Ongoing restoration efforts ensure that a vibrant monument to makers continues to support its 200-year-old mission
In addition to its highly visible architecturally significant buildings and spaces, Portland has a number of gems that are, in effect, hiding in plain sight: the Portland Masonic Temple, Wilde Memorial Chapel in Evergreen Cemetery, and the garden at the Wadsworth–Longfellow House, to name a few. Just a block from the garden is another hidden jewel: Mechanics’ Hall. Like its other Congress Street neighbor, the Masonic Temple, Mechanics’ Hall has storefronts facing the street, which help to keep the 160-year-old building’s larger purpose under wraps, as well as provide income for its owner, the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association (MCMA).
Founded in Massachusetts in 1815, five years before Maine became a state, the MCMA was part of a movement that originated in the United Kingdom to democratize adult education. Mechanics’ associations (and a similar, short-lived British initiative called the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge) opened membership libraries and meeting spaces for tradesmen. Before the advent of free public libraries, these organizations were among the very few ways that middle- and working-class people could access books and other educational resources. “The original members were artisans: blacksmiths, saddle makers, cabinetmakers, people who worked in the mechanical arts and used their hands,” says Annie Leahy, who became MCMA’s first executive director last spring. “Some of our members today fall into those categories, but we also have architects, musicians, writers, and other kinds of artists and artisans.”
Beginning in 1820, the MCMA library roved around Portland until 1859, when it moved into its permanent home at Mechanics’ Hall. The Italianate-style building was designed by Portland-born architect Thomas J. Sparrow and constructed by its members of stone and brick, including granite quarried in Biddeford. Three two-story arched windows define the front facade; the arm-and- hammer symbol of labor decorates the keystone above the middle window, flanked by heads above the other two—Vulcan, Greek god of fire and the forge, and Archimedes, the Greek mathematician and scientist. The library was originally housed on the first floor; there was a ballroom on the second, reading and anterooms on the third, and a dining room on the fourth. “The building served many purposes over the years, but the principal purpose was a home for the apprenticeship library and a social hall,” says Leahy. Archival documents include promotional materials for a 1914 lecture called “An Evening with the Stars” by Professor B.R. Baumgardt, “to serve as an introduction to an intelligent understanding of the starry heavens,” and another with Mr. H.C. Ostrander, simply entitled “Mexico.”
During the Civil War, Mechanics’ Hall was used to feed Maine’s Union soldiers before they shipped out from Portland to join the fighting. Just inside the not-yet-renovated fourth-floor dining room, a low ceiling is pockmarked with scratches and small holes, reportedly the result of the soldiers, scraping and poking it with their rifles’ bayonets. Following the Great Fire of 1866, the building was pressed into service as a temporary City Hall. By the late 1880s, the library had been moved into the ballroom on the second floor, and mechanical drawing classes were offered in a classroom next door. Architect John Calvin Stevens, an MCMA member (his great-grandson, architect Paul Stevens, currently serves as board president), renovated the third floor, designing a grand ballroom for his friend, dance instructor Melvin B. Gilbert (a pioneer of dance as physical education for women), to lease as a dance academy. In 1957 an elevator was installed at the front of the building, bisecting the once-grand circular staircase. “The building served many purposes over the years, but the amazing thing to me is how it has structurally survived,” says Leahy.
That said, considerable restoration work and decision-making remains, including plaster repair, painting, and window treatments in the ballroom and determining an appropriate use for the former dining room, where, despite their decrepit state, clerestory windows offer impressive views of the city. Leahy’s charge is to advance physical improvements to the building, along with leading efforts to secure the future of MCMA. “We now run a coding program for middle school students in the old mechanical drawing classroom,” she says. “And since this building has always been a center for knowledge, we’re thinking about that as we move forward. How do we bring some of that programming back?” Some initiatives are already in place. “Makers at the Hall,” a series of talks on the last Wednesday of the month year-round (except for June through August) is free for members and open to all for a modest ticket price. Upcoming presenters include chocolatier Catherine Wiersema of Chocolats Passion and potter and activist Ayumi Horie. The ballroom, which has become a popular wedding venue, also hosts the Portland Swing Project, performances by Palaver Strings, and events for the Portland Society for Architecture. “We recently had Startup Maine in here, and we’re doing Lily King’s book launch in March,” says Leahy. “We’re trying to tap into the history of the building, and the mission of the organization—that idea of the diffusion of useful knowledge.”
For his tenacity in leading recent restoration efforts, Leahy credits Tom Blackburn, a former MCMA board member and retired general contractor who became hall superintendent four years ago. “In 1943 the ballroom was closed to the public, and when I got involved I looked at the financials and realized we needed to open up the venues in order to make sufficient funds to survive,” Blackburn says. Last June, a wall that had divided the ballroom into photography and art studios came down, and a catering prep kitchen was created in an adjacent former office. “When they took the sledgehammer to that giant wall and I watched light come from the windows across the floor, it gave me goose bumps,” says Leahy.
Beginning in 2013, restoration at Mechanics’ Hall has been supported by various grants funded by the City of Portland, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and private foundations, as well as by trade unions associated with MCMA and individual members. A grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation helped to launch the work in the library, which is being done in phases. “Over the years, more and more books had been added, and there hadn’t been a culling of the collection, so you couldn’t really walk through the stacks,” says Leahy. Presumably made by a MCMA member, the unusual wood and wrought iron stacks have been repositioned to make the library ADA compliant, and the lighting has been retrofitted and turned into ceiling fixtures. Window restoration, seating, and the additional of study carrels are all part of the next phase.
In late 2016 the MCMA commissioned Portland’s Barba and Wheelock Architects to produce a Historic Structure Report, a comprehensive document that serves as a master plan for Mechanics’ Hall. It includes a design for an addition to the back of the building that would house an elevator and a second staircase, allowing the front elevator to be removed and the circular main stairs to be restored. “Taking down the wall changed the whole feel, and now it’s back to being a grand ballroom,” says architect Nancy Barba. “But it hasn’t been able to serve in its full capacity because of egress limitation.” Restoring the main staircase will continue the work Barba’s firm did to improve the building’s entrance hall sequence. “There are doors, and transom windows, and lots of detail; we had to figure out how to retain the character and still meet the city’s fire code,” Barba says. For her and her partner, architect Cynthia Wheelock, Mechanics’ Hall was a familiar and beloved landmark. “At the time, our office was right across the street, and we had been looking at it for years before getting involved,” Barba says. “It’s so unusual to have a privately-owned building like this in a highly developable area in the middle of Portland—it’s an urban survivor. And it’s an important social center for everything it has been doing all along.”
It’s also unusual for the mission of a 200-year-old organization to remain so relevant today. Covering a wall in the library are sepiatoned portraits of long-ago MCMA leaders, many with familiar Portland names: Holden, Stevens, Winslow, Baker. “They were representative of the work and the desire to create an environment for tradespeople and artisans to expand their minds,” says Leahy. Given the strength of the makers movement in Maine, and a renewed interest in the trades, the future of Mechanics’ Hall—both the building itself and the work it supports—looks especially bright.