Save the U-Haul Depot!

U-Haul Depot

Courtesy of Greater Portland Landmarks

New England historic preservation isn’t just about clapboard and cobblestones anymore.

Put it atop some skyscraping poles, and it looks like something inspired by The Jetsons. Really, though, it’s the other way around: Portland’s 1963 U-Haul Moving and Storage building — or, rather, hyper-modernist buildings like it — influenced the artists and animators who created the Jetsons’ fantastic metro in the sky.

“It was a futuristic style, a reflection of where the country was going,” says Hilary Bassett, the executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks. The group raised eyebrows this fall when it named the U-Haul building, distinguished by its zigzag roofline and all-glass facade, to its 2017 Places in Peril list. Originally the showroom for Portland Motor Sales (selling, would you believe, Ford Galaxies), the building stands on Marginal Way in East Bayside, mere feet from Interstate 295. The tens of thousands of people who drive by it daily likely know it so well that it barely registers as scenery (unless, of course, they’re looking to rent a U-Haul).

Jetsonian architecture has a funny name: Googie, coined by architect John Lautner after a long-since-closed West Hollywood café — Googie’s — that he designed in 1949. Abundant in southern California, where the style proliferated in the 1950s, Googie buildings are often shaped like flying saucers or boomerangs and make dramatic use of geometric shapes. The style was a manifestation of America’s post-war technological optimism and Space Age dreams.

In 1963, with car culture on the rise, Portland Motor Sales was Maine’s largest Ford dealer (“by far!” it boasted in a city directory ad), and its owners built a showroom radiating confidence. The buoyant message seems poignant in retrospect: Portland was in the middle of a decades-long decline.

No more. Portland is hot, which is what landed the building on the Places in Peril list. Development pressure on the peninsula is intense, Bassett says, and property values are skyrocketing. East Bayside, long a scruffy industrial neighborhood, has gone hip. Restaurants and craft breweries have opened; new apartment complexes are attracting residents. All that, along with the city’s championing of dense development, could make the lot on which the U-Haul building sits more valuable to a future developer than the structure itself.

Shawn Goldrup, U-Haul of Maine’s marketing spokesman, was among the many surprised — and delighted — to learn that Greater Portland Landmarks, known for protecting hundreds of 19th- and early-20th-century buildings, saw historical significance in a former auto showroom. Midcentury buildings aren’t well represented in Portland, Bassett says, and they’ve now been around long enough — 50 years or more — to be eligible for a National Register of Historic Places listing.

As for the futuristic building’s short-term future, it’s secure. “U-Haul has no plans to sell the building — in fact, we just bought the property next door,” Goldrup said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

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Virginia M. Wright

Virginia M. Wright is the senior editor at Down East.

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