I read about an art show at the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association and had the same thought you probably do, “Charitable mechanics … will they give me free oil changes?”
No, they won’t.
The nonprofit (one of Maine’s oldest), was founded in the early 1800s by the city’s sailmakers, engineers, blacksmiths and other makers. The organization still owns Mechanic’s Hall on Congress Street — a building that could become Portland’s next great art, dance, theater and music venue.
The nonprofit is working to raise $20,000 to get the building up to fire code so that it can rent the massive third-floor ballroom out to dance troupes and other performers.
“I could see people roller skating here,” said Reggie Osborn, a Charitable Mechanics trustee. “It has endless potential. And it’s right in town.”
According to Osborn, a photographer rented the ballroom as his studio for decades. Now the gorgeous, historic room is vacant. The ballroom is on the third floor of the grey-faced building on Congress Street (where the Art shop is). The ballroom has high ceilings, tall windows and a balcony with an old piano. Currently there is a wall that divides the room, but if the Mechanics can raise additional money to renovate the whole building, they’ll probably take that wall down to open the entire third floor — almost 5,000 feet of space, according to old tax documents.
So far a few theater troupes and dance instructors have asked about using it, but the Mechanics can’t rent it until they install a new fire escape and some other upgrades to get that part of the building to code. Osborn predicted that will happen in the next two months.
In the floor above the ballroom is an old dining room, which also was a place soldiers on their way to the Civil War battles slept (there are still scratches from their guns in the entryway). From there, on a clear day, you can see Peaks Island. Below the ballroom is the library — the eighth oldest private library in America. It’s pretty small, but its librarian, Pat Larrabee, prides herself on carrying new, popular titles that usually draw waiting lists at the Portland Public Library. Only a handful of people regularly use the library, which is open only to members who pay $25 a year.
The second floor also has a small art gallery, which now is showing a bunch of pinned butterflies in frames — which Larrabee “salvaged from the rubbish.”
It’s easy to walk downtown and ignore what’s above your head — the second story of Congress Street is largely a mystery to me. But it looks like there’s a lot of hope in one of the city’s oldest buildings. That attic is a blank slate that used to be a dining room, with a nearby coat room, kitchen and dumbwaiter; the ballroom could host some amazing, intimate performances and, hey, if you’ll pay $25 a year, you don’t have to wait for months to read The Goldfinch.
For more information about the Maine Chartiable Mechanics Association, visit mainecharitablemechanicassociation.com or call 773-8396 during the library hours, which are 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Each profession had a motto and emblem within the Charitable Mechanics Association.
Saddle makers: Saddle us not with bad debts, harness us not with evil habits. (Yes, they bolded those)
Bakers: We’ll mould the paste of life with skill and stamp it for use and not for show and when out last batch we fill, we shall not wish our cake was dough.
Cabinet and chair makers: Our cabinet, although composed of different materials, is too strongly cemented to be easily separated.
Shoe makers: Sons of Crispin, Sherman, Pendril, Lee, Gifford, Bloomfield and a host of their craft, have labored with their awl to mend the soles and improve the understandings of mankind. He that will not pay the shoemaker is not worthy of a sole.
Blacksmiths: Strike while the iron is hot
Hatters: United in the bonds of temperance, we are crowned with honor.
Iron founders: Moulded in patterns of goodness and truth, the casts of character need neither soldering nor brazing.
Pump and block makers, mast and sail makers: We lay the foundation of commercial enterprise.