Mechanics' Hall, built from 1857-9 at 519 Congress Street, Portland, is considered to be the finest work of Thomas J. Sparrow, Portland’s first native architect. Built from Biddeford granite and stone this Italianate building is adorned with architectural features that highlight the community for which it was built, Maine Charitable Mechanic Association (MCMA). The keystones above each arched window on the front façade are carved with the heads of Vulcan and of Archimedes, and the arm of Labor. The storefronts on the first floor were intended for association members to lease for their own businesses. The core of the original design was to create a permanent home for their library that had been moved between different locations around Portland to accommodate its growing size and use.
The building quickly became a focal point and resource for the city. The MCMA recorded a quote from The Advertiser, a local newspaper that covered the dedication of the building on February 23, 1859. “The Mechanics of Portland as a class, have at length erected a temple— a place consecrated to science and social enjoyment; a central, substantial, and commodious and elegant home. We trust that from this temple shall go forth an influence at once energizing, elevating, perpetual and universal, within its allotted sphere.” A couple years later, in 1861, the MCMA offered their “temple” to be used by troops during the civil war. After the Great Fire of 1866 the hall was used for municipal services and became a very desirable rental location for entrepreneurs as the city rebuilt.
The exterior of the building is relatively unchanged from the date of its dedication. However, the first 40 years saw many changes to the interior of the building as the MCMA adapted the space to best suit their needs and modernize the building. Originally intended for the first floor, in 1886 the library was moved to the second level where it still exists today. In 1890 John Calvin Stevens, one of Portland’s most prominent architects of the era, further re-designed the second floor.
In recent years the MCMA has undergone major restoration work to restore the interior and exterior of their building, working on details large and small. StandFast Works Forge was recognized at the 2016 Preservation Awards for refurbishing the cast iron details at the building's base which has greatly improved the visual impact from the street. On March 6, 2015, the refurbished ballroom was opened to the public for the first time in over 50 years with a grand re-opening celebration during one of Portland’s First Friday Art Walks.
As the building is restored, so is the association. Adapting with and embracing the creative and entrepreneurial energy of Portland, MCMA recognizes that, “today's mechanics are the members of the current “makers” movement.” Their library, one of the state’s oldest, remains accessible to all members. Continuing an almost 200 years old tradition they have renewed their lectures series given by members about their craft. We couldn’t think of a more appropriate place to hold our Preservation in Action day.
Sources for this blog include, the 1965 Constitution of the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association; The MCMA website, www.mainecharitablemechanicassociation.com; and building history researched by Greater Portland Landmarks.