Companies in Worcester once manufactured everything from machine tools, wire products, and power looms, to ice skates, corsets, and space suits. But after World War II, factories closed, beginning a period of industrial decline. Its manufacturing glory days may be past, but the city’s grand architecture and distinctive neighborhoods remain.
“Worcester has good bones,” said my friend Jennifer Markello, who lives in a Victorian house in the city’s West Side neighborhood. I had come to search for them.
My first stop, Salisbury Mansion, perches atop a hill on Highland Street just north of downtown. An airy, light-filled, two-story Georgian clapboard structure built in 1772, it was moved in 1929 up the hill from its original location in Lincoln Square. Docents offer tours of the house and its history, beginning with its origins as the home and store of the merchant Stephen Salisbury. The history continues with his entrepreneurial son Stephen, whose investments in Worcester’s 19th-century growth made him one of the wealthiest men in the country, and concludes with the recent restoration of the mansion.
The Worcester Historical Museum, which owns and operates the mansion, has been slowly acquiring original furnishings, such as a Classical Revival horsehair and mahogany couch the family purchased in Boston in 1820. The surprisingly bright carpets and lively wallpaper are reproductions based on original furnishings.
If not for the Salisbury family, another city treasure, the Worcester Art Museum, might never have opened in 1898. Stephen Salisbury III, who spearheaded the museum’s founding, willed it a hefty chunk of his substantial estate. A short walk from the mansion, the museum is just the right size for an afternoon’s visit.
From the museum, it’s a short walk or drive downtown. At the top of Main Street, Armsby Abbey, a lively brewpub with a tasty menu featuring local products, beckons. My salad of local greens, beets, and carrots was perfectly balanced, with just the right amount of goat cheese and dressing.
In the middle of downtown, the Worcester Historical Museum is a lovingly curated valentine to the city’s rich past. Exhibits document its rise as a manufacturing powerhouse after the completion of the Blackstone Canal linking Worcester to Providence in 1828, followed by the rise of the railroad, beginning with the Boston-Worcester line in 1835.
The city also played a pivotal role in 20th-century rocket science and space exploration. Native Robert Goddard, who obtained degrees from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Clark University, created and in 1926 launched the first liquid-fueled rocket. When astronaut Neil Armstrong took his famous first step on the moon in 1969, multiple Worcester products helped make that voyage possible. The David Clark Co. designed the communications carrier assembly — the “Snoopy cap” — through which came Armstrong’s words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Local companies also made the legs of the Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module, forgings for the spacecraft, and superinsulation and ceramic coating for the rocket nozzles. Sprague Electric, now Allegro MicroSystems, Inc., created a silicon disc with microscopically engraved messages that the astronauts left on the moon.
Whatever the achievements of the past, back out on the streets of downtown, one can’t get around the fact that it is way too quiet. Although the city’s economic base today includes insurance companies, higher education, banks, courts, and medical services, the once bustling center is not sharing in the prosperity. Denholm’s, the department store that used to draw crowds to Main Street, closed in 1973. Although the building still stands across from City Hall, current tenants do not match the lively commerce Denholm’s provided.
Local government and business leaders hope to reverse this decline with a planned theater district. If successful, 30 downtown acres would become a vibrant space with residences, shops, offices, and entertainment. In the meantime, the area still offers beautiful examples of 19th- and early-20th-century architecture, including City Hall, built in the Renaissance Revival style in 1898; Mechanics Hall, an 1857 Italianate concert hall completely restored in recent years; the G.A.R. Hall (Bull Mansion), a splendid 1876 High Victorian Gothic concoction; and especially the 1911 Union Station. The depot was restored in 2000, along with commuter rail service to Boston, marking a recovery from its low point in 1972 when the station was abandoned as a railroad hub.
Anchored at its northern tip by Union Station, an area known as the Canal District is reinventing itself as an entertainment and shopping zone. Named for the Blackstone, which operated until 1848 and ran beneath today’s Harding Street, the district retains much of the building stock from the city’s heyday. With its main north-south arteries of Water and Green streets converging in a “V” at the southern tip in Kelly Square, the district is easy to navigate and has plenty of bars and restaurants.
On a recent visit to Bocado, a lively tapas restaurant, patrons enjoyed dishes, such as fried goat cheese with honey and almonds; peppers stuffed with veal, cheese, basil, and pine nuts; and pork meatballs with red wine, figs, and blue cheese. In addition to a wide selection of Spanish wines,
Bocado offers wine flights.
The Crompton & Knowles Loomworks factory building, dating from 1860, has taken on new life as the Crompton Place commercial and residential complex, with tenants including an upscale hair salon and home furnishings store. On the ground floor is the Crompton Collective, an artisan and antiques market established in September by Amy Chase, owner of Haberdash Vintage. Sarah Blatt, a partner in Crimson and Clover, arranged a display at her booth. “We’ve been here since it opened,” she said. “It’s going well.”
Crompton Place also is home to Worcester’s newest historical exhibit, the Blackstone Canal Historical Museum. The gallery, the handiwork of amateur historians Eugene Zabinski, Donna Decoteau, and Dave Maki, includes a 4-by-8-foot diorama of the town in 1834 and the canal.
The Canal District Alliance, of which Zabinski is treasurer, is advocating the creation of a replica of the canal along Harding Street as a way to further boost the neighborhood’s rejuvenation. “It would be lined with small shops, cafes, and stores,” Zabinski said. “Cities get their vibrancy from the bottom up.”
Walking back up Water Street from Kelly Square, I stumbled on Weintraub’s, a delicatessen dating from 1920 and one of the few remnants of the former Jewish community. Beginning with the Irish, who dug the canal, Worcester’s growth drew legions of immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including Swedes, French-Canadians, Italians, Armenians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Eastern European Jews.
My last stop of the day was at Canal Bar and Grill, a New Orleans-accented pub and restaurant on Water Street. Sitting at the bar, I ordered a series of appetizers. The corn and shrimp chowder was tasty and the fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade had a nice smoky flavor, with the tomatoes’ texture detectable beneath the breaded fried exterior. While the jalapeno grits could have used a touch more salt, the heat level was just right.
My friendly bartender at Canal Bar and Grill, Alicia Pascarelli, found a transformed Canal District when she returned after college. “I’m just getting to know it now,” she said.
In my excursions I discovered Worcester’s good bones, a robust legacy to propel it forward.
Anne Hanson can be reached at