Portland Mechanics' Hall: Storied past, renewed future
PORTLAND — Historic preservation and serendipity intersect at the corner of Congress and Casco streets.
The result is a new life at Mechanics' Hall that will allow the 200-year-old Maine Charitable Mechanic Association to show its contributions to community and culture, and allow Acorn Productions to use a third-floor ballroom as an instruction and performance space.
"We envision a very multi-faceted, multi-purpose future" for the 519 Congress St. building, association trustee Reggie Osborn said last week.
As Acorn Productions neared the end of its lease in the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook last year, restoring Mechanics' Hall was perfectly timed, producing director and co-founder Michael Levine said.
"It was serendipitous," he said Monday.
Completed in 1859, Mechanics' Hall survived the 1866 fire that ravaged the city and was a temporary City Hall for three years after that.
It withstood the urban renewal that led to new office construction next door, and was the site for architectural drawing classes through the 1980s. But beyond the retail spaces on the first floor, the hall and its history remained relatively unheralded.
Initial fundraising efforts garnered $10,000 to make life-safety upgrades, including a new fire escape, and for a public assembly license, association trustee Thomas Blackburn said.
A second phase of fundraising with a $35,000 goal is now underway, for money to upgrade lights, chairs and other amenities in the ballroom, while also upgrading the electrical systems.
Levine joined with the MCMA in the fundraising after the theater group and association trustees reached an agreement last September that would give Acorn Productions space to teach, rehearse and perform.
After its incorporation in Portland in 1998, Acorn was in the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook for about eight years.
"We had a lot of conversations about what a collaboration might look like," Levine said, adding he was attracted to the history of the building, as well as the ballroom space. "I have a personal affinity for historical preservation and the arts together."
With a slate of bicentennial events in the works, Blackburn and Osborn said they are eager to have the community rediscover the building and the MCMA.
“It is a collaboration, but (Acorn is) only a small part of our rental universe," Blackburn said. "We want to encourage a wide variety of uses."
The ballroom will host the Casco Bay High School prom, and shows by city-based Cast Aside Productions in the fall.
"(Cast Aside is) bringing in 50 people," Osborn said. "That is like Broadway."
Blackburn and Osborn also want the original MCMA mission to be restored. Formed in 1815, it was established by trades business owners who sought to educate and enlighten workers and families.
“It was a precursor to the safety net,”Blackburn said. “Mechanics in 1815 were anybody who used a tool.”
The second-floor library holds displays of items made by tradesmen: silver spoons, cutting tools, and a vintage embosser used to notarize documents. Osborn took delight in an iron book stand, holding an Oxford English Dictionary, and the ornate iron patterns on bookshelves.
In about 1890, renown architect John Calvin Stevens oversaw renovations that moved the first-floor library upstairs while adding flooring above for the ballroom. Above that was a dining room, where Civil War soldiers could get a hot meal any time of day.
To show off the space and make people more aware of the building, Acorn Productions staged its "Naked Shakespeare" productions during this month's First Friday Art Walk, and will stage them again on April 3, Levine said.
Acorn acting classes have also started, but Levine said just how the space will be used is not fully determined.
"I really like the flexibility of it," he said. "We do a lot of different types of shows."