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Bob Matthias set to leave the Grand Army of the Republic building after 37 years

Throughout his 37-year tenure as curator of the Grand Army of the Republic building in Lynn, Robert Matthias would often go up to the third floor and sit in the Grand Hall, reflecting on the history of the building and the Civil War. (Spenser R. Hasak)

LYNN — Bob Matthias knows who Charles R. Mudge and John Stackhouse were, and he knows which Union Army regiment claimed the eagle as its mascot. All and all, that’s not bad for a guy who was a maintenance man when he started working in Lynn’s Civil War museum 37 years ago.

Matthias, a Lynn resident, is the building coordinator of the Grand Army of the Republic building on Andrew Street. With its four-story brick and stone facade secured with heavy wood beams and bolts, the building looks as if it has seen better days, but Matthias knows the “GAR” is one of Lynn’s hidden gems.

“He loves the place,” said Matthias’ friend and amateur historian John Gibney.

Matthias is about to retire from city employment but — retired or not — he plans to still spend time at 58 Andrew St. answering visitors’ questions and checking up on a building chock of Lynn and American history.

Once the meeting place of more than 1,100 Union Army veterans living in Lynn, the GAR became a city property held in trust “forever and a day” in 1919. A New York native whose family moved to Lynn, then Saugus, Matthias graduated Saugus High School and served in the Navy.

He was relatively new to his city maintenance job in 1981 when Proposition 2½, the state’s property tax limitation law, forced public job cutbacks across the state and triggered Matthias’ transfer from City Hall to Andrew Street.

“It turned out to be the best thing for me,” he said.

He dug into Civil War histories and started working with city departments, notably Community Development, to tackle a laundry list of repairs the GAR needed. Water damage threatened the display cases with their collections of Civil War armaments, letters, and uniforms.

“The roof wasn’t good and the fire escapes were gone,” he said.

Matthias didn’t stop at accumulating a basic knowledge of the Civil War. He studied the GAR’s displays and shelves of books to ferret out Lynn’s connection to the war between the states. He learned how Enoch Mudge, patriarch of a famous Lynn family, honored the loss in combat of his son, Charles R. Mudge, by building St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on South Common Street around a burial shrine devoted to the younger Mudge.

He studied the 1,243 photographs lining the walls in the building’s Great Hall. Stackhouse gazes out at the ornate room with its upholstered benches from one of the photos. Once a slave, he made his way north to fight with the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

Assisted by members of the Civil War Roundtable and local historians like Gibney and Lawrence Campbell, Matthias worked to get the GAR’s roof and walls repaired and helped coordinate Great Hall photograph preservation efforts.

He credits John Kasian and other Community Development employees and city government colleagues with securing the money and technical expertise to preserve the Andrew Street building.

“‘Dedicated’ is the word for him. He works more hours than he is paid for,” Campbell said in describing Matthias.

Matthias helped bring history alive on Andrew Street by leading school tours of the building and opening its library to researchers. His biggest thrill has come from people tracing ancestries who stop in the building to look up a relative who fought in the Civil War.

During the tours, he points to the big stuffed eagles in the Great Hall and explains how they served as mascots to the Iron Brigade, a tenacious bunch of Union fighters who slowed down the Confederate army’s onslaught on the Battle of Gettysburg’s first day.

He reveals how the GAR was the first building in Lynn to be equipped with history and he discusses how Abraham Lincoln’s warning about “a house divided” relates to modern America. “When the kids quiet down and listen, I know I’ve got it right,” he said.

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