Friday 3 May 2013

Looking Back at Mechanics Hall in Retro Boston 1881-1959

Hello, My Fellow Retro Boston Lovers!

Welcome to my second update on this new blog!

Today we look back at the delightfully Victorian era Mechanics Building that once stood proudly along Huntington Avenue just beyond Copley Square.

But before we begin, I must acknowledge the marvellous updates about the Mechanics Building that have previously been done by two of my fellow historical blogging friends. They have really covered the subject very thoroughly and I am only hoping, fingers crossed, to add a bit of extra icing on this delightfully baked cake:-)  You can enjoy both of these great blog entries here:

As you have figured out by now, I really was very upset in my youth to have missed out on many notable Boston places that met the fate of the wrecking ball before I was born. The Mechanics Building (fondly known as Mechanics Hall) was one such place I really wanted to see!

All cities have venues to house various trade shows and other large scale events that have thousands in attendance...and from 1881 until late 1958; Boston had the massive and rather unique Mechanics Building on Huntington Avenue. The wonderful triangular shaped Victorian era structure housed four halls of varying sizes and many smaller rooms along with banquet facilities capable of feeding thousands at a gathering.

Built for The Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics’ Association, a highly respected and historical organization that Paul Revere helped to establish back in 1795, and they used it for all their events including the establishment of a trade school which lasted for many years in the early part of the 20th century.

The tower end of the triangular building nearest Copley Square was known as the Aleppo Temple and rented by the Shriners for many, many years. The tower end housed the Aleppo Temple offices and they used the Grand Hall for large gatherings and ceremonies.

The four main halls were all named and of course, Paul Revere was the namesake of the send largest hall in the building. The Grand Hall, which was located at the deepest end of the building, could seat 8,000 guests if the large balconies were in use. One could see why large trade shows loved Mechanics Hall...the space was enormous and the floor space in the Grand Hall was so vast it could accommodate events like track & field and house the water filled pool that could show off the latest waterskiing equipment during the annual New England Sportsmen Show.

I can recall asking my mom what it was like inside, she said...the Grand Hall felt a lot like the old Armory on Commonwealth Avenue except that Mechanics Hall was more artistic with arching wooden beams soaring above and huge balconies along the walls...a much more handsome space to house big events. I felt very disappointed that I had never had the pleasure of attending the annual Spring Flower Show, Home Show, Dog Show or any other large event there!

Bostonians found occasional trips to the Mechanics Building very much part of life from the late 1800’s right up until the very end of 1958.

Sadly, the beloved building was very much on the “hit” list of the “powers that be” as early as 1928.
The “unsightly” freight yards and the “antique” Mechanics Building were just seen as standing in the way of a new and better Boston.

The odd thing was that even if the venerable structure was mammoth and very much a taste of was always busy and never lacked for bookings.

By the mid-1950’s the Prudential development was growing in momentum, and in 1957, the wheels went spinning into motion to purchase the Mechanics Building from MCMA and that was that. The freight yards and the entire 600 feet of Mechanics Building land that ran along Huntington Avenue were needed to accommodate this massive, new investment in the “Boston of Tomorrow”.

Boston residents were in the midst of so many changes by the time the wrecking ball came crashing down in January of 1959. The West End was being taken apart brick by brick and Scollay Square was just about to become a place of the past. People did speak out to save Mechanics Hall but they were told that new was better and a fresh, modern convention center was part of the deal with Prudential development.

So by late March of 1959...the Mechanics Building was gone. The vast structure containing thousands and thousands of red bricks and huge wooden arched beams...a Victorian gem that was built to last, as it should have been...vanished before Boston’s eyes.

The tribute I have put together here shows a snapshot of the incredible history of this great building.
The list of names of famous people who graced the stage of the Grand Hall is so long and includes politicians, entertainers, religious leaders and countless others. The building was a part of Boston’s great history and served as a forum of ideas and inspiration during its 77 years of civic life.

The items here are a testament to the great building and are worth looking over.

The two newspaper columnists who both went down “memory lane” were only echoing what thousands of Bostonians were thinking and feeling during this time of dramatic change in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Imagine if they saw Boston today? Would they even recognize a fraction of the city they once called home? 

Enjoy this look back. More to come soon! And thank you for all your support here and on my other retro Boston blog:

Charles Boston