Portland’s phoenix resurgent

Portland's downtown Port Exchange historic district. (gotravelmaine.com)

Portland’s downtown Port Exchange historic district. (gotravelmaine.com)

Billy, Victoria and I are driving up to Augusta, Maine, for the long weekend to visit friends. We plan to visit Portland on the way or on the way back. The Journal column below reaches back two decades to compare efforts at civic revitalization in Portland and Providence. May take photos and post them upon my return. For now, though, I’ve “gone fishing.”


Portland’s phoenix resurgent
August 25, 1994

FIVE YEARS AGO, we entered this city of 65,000 after dusk in search of a hotel room on Labor Day. When the lady at the Sonesta Hotel shook her head, we visited the 12th-floor bar to see the view while plotting our strategy. The skyline of squat office buildings in a sea of brick was not endearing. Night soon laid down its kindly blanket.

We left Portland, and after striking out at a dozen motels (including the tent showroom at L.L. Bean), we found a room long past midnight somewhere between Brunswick and Bath. Our return to Portland last weekend was, really, our first visit.

This time, reservations in hand, we stopped at The Danforth, a new bed & breakfast in an 1823 Federal-style mansion just west of downtown. We headed out on foot down Danforth Street, past the historic Victoria Mansion and toward the city center.

But Danforth Street degenerates. We passed several blocks of down-at-the-heels offices, warehouses and apartments. So when at last we reached the Old Port Exchange, we were astonished by its charms.

The Port Exchange represents the sort of commercial development – block after block of small shops, bars and eateries, teeming with shoppers and tourists – the hope for which Providence has abandoned, for now, in favor of a downtown mall (a sad but realistic decision, it seems to me). The Port Exchange’s elegant brick buildings were built after fire destroyed virtually the entire downtown in 1866.

Thirty years ago, says Barbara Hager, who directs Portland’s downtown management district, the area consisted of flophouses and old sailors’ haunts. She says that growth was gradual, starting with entrepreneurial “hippies” who opened lunch spots for the employees from banks and other large companies in buildings constructed just north of the Port Exchange during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

These large, modern, unfriendly products of urban renewal are a blight on downtown, but they are also filled with workers. You cannot argue with a Class A occupancy rate of 94 percent. Ms. Hager sees a major office project in the offing, and hopes to encourage a location advantageous to sections of downtown that, unlike the Port Exchange, still need help.

Locations likely to serve such a purpose are Danforth and Pleasant streets – which between Victoria Mansion and the Port Exchange are so depressing – or Congress Street. Equivalent to our own Westminster Street, Congress Street is the most dilapidated section of downtown Portland. Likewise, its department stores have departed for malls in suburbia.

On Congress Street, Portland hopes to create an arts district similar to our Downcity arts and entertainment district. However, Congress Street suffers from a seepage of modern architecture from the business district. Such structures include the public library, designed by I.M. Pei, the Children’s Museum, the Portland Museum of Art and, of all things, the Maine Historical Society. Indeed, the city’s overall “sense of place” has been seriously eroded in recent decades by bad architecture. It does not take very much modernism to destroy the feeling of history.

Yet, not a few old buildings survive on Congress Street, including the boyhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1785), and, not least, the Porteous Building (1904), a former department store that will next year house the currently scattered Maine College of Art. As with the relocation of the URI College of Continuing Education to the Shepard Building, the art school’s consolidation is expected to add momentum to revitalization on Congress Street.

Set against Providence, Portland has advantages, primarily its thriving retail district in the Old Port Exchange, and disadvantages, such as the uninviting sections of downtown beyond the Port Exchange.

Downtown Portland and Providence both benefit from compact size and waterfront locations. With the success of its business district and its retail district, Portland’s revival has progressed further than that of Providence. It has generated the downtown vitality that Providence awaits. However, Rhode Island sits between Boston and New York, and its ambitious projects of infrastructure and economic development – Waterplace, the riverfront, the Convention Center, Capital Center, Providence Place, the Downcity Plan, the relocation of Route 195 – seem to promise, in time, a far greater prosperity.

Portland’s motto, Resurgam, means “I will rise again,” and so it has. As for Providence, we must wait and see. The motto of Rhode Island is Hope.

* * *

Copyright © 1994. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: MERLIN_1111466

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Architecture History, Art and design, Blast from past, Development, Preservation, Providence, Providence Journal, Urbanism and planning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Portland’s phoenix resurgent

  1. Pingback: Portland’s imposing Old Port | Architecture Here and There

  2. Pingback: Portland’s revival booms | Architecture Here and There

  3. Not just smaller, Ken, but way smaller, and not surrounded by a 1.5 million conurbation, and not the state capital (anymore) and not benefiting from a relatively large host of colleges and universities, and not having completed three or four major urban projects (PP, moving tracks, moving rivers, moving highways, etc.). Bears looking into.


  4. Kenneth J. Filarski says:

    Portland is an extremely vibrant city and community. I am amazed at the size of their urban core (i.e., downtown) compared to Providence, especially considering their population is smaller in numbers.



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