The Universal Notebook: Bring on the new Portland

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If some people had their way, the city of Portland would be an urban museum of red brick with granite sills and lintels, a bland, homogeneous habitat where 21st-century humans inhabit quaint 19th-century buildings.

Those of us who were around in 1961 when Portland’s glorious Union Station was demolished to make way for the ugliest shopping center you ever saw understand all too well why local folks are gun-shy about new construction. Tearing down Union Station was an architectural crime and a crying shame.

Edgar Allen BeemThe same could be said about a lot of the urban renewal that reshaped the Portland peninsula in the 1960s. The Spring Street Arterial and Franklin Arterial both wiped out whole neighborhoods in order to allow cars to move more freely uptown, downtown and across town. 

The Old Port has flourished in all its 19th-century mercantile glory, but those brick blocks of bistros, brasseries, boutiques, bazaars, fishmongers, pizzerias and tchotchke shoppes are increasingly surrounded by a shiny New Portland of glass and steel housing condos, offices, studios and a hotel ghetto worthy of the finest European tourist traps.

The Eastern Waterfront, once an industrial wasteland, has become a seaside arrondissement of Marriotts, Wex and Roux. 

The hillside overlooking Bayside is sprouting new condo and apartment complexes halfway between the private wealth of Promenade East and the public housing of Kennedy Park. From I-295, Portland appears to be a city of cranes as the New Portland is erected atop the old. 

The University of Southern Maine is transforming its campus, preparing to can its Janitor in a Drum law school, even as Maine Medical Center takes an awkward turn, spilling its daily drama of life and death down from Bramhall to lower Congress Street.

And up at Congress Square, the Portland Museum of Art has a $100-million plan to expand and unite its palace of culture with the only real choice it had in its Final Four architectural competition. One European proposal was too radical, the Adjaye rammed earth proposal (which I favored) was just too expensive to build and Toshiko Mori’s glass structure looked way too much like her Center for Maine Contemporary Art. So that left the mass timber design by LEVER Architects of the other Portland.

Critics complain that the PMA expansion calls for demolishing the old Chamber of Commerce building at 142 Free St., but that building, though it may have been renovated by homeboy John Calvin Stevens, is at best invisible, at worst pedestrian.

The provincial boo birds also complain that the LEVER design is not deferential enough to existing buildings.

“It does not,” wrote the director of Greater Portland Landmarks (which arose in the wake of the demolition of Union Station) in a letter to the Press Herald, “appear that the program gave significant weight to preservation considerations, including how the design should interface with existing buildings and the surrounding community.”

With all due respect, that’s just rubbish. The graceful arc of the new wooden museum façade will gently cup the Federalist flatiron building of the former H.H. Hay Drugstore across the street. In height and mass, the proposed addition is as deferential as can be. 

Those of us who were around when the PMA’s Payson Building opened in 1983 remember that many of the same criticisms were leveled at it. Henry Cobb’s design was compared to a Neiman Marcus.

To insist that the new blend in with and respect existing architecture is to dictate conformity. The vitality of a real city is a function of the clash of the old and the new, past and present, living and dead. 

Bring on the New Portland.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen review column.

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