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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: October 2, 2018

See Mechanics’ Hall in a new light

Written by: Bob Keyes

A photo of Mechanics’ Hall with a portion superimposed with a thermal image showing the heat loss of the historic structure.
Image courtesy of passivehouseMAINE

The Mechanics’ Hall in downtown Portland will be draped in color for the First Friday Art Walk when a Portland-based organization dedicated to reducing winter heating costs in Maine demonstrates how much heat the old building is losing and how much more efficiently it could operate.

The projection, presented by Passivhaus Maine, an organization that promotes low-energy construction, will be shown between 6 and 7:30 p.m. Friday. It is a stylized vision of the actual thermal imaging of the building, taken last February, showing hot spots where heat is seeping from the building and cooler spots where there’s better insulation to hold heat in and keep cold out. The projection lasts a little less than two minutes, and will be shown every 10 minutes or so, over the course of the evening. It also will include general information about the advantages of energy-wise construction and renovation, the pervasiveness of heat loss and what people can do about it.

Image courtesy of passivehouseMAINE

Part public service project and part cool art project, the First Friday projection comes at a time when the Mechanics’ Hall at 519 Congress St. is seeing more use by arts groups and others as a place for theater, music, art shows and gatherings. The building, built with brick and stone between 1857 and 1859 and a survivor of the Great Fire of 1866, is the longtime home of the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association and one of Portland’s most famous old buildings. It’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth will talk about the history of the Mechanics Hall and its founding organization, as well as the building’s architect, Thomas J. Sparrow. The Maine Charitable Mechanics Association formed in 1815 to promote Portland’s mechanical and artistic trades people, including carpenters, glass workers, sail makers, shipbuilders, iron workers, stone cutters, masons, jewelers, watch makers, furniture makers and others. Many of those trades are still active today and thriving and are integral in Maine’s makers’ movement as innovators, inventors and artisans.

The association has gone through ebbs and flows over the decades and is undergoing a bit of revival lately, said Shettleworth, who has been a member since 1970 – a membership he had to apply for and wait two years for acceptance, so popular was the organization then.

It has about 300 members today and is actively recruiting more while aggressively promoting its third-floor ballroom as a place for theater, music and gatherings, public and private. That’s where Shettelworth will deliver his talk on Wednesday. The ballroom has become the regular home for Acorn Productions, the Portland Swing Project and the Portland Piano Trio and 240 Strings, which settled in at the hall after a donor made a piano available to the trio and other musical groups who use the hall.

Artwork of Gregg Harper, “Spiritus Ex Machina” in the Chalkboard Gallery on the second floor next to the library.
Image courtesy of passivehausMAINE

It’s also become a regular stop on the First Friday Art Walk. Gregg Harper, a Portland artist, opens the exhibition “Spiritus Ex Machina” in the Chalkboard Gallery on the second floor next to the library. Harper is a member of the organization’s programming committee and appreciates both the history of the organization and its future. “I thought it would be appropriate to show this particular series of artworks that focus on the ‘machinations’ of popular spiritualism at the site of Portland’s 203-year-old ‘mechanics’ organization,” he said in his artist statement. Each work is what he calls “combinatorial” and may include painting, drawing and photography with found objects, ephemera, textiles and some thread work. Two of the pieces invite viewer participation.

Four years ago, 6,500 people passed through the doors, said Thomas Blackburn, the building superintendent. Last year, that number exceeded 22,000, he said.

Shettleworth, a member of the association’s board, supports efforts to make the hall more accessible and the new vision of the association. The hall was built to accommodate the community, he said, and that’s how it’s being used again. “What I am so pleased about is the idea that we can infuse new life into this building and find new life and new purposes,” he said. “It also contributes to the vitality of downtown and particularly the Congress Street corridor.”

His talk costs $25 and is the first fundraising event the associated has hosted. In the past, membership dues covered the building’s costs. These days, that’s no longer possible, which is why Blackburn has been actively seeking new uses for the building and a new direction for the organization without deviating from its founding principles and mission. Proceeds from ticket sales will go toward raising enough money to hire an executive director to sustain the current upward trajectory of the building and its parent organization.

In his talk, Shettleworth will highlight the accomplishments of Sparrow, the building’s architect. Sparrow was Portland’s first architect. He was a designer and builder of private and commercial buildings throughout the early 1800s, and transitioned to design work almost exclusively by about 1840. He was active for about 25 years in Portland, designing private homes, churches, commercial blocks and graveyard monuments. He suffered a stroke after the Great Fire and moved away from town to live with a family member. When word of his death in 1870 reached Portland, the flag over the Mechanics’ Hall was lowered to half-staff, Shettleworth said.

Naomi Beal, executive director of Passivhaus Maine, said Friday’s thermal read projection is a way of calling attention to the inefficiencies of Portland’s old buildings and suggesting building goals for new construction while promoting the work of Passivhaus Maine in general. The timing is perfect, as the Mechanics’ Hall is becoming more active all the time, she said.

As the projection is going on, members of the Passivhaus Maine will be on the street handing out information about a fall conference at the Mechanics’ Hall coming up Nov. 1-2. Passivhaus Maine’s mission is to help decrease carbon emissions and dependency on fossil fuels while reducing costs for winter heating in Maine and working to support the passive house industry and community.

“I am really curious what the reaction is and what kind of interest we get,” she said. “I’m really hopeful that we can engage the general public in a way that is impactful. Mainers deserve better buildings that needn’t cost dramatically more than conventional construction. The advantages are multi-fold,” she said.

Beal originally envisioned the project as a pure-art project – hot and cold colors dancing on the building. It became more of a public-service project as the vision became refined. The Portland ad agency Via created the projection, which will originate from Maine College of Art across the street.

She is grateful Blackburn allowed the projection and hopes people pay attention not just to the hot and cold colors, but also to the message. Portland’s old buildings offer beautiful examples of architectural excellence, and they also present significant energy challenges. By raising awareness and pointing out issues, maybe Passivhaus Maine, can help with solutions, she said.

Now, about that apostrophe. The name of the hall shows up with and without an apostrophe – Mechanics’ or Mechanics – even on the group’s own website. Shettleworth says the apostrophe should stay because that’s the way someone carved it into the building’s stone facade in 1859. “I’m using it because it’s cast in stone,” he said.

Gregg Harper “Ex Machina”

WHEN & WHERE: Through Oct. 31 at the Chalkboard Gallery, Maine Charitable Mechanics Association, 517 Congress St., Portland
HOURS: 4 to 7 p.m. Fridays and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Oct. 31; free

Earle Shettleworth, “The Making of Mechanics’ Hall”

WHEN & WHERE: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, Mechanics’ Hall, Maine Charitable Mechanics Association, 517 Congress St., Portland

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