Portland’s imposing Old Port

Portland's Old Port Exchange district, built after huge fire in 1866. (Photos by David Brussat)

Portland’s Old Port Exchange district, built after huge fire in 1866. (Photos by David Brussat)

Portland’s Old Port Exchange district was bustling with tourists on Sunday morning as Billy and I drove up and down its streets in search of parking. Finding no place, we ended up touring Congress Street on foot instead, taking too long to double back to the Old Port. On the trip home the next day, Columbus Day, we passed through again – this time including Victoria – found parking and set about exploring the many shops.

The place seems much the same, made even more alluring with the switching in of an even more pleasing set of historic street lamps. The shops are more upscale than when I last visited in 1994. Here’s what I wrote in “Portland’s phoenix resurgent” at the time:

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.

The latter buildings mostly avoided the Port Exchange, thankfully, except, it seems, for the dark, groping glass-and-steel behemoth that appears in the before-and-after shots below, beyond the ornate French Second Empire-style Custom House, completed in 1872. Perhaps the new hulk, whose identity eludes me, is not really in the Old Port at all, but in the business district next door. What follows are shots of the Custom House in 1994 and 2015:

Custom House (center) in 1994.

Custom House (center) in 1994.

Custom House (right of center) in 2015.

Custom House (right of center) in 2015.

Today, the most successful districts of Portland, especially the Old Port Exchange, are much as they were then – in the 1990s – fine-grained buildings with small shops, and apartments or offices above. There are stretches of that on Congress Street, the city’s arts district, anchored by the Maine College of Art, but the Old Port abounds in it, thrives in it, is sustained by it.

The takeaway for Providence, considering the sluggishness of its Capital Center district, is that its I-195 redevelopment corridor – the so-called Knowledge District – should be recast at a smaller scale. At least some of its large parcels should be downsized to a smaller grain, seeking small business rather than large corporations and institutions in, no doubt, large ugly buildings, as recommended by the I-195 Developers Tool Kit.

Maine’s motto is Resurgem. Rhode Island’s motto is Hope. Portland has been resurgent for at least two decades. Providence has done more, to be sure, than inch forward, but not that much more, and remains hopeful.

Meanwhile, here are some shots, including a video, of the Old Port:

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About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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 fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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, I-195 Redevelopment District, Photography, Preservation, Providence, Urbanism and planning, Video. Bookmark the permalink.

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