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Reading 2: Mechanics Hall

By the middle of the 19th century, the large landowners, town merchants, and legal professionals who had been the most important forces in pre-Revolutionary, rural Worcester County found that there was a new force in society. Newly wealthy industrialists entered the upper classes, while substantial numbers of skilled mechanics entered the middle class. These mechanics contributed to the general prosperity of society and were justly proud of their hard work and public spirit. In Worcester, the Mechanics Association wanted a permanent meeting place and a public commemoration of their skill, industry, and achievements.

By 1851, it became clear that the Worcester County Mechanics Association needed a larger space for its classes and library, but also for holding lectures, debates, and various entertainments. Ichabod Washburn was selected chairman of the building committee for Mechanics Hall. The committee of strong-minded, successful men drawn from a membership of skilled and ingenious mechanics (including many from the building trades) was a difficult group to satisfy. They selected the Italian Renaissance Revival design of a local architect, Elbridge Boyden, for the hall and broke ground in July 1855.

Members of the Mechanics Association constructed the building, raising its timbers, mortaring its bricks, finishing paint to imitate limestone, and applying decorative cast iron on the facade. When completed, Mechanics Hall was the tallest and largest building in Worcester, a showplace of innovative building techniques and mechanical systems that were fitting monuments to the mechanics of Worcester. The hall opened on March 19, 1857, with speeches, performances by two bands, and an evening concert by the Boston Orchestral Union. Cost over-runs led to an unforeseen debt of $104,000, but partial payment of outstanding bonds and donations from prominent Worcester citizens (including Washburn) secured the financial future both of the Mechanics Association and Mechanics Hall.

Mechanics Hall featured a large concert hall on the third floor. Its perfect acoustics enabled audiences to hear speakers' voices and music distinctly without benefit of the as-yet-invented microphone or electronic amplifier. Workers framed the end of the hall for a pipe organ, which was subsequently installed in 1863. The smaller Washburn Hall and rooms for the use of the Mechanics Association occupied the second floor. Four stores, which were rented out by the Association to generate income, occupied the street level.

Certainly, Mechanics Hall gave the Mechanics Association a place to meet, conduct classes, keep its library, and hold exhibitions. Yet, from the day it was dedicated, Mechanics Hall also became the center of Worcester's cultural life. Two years after it opened, in 1859, it became home to the Worcester Music Festival, now the oldest musical festival in the nation. The mechanics charged the Worcester County Music Association only one dollar per season for the use of the hall for rehearsals and performances because they wanted to bring culture to their community. Since its opening the superb acoustics of the hall have attracted the world's finest musicians, whether classical, jazz, or popular. Among those to perform in the hall have been Enrico Caruso, Antonin Dvorak, Yo Yo Ma, Itzak Perlman, Mel Torme, and Ella Fitzgerald. An additional attraction to keyboard artists has been the 3,504-pipe Hook organ, the world's only surviving 19th-century four-keyboard organ. Mechanics Hall was not simply a concert hall. Distinguished authors who lectured there included Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain. By the turn of the 20th century, it had screened early motion pictures as well.

Mechanics Hall also hosted political meetings and rallies in Worcester. The Mechanics Association would rent the hall out whether it approved of the groups' beliefs or not. Henry Ward Beecher and other abolitionists crusaded in Mechanics Hall for the emancipation of slaves; Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton would subsequently crusade for women's suffrage. Presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson all addressed Worcester audiences at Mechanics Hall.

Yet, above all, Mechanics Hall became the place for the people of Worcester to come together. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, the people of Worcester memorialized him at Mechanics Hall. Civic or religious groups could hold fund-raising events in the building free of charge, courtesy of the Mechanics Association. Departing and returning soldiers were honored within the building's walls. However, by the mid-20th century, downtown Worcester had declined, and the aging building fell into disfavor as a meeting place. Mechanics Hall was rented out for sporting events such as boxing, wrestling, basketball, and roller-skating. The building continued its decline, and trustees of the dwindling Mechanics Association sought to sell the property. When urban renewal threatened the hall with destruction, the Worcester Heritage Society stepped in. The community rallied around Mechanics Hall once again, raising $5 million for its restoration in 1977. In reversing the decline of Mechanics Hall, Worcester halted the decline of its downtown, and the city experienced a renaissance.

Questions for Reading 2

1. How did the mechanics contribute to Mechanics Hall's construction?

2. How was Mechanics Hall a multi-use facility? What types of activities took place here?

3. Define the term "acoustics." Experiment with a partner to identify what room in your home has the best acoustics.

4. Community planners sometimes have to decide between tearing structures down and building something completely new or renovating historic buildings. What did Worcester gain by deciding to restore and preserve Mechanics Hall that it would not have gained by bulldozing it?

Reading 2 was compiled from Mechanics Hall informational brochures; Margaret A. Erskine, Mechanics Hall (Worcester, Mass.: Worcester Bicentennial Commission, 1977); and John Herron, "Mechanics Hall" (Worcester County, Massachusetts) National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1972.

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