History of the GoggleWorks: From Safety Products to Arts Center
Founded by Gile J. Willson and his son Dr. Thomas A. Willson in 1871, Thomas A. Willson & Co. opened the first factory in the world to manufacture optical glass for lenses and reading glasses. Located at the corner of Washington and 2nd Streets in Reading, Pennsylvania, the company became known for its innovative strides in addressing the occupational hazards faced by factory workers and is credited with launching the safety protection industry. During the 1890s the company expanded the reach of the safety industry by addressing hearing, respiratory and head protection equipment. Through the 1920s, they expanded their line of safety equipment to the protection of coal miners, military personnel, and aviation. By World War II, the company, renamed Willson Goggles, was helping the war effort by making aviator goggles and high altitude oxygen masks for pilots in the military. In 1936, the company again changed its name, to Willson Products, Inc., to reflect an expanding product line including fashionable sunglasses, as modeled by the contestants of the 1938 Miss America pageant, and swim goggles. In 1989, Dalloz bought Willson Products, and changed the company name to Dalloz Safety in 1997. Dalloz closed the plant in May 2002.
A prime example of adaptive reuse in architecture, the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts derives its name from the original structure from which it evolved, the former Willson Goggle Factory. While Reading once had a strong industrial base, the city has over the years sunken into a decline that left many buildings abandoned and the surrounding neighborhoods in an increasingly depressed state. Reading officials had long discussed plans for the revitalization of the city, and the renovation of the Willson Goggle Factory was viewed as a potential cornerstone upon which the revitalization of downtown Reading could be built. With generous support from the community and state government, a yearlong renovation transformed the abandoned goggle factory into the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts, opening to the public in September 2005. The decision to locate the GoggleWorks in the urban core of Reading, where the needs of the community are greatest, has proven a catalyst for much needed change; many other vacant buildings are being renovated and new businesses are opening, creating new jobs and a safer community environment. The GoggleWorks now draws attention to an architecturally beautiful but neglected area of the city that is in serious need of economic revitalization. The GoggleWorks received a 2006 Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Award which acknowledged the integrity of the extensive renovation.
Today, the GoggleWorks offers 145,000 square feet of dynamic space, including: galleries; classrooms; dance and music studios; a darkroom; a glass blowing facility, plus a warm and cold glass studio/classroom; a woodshop; ceramics and jewelry studios; a 131-seat film theatre; a café; community meeting places; 34 artist studios where working artists educate the public about using their process and means of expressing themselves through their art; and offices for 26 local community arts and cultural organizations. The GoggleWorks is a community art and cultural resource center for Berks County and Central and Southeastern Pennsylvania, and is the largest, most comprehensive interactive arts center of its kind in the country. The mission of the GoggleWorks is “to nurture the arts, foster creativity, promote education and enrich the community.” The artists and arts-based organizations housed within the building are all committed to renewing and revitalizing the community. Thousands of visitors experience the dynamic GoggleWorks campus at community open houses on the 2nd Sunday of every month by touring artist´s studios, participating in workshops, observing dance and music performances and attending exhibition openings in the distinctive galleries. The arts center also runs after-school programs attended by over 300 children from the area, and offers classes, music and dance lessons, summer camps, and family activities. There is no admission fee and plenty of free parking.