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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Higgin's Armory: End of an Era

Located in Worcester, MA, Higgin’s Armory was the only Museum in the Western Hemisphere solely dedicated to the collection of arms and armor until 2004. It operated as a non-profit museum and was founded in 1931 by John Woodman Higgins a prominent industrialist who owned Worcester Pressed Steel Company. 

As owner of Worcester Pressed Steel, John Woodman Higgins, had a fascination with all things metal both new and old. While traveling to Europe in the 1920’s he collected arms, armor and other steel items. His collection at first was stored in his home but it was quickly realized that he needed a more suitable location and more space to display his vast collection. Having outgrown his home he began construction in 1929 of a steel and glass building next to his factory. In 1928 he incorporated his collection as a museum. The new facility opened on January 12, 1931. His collection displayed medieval weaponry as well as automobile parts and even an all steel airplane which hung from its ceiling. 

The collection consisted of over 2,000 objects making it the second largest collection of arms and armor behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. It included 24 full suits of armor, and gladiator helmet to name a few. Its oldest object was an Eastern Mediterranean dagger from between 3,000 and 1,500 B.C.E.

Tours of the museum began with a walk through his collection and ended with a tour of the production lines of his modern steel manufacturing facility. The building itself was designed in the Art Deco motif and was a 4-story L-shaped facility designed by Joseph D Leland. It was a steel frame construction covered in glass and was built at a cost of over $300,000. It is believed to be one of, if not the first buildings in the US built entirely of steel and glass. 

In 1961 Higgin’s died and left an endowment of only $17,000 to support the museum. In 1978 the museum was robbed and over 100,000 worth of armor was stolen. This break-in and theft lead to changes and in 1979 the museum went from a private foundation to a publicly supported charity. Over the course of the next few decades many offers from the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art in NYC, the Worcester Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston were turned down. The museum board rewrote the mission statement and transformed the museum from an exhibit of steel manufacturing and refocused the collection on Ancient and Medieval arms and armor. 

In early 2010 with the endowment dwindling more than 500 items were sold off to shore up its finance’s but it wasn’t meant to be and in early 2013 it was announced that the museum would close and its collection would be transferred and integrated into the Worcester Art Museum’s collection.

Before it closed I decided to make one last visit to the museum. I had been numerous times during my lifetime as either a student on a field trips or just a visit with my family. As I walked the exhibits halls and admired the amazing collection I couldn’t help but feel sad that this great collection was soon going to be broken down and moved. While the collection is remaining intact and soon to be housed locally at WAM I am sad that the amazing building’s future is unknown. It is an architectural treasure and as much a part of the collection as any other individual piece. Hopefully like the collection a new purpose can be found for this structure that keeps it whole allowing the legacy that was John Woodman Higgin’s to survive as one of the most prominent industrialist’s of this time and contributor to not just Worcester but to society as a whole.  


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