Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center: New vision for an old optical factory
The Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center is a repurposed property that offers a hint to its past.
The approach to Southbridge, Massachusetts offers a glimpse at what this mill town must have been like when it was thriving. The substantial red brick buildings lining Main Street look like they were built to last forever. A week after the Fourth of July, the red, white and blue banners adorning the buildings add to the All-American feel.
The historic center of the town has an impressive brick firehouse (built in 1899) and Town Hall (built in 1888). In fact, these and other properties in the historic district, some 83 in total, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They include old factory housing and original colonial revival buildings dating back to the late 1700s.
Now, many downtown storefronts are vacant or house social service agencies; a host of residential properties seem to have fallen into disrepair.
Growth and decline of a company town
Things weren’t always this way. The first steel-framed eyeglasses in America were invented in Southbridge in 1843. That small business evolved into the highly successful American Optical Company (AO), which made its home here. (Coincidentally, my husband recalled that his microscope in medical school was made by AO.)
Over the years, the company received numerous patents for important optical advances, eventually becoming the largest manufacturer of ophthalmic products in the world. At its peak, it employed more than 6000 people, who created new tools to cut and grind lenses. The company occupied more than 36 connected buildings and had more than 17.5 acres of floor space.
A descendent of one of the company’s founders, George Wells, was the driving force behind the creation of nearby Sturbridge Village, a popular “living museum” that depicts life in rural New England in the late 1700s.
Due to foreign competition and the depressed economy, however, the company was forced to close down its manufacturing and business operations in the 1990s (relocating both to Mexico and San Diego, respectively).
A new vision and purpose
When we recently traveled to a destination wedding in Spencer, Massachusetts, the bride set-aside a block of rooms for her guests at the Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center, where we stayed for two nights in a Standard King room. The contemporary, 203-room hotel and conference center opened in 2001, incorporating the magnificent 100-year-old brick façade of the original American Optical building.
In the 80’s, the Department of Defense made efforts to invigorate the town economy by signing a long-term lease to use the old plant as a training and conference center so the hotel serves that function as well as being a privately-operated hotel.
What we liked about the Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center:
It’s always nice to stay someplace with a rich history. The hotel gives a nod to its past with some whimsical touches. Its restaurant is called, Visions; its lounge is called Shades. The “Do Not Disturb “sign hanging on the doorknob reads “Too Early to Focus.”An oversized metal sculpture of a pair of black AO spectacles sits on the Town Common across the street.
- Guestrooms are spacious, well-provisioned and kept immaculately clean. Complimentary wireless access was excellent.
- The hotel has a health club and fitness center with workout equipment, a pool, hot tub, and racquetball and basketball courts.
- Reception, housekeeping and dining rooms personnel were uniformly friendly and efficient.
- Although the hotel draws large numbers of groups for weddings, business meeting and other events, self-parking is ample.
- The room cost is extremely reasonable (starting at around $120 per night).
What we didn’t like:
- Although the Victorian exterior with its brickwork and clock tower is appealing, most of the building interior was gutted rather than preserved, except for a graceful marble staircase.
- Set up primarily as a conference center with 25-foot ceilings in the lobby, the design and décor (both guestrooms and common areas) feels somewhat bland and institutional. The emphasis seems to be on function rather than form. The one breakfast we had at Visions disappointingly tasted like cafeteria food.
- Halls are long and distant from the elevators but staffing is minimal. No doorman or valet is available to help with luggage. When the person at the front desk was called to an emergency one morning, she had to leave the reception desk unattended.
- The surrounding area is quite depressed with few attractive dining options. Two of the restaurants we wanted to try (Chinese and French) were both closed for vacation during our summer visit. (The town of Sturbridge, which has some interesting restaurants, is a ten-minute drive from the property.)
Seeing an impressive architectural exterior such as this one and reading about its history can inadvertently but easily lead to outsized expectations.
This was certainly an adequate and comfortable hotel for a short stay. We appreciated its proximity to Sturbridge and the wedding venue. However, we couldn’t help but be disappointed that a building with such deep roots and history in the community didn’t offer a richer experience behind the façade.
IF YOU GO
Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center, 14 Mechanic Street, Southbridge, MA 01550
Read more about the history of the American Optical Company: