The varied buildings of Portland: Five architects who left their mark
Published: May 15, 2020
Perhaps “survivor” is not the first word you associate with Portland, Maine. While many visitors and locals alike are dazzled by the city’s majestic brick buildings and federally inspired state buildings, most do not understand the tumultuous past that led to the current downtown area’s state. Sometimes referred to as the Pheonix City, Portland has a checkered past of mass fires and destruction from war. Out of necessity, it also has some of the finest architectural diversity as a result of its constant need to adapt and rebuild.
When English settlers landed on the Portland Peninsula in 1632 and began building up the colony, the complete destruction of the city by Indians during King Philips War (1675) would only be the first trial of many in attempts to build up the area. In 1775, Portland yet again saw the city’s ruin during a nine-hour bombing campaign by the Royal Navy, led by the infamous Captain Henry Mowatt. (9)
After a much-needed 91 year gap from complete ruin, Portland once again suffered during the Great Fire of 1866— causing major destruction across most of the Old Port area. Due to the city’s ever-present demand for new constructions, the architectural field became a promising endeavor and a way for citizens to leave their stamp on Maine history. In celebration of the unique outer exterior of our many Portland Maine rentals, Portland Maine Rentals would like to walk you through five 19th century architects that left their mark on Forest City.
During October of 1775, the city of Portland yet again endured turmoil as the Royal British Navy bombed Portland for a consecutive nine hours under command of Lieutenant Henry Mowat during the peak of the Revolutionary War (1). Having just barely survived the prior Battle of Portland (1690), the city’s progress hit an all-time low heading into the 19th century (2). Luckily, following his marriage to Silvina Boney Stetson in 1800, Portland received the much needed residency of architect to the stars Alexander Parris. With demand for construction at an all-time high, the Federal-style inspired Parris helped to rebuild key buildings in Portland including the Joseph Holt Ingraham House (1801– see below), the Maine Fire & Marine Insurance Company Building (1803), the James Deering House (1804), the Commodore Edward Preble House (1805), and the Portland Bank in 1806 (3).
Unfortunately, Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 cut deep into Portland’s economy and Parris’s final building, the Portland Bank, ceased construction in 1809. Parris moved to Virginia shortly after and went on to build the Executive Mansion(4). Despite the loss, the city can thank Parris for introducing a federal style to the streets of Portland Maine, which can be seen imitated in buildings such as Merill Auditorium and City Hall.
2. George M. Harding (1827–1910)
Savior of the 1866 Great Fire, George M. Harding is largely responsible for rebuilding the Old Port and giving it the look and feel people experience today. Harding was born in Chatham, Massachusetts, and spent his younger years establishing an internship and career in Boston. After forging his own highly regarded architectural business in Boston, Harding saw an opportunity in Maine due to high demand and moved to Portland in 1858 (5).
Here he helped rebuild key buildings destroyed in the Great Fire of 1866 including the India Street Fire Station (1867), the Rackleff Building (1867–see above), and Thompson Block in 1867. Besides his work for the city, Harding also rebuilt Portland High School, Greely Institute, and the First Parish Congregational Church in Yarmouth, Maine. By the late 1880’s, Harding closed up shop and moved back to Boston to enjoy retirement until his death in 1910 (5).
Born in 1810 to Irish immigrants, Rowe quickly immersed himself in the study of architecture and became a prominent force in the Gothic Revival of the late 19th century (6). Playing a less essential role in rebuilding Portland but still adding his style to the mix, Henry Rowe famously filled Portland’s surrounding neighborhoods with Gothic-inspired cottages and buildings. Harding’s work is considered the finest example of Gothic Revival architecture in Maine, and adds intrigue to the diversity of buildings filling the cities boundaries.
4. Francis H. Fassett (1823-1908)
Fassett was born in the small town of Bath in late 1823. As he grew, he quickly showed a high aptitude for architecture and soon completed an apprenticeship in the field at the ripe age of 14. After spending 25 years in Bath gaining a strong reputation, Fasset decided to move south towards Portland for more business opportunities. This led to Fassett completing over 400 buildings in the Portland area, all uniquely distinct for their Victorian High Gothic and Queen Anne inspired style. Some of his most renowned designs include the original Maine General Hospital Building, the Alms House, the Second Parish Church, and the former city hall (which would subsequently burn and be replaced with its current design). His work also included building many of Portland’s West End properties, helping to add a regal feel to the streets of Forest City.
Fassett completed a variety of projects across Maine and New Hampshire into the late 1880’s, and eventually retired in the late 1890’s (7). He now rests at Evergreen Cemetery, a prominent Portland park you can learn more about here.
5. John Calvin Stevens (1855-1940)
Although Stevens was born in Boston, his family moved to Portland when Stevens was two due to the demand for his father’s carriage building skills in the area. As he grew, his aptitude for architecture was quickly noticed, gaining him admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, Stevens lacked the funds to attend and instead sought an apprenticeship with Francis H. Fassett. Soon Stevens’s work became indispensable and Fasset promoted him to junior partner in 1880.
Under his new role, Stevens went on to design and build over 1,000 buildings in Maine throughout his career. Heavily influenced by Shingle and Colonial Revival style, some of his most notable works include the Forest Avenue Post Office, and the L. D. M. Sweat Memorial Galleries at the Portland Museum of Art (see above). Stevens opened his own Portland office in 1884, and continued his work up until his retirement in the late 1930s, eventually passing in 1940. To commemorate his contributions to the city of Portland, the city declared October 8, 2009 to be John Calvin Stevens Day. The ceremony was concluded with Senator Olympia Snowe obtaining a Congressional Record of Recognition in his name (8).
Interested in touring apartments that embrace these varied architectural styles? Check out our listings page.
(1) “Great Fire of 1866.” Greater Portland Landmarks, Greater Portland Landmarks , Oct. 2017, http://www.portlandlandmarks.org/great-fire-of-1866.
(2) Arthur, Rachel. “History- Welcome to Portland Maine.” Welcome to Portland Maine, http://portland-maine.weebly.com/history.html.
(3) “Alexander Parris.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 May 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Parris.
(4) Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Alexander Parris.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-Parris.
(5) “George M. Harding.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Mar. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_M._Harding.
(6) “The Gothic House.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 July 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gothic_House.
(7) “Francis H. Fassett.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Sept. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_H._Fassett.
(8) “John Calvin Stevens.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Sept. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Calvin_Stevens.