What’s Next for Worcester’s Higgins Armory Museum?

As you drive on Interstate 190 through the city of Worcester, it’s nearly impossible to miss a V-shaped, steel and glass building sitting by itself on a hill. On the roof, there’s a statue of a knight in armor, flanked by medieval banners. That’s the Higgins Armory Museum, and it’s closing soon. 

This is the classic suit of knight armor that we all expect to see people slaying dragons and rescuing princesses and doing things all-so-medieval in,” tour guide Morgan Kuberry said, guiding students  through what’s called the Great Hall. It’s an iconic, two-story high, echo-y space, replete with arches, stained-glass windows…and one of the most significant collections of armor in the U.S.

John Woodman Higgins, the late owner of Worcester Pressed Steel Company, indulged his passion for chivalry and metal craft, particularly arms and armor, for decades. Then, in the late 1920′s, he hired an architect to build a building to house his collection.  

As Suzanne Maas, the Higgins museum director, explains, Higgins wanted the public to come see it. But he also encouraged his factory workers to wander over to the museum at lunchtime “to be inspired by what he considered to be the height of steel-making, which is arms and armor.”

For easy access, Higgins constructed catwalks to connect his factory to the armory itself.  Museum visitors were likewise invited to use the catwalks to watch his steelworkers in action.

“He wanted people to see how it worked and also to be encouraged to go into engineers and designers,” Maas said.

The building is listed with both the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the National Register of Historic Places.

Andrea Lyman of Newton, Massachusetts, visited Worcester recently. She decided to come see the Armory one last time.

“It’s bizarre that it’s closing,” Lyman said. “I’d forgotten a little bit about it and then we came up and we were saying, ‘Wow, this is just such a treasure. Why are we closing such a beautiful treasure?’”

The answer has to do with funding, or lack thereof. 

“For individual donors, you really have to tap into people of high net worth who are interested in arms and armor,” Maas said. “They’re fewer and farther between than those who are interested in the broader area of art.”

The museum closes for good on December 31st. But the collection is staying in town. The 2000-plus pieces – literally tons of swords, helmets, lances and breastplates – will be moved less than three miles away to the Worcester Art Museum. Some of it is slated to be on display by late March.

Matthias Waschek, director of the Worcester Art Museum, says although he is very sad that the Higgins is closing, this transfer as an incredible opportunity for his museum.

“There is no such thing as a mid-sized museum in America that has this magnitude and this level of this collection of arms and armor,” Waschek said. “So it catapults us into a different league.”

Waschek says the Worcester Art Museum’s holdings cover most of the world’s cultures from 2,000 to 3,000 years before Christ to thereafter.

“The Higgins, from the viewpoint of arms and armor, does the same thing, so it allows us actually to tell our story more effectively,” Waschek said.

What’s good for the art museum is also good for downtown Worcester, he says. The hope is that “via an increase in foot traffic, the Worcester Art Museum will be able to participate in the stabilization of northern Main Street.”

Some of those new feet are likely to be very small.  Armor exhibits are magnets for kids in a way traditional art museums are not. Waschek says the expected increase in littler visitors presents challenges, though ones he’s eager to solve.

“How do you make out of a museum that by definition – of the 19th century at least – is a place where children are rather seen as disturbances  than enhancements?” he said. “How do you make out of our museum…a place where children feel welcome(d) and where parents do not feel they have to give their children sedatives before they come to the museum?”

Sedated or not, many parents will want to put their kids in strollers while there. So a long-sought outside ramp will be added thanks to money raised to integrate the Higgins collection.

And what’s to become of the Higgins building so visible from Interstate 190?

Maas said she’s heard there’s possible interest in converting the space into “condominiums, which sounds really cool.”

And where would Maas want her condominium to be?

“In the knuckle,” she said with a laugh. “And people don’t necessarily know what the knuckle is. If you’ve been to the Higgins Armory Museum, you know that building is shaped in a V and where the building turns on every floor, we call that the knuckle.”

Members of the Higgins board  say they are looking for a prospective buyer for the steel and glass art deco building. But they also say they’ll consider selling it for just a song if they can find a taker who will keep this jewel in Worcester’s crown intact.