Maine – Portland: Congress Street’s Three Squares

After the leisurely walks we have been taking for the last couple of weeks, we are going to drive down the rest of Congress Street so fasten your seat belts and come along for a colorful narrated ride…. 

The first thing we see as we cross Franklin Street (also known as the Arterial) is Lincoln Park, a lovely green space that was part of the redesign of the city after the Great Fire of 1866.  Today, the park is only about two-thirds the size it was originally, the remaining third with its truncated walkways was given over for the construction of Franklin Arterial. 

The Central Fire Station is just beyond the park.  The station was built in 1925 to replace an earlier fire house. 

The handsome “Fireman Statue” dates back to 1898 and was moved from his lonely home in one of the city’s cemeteries to this location in 1987. 

Behind the fire station is one of the two remaining horse fountains in the city.  What a lovely tribute to the animals that contributed so much to the building and growth that took place during the first two hundred years of the city’s history.

The old Gannett Building (1923) housed the workings of the Portland Press Herald from the editorial office to the printing presses.  Instead of news trucks pulling in for deliveries, valets now greet guests who are staying at The Press Hotel or coming to enjoy its Ink Bar and Union Restaurant.  It is fun to poke into the hotel to look at the décor with a whole wall of vintage typewriters and lots of reminders of the days when the smell of ink permeated the building.  This boutique hotel offers “modern lodgings in posh newspaper-themed rooms and suites” conveniently located right at the edge of the Old Port so everything is in walking distance.

The magnificent Beaux Arts building across the Congress Street is Portland’s City Hall, which was completed in 1912 and was designed by Portland’s most famous architect, John Calvin Stevens.  This is Portland’s third city hall…the other two having been destroyed by fires in 1866 and 1908. Be sure to note the galley-style sailing ship weathervane atop the building.

It is no wonder that the Portland city seal depicts a phoenix rising majestically at the top since the city was burned down three times during the Indian Wars, by the British in 1775, and in the Great Fire of 1866. 

We recently did a lot of research on the city seal since Don has a very old locally-made Portland Police Badge in his collection that he believes is the city’s first badge and dates to mid-1850s.  William Berry’s article “Portland and the Phoenix” explains that “the Phoenix motif was woven into militia banners; dropped in speeches, orations and toasts; carved into facades; and carted around during parades” starting as early as 1785.  Portland became a city in 1832, but was without an official seal until 1835 when the “Resurgam” with its phoenix perched on an anchor, a ship and two dolphins was adopted as the city seal.

Just a block beyond City Hall is the stately old First Parish Church.  The earlier wooden church was moved to this location in 1740, and this granite building replaced it in 1826.  The granite construction meant it was spared during the Great Fire.  The church has been the setting for many major events in Maine’s history and its numbered and boxed church pews have been the religious homes for many illustrious families.   Outside, its garden offers a lovely quiet space within the heart of the city.

Following Independence, “Congress Street began to be more actively developed.  Market Square was a commercial hub where farm products destined for residents of the booming port were bought and sold” (Congress Street).  In 1891 “Our Lady of Victories was erected on the site of a former city hall and Market Square was subsequently renamed Monument Square [it is one of the three major squares on Congress Street]. 

In spite of its new name and statue, the produce kept arriving and this square houses one of the oldest continually running farmers’ markets in the U.S.   On Wednesday mornings all summer long, local farmers drive their trucks into town bringing fresh produce, flowers and other products that they unload, creating colorful displays.   It is fun to listen to snatches of conversation while contemplating your purchases and learn of the beans’ growth patterns or what a local chef is planning to do with the eggplant he has just purchased.

Surrounding the square, are the commercial buildings that rose to impressive heights in later years, the tallest among these is the fourteen-story Time and Temperature Building with its updates flashing from the rooftop day and night. 

The Portland Public Library was established in 1867 and the main library moved here to the square in 1979.  “The Little Water Girl” continues to greet visitors.  Even after the library underwent a major renovation in 2010, she has held fast to her post.  In addition to the traditional lending and research services, the library’s art gallery provides regularly changing exhibits and the auditorium, with its book-stack podium, is regularly filled with audiences who come to listen to guest authors and other speakers.

The library is only a few steps away from acclaimed author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home.  The brick house was completed in 1786 and was “[o]ne of the first private homes to rise after the Revolution… [and is] now the only remaining example of a single family residence on this downtown section of Congress Street.”   Up to the mid-1800s this area was Portland’s most prestigious neighborhood.  Congress Street was originally known as Back Street, but in 1823 the street was renamed to honor two residents who had served in the U.S. Congress (Stephen Longfellow, father of Henry being one of the two men honored).

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow eventually moved to Boston to teach at Harvard University, but his sister, Anne, remained in the family home until her death at the age of 94.  She left the residence filled with family artifacts and essentially unchanged, with the exception of adding a new cook stove at one point.  This trove of history is now overseen by the Maine Historical Society, which has its offices and museum next door, and offers tours of the home. 

The property was much larger when the family first took residence and the Brown Research library (behind the house) is located near where the cow barn used to sit.  One of the best kept secrets in Portland is the beautiful, historic garden behind the house.  Since 1924, the Longfellow Garden Club has been maintaining this secluded space, cultivating plantings based on the handwritten list of plants discovered in a family cookbook.  Whenever the gates are open, visitors are invited to tour the garden (no charge) or even take time to sit for a while and enjoy its quiet beauty.  The lilac bush in the lower garden is reputed to date back to the days when young Henry was playing in the garden. 

By the turn of the nineteenth century, fashionable shops and large department stores filled the stretch from Monument Square to Congress Square.  “The 1920s roared up Congress Street as electric trolleys and increasing number of automobiles brought visitors to the compact downtown that included restaurants, theaters, department stores, movie houses, an historical society and an art museum” (Congress).  The Art Deco style arrived bringing changes to the fronts of some of the stores and many of the new apartment buildings that arose on side streets off Congress.  

Today, this stretch is the home to MECA (Maine College of Art) and a mix of galleries, boutiques, jewelers and restaurants.  The old department stores are long gone but Reny’s Department Store moved in to fill the gap.  Reny’s is a family-owned, seventeen-store chain that serves customers throughout the hinterlands of the state.  Its commitment to service and wide range of well-priced products that fit the Maine lifestyle make it the place to go for everything from winter boots to breakfast cereal.  

Congress Square doesn’t have any significant statuary, but it is still easy to spot with the pie-shaped H.H. Hay Building (1826) on one corner and the Portland Art Museum on another. 

At street level across the street in a glass-encased pavilion, is the Union Station Clock (1888) that stood above the grand old Portland Union Station.  It is a sad reminder of the days when wrecking balls swung unobstructed here in the city.  The square itself, with its newly painted surrounding walls and freshened planters, has been a center of preservation controversy for the last couple of years and the outcome has produced a much more attractive and well-used space than was previously the case.  

The Portland Museum of Art was founded in 1882 and is the cornerstone of the city’s vibrant art culture.  After residing in several impermanent locations, it finally found a home in the McLelland House in 1908.  When a generous Maine art collector offered the seventeen Winslow Homer paintings, he recognized the museum’s need for expansion and added an $8-million-dollar gift to help cover those costs.  The Post Modern style wing, designed by I.M. Pei and Partners, was completed in 1983.

Fired by the expansion, the collection grew and today “includes more than 22,000 artworks, dating from the 18th century to the present. “  In addition to an outstanding collection of Maine-based artists, the museum has a large collection of European works.  It is not stuck in history but is forging ahead with modern and contemporary artists’ works being added to the collection and being introduced in major exhibitions.

Now we are going to pick up speed or we will never get to the airport.  Longfellow Square is just a couple of blocks ahead.  During the cold of Portland’s winter our distinguished poet is usually seen on his perch above the swirling traffic with a knitted cap and muffler. 

Beyond the square and interspersed with businesses are, a few of the more historic and “substantial single family homes” that were “designed by the city’s leading architects” (Congress Street).  On the left is the Neal Dow House Museum (1829).  Dow was a prominent politician, a General in the Civil War and is best known for his passion as a prohibitionist, which brought him to leadership in the Temperance Movement.  The house is now the headquarters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

If you have a bit of extra time, you may want to turn up Dow Street and drive into the West End

After passing a few more modest homes, the streets become lined with the grand residences that the wealthier residents of Portland began building here, far from the dirty wharves and the rubble and ashes of the Great Fire. 

You can even catch glimpses of some lovely back gardens by driving down some of the alleyways.  One of our favorite houses has such a lovely back entrance that we wonder if any of the family’s guests ever use the front door. 

The Western Cemetery was established in the 18th century and was acquired by the City of Portland in 1829.  In its earliest years this area was not nearly so elegant and was the home of many poor people and especially the Irish Catholic immigrants who fled the Potato Famine in Ireland.  It is no longer an active burial ground and its twelve peaceful acres has become a favorite place for people to take quiet walks.

Back on Congress the neighborhood quickly changes as we drive past the Maine Medical Center, the state’s largest medical facility, and arrive at Haddock Field, the home of Portland’s beloved Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliates of the Boston Red Sox.  Faithful fans and lots of families come to enjoy the games where Slugger, the team’s mascot, leads activities during breaks in the game, and the snack stands serve up tasty and reasonably-priced hot dogs and whoopee pies.   

From here on there are very few points of interest along the drive.  Unless you are looking carefully, you will pass the pre-Revolutionary War home of Deacon John Bailey (built sometime between 1730-1756) at 1235 Congress Street.  The home is privately owned. 

Just before the airport we come to Stroudwater, an early village that is now part of Portland.  Located at the juncture of the Fore and Stroudwater Rivers, it was first settled in the 17th century and abandoned after Indian attacks in the 1680s.   Colonel Thomas Westbrook resettled the area in 1727.  He was a mast agent for King George II and under his direction, roads were built to haul mast timbers here from where they were cut.  They were then launched down the Fore River on their way to Portland and from there they would be shipped to England (Stroudwater Historic District).

The Tate House (1759) was built by Captain George Tate who was the Senior Mast Agent for the British Royal Navy.  He oversaw the cutting and shipping of white pines from Maine to England, and his home reflects the prominent status he held in the community in that day.  The two-story, unpainted clapboard house has been carefully restored and can be toured during the summer months (tatehouse.org).  The back yard has herb gardens as well as some old apple trees.  The yard slopes down to the river where I spotted several large white geese feeding in the water.

When they became aware of my interest they paddled upstream to safety.  As we pulled out of the neighborhood and back onto Congress Street, I noticed a “goose” mailbox that seems to indicate the house that the geese must call home.

At long last, just four miles from our starting point today, we have reached to entrance to the Portland Jetport.  Keep a lookout for the interesting wrought iron sculptures that are integrated into the landscape along the entry drive.

If you are not catching a plane and are going to be staying in Portland a while longer you may want to go back to Congress Square and visit the lounge at the top of the former Eastland hotel, which is now the Westin Portland Harborview. 

Take the elevator to the top floor before sunset to enjoy one of our favorite views of the city as well as a snack and a beverage while gazing out to Casco Bay. 

Recommended Resource:

Berry, William. “Portland and the Phoenix” Filed under V. F. Seals in the Portland Room, Portland Public Library Main Branch. 

“Congress Street Historic District Designation Report” portlandmaine.gov

(Stroudwater Historic District.  Portlandmaine.gov.)

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