education, optimism, government connecting with the people, and progress that benefited everyone, ideals clearly espoused by the Mechanics Association. The grand design of the front of the building placed a strong emphasis on the importance of the building and its purpose to educate its members. This building stood apart because it was the only Renaissance Revival style being built in the city at that time. Mechanics Hall's architecture is of the North Italian Mode of the Renaissance Revival which became popular in the United States in the 1850s. Mechanics Hall embodies characteristics of this architecture in its symmetry, its layered exterior and its arched windows (Wiffen 79). The exterior surface is layered with windows, decorations and columns. Since all of these are connected to the wall through the use of layering, a three dimensional effect is created.
This style reflects
the inspiration of Italian Renaissance qualities found in the late 15th
century in secular buildings such as the Palazzo Bevilacqua in Verona
that were devloped by Jacopo
Sansovino, in the mid 16th century. Arched windows, symmetry and interspersed
columns are depicted in his Library of Saint Mark, in Venice, Italy, completed
in 1591 (Sansovino, 655). This building's appearance is much grander than
Mechanics Hall, but one can see many similarities. For example, the levels
of the building are divided as they are in the Library. The windows are
all equally arched and columns are on both sides as they are on Mechanics
Hall. Both buildings are highly ornate with heavy stone sculptured designs
in between the floors and around the windows. Interestingly, both buildings
were used for an educational purpose. The Library of Saint Mark was a
library and the Mechanics Hall had both lectures and a library for its
Revival also reflects the Renaissance in its use of the rusticated façade,
already seen in the Palazzo Bevilacqua. The term rusticated is used when
the first level of the building has a heavier and chunkier feel than the
other floors. As the building rises in height, it becomes more refined.
This first level design is displayed in Jacopo Sansovino's Palazzo Corner
in Venice, completed in 1566 (Sansovino 656). This building's lower level
design is chunkier and becomes less chunky with more simple design as
the levels increase. The lower level in the Palazzo Corner is symmetrical
as it is in Mechanics Hall. Both buildings have an equal number of windows
on each side with the entrance in the center. For Mechanics Hall, this
first level has independent stores on each side of the entrance and so
this façade helps to separate the stores from the rest of the building's
purpose. This Renaissance Revival architecture gives Mechanics Hall the
impact of a strong and impressive building where people can join together
to learn and educate others.
To demonstrate that Mechanics Hall was built for the people, when decorating the interior of the building, the committee chose to hang portraits of prominent Worcester citizens. The ladies of the Bay State Shoe & Leather Company gave a portrait of Abraham Lincoln prominently featured to the left of the organ. On the right is a replica of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington at Faneuil Hall in Boston. All of the original portraits in the Great Hall were of the founders from the 1850s. This began to change in the spring of 1996 when the Worcester Women's History Project began a venture to include important women of the mid-19th century from the Worcester County area. In May 1997, the trustees of the Worcester County Mechanics Association unanimously agreed to the proposal of hanging portraits of distinguished women in Mechanics Hall. The four chosen were: Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross), Lucy Stone (first woman from Massachusetts to graduate from college, an abolitionist and a suffragette), Abby Kelley Foster (an abolitionist, suffragette and one of the first woman to give a speech at Mechanics Hall) and Dorothea Lynde Dix (founder of a school for young children and campaigned to improve conditions for the mentally ill in both prisons and insane asylums). Carefully integrated they demonstrate how Mechanics Hall is an example of living history for the people of Worcester.
When it was dedicated on March 19th, 1857, Mechanics Hall was beautiful indeed, but it also represented the state-of-the-art in mechanical systems and construction techniques such as its near perfect acoustics which was quite a feat since it was built before the science of acoustics was discovered. The Great Hall, in particular, allowed a normal voice with no amplification to be heard clearly anywhere in the hall. Even today, the Hall ranks in the top twelve buildings internationally for perfect acoustics (Mechanics Hall website). To exploit the space even more, the plan included a balustrade balcony supported by elaborate brackets. These seats toward to stage allow for a very personal viewing of the events.
The Mechanics now had a dedicated physical space where they could hold trade shows featuring mechanics products and techniques that were unique to the area. The trade shows served to publicize production in Worcester but also attracted businesses from far and wide to the region, creating revenue for the city. However, almost as soon as the building was completed, the country slipped into a depression and the taxes owed on the building accumulated. Only through generous donations in November of 1858 by men such as Stephen Salisbury III and Deacon Washburn (known as the father of enterprise) was the Association able to keep its hall (Denny 67). The hall was also in need of an organ. The community responded, showing the support for the organization was very strong. They raised a total of nearly $10,000 and the organ was dedicated on November 10th, 1864 being the second largest pipe organ in the country at the time (Denny 69).
The Hall was a way for the Mechanics to share their ideas and forward thinking with the community at large. It functioned as an ideal venue to present speakers who would serve to continue and spread the rhetoric of the Association. Notable speakers in support of abolition, prohibition and other "forward" ideas of the time to present their views to the people of Worcester. For example, an advertisement from the Mechanics' Hall describes the season's course of lectures beginning on Thursday evening, November 12, 1857. These lectures had an educational format and often discussed current issues of the time. The opening season lecture was Henry Ward Beecher (American preacher and reformer). Tickets were one dollar for gentlemen and fifty cents for ladies or minors. Other lectures for the 1857 series included Theodore Parker (Unitarian minister, lecturer, and writer), George W. Curtis (one of the founders of the Republican Party, author, editor and reformer) and James Russell Lowell (American poet, critic, and editor). While speakers made up the vast majority of the programs featured in the early days of Mechanics Hall often times other popular programs, such as travelogues and musical groups were featured in the hall. The travelogues were of particular note in that they became a Worcester tradition continued until 1996. In the days before air transportation and the travel channel they were a window to the outside world, allowing citizens of Worcester to live vicariously for a few hours through explorers and voyagers within the intimate setting of Mechanics Hall. It was a truly place that served to the whole community, no matter what age.
As time progressed and technology changed, however, the Mechanics Association and Mechanics Hall fell on some hard times. Starting in the late 19th century the Association began to devote their attention to areas outside of Mechanics Hall. With the founding of WPI in 1865 and the opening of the Worcester Trade School in 1910 the mechanics began to shift a large part of their educational initiatives to these new institutions. Slowly but surely the Mechanics' Library once housed at Mechanics Hall was split up between the new technology institutions in Worcester. Many of the lectures began to leave the Hall to address audiences at other venues in Worcester, including the colleges, city hall and the trade school. In 1932 the opening of the Worcester Auditorium, a memorial to the Worcester Veterans of World War I, threatened Mechanics Hall even more. As the newer, modern venue in town it attracted most performers. In an effort to generate some revenue for the upkeep of this rather large building, the Great Hall became used as a venue for basketball games, wrestling matches and, for a period of time, it was even a roller-skating rink! By this point the Mechanics Association was slowly fading away. Its members, not true "mechanics" in any sense of the word, were mostly the grandchildren of the original members, staying together for the sake of nostalgia.
With the demolition of the Barnard, Sumner and Putnam Department store in 1975 it seemed inevitable that the end was near for Mechanics Hall. The foundation and wall supports had become so weak that after the department store was razed a pencil could literally be poked though the wall. Rather than let the building be lost, however, the citizens of Worcester rallied behind "their hall." Almost every resident of Worcester had, in some way, a connection to this building. Driven by WTAG radio personality Judy Fuller and T&G publisher Dick Steele, a total of $5 million was raised in 1976. In perhaps one of the most well planned and considerate renovations of its time, Mechanics Hall triumphantly reopened to the public in November 1977, restored to all of its past grandeur.
Today Mechanics Hall is an example of living history. Walking into the hall from the Main Street entrance visitors are struck by the same grand staircase that visitors to the hall experienced in its early days. The staircase, like so many other elements of the hall, has maintained its significance and beauty while, at the same time, incorporating complementary modern elements. Its dark wood, burgundy carpeting and shiny brass railings seamlessly blend 19th-century utilitarianism and modern historical interpretations. A key element to the "new" Mechanics Hall is the addition of first floor administrative offices and shops in an area that had been previously used for storage. Framed by the staircase used by so many residents of Worcester over the years, this new foyer showcases documents and photographs of the hall's past and contains the administrative offices of the Mechanics Association and the hall operations. This foyer may be seen as an example of the conversion of a rather utilitarian area in a time honored landmark to modern needs. It attempts to emulate the original building materials, such as type and style of wood, while whenever possible while adding a tastefully modern interpretation.
This same philosophy can be observed in many other parts of the building as well. Opposite the Main Street Staircase the rear entrance still boasts its original bricks and windows. The renovation encased it an elegant glass atrium that both preserves the original form and adds significant functionality. Modern amenities, such as an elevator and catering facilities, were made as unobtrusive as possible.
The award winning rehabilitation of the hall was not simply limited to the periphery areas. The preservation also focused on the two main venues of Mechanics Hall, Washburn Hall and the Great Hall. Often used for business gatherings and presentations, Washburn Hall's legacy in transferring new ideas and showcasing technologies lives on. At the same time, the presence of a bar, a fixture which looks as if it could be an original piece of the room, would have been unthinkable in the hall's early days; the Mechanics were strict prohibitionists. In the Great Hall, the rehabilitation restored the feeling of the ornate that had been lost after years of neglect and abuse. The new floor is as exact of a replica of the original one as possible. The modern sound system and recording studio are integrated so tactfully that they have to be pointed out to be noticed. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980, the building founded on the ideas of exchange of craft, technology and practical knowledge has turned into a center for the arts and humanities in Worcester, and around the world.
Denny, Daniel E.
"The Worcester County Mechanics Association" Worcester Magazine.
Vol. 12, (March 1909).