What’s Worth Saving in Portland?

As the city undergoes major changes, historic preservationists face tough questions.

What’s Worth Saving in Portland? | Downeast Magazine
Photographed by Nicole Wolf
By Peter Andrey Smith

The four-faced, 18-foot-tall Hay & Peabody clock started counting time in 1925, commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of an eponymous funeral home on Congress Street. By 2017, its cast-iron body had rusted almost beyond repair, and the timepiece landed on a “places in peril” list produced by Greater Portland Landmarks, a nonprofit preservation group. The funeral home is now a boutique hotel, the Francis, and its owners recently partnered with local businesses and residents to hire restoration experts, assisted by members of Maine Chapter 89 of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, to refurbish the one-ton clock piece by piece.

The clock was part of a city tour that Greater Portland Landmarks executive director Sarah Hansen and advocacy director Julie Larry recently talked me through, via Zoom, and that I then undertook on foot. Hansen mentioned that age, primarily, is used to qualify a structure as historic — generally, anything more than 50 years old — but that historic preservationists now take a more expansive view: “How’s preservation defining community? How are people interacting with buildings? How is this fostering stronger community connections?”

The base and tower of the Hay & Peabody clock were rusted out and tilting before conservators dismantled it in 2019. It was reinstalled last fall. Photographs courtesy of The Francis.

The Hay & Peabody restoration dusted off old ideas about the civic function of public clocks — sharing the time, not leaving people to their own devices. The surrounding area was regaining its historically neighborhood-y feel, Larry observed. She pointed out how, across Congress Street, a 1960s service station is now repurposed as a bustling hangout, Tandem Coffee & Bakery. “People want to be able to have places where they can walk down and get a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning without getting in their car and driving somewhere,” she said. “We’re starting to see a real focus on community nodes.” A few buildings down, she said, the city has plans to redesign Bramhall Square, an uncomely little corner park, another act of preservation by revitalization.

All across the city, Hansen and Larry indicated where housing had been razed in the name of urban renewal, primarily in the ’60s and ’70s. Larry noted a cruel irony, in light of Portland’s ongoing housing crunch: the amount of housing stock demolished over the years roughly equals the city’s current housing goals. She called attention to Mercy Hospital, in the West End, slated to close next year and be rehabbed into mixed-income housing. It’s a “white-elephant building,” Larry said, and the numbers only worked if developers got low-income housing tax credits in conjunction with historic tax credits. To her, it was evidence that historic buildings could be put to use in ways that preserve both the aesthetic and the character of Portland. There have been mistakes in the past, like when the city allowed its chateau-esque Union Station to be torn down, in 1961, making way for a strip mall. But Portland still has enviable historic bones: “People would flip out to have even half of what Portland has,” Hansen said. “There’s a lot of really interesting and deep history here.”

Beneath the clock’s faces, four lion heads ogle passersby on Congress Street. Photographed by Jonathan Taggart.

As our tour came to a close, Larry emphasized that, in Portland, as throughout much of Maine, many historic resources line the waterfront, where development pressures are a constant threat and historic high tides, a consequence of climate change, are a growing one. “It is really emblematic of a lot of Portland issues,” Larry said. “You need the tourists to come and help fuel the economy. At the same time, the waterfront is really challenging for people who actually use it.” Time was ticking — not just on the Hay & Peabody clock but also for the preservationists, who see that so much of what defines Portland still stands in harm’s way.