Higgins Armory Museum
Before there was "the man of steel" from Metropolis, there was John Woodman Higgins from Massachusetts.
Higgins was the wealthy owner of Worcester Pressed Steel and he was madly in love with the silvery metal. He lived his fascination in a self-designed "house of the future" filled with steel art and steel marvels such as automatic shoe polishers and ice machines. His favorite color was "stainless steel."
In 1931 Higgins had a five-story glass and steel building built next to his factory. It housed what Higgins called "The Museum of Steel and Armor," which billed itself as "a temple of steelcraft." The museum displayed everything from medieval weaponry to mass-produced automobile parts and even included an all-steel airplane suspended from its ceiling. Visitors were encouraged to tour the Museum and then walk into the factory, where they could watch army helmets and flatware being made.
Higgins died in 1961; his company went under in 1975, and his Museum was sold in 1978. The new owners decided to quietly retire the whole steel obsession thing and devote the Museum mostly to Higgins' collection of mailed knights.
Today, pennants fly from the Museum's steel roof, and a big knight looms five floors above the entrance. The Higgins collection of armor is second in size -- at least in this hemisphere -- only to the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection in New York City. Most of it is from medieval and renaissance Europe. No dummies in Kevlar here.
A "fun room" lets kids experience the dark and clammy thrill of wearing medieval helmets (which are tethered by cords to prevent ramming and butting). But the main draw is the full-size Gothic Great Hall on the third floor, based on one that Higgins saw in an Austrian castle, and more impressive than any Medieval Times Dinner Theater. Mailed knights stand along the walls. Flags hang in the vaulted gloom above. Its large glass windows were boarded over decades ago to prevent the tapestries from rotting, but now that the Hall is dark it's even more ancient-and authentic feeling.
Our eyes are drawn to a dog dummy wearing replica 16th century German armor, and to a steel chastity belt with a little heart cut into its back plate. We're shown a steel suit that our guide says may have inspired the storm trooper armor in Star Wars, although she cautions that "we have no confirmation of that."
Pikes and halberds hang from the fake stone arches, mail-clad Crusaders are posed as if on horseback, and upstairs arcades display samurai armor, a gladiator helmet, and an Islamic chain mail shirt with Allah's name pressed into every link. One custom-made steel suit looks like a prop from a lavish porno film, with a helmet bearing steel hammered into a toothy grin and moustache, and an oversized codpiece the size of a wine barrel bung.
Part of Higgins' old factory, next door, now makes biomedical equipment, and the Great Hall has become a popular spot for after-hours wedding receptions and birthday parties.
But Higgins' Museum still holds medieval combat demonstrations on weekends, and there are enough breastplates, backplates, shields, swords, gauntlets, and greaves here to outfit a castle garrison. If zombies ever do lay siege to the earth, the Higgins Armory Great Room is where we'd head to gear up for battle. Mortars and machine guns might work better, but we want to go out in style.