Annie Leahy, executive director of Mechanics’ Hall in Portland, stands in the Grand Ballroom of the building. The hall recently received a national significance designation from the National Park Service, which allows it to apply for various types of funding. The hall has become a literary and creative arts hub over the past few years. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The building almost didn’t survive.

In the 1970s, the handsome mid-19th century stone-and-brick Mechanics’ Hall in the heart of Portland’s downtown, was nearly sold to a bank that was headquartered next door.

“They wanted to tear it down to expand the bank, but the board of Mechanics’ Hall was adamantly opposed,” said Dick Spencer, a local attorney who for years has been involved with the historic building and the somewhat obscure organization that owns it. “So, by luck and pluck, it’s still there.”

It has taken time and patience, but Mechanics’ Hall has quietly yet purposefully transformed itself from an underused gathering space to a major player in the downtown arts and culture scene, hosting intimate concerts, dance and theater performances, literary events and more.

In the process, a building that once served as a mustering station for union soldiers during the Civil War and as a temporary City Hall after the Great Fire of 1866 but had been closed to the public for decades in the 20th century has been revived.

Its future could be even brighter, too.


In November, Mechanics’ Hall was designated a Nationally Significant Landmark Building on the National Register of Historic Places, which will open funding opportunities to renovate and preserve the building for generations to come.

“There is a real sense of community building that we’re trying to be intentional about,” said Annie Leahy, executive director of Mechanics’ Hall. “When people come into this space, we want them to feel like it’s theirs.”

Local artists across a variety of disciplines already say the building, which includes an open and inviting library space on the second floor for smaller events and a grand ballroom on the third for larger ones, is unlike any other in Portland.

“It’s a gorgeous aesthetic space and, acoustically, it’s stunning too,” said Maya French, co-artistic director of the classical music ensemble Palaver Strings, which has performed at Mechanics’ Hall a dozen times over the last five years. “It’s so nice for Portland to have a place that’s completely flexible in the way it’s set up.”

Although Mechanics’ Hall has developed broad appeal among performers, it has perhaps stood out most as the gathering place of choice for literary events, such as book launches. Well-known Maine authors Lily King and Susan Conley, among others, have chosen to introduce their latest novels there, and this summer the National Book Foundation hosted an event at the hall.

“It’s certainly a place our members are asking about more,” said Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, executive director the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. “I think for a long time a lot of people just didn’t know what it was.


“Portland has changed so much in recent years, so it’s great to have these places that have remained and brought into present day.”

Mechanics’ Hall on Congress Street in Portland was designed by Maine architect Thomas J. Sparrow and was built by the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association between 1857-1859. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Mechanics’ Hall was built at 519 Congress St. in 1850 by the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, a group of artisans and craftsmen looking for a gathering space for scholarship.

Local architect Thomas J. Sparrow designed the building, and in the late 19th century, famed architect John Calvin Stevens was brought in to design the iconic ballroom. Stevens later taught free technical drawing classes there.

At one point, there were dozens of Mechanics’ Halls like it across the country, but most have either been sold, or folded into libraries or universities.

In Portland, the association regularly hosted events, including musical performances, dances and lectures, for members, but membership started to dwindle in the early 20th century. By World War II, the building was still owned by the association, although it was little more than a landlord.


The library, which contains more than 30,000 titles, remained, but the rest was divided up and leased to local businesses. Even the high-ceilinged ballroom was converted into offices with the help of temporary walls.

“People didn’t even know what was in there,” Leahy said.

The association made enough money through leasing space to keep the lights on, but much-needed maintenance was often deferred. In 1973, Mechanics’ Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a distinction that essentially means the building is worthy of preservation. Unfortunately, no money came with it.

Spencer became a member of the Mechanic Association in the early ’80s. At that time, he said, there were fewer than 100 members left, and most were over the age of 80. He said he visited the building only twice in that time but kept sending his membership check.

“It sounds ridiculous, but I had this feeling that eventually the people running it would be gone and there would be this fabulous building,” he said.

He was right. By the early 2010s, Spencer and other board members, including former Portland Mayor Pam Plumb, started planning for what the building could become.


In 2014 and 2015, the building underwent renovations to the second and third floor, which allowed the ballroom to open to the public for the first time since 1943.

Slowly, groups began to seek it out, in large part because of its size and charm. A library book club. Monthly swing dances. A lecture series.

The library, once open only to members, became a public space.

But the building needed more work to survive. Just last year, Portland Landmarks listed Mechanics’ Hall as one of its “Places in Peril.”

“Mechanics’ Hall’s problems have been compounded by the stopgap nature of maintenance efforts periodically undertaken throughout the history of the organization, which has never possessed the capital to properly address them,” the organization said last year. “Moreover, the MCMA is running out of time to act, as waiting any longer threatens to deepen existing structural issues as well as create new ones which would jeopardize the building’s continued survival.”

The lending library and event space at Mechanics’ Hall in Portland. The hall has become a literary and creative arts hub over the past few years. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer



The hiring of Leahy in September 2019 as the hall’s first full-time executive director has been a game changer. Prior to that, the building was run by a board of directors, all volunteers.

Leahy previously worked as a journalist, including for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and was involved in the creating and production of the Tribeca Film Festival, founded in 2002 by actor Robert De Niro.

But she’s been coming to Maine with her parents, who owned a summer place on Little Diamond Island in Casco Bay, since she was a kid and moved here permanently in 2009.

Like so many others, Leahy was unfamiliar with Mechanics’ Hall. She has since become “the building whisperer,” according to Spencer.

“She’s allowed the groups that might have interest to use it and take advantage, so there has been this organic growth that’s being dictated by the building itself and the community itself,” he said.

Leahy has helped improved the financial picture, too. In 2017, revenue for Mechanics’ Hall was $182,000, according to tax documents. Last year, it was $306,000.


The street-level floor is still rented out for retail, most recently to an art supply store and the Maine Crafts Association, which showcases a gallery of members’ work there.

The second and third floors, meanwhile, have become sought after for a variety of arts and literary uses.

In March 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down, Mechanics’ Hall hosted a book launch by author Lily King for “Writers & Lovers.”

“Every seat was full, and more people were standing,” Leahy said. “In that moment, it really felt like we had all the pieces right here in this space.”

The pandemic delayed momentum slightly, but in the last year, Mechanics’ Hall has hosted 50 literary programs and book launches, including a National Book Foundation event, 21 art installations and maker events, 10 musical performances and more.

This summer, the inaugural Portland Theater Festival hosted one of its three productions inside Mechanics’ Hall. More recently, a concert by world-class Irish fiddler Kevin Burke was held inside the ballroom. Palaver Strings continues to play there, too, and has a show planned for March.


With a capacity of 178, the ballroom is the perfect size for a specific type of performer.

“The ballroom is an intimate space, there is nothing like it. There is no stage, so performances are happening on the same level as the audience,” Leahy said.

The building’s most pressing need is a new roof, estimated to cost $1.8 million. The top floor remains unused, too, but Leahy has begun thinking about possible uses for the future. The recent designation as a landmark by the National Register of Historic Places has the potential to be transformative.

“The designation was a catalyst for us, because without it, there are funding resources that we couldn’t access,” Leahy said. “And I think investing in the hall is investing in the larger picture for Portland.”

As the building changes to accommodate the increased interest among artists, Leahy said the history will be preserved too. It will remain what it was when it was founded, as a humanities center of sorts, brought into the modern age.

“There has been so much thought about what’s the best future use of this building. And I think it’s become apparent that it can be a center for a variety of literary and performing arts. There are a lot of organizations that don’t have a physical home.

“Artists need space to create.”

This space on the top floor of Mechanics’ Hall housed Union soldiers as they reported for service in the Civil War.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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