New York City NYC
November 18, 2016

The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen

By Rebecca Kilborne
 
I recently visited the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen (generalsociety.org) with my colleague Laura DesMoine.  Executive Director Victoria Dengel and Program Director Karin Taylor gave us a tour that provided a fascinating insight into the history of New York City.

 

The Society’s current building at 20 East 44th Street is actually the fifth location of the Society. It was designed by Lamb & Rich in eclectic Renaissance-style for the Berkeley School for Boys.  It was purchased by the GSMT in 1899 and almost doubled in size in 1905 thanks to a generous donation from Andrew Carnegie.   It is an imposing building, but in a city of imposing buildings it could be missed.  When it was constructed, however, The New York Times predicted the building would be the “finest scholastic building in America.”  In accordance with these lofty goals, the frieze above the door was taken from casts from the Parthenon.

 
The Society itself was founded in 1785 in the aftermath of the American Revolution, when New York was plunged into financial chaos and was rebuilding itself after the great fire that had ravaged the city in 1776.  The rebuilding was a job for the tradesmen, who needed to organize themselves in the face a ruined business climate. Members were nominated based on “industry, honesty, and sobriety” and pledged to support and educate one another’s families.  Practical philanthropy and free education became paramount to the Society’s mission in a city that did not yet have a public school system.  In accordance with these goals, the Library and a School (for children) was established in 1820. The School became the Mechanics Institute (a tuition-free school for adults) in 1858.

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Our tour began in the lobby of 20 West 44th Street, with its intricate mosaic floors and terracotta moldings, its antique stained glass window and a sweeping marble staircase.  Above the staircase, a sinewy bronze arm emerges from the front wall bearing the Society’s motto, “By Hammer and Hand, all Arts do Stand.”   That motto becomes a refrain as you walk through building.

Victoria and Karin took us through the executive offices, where you can see a piece of the original Atlantic Cable.   Images of prominent members of the Society abound, beginning with a bust of Carnegie, who became a member in 1891.  In his impoverished youth, Carnegie had worked for several months on a steam engine and broiler, but, as he explained in an address to the society, his real connection to the society was inherited from his shoemaker grandfather. Carnegie was molded by his humble upbringing and he told his fellow members, “There is no heritage like that of being born poor.  The leaders and teachers of the nation came from the poor.  Thank God that is true…”  Other prominent members of the society included Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat (“Fulton’s folly), and John McComb Junior who designed City Hall.

While in the executive offices, Laura and I were fortunate to meet Penny Speckter, a former ad executive who, at a lively 96 years old, is the resident historian for the GSMT and the editor of the newsletter.  Her late husband, she told us proudly, was the inventor of the Interrobang, a punctuation mark that combines the question mark with the exclamation mark like so: ‽ Penny gave us her card, which features a prominent interrobang and a link to her website, (interrobang-mks.com), where she continues her husband’s mission of promoting the whimsical punctuation mark. How awesome is she‽

We then visited the library which was designed by Ralph Samuel Townsend as part of the building’s expansion.  It is an open, 3-story story space, surrounded by books and balconies and topped by a spectacular skylight.  The old world feel is so transporting, that Laura pointed out that the vintage phone booth on the balcony could very well be a time machine.  It is little wonder that the society has become a popular spot for filming.

The GMST is also the home to an eclectic lock museum, which features 350 locks and keys donated by John M. Mossman in 1903.  The pièce de résistance of this eclectic collection is a 4000-year-old Egyptian lock. Victoria told us that the Society recently hosted a lock picking party. Karin and Victoria also showed us other treasures donated by members over the years, including historic oil paintings of Mount Vernon and the gleaming skull of a pirate.

At the top of the building there are old-fashioned schoolrooms where the Society continues to support free educational programing. Currently there are 350 students benefiting from the course offerings, which range in topics from historic preservation to construction project management. The Society also rents out the top floors to non-profits such as the Society of Mayflower Descendants.

Thus this innovative Institution continues its original purpose of building and rebuilding New York City.