Portland Waterfront (Old Port) Historic District

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Click here for map of district boundaries

Click here for list of individual buildings and their classification

Portland Waterfront Historic District

It is impossible to overestimate the historical significance of the waterfront in the development of Portland. It is where the city began and was the primary engine of its growth and economy for three centuries afterward. The Waterfront Historic District is one of the few intact east coast historic waterfronts and today looks substantially the same as it did in the period 1850 to 1875. Visually as well as historically this area forms a coherent and comprehensible whole.


The District traces an inverted T shape and includes a major part of Commercial Street and its uphill parallel streets, Fore, Milk, and Middle, as well as the north-south connecting streets, Exchange, Market, and Silver. The boundaries of the District reflect major changes which occurred just before the District’s nomination as a National Register Historic District in 1973, principally the almost complete loss of abutting blocks to the east and west.

In 1990, with adoption of the Portland Historic Preservation Ordinance, the existing National Register districts were designated as local historic districts. In 1997, as part of a comprehensive reexamination of local historic district boundaries, the Portland Waterfront Historic District was expanded to take in additional blocks to the east and west along Commercial Street, as well as several properties on the water side of the same street, and one property on Exchange Street at the north edge of the district. The additional buildings included are both functionally and architecturally related to the previously designated buildings.

Description and History of Development
Until 1866 the streets of the District, except for Commercial Street (which was created in the early 1850’s), retained much of the look of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They were lined with two or three story buildings of modest width which included banks, businesses, shops, and dwellings, many of which were of frame construction. The Great Fire of 1866 destroyed a vast swath of the city and, coming at a time of prosperity, created ideal conditions for rapid redevelopment in an unusually cohesive character and scale. The rebuilding after the fire also changed the mix of uses, with new residential areas to the north, east, and west replacing dwellings lost in the burned area. Banking, insurance, and maritime related businesses predominated after the fire.

By the early years of the twentieth century, the banks and insurance companies were relocating to the new “skyscrapers” along Congress Street, and the buildings they left began a slow decline in use and maintenance. By the mid 1960’s, following a general collapse in the waterfront economy after World War II, there were few businesses and neighborhood buildings were often vacant or used as warehouses. The “rediscovery” of the wonderful Victorian buildings of what came to be called the “Old Port”, in the 1970’s, led to reinvestment in the area and it’s beginning as a tourist destination and a desirable place to live. Today, ironically, the original eighteenth century mix of small shops, banks, businesses, with dwellings on the upper floors, once more characterizes the area.

The land of this District slopes markedly down to the south, and the east-west streets form gentle curves. These features provide a constant reminder of the Peninsula’s past while maintaining a series of picturesque streetscapes with unexpected views and engaging variety. Commercial Street is flat and unusually broad so that traveling west, at Market Street, a view is suddenly revealed of all the facades on the north side as far as the eye can see. By contrast, Exchange Street offers a steep, narrow, tunnel-like vista from Middle Street to Fore Street, while pedestrians walking east on Fore Street can, at times, see the Custom House, but at other times cannot. Brick sidewalks with granite curbs are frequently complimented by streets of Belgian block. The crooked path of Fore Street records the original shoreline of the peninsula, a historical point reinforced by parallel Wharf Street, which preserves the memory of its original purpose in its name.

Rising from these streets are brick buildings and occasional stone facades of from three to five stories, built tight to the street – the sidewalks are about ten feet wide – and varying in width from three to twenty-four bays wide. Each street has a strong character: narrow Exchange Street is “walled” by handsome facades three to four stories tall and, on average, four bays wide. The skyline cornices are strong, and the roofs appear flat. Middle Street, which is wider, is lined by taller, broader, brick buildings whose rooflines are more apparent – particularly a trio of mansard roofs on the north side of Middle Street, the Woodman, Thompson and Rackleff buildings – and read more strongly in the character of the street.

For the most part, the tight linear rows of brick buildings are punctuated only at intersections. A few granite buildings stand alone: the U.S. Custom House, the Federal Courthouse, the Cumberland County Courthouse, the Mariner’s Church, and outside but contributing to the character of the District, the landmark Portland City Hall and the First Parish Church. The Milk Street Armory, of brick and granite, belongs also in this group. There are other “breathers” in the brick density of this area. Two open spaces on the north side of Middle Street - where a commercial building and the white marble Post Office once flanked either side of Exchange Street - have been filled with small public parks. Perhaps the most historic open spaces are Lincoln Park, created as a fire stop after the 1866 fire, and Boothby Square, which was made by widening Fore Street in the early years of the twentieth century. There are also many openings in the street wall along the south side of Commercial Street which provide views of the harbor and down the wharves. The historical rhythm of development on this side of Commercial Street was, perforce, stop and start with a few brick blocks and many modest buildings marking access to the wharves, while the north side presents an intensive wall of brick, and occasionally granite, nineteenth century structures.

Since more than seventy percent of the structures in the District were built between 1850 and 1880, their proportions and details are predominantly Greek Revival and Italianate with a significant minority Second Empire.

Commercial Street is built on filled land and its earliest buildings began going up in 1851, initially in the more restrained Greek Revival style and, later, in the prevailing Italianate style of the third quarter of the nineteenth century - with its taller proportions and distinct vocabulary of detail. Tall granite posts and lintels often ornament the street level, while taller, narrower windows, frequently capped by fanciful brick cornices, articulate the upper stories. On broad Commercial Street roof shapes are readily visible, a significant number of which are broad, strong gambrels so that the roof form and materials play an important part in the character of the street.

The 1866 fire spared Commercial Street while seriously affecting Fore Street, and devastating Exchange and Middle Streets. Thus, an incredible spurt of building activity in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s has left an unusually compatible series of streetscapes in the rebuilt area, like the earlier cohesive streetscape of Commercial Street. An innovation in the new building campaign was the adoption of cast iron as a material for the first floor entrances and shop fronts, which, with tall proportions, provided large expanses of glass, unencumbered by the small panes of the past. Notable in this respect is the row of Second Empire buildings – the Woodman, Thompson and Rackleff blocks on Middle Street – which are also distinguished by prominent belt courses, strong windows and prominent mansard roofs.

All of the District’s redevelopment was not, of course, accomplished at once. Thus, there are later buildings of significance which were fitted into the prevailing post Civil War aesthetic. Noteworthy are the Oxford Building and the First National Bank Block which were built on Middle Street within sight of each other in the 1880’s. The former is a four story Romanesque Revival structure designed by John Calvin Stevens, and replete with handsome details including an iron balcony, terra cotta panels, intricate brick patterns and carved stone capitals and keystones. The latter is a corner building and was designed by Henry van Brunt and Frank Howe of Boston. It is a handsome example of the rare commercial building in the Queen Anne style, executed in red brick, with a corner tower (now truncated) and an angularly picturesque skyline similar only to the J.B. Brown Building on Congress Street.

The Classical Revival, or Beaux Arts style, carried out typically in light grey granite, was the style chosen for the governmental buildings of the early twentieth century. On Federal Street the Edward T, Gignoux Federal Courthouse of 1911 was designed by James Know Taylor, Supervising Treasury Architect, while the Cumberland County Courthouse is the 1910 design of Portland architect George Burnham. The present City Hall is the 1909 design of Carrere and Hastings of New York. The local architect for the project was John Calvin Stevens. A list of Classical Revival buildings should include the Canal Bank building on Middle Street. The present brick and stone façade with classical pediment and pilasters replaces an earlier Second Empire façade.

Since enactment of the Portland Historic Preservation Ordinance in 1990 there have been a number of new structures built on vacant lots or in place of non-contributing structures within the district. The buildings have been reviewed and approved by the Historic Preservation Board, using the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for New Construction in Historic Districts, and are generally regarded as welcome and compatible additions to the fabric of the District. The District has only a handful of non-contributing structures.

Today virtually every building in the Portland Waterfront Historic District has been rehabilitated. The District has become the heart of Portland’s successful tourist industry while also providing housing, shops, restaurants, and office space for many Portland residents and businesses. The most valuable commercial real estate and highest retail rents in the city are once again located along Exchange Street, as they were in the nineteenth century. The recently completed Ocean Gateway cruise ship terminal on the edge of the district suggests that the District is likely to continue being a destination for visitors and residents well into the future.

Historical Significance

The District includes, virtually intact, the history of the development of Commercial Street, which is the history of Portland’s mid-nineteenth century commercial evolution. The coming of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad (later the Grand Trunk) in the 1840’s made Portland the winter port for Canada, bypassing the frozen St. Lawrence River. This development triggered an unprecedented period of prosperity and growth, symbolized by the towering new grain elevator on the waterfront built to hold the Canadian grain being shipped from Portland. Additional railroads quickly reached the peninsula from the south and west and also sought access to the wharves along the waterfront. This mandated the filling of the waterfront downhill from Fore Street to create a mile-long, hundred foot wide, street to accommodate train tracks, wagon traffic and the business blocks and warehouses of an expanding economy, and to serve the many wharves that were extended into the harbor on the south side of the new street.

The disastrous fire in 1866, while it wiped away the earlier architectural history of much of this portion of the peninsula, created an opportunity for redevelopment which today provides a unique experience of post Civil War architecture in northern New England. Such extensive and coherent city blocks seldom survive in the integrity present here. Other New England seaports generally have retained far more Colonial and Federal style architecture in their waterfront areas, with only a sprinkling of Victorian era architecture mixed in. Here there are entire streets of exuberant Victorian commercial structures.

Only the south side of Fore Street, largely untouched by the fire, retains buildings that predate the 1850’s. They include the Samuel Butts House and Store of 1792, the Mariner’s Church of 1828, and eight buildings between Moulton and Union Streets, built from 1824 to 1833. These are the oldest surviving intact commercial buildings in the city, as later development replaced similar blocks in other areas not affected by the fire, such as along Congress Street.

To list the builders of outstanding buildings is to catalogue the major developers of mid-nineteenth century Portland. William Moulton, President of the Portland Bank, had three structures built on Commercial Street. Five buildings in the District were put up by William Widgery Thomas, long-time president of the Canal Bank, while one of the most interesting, the Thomas Block with its curved façade on Commercial Street, was named for his relative Elias Thomas by the seven investors who built it. John D. Carroll, J. B. Brown, Horatio N. Jose, James Deering, Sr., and John Smith are only a few of a long list who invested in the City’s future.

Of the architects who helped realize their plans, mention should be made of local architects Francis H. Fassett, Charles A. Alexander, Frederic A. Tompson, George M. Harding, Matthew Stead, John Calvin Stevens, George Burnham, and Levi Newcomb. Charles Quincy Clapp was both developer and architect, while examples also stand of the work of van Brunt and Howe, James Know Taylor and Carrere and Hastings architects, respectively, from Boston, Washington, and New York.