AO - Southbridge Facilities
"Lensdale" 2L - Now Building 50

Construction of Lensdale - 1910

 Memo below from Albert B. Wells to George B. Wells
Dated July 31, 1947

Time marches on and, when my copy of AO News, which I suppose will be changed to American Optical Company News, following out your policy which was suggested by Mr. Dakin, issue of Friday, July 25th, is tremendously interesting, and especially to me on Page 3.  I have enjoyed looking at the pictures and reading the article.  Obviously, that suggested I look up the Old Quinebaug Historical Society booklet on the American Optical Company.

In the days when this building was built, and in fact during the days when most of the new work or replacement work on Mechanic Street as well as on lower Main Street, were very active days.  Possibly more detailed history should be written.  Of course in those days it was good business to pay credit to anybody for what they accomplished.

The Lensdale building to me was very important to me in my, shall I say, growing up period, and there are certain facts that go with the history of this building, that sometime somewhere ought to be written up.

The booklet above referred to, which my father did the work on, your grandfather, would give a lot of material that would be interesting today, I believe, to employees and friends of the Company.  But that is a terrific job, and may be history instead of news.

It might be of interest to, and I know it would, to some of the employees of the American Optical Company, especially the older ones, to realize that the American Optical organization, within its own doors, had men who were capable of doing a job without outside help or advice or supervision.

I can remember the time I talked with your grandfather in reference to some of the rebuilding that was done, told him I thought the time had come when we should build our own engineering department, and I remember that he said, “Well, Albert, I’ve expected you to come to me with that remark for a good number of months.”  He said, “I agree with you, what are you going to do about it?”  Well, knowing I had the support of my father as well as my brothers and Mr. Cady, I went to work and brought several individuals to Southbridge who thought they were capable of taking on the general engineering, planning, supervision, etc. job.  Finally one day I brought into Father’s office a young Scotchman who seemed perfect, even in those days, 1909, his fingernails were polished like a girl’s, his linen was always spotless, and he was always dressed in the height of fashion, bright red hair, great big nose, and I think stood about 5’6”.  He was so embarrassed when I brought him into Father’s office and, of course, hemmed and hawed, stumbled around, red as a beet, but I could see that Father liked him.  They started to talk, I saw him off, went back and asked Father, “What do you think of him?” and he countered as he very often did, “Well, what do you think about him, Albert?”  I said, “I like him.”  Father said, “Are you going to hire him?”  And I said, “Yes, if you think he is all right.”  He said, “If I were in your place, I certainly would.”

We had, at this period or about this period, been discussing what to do about a new building at Lensdale.  The old building, which I think, was built in 1888 and constantly added to, had become inadequate, antiquated, and we needed more room.  Obviously, the question of location came in for a good deal of discussion, and my brother, Channing, suggested that the location of the present cement building would be ideal.  That was a vision at that time.  It was simply a scrub wood lot.  Of course, not graded, but it did have a setting.  It was the unanimous opinion of the Directors that that was the proper location.  At that time, there was nothing on paper as to what we would do.

I had always had the idea in the back of my head that it would be wonderful to have a building that was practically all glass.  No building, so far as I know, had ever been built in the United States, anyway in our section of the country, anything like the building we finally built, and MacIntosh and yours truly put in a lot of time on a drawing board; we copied nobody or nothing, and every bit of that building was built from scratch and designed from scratch.

We’ve had a lot of experience with cement and steel for reinforcement in building the big grinding plant, which was added onto some years later.  And we knew that over on the location where we were discussing the building we had plenty of gravel.  To the best of my knowledge and belief, these plans were, from start to finish, never passed upon by architects, engineers or builders.

I remember that when we were pretty well under way, Sam and myself worried about expansion, and wondered if the way we had the building drawn, the time would ever come when we might push out either end owing to expansion.  I do remember talking with Mr. Burnham, Ethel’s father, in reference to the same.  And I know that he said, “I don’t know, but I have a man in Chicago who will know.”  He took the plan.  Then the questions came from Chicago fast and furious.  We had a good many innovations in the building that were strange to Mr. Burnham’s engineers, and he had the very best.  For instance, no one had ever built floors with a single arch from one side of the building to the other side; they were generally built in panels, as you know.  We got their approval; they said the building would not push out, but at the same time, Sam and I missed one thing in building the channel beams we used between the floors.  We did not allow enough for expansion, and they did do some cracking, as you will remember.

Your grandfather, Mr. Burnham, made it his business to come to Southbridge pretty often during the construction of this building, and he gave us valuable instructions and advice.  I can well remember one time when he was in Southbridge, on the building with us, he asked where we got the idea of building the cornice on this building straight up instead of out and we explained the reason wherefore and told him the amount of money it would save from start to finish and he was very pleased with the idea.  He said, “Why don’t you patent it?”  I couldn’t help remember then the talks I’d had with Alexander Banks, President of the Belt Line Road around Chicago, a perfectly marvelous individual, a man whom everyone trusted, and for whom everyone did what they could to help him.  He, without any contract or agreement whatsoever, moved all the track at the time Gary was built for the different railroads and there never was a squabble over the bills he sent in to the different companies.

He told me a story about your grandfather Burnham that I never forgot.  That came to my mind when Mr. Burnham said we should ask for patents on our straight up cornice, and I couldn’t help but dig back at Mr. Burnham and say, “do you remember the time Alexander Bank asked you what could be done to keep the water from coming down on passengers as they left the train to go into the station?”  He laughed and said, “Yes, I remember very well about that, and I remember I had a portfolio with papers in it, so I took out a piece of paper and a pencil and I sketched out the roof that overhung the edge of the train and pitched toward the center, which would allow you to discharge passengers without any trouble.  It has been adopted by almost every railroad in this country.”  I said, “Mr. Burnham, why didn’t you patent that?”  I remember how he laughed.

I remember Mr. Burnham saying, “Albert, this straight up cornice is really wonderful and we, in our business, should have thought of it years and years ago.”  Then he went on to tell of various buildings, especially in New York where the streets are so narrow, cornices run out into the streets on both sides anywhere from six to eight feet.  Of course, they darkened the street and buildings unnecessarily.  I just mention this in passing to tell you something that AO Company and the individuals accomplished, which was, according to Mr. Burnham, more than worthwhile.  It has been copied, not only in factories but in office buildings all over this country where it was justified.

When we showed Mr. Burnham our plan of the powerhouse, he did not like our cornice; he agreed the building should have a cornice, and he said, “Throw those plans into the buggy, and I’ll take them back to Chicago.”  The cornices on the powerhouse were designed by Burnham & Company – without charge – please bear that in mind!

I could dictate on and on of many other innovations that were put into the Lensdale buildings in 1909 and 1910.  Our method of putting on the finish floors, our expansion pipes, etc., but it would run into pages.  Perhaps sometime you will think I should do it, but the thing I really want to make clear is simply this:  to call to your attention that there were men of ability on the American Optical Company payroll who, as far as I know, have never been recognized by the Company.  Personally, it makes no difference to me, but it could be made into a great story just the same.

One little item that will make you laugh.  Practically, the all the gravel dug out of this foundation and used to build the building came out of the tunnel that ran from the powerhouse to the main plant, and every shovel full of that gravel went through a washing machine to take out all the loam that had accumulated.  That is one reason why the cement building has always stood up so well.

I can’t drop this dictation without saying one thing; neither Mac nor I nor my father, brothers, or Mr. Cady, visualized the fact that our towers for stairs, elevators w.c.’s were not what they should have been but at the time they were built, they seemed adequate.  Today it is too expensive to have people walk from the middle of the cement building to use one of the towers to go to the w.c.  Today, modern construction puts the w.c.’s in a more conveniently located situation for the use of the people who need them.

More photos of the Lensdale building construction start in 1909 - Courtesy of John Rochon 

A 1918 View off the Lens Plant 

Workers leaving the Lens Plant in 1946

First Floor of 2L as it was  - Don Nass Drawing

Glass Executive Manufacturing in Lens Plant (first floor) prior to Southbridge Closure
Longest running ophthalmic product line in AO's history

Second Floor of 2L as it was  - Don Nass Drawing


Third Floor of 2L as it was  - Don Nass Drawing

Third Floor of 2L as it was  - Don Nass Drawing


Don Whitney photo of 2L (Lens Plant) - Dec 1954


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