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Antiquarian Hall

Not long after the establishment of the American Antiquarian Society, its founder, Isaiah Thomas, began to plan a building in which its library could be safely held and used. By 1818 he had received preliminary plans from Peter Banner, the Boston architect, but Thomas played a large role in the final arrangement of the structure, which was dedicated on August 24, 1820. This, the first Antiquarian Hall, stood at the corner of Worcester Center Boulevard and Belmont Street, the present site of the Worcester Police Department headquarters (formerly the site of the famed Valhalla Bar and Grill). It was one of the earliest buildings constructed in this country that was specifically designed as a library.

The second Antiquarian Hall was built in 1854 on the opposite side of Lincoln Square, next to Bulfinch's 1803 Worcester County Courthouse. By 1876 the collections had grown to such an extent that an addition was needed, the cost of which was borne by Stephen Salisbury II. Designed by the local architect Stephen C. Earle, it nearly doubled the shelf space for books and served well until the demand for still more space required new arrangements after the turn of the century.

The building of the present Antiquarian Hall at 185 Salisbury Street, at the corner of Park Avenue, had far-reaching effects upon the course of the Society's work. When Stephen Salisbury III died in 1905, the Society received a bequest of $200,000 and a parcel of his land, obtained from the trustees of the Worcester Art Museum, on which to build a new Antiquarian Hall. With the construction of this third building, the Council consciously altered the nature of the Society's mission. The collection of artifacts, known as the cabinet, the gathering of which had been part of Isaiah Thomas's original plan, was abandoned. Out went the stone ax heads, the pre-Columbian artifacts, the mummified Indian maiden from Mammoth Cave, the gigantic plaster casts of Michelangelo's Moses the Law-Giver, and the facade of the temple at Labna in Yucatan. AAS directed its energies toward developing its research library collections (which, at about 99,000 volumes, were very much stronger than its miscellaneous artifacts). So the third Antiquarian Hall was built as a research library, on a Palladian model reminiscent of the 1820 building.

Clarence S. Brigham, who arrived as librarian in 1908, and Waldo Lincoln, who headed the Society's Council from 1907 to 1927, were the architects of the Society's new programs. The new library was designed by the firm of Winslow, Bigelow, and Wadsworth, and its construction was overseen by R. Clipston Sturgis. The building was opened to the public in mid-1910. The rotunda, which serves as the reading room, was surrounded by alcoves and four rooms, three for offices and the fourth as the Council's meeting room. Upstairs, on the mezzanine level, the graphic arts and the manuscripts were housed in two large rooms; other smaller rooms were used to display Thomas's first printing press and pieces of old printing equipment from the Worcester Spy office. Various pieces of furniture, some of it from John Hancock's elegant Beacon Hill residence, were scattered about in a forlorn sort of way.

The five-level bookstack was constructed in the best fireproof manner of the day, with free-standing steel shelving running from cellar to ceiling, glass floors, and electrical wiring run in separate conduits. An advanced heating and ventilating system was also installed. Unfortunately, its large electric motors intended to power the circulating fans burned out a few years after installation and were not replaced. Two five-level additions were made to the bookstack in 1924 and in 1950. In 1963 air conditioning equipment was installed in the stack area, while insulation was added to the stack building roofs. In 1970-71, an office addition was built and the rotunda area was substantially altered. The shelved alcoves were removed, which opened up the reading room; the Council Room (which had become the director's office) was made into an exhibition room; and the manuscript room was rebuilt to hold the Society's most precious books and to serve as the Council Room. The 1910 heating system was replaced, and a new air conditioning system was installed. Additional stack areas were built for special collections and for manuscripts, with the inclusion of five carrels for visiting scholars. The addition, which is in large part underground, was designed by James Ford Clapp of the firm of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbott of Boston. Antiquarian Hall was designated a national historic landmark in 1969 and is the anchoring structure of the Massachusetts Avenue Historic District.

In 1995, as a part of a larger effort funded by the Lila Wallace-Readers' Digest Fund to enhance the public face of the Society, work was undertaken to make the library fully accessible to the handicapped, to make the facilities more welcoming for visitors, to improve audio visual equipment for presentations, and to provide electrical connections for the increasing number of readers arriving at the library with laptop computers. But challenges with the bookstacks remained: shelving was approaching capacity limits, and throughout the stacks, areas had been set aside as work stations for catalogers and other staff, thus mandating that temperatures be maintained at levels a bit higher than optimal for collection preservation. The most significant problem, however, was the lack of a fire suppression system to protect the irreplaceable historical collections entrusted to the Society's care. A long-range planning effort in the late 1990s by Council and staff identified the addressing of these problems as the Society's top priority.

In 2002, construction work on a 12,000 square foot addition to the south of the existing Antiquarian Hall was completed. Designed by the firm of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbott and built by the construction management firm of Linbeck/Kennedy & Rossi, this state-of-the-art facility features modern compact shelving for books, newspapers, manuscripts, and graphic arts collections; systems to maintain air temperature, humidity, and quality for optimal long-term preservation of paper-based collections; much-needed workrooms for staff; and, at long last, effective modern fire suppression systems, installed throughout the existing areas of Antiquarian Hall as well. The spaces on the mezzanine of the rotunda once occupied by the Graphic Arts Department were converted to work spaces for catalogers, who did not regret leaving their windowless spaces in the stacks. Other improvements included an expanded staff parking lot, a new service entry for deliveries, and reconfigured office areas for our growing staff. The project cost approximately $9,000,000, and has provided for the Society's collection needs well into the future, increasing collections capacity by some 90 percent.

- Marcus A. McCorison, President Emeritus. Updated by Ellen S. Dunlap, President

External Photo, AAS
Antiquarian Hall today

Antiquarian Hall
The first Antiquarian Hall
(dedicated in 1820)


Antiquarian Hall
Interior of the second building
(built in 1854)


Antiquarian Hall

Third and present building under construction in 1909







Antiquarian Hall

The rotunda, which serves as the reading room





Antiquarian Hall

A view of the bookstacks







Antiquarian Hall

Antiquarian Hall with 2001 addition


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