Mechanical energy: Portland group has 1st woman president, plans renovation of Congress Street landmark
PORTLAND — A 153-year-old landmark is about to get a face-lift, but most people who pass by on Congress Street probably haven't even noticed the wrinkles.
Mechanics Hall, home of the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, is a four-story, granite building at the corner of Congress and Casco streets, across from the Maine College of Art. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the structure once served as City Hall after fire destroyed much of Portland in 1866.
Today, Mechanics Hall houses a couple retail tenants, art studios, the Mechanics' 30,000-volume library – and lots of room for improvement. While intact from the outside, the historic building is filled with threadbare carpeting, peeling paint and drafty windows.
"It's an undiscovered gem," said Carolyn Outwin, who in April became the MCMA's first woman president.
"People come here who say, 'I've lived in Portland my whole life, and I didn't even know you had a library.'"
The MCMA is a private, 300-member group founded in 1815 to educate Portland's tradesmen (in the language of the time, "mechanics") as the nation struggled with an economic depression. Since then, the association has offered the library, a variety of classes, college scholarships and other resources to members, who join for a fee of $25.
In 1911, the group began hosting a series of travel-themed lectures by such historic figures as Arctic explorer and Maine resident Robert Peary.
"The lectures were wildly, wildly popular," Outwin said. In fact, the association began holding the talks off site after audiences outgrew the hall's 450-seat ballroom.
Today, the lectures continue each month, but the ballroom – complete with 30-foot ceilings, gilt moldings and a choir loft – is nearly empty. Until June, the space had been used for storage.
The MCMA is hoping a major renovation program will restore the hall to much the way it appeared in 1859, when it was built in a neo-classical design by Portland architect Thomas Sparrow. Another famed local architect, MCMA member John Calvin Stevens, oversaw renovations in 1890.
The hall's next renovation, guided by historic landmark rules, would be complete by 2015, in time for the group's bicentennial anniversary, according to Outwin. The association has already consulted an architect, but it's too early to say exactly what would be included in the project.
"We're only beginning to decide what to do," she said. "The renovation could be for $5,000, or it could be $500,000. ... We're just dipping our toe to see what it's going to cost."
While it considers future plans, the association has received offers to buy the 519 Congress St. building, and other groups have recently tried to lease it for their own operations, Outwin said.
"We're not broke," she said. "We've never rented the hall out to a third party to manage, and we're not going to do it now. ... That's not going to happen, as long as I have the gavel in my hand."
Beside rejuvenating its building, the MCMA is also looking for ways to rejuvenate its image.
That change may be symbolized by Outwin's appointment as president of a largely male group that only began admitting women in 1990.
Outwin, 59, is a Cape Elizabeth resident and a former sales executive. She brings a business perspective to the MCMA's goal of attracting a new generation of members.
"I'm not going to sugar-coat it," she said. "Like everybody else, we're trying to get more people in, younger people. So we're trying to think outside the box."
Thinking outside the box means thinking of new ways to use the hall and its prime downtown location.
Outwin said that because it owns and operates the building, the MCMA is "nimble" and can provide a variety of services and functions.
She noted that the association's library, one of the oldest private-membership collections in the nation, has hosted art exhibits as part of the city's First Friday Art Walk.
In the future, the hall's ballroom may be a venue for theater or musical performances, she added.
"We're not tied to any one topic, any one type of entertainment," she said. "What do you want? We can do it."