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HOTELS & SPAS

Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center: New vision for an old optical factory

July 12, 2016
Brick facade of the American Optical Company
Flags advertising the Southbridge bicentennial

Flags advertising the Southbridge bicentennial

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.

View of Main Street in Southbridge

View of Main Street in Southbridge, Massachusetts

Dry cleaner off Main Street in Southbridge

Dry cleaner off Main Street in Southbridge

52 Main Street, Southbridge, a Queen Anne Building from 1904

52 Main Street, Southbridge, a Queen Anne Building from 1904 that is a National Historic Landmark

Local residents post suggestions to improve the town in one of the storefronts

Local residents post suggestions to improve the town on a bulletin board in one of the vacant storefronts

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.)

Brick facade of the American Optical Company

Brick facade of the American Optical Company

Columned doorway of the American Optical Company in Southbridge

Columned doorway of the American Optical Company in Southbridge

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.

Contemporary entrance to the Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center

Contemporary entrance to the Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center

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.

Do not disturb: Too Early To Focus

Do not disturb: Too Early To Focus

Spectacle sculpture in the park across from the hotel

19-foot, 2000 pound AO spectacle sculpture in the Town Common park across from the hotel

  • Guestrooms are spacious, well-provisioned and kept immaculately clean. Complimentary wireless access was excellent.
Room 314, our Standard King Room at the Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center

Room 314, our Standard King Room at the Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center

  • 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.
Elegant spiral staircase at the Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center

Elegant spiral staircase at the Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center

  • 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.
Portion of the large Visions dining room at the Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center

Portion of the large Visions dining room at the Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center

  • 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.)

Bottom line

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:

Old Sturbridge Village


  • Reply
    Laura
    July 13, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    I agree, they could better utilize and preserve the historical value of the building. On the other hand, the hotel met your needs for a wedding weekend and was reasonably priced. And, looking fabulous, Irene!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 14, 2016 at 8:59 am

      I visit so many hotels that it’s easy to be critical of those that don’t meet the high bar!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Stavert
    July 18, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    I really do think you are quite the hotel maven! The clever use of eyesight/eyewear references were fun. I am a true fan of buildings that are renovated, but still retaining MOST of the original aspects. It sounds like they a did a little bit, but just not enough. Thank you for the review, I was not familiar with the area or the hotel.

  • Reply
    Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    July 18, 2016 at 10:12 pm

    I enjoy staying in vintage and historic buildings. I’d love to see the Southbridge Hotel in Massachusetts in action; maybe someday I’ll have a meeting to attend there, too.

  • Reply
    The GypsyNesters
    July 20, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Glad to see that they have made use of the old building. Even if they haven\’t quite done it up to snuff it is better than tearing it down or letting it fall apart.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 22, 2016 at 7:42 pm

      It’s so sad to see history torn down. In NYC, it happens far less often than in the past, thankfully!

  • Reply
    alison abbott
    July 20, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    I’m glad to see the repurposing of this building. This area of Massachusetts struggles with development and I am always happy to learn of a new hotel where I could rendezvous with a friend when we meet for the Brimfield antique market. It’s tough to find any luxury accommodations in the area, clean is key for me when in this neck of the woods.At least there is a ‘hint’ to its former self.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 20, 2016 at 6:21 pm

      It could be a very nice place to meet a friend. Parking is really convenient.

  • Reply
    Jo ~ Lifestyle Fifty
    July 22, 2016 at 10:55 am

    It looks as if they’ve done a great repurposing of the Southbridge Hotel and Conference centre, and it’s always so interesting to stay in places which have an interesting history to them, rather than a hotel chain.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 22, 2016 at 7:42 pm

      Chains are trying to do a better job of conveying a sense of place but it’s hard to compete with great architecture from the past!

  • Reply
    Jackie Smith
    July 22, 2016 at 11:28 am

    “Too early to focus” cracked me up! What a great place to stay. A most interesting post, Irene.

  • Reply
    Sue Reddel
    July 22, 2016 at 6:04 pm

    Love that they were able to save this wonderful old building and restore it as a hotel. Perhaps comments like yours will inspire them to make some changes.

  • Reply
    Vicki Winters
    July 26, 2016 at 10:56 am

    I love the too early to focus sign for the door!

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