In 2011 I was struggling a bit with my career and money. I wanted to take a trip but didn’t have as much cash flow as other years.So I planned a trip to Acadia National Park which you can read about here. Like any trip I plan, I usually make an itinerary of other places to visit along the way. One such place was the Higgins Armory which I had seen on an episode of Ghost Hunters.(Season 7, Episode 8 “Knights of the Living Dead) Now before you get your panties in a bunch..I enjoy the show for the locations…not so much the drama and “ghost” hunting. But for those that are into that sort of thing, more power to you!
History (per Wiki)
John Woodman Higgins was a prominent industrialist in Worcester, Massachusetts who owned the Worcester Pressed Steel Company. Higgins traveled to Europe multiple times throughout the 1920s where he collected arms, armor, and other steel items. One of his most important purchases was eight full suits of armor from the collection of George Jay Gould in 1927. Originally, he stored these items in his house, which quickly filled with anything he could find made of steel, from suits of armor to automatic shoe polishers. Higgins incorporated his collection as a museum in 1928, and as the collection grew larger than Higgins’ house could hold, he began construction on a steel and glass museum building next to his factory in 1929.
“The Museum of Steel and Armor” opened on January 12, 1931, with a grand gala. Music was played by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Higgins’ sons dressed in suits of armor. In its original layout, the museum displayed a wide variety of objects constructed of steel including “medieval weaponry, automobile parts, and even … an all-steel airplane suspended from its ceiling.” Admission to the museum began with a walk through the armor exhibits and ended with a tour through the production lines to see modern steel manufacturing. The production floor was accessed through catwalks connecting the factory and the armory. Higgins invited visitors to the museum across these catwalks, and he also invited his workers to visit the museum on breaks to get inspired. Higgins died in 1961, leaving the museum a US$17,000 endowment. The museum was first accredited in 1972 by the American Association of Museums and continued operations through the closing of the Worcester Pressed Steel Company in 1975.
First off, finding the armory was a bit of task seeing that it is located in the middle of what seem to be Worcester’s industrial district. Cool for someone like me but for the casual visitor or school tour it might be a bit daunting. Having found the place and gotten a decent parking space the first thing you notice is how amazing this building is. An iron clad castle-worthy structure adorned with banners and a giant knight in armor standing guard atop the roof over the entrance.
As soon as you arrive at the front gates…er door you realize that Mr. Higgins had a flair for the dramatic. This museum was a work of art unto itself. Complete with an ornate WPS (Worcester Pressed Steel) seal above the door.
From the look of the outside I really wasn’t sure what to expect on the in. I had seen a sort of preview on the Ghost Hunters show but not like this…inside was like walking into a time-warp to the middle ages.
While much of the armor is that which we perceive to be from our daydreams of King Arthur’s court, the actual collection goes far deeper than that. Higgins collected armor and weapons from every era of man, and every country too. This is truly an amazing place.
The scope of what we develop to do battle against one another is mind boggling and sobering. One could spend days here just learning the history of each piece.
Unfortunately for me, as usual I get just a few hours here and then it is off to the next stop. Beyond the armor, the architecture of this building is astounding. Constructed between 1929 and 1931 specifically to hold Higgins 2000 piece collection, this L-shaped Art Deco style building was designed by Joseph D. Leland based out of Boston, Mass.
The steel and glass building cost around 300,000.00 to construct and is believed to be the first all steel and glass building constructed in the US. Higgins passion for this museum was definitely monumental. In 1980 the building was listed on the National Register of historic places.
Whether a marketing ploy or not, the armory employees and guests say that the ghost of Mr. Higgins himself haunted these halls. I believe it. Not in the “Casper” sense, but his spirit here, definitely carries on. When you pour this much of your heart and soul into anything, how can it not?
I make my way to the 2nd floor, yes there are 4 floors here…the first and second being the museum itself and a small souvenir shop. From the second floor balcony the grand center cathedral ceiling and chandelier that greet you from the first floor entrance is better enjoyed.
The building also housed a full-fledged armory workshop where craftsman, artisans, and modern day smithies did armor and weapons restoring as well as creating many pieces for movies and TV shows.
As the day progressed the museum began to fill with tourists making my shooting more and more difficult. I decided to take a break and step outside. Upon doing so, an old building kitty-corner to the museum caught my eye. Long grass, old brick, and boarded up windows? Yep, it was calling my name.
This is the most awesome Oddfellows Home. Constructed between 1890 and 1892 as a charitable facility for the aged and sick.
This Romanesque style building was built in three stories by Baker & Nourse and was enlarged in 1902 to house 110 residents. It always amazes me that wherever I go, these places seem to find me. Here is a shot I had a little fun with and let my imagination run wild.
What’s a little history without a little art right? Adjacent to this building is the Alfred S. Pinkerton Memorial building.
Speaking of art, in July of this year I started teaching at The Arcanum – The Magical Academy of Artistic Mastery. At this school we masters must choose a set of 20 or so apprentices to teach photography to. It turns out, that one of my apprentices, Bob Bernier is from Worcester. See his website here: BobBernier.com In a recent critiquing of his work he revealed that these photos of mine, which originally appeared on my Facebook page, inspired him to delve deeper into photography! How crazy cool is that? It was his inspiring story of my inspiration that led me to dig up these shots and write this story! So thank you Bob! I am so happy to have re-connected with you and in such a way as to build a life long relationship! That to me, is what art is all about.
So that brings us to today. And unfortunately, to reality. As I am writing this, Bob and I are chatting in another window on my desktop. Coincidence or a true connection of the minds, Bob tells me that he has something that will likely break my heart. He is right.
His image was taken May 30th 2014. This once historic landmark is now a parking lot, waiting for the construction of a “state of the art” rest home. So sad that this amazing building could not be re-purposed. So sad that we have buildings that are only 100 years old and we have to tear them down instead of reusing them. In Europe they have buildings that are 500 years old and still use them. Yet here in the U.S. we feel no love for the past and needlessly wipe it away as if it were words on an old school chalkboard. I think that says a lot about our conscious as a whole. And like a sadistic virus, the Higgins Armory is now closed as well. A large part of the collection auctioned off for a paltry 1.4 million dollars. While that sounds like a lot of money, I will assure you that for this collection, it is not.
Open for 83 years, Higgins Armory Museum officially closed its doors for the last time on December 31st, 2013. Some of Higgins collection is now housed at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM). But, from what I am hearing to nowhere near the care that it was given at the Armory. Maybe just a rumor, but it is said that many fear that the remaining Higgins pieces are not being properly cared for. And that sunlight beating in on the artifacts at the museum will eventually destroy them in part or in whole. What then? Will we just wipe them away too? Will we just let the janitor push broom the fallen pieces from the light to the shadows of a dirty basement? Erasing the last of Higgins collection forever? I have faith that we will not.
The artisans and craftsmen dispersed. The artifacts scattered to private collections. Those who care still hold on. Still tell the stories and carry history forward. We may have hated history in school, we may hate hearing the stories of war, death, and suffering still today. But, they are very important reminders of where we came from and where we can go. And most importantly, where we should never go again. Hopefully I have captured a little of that in my photos and story. I urge you to get out there and make a difference. Help bring awareness to these old buildings, sites, and our history. Support your local historical societies. Our first line of defense. Getting the word out is the best way to show there is interest in saving and reusing these historic landmarks. If we do not stand guard, protect our history, and forward what we have learned to future generations, I fear we will lose our way.
I am happy to report there is hope for Higgins though. The building is well cared for and is currently for sale. You can read a full history on the Higgins Armory Museum as prepared by Boston building historian Sara Wermiel @ https://www.higgins.org/WermielHAM.pdf (Thank you Lenore Tracey) While Higgins vision for a perpetual museum is abandoned, his building is definitely not. Our collective fingers are crossed for a bright future. One that includes a re-purposing of this building.