Thursday, February 21, 2008

The City Has Ghost Streets : Part 2 - Plum Street, in the Old Port

15 Plum Street, looking up toward Middle Street
(All photos can be clicked to larger views, for better reading.)

The lanes and sites of Portland past, whose references are merely their ground coordinates, comprise the city’s Ghost Streets. Though replaced, plowed under, or built-over, the souls of these Ghost Streets bear silent witness to the lives and voices which had inhabited and traversed them, and we need but only notice their traces left behind. This installment reveals glimpses of the colorful life of Plum Street, though just a block long- spanning Middle and Fore Streets, immediately west of Exchange Street- it sustained a number of influential addresses and two prominent 19th century hotels. There is absolutely nothing left of Plum Street, including the bustling hotels, and we can only begin to imagine the innumerable intrigues at such a confluence both ambitiously grand and intimately congested, in the heart of the city by the sea. In her tome written more than eighty years ago, the author Jane Steger penned these words in her memoir, Leaves from a Secret Journal:

"Often in old places it seems to me that if one rubbed the air hard enough one might make a thin spot through which all the past happenings of that place might come rushing in."

Here is a look at a few things found- and perhaps still more to be sensed- along this short, narrow, waterfront street...

2 Plum Street, corner of Fore Street (the man is crossing Plum St.)

The corner of Temple and Middle Streets, in 1924.

Where was Plum Street? Even a seasoned Portlander would be hard-pressed to find it, since the street hasn’t a single trace remaining. However, with a look at some of the city’s maps that pre-date the major "urban-renewal" projects of the 1960s and 70s, your senses may be alerted as to what had been, and your strolls along the still-resistantly asymmetrical streets will acknowledge the modern architecture which had been grafted into the vintage Victorian masonry. For those who know present-day Portland well, imagine walking out of the front door of the Nickelodeon Theater, at the bottom of Monument Square, and looking left, as far as your neck can crane. Or, imagine standing directly across Middle Street from The Pavilion (188 Middle St.), and looking just to the right side of that building. Still, again, walk through the gap just to the right of the Abacus Gallery, at 44 Exchange Street- all the way so that you will be in the Key Bank parking lot, and you will be stepping into the atmosphere that once alighted over the well-trodden sidewalks of Plum Street. Though surrounded by the postmodern Key Bank/Canal Plaza, you can confidently remind yourself (and your friends) that your steps stand between the antiquated footprints of two of Portland’s grandest Victorian hotels. The street itself was first surfaced by Phineas Jones, right through his own property on the site, in 1742, and it had been called Jones’s Lane throughout his lifetime. The city gave the settled road the name Plum Street, due to the many plum trees in Deacon Titcomb’s large garden at the "top" (near the Middle Street corner) of the street.
Plum Street and vicinity, in 1882.

By the mid-19th century, Portland distinguished itself among east coast cities as a major shipping center. Even through the Civil War years, the city’s growth and importance continued on its ascent- until the enormously devastating Great Fire of 1866. The fire occurred on July 4th, and from its source at Hobson’s Wharf (near the present-day intersection of Commercial and High Streets), a swath of thunderous destruction spread eastward across the waterfront district (today’s Old Port area) and as far up the side of Munjoy Hill as North Street. Enveloped by the fire disaster were Exchange and Middle Streets, the heart of Portland’s commercial, financial, legislative, and publishing center. The city was much more waterfront-centered than it is today. With its neighbors, Plum Street’s recovery included the types of institutions one might expect to find on an integral downtown street in a seaport. We’ll look at a few- some with living descendants, but with origins on Plum Street.

The Falmouth Hotel, Middle Street between Plum and Union.
Above photo from 1924, postcard from 1900.

On the morning of June 29th, 1868, your morning newspaper The Eastern Argus would have celebrated the opening of what became one of Portland’s major attractions: The Falmouth Hotel, which was at 212 Middle Street, between the corners of Plum and Union Streets, facing up toward Temple Street. "This noble structure that has arisen," announced the Argus, "by the enterprise of our public-spirited citizen, John B. Brown, to fill with grandeur a desideratum that has long been felt by the traveling public visiting our beautiful city." And thus, the resurgent city of Portland convincingly revived itself after the Great Fire, with bold brick and granite structures such as this. The Falmouth Hotel was one of the best examples of a rebuilding to exceed its predecessors, with its stone facade, black walnut high-ceilinged interiors, marble fireplaces, Great Rotunda, and the Billiard Room- described in the Argus as measuring "48 by 56 feet, elegantly painted and frescoed, and containing eight first-class tables from the manufactory of Amasa W. Bailey, Esq., of Boston." The hotel’s chairs were upholstered with Parisian fabric. The cost to build the magnificent hotel was a regal $300,000; a fortune for its day, considering that in 1868 a loaf of bread cost a nickel. Its builder and first owner, J.B. Brown moved on to developing portions of the Western Promenade area, and the 200-room "hotel of a million banquets," endured ownership changes, and continued in its prominence. As late as the 1950s, the Falmouth hosted major statewide political gatherings. The hotel’s register bore the signatures of five presidents: Grant, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Harding, and Taft. By the early 1960s, the hotel fell on unfortunate times, and without a champion, the city took its ownership and by 1963, the Falmouth was demolished and the land was made a parking lot. The J.B. Brown & Sons firm continues today as a local real estate developer.

The St. Julian Hotel (known in the 1920s as The Windsor- and later The St. Regis), seen from Middle Street.
Below, a view of the hotel as seen from Plum Street.

Of a similar ambition, yet occupying a narrower lot, this time at the eastern corner of Plum and Middle Streets, the elegant St. Julian Hotel was also built in 1868. The St. Julian’s doors opened out to both 39 Plum Street and 196 Middle Street. The hotel’s innovators were two women who had inherited the fire-destroyed land from their forebear Benjamin Titcomb (remember the name of the planter of Plum Trees on the street, in the 18th century?). The St. Julian’s first proprietor was George E. Ward, and if you’d gone to the huge opening party, you’d have partaken in abundant food and liquor- along with reporters from all 5 local newspapers. On the morning after, The Portland Daily Advertiser reported, "the St. Julian was thronged with visitors yesterday and a great many were surprised at the rare combination of elegance and convenience of its interior decorations." The mansard-topped, 4-storey, 52-room Victorian hotel, was later named the Windsor Hotel and after a renovation in 1931 the hotel was rechristened the St. Regis. In 1945 the St. Regis Hotel was bought by Mrs. Agrippina Casso, for a Depression-era $23,000, and the building was thoroughly remodeled with fixtures, modern plumbing, and a new elevator, in a successful effort led by John Calvin Stevens. A large space for dancing was also added, along with a cocktail lounge called The Seafarer. Being so near to the waterfront, shipping companies (such as the still-extant Chase & Leavitt Co.) regularly reserved rooms for crews awaiting arriving ships and tankers. An elder friend told me the St. Regis was the preferred reception venue for Portland’s Italian community, being conveniently near to the Franklin Street area- the old Italian quarter.

Despite the hotel’s steady business, like the Falmouth Hotel on the next corner, downtown Portland’s economic, commercial, and population shifts in the 1960s claimed the old St. Regis. The land and structures neighboring the Canal National Bank deteriorated into empty lots and neglected buildings, making the adjoining properties appetizing to the burgeoning bank. In 1970, Canal Bank bought the St. Regis, and by November 1972 the once-posh hostelry, along with the length of Plum Street, was demolished to make way for the Canal Plaza, leaving nought but the ghosts of these swinging and intricate places. The two hotels, among their neighbors, symbolized the city’s profile (especially the waterfront) in the 1960s, varying degrees of disrepair and neglect that lent appeal to large urban renewal projects.

Waterfront district in 1914.

Before we leave the spirits of Plum Street beneath the pristine pavers of Key Bank / Canal Plaza, a few more denizens of the ghost street only a block long continue bearing fruit to this day. Branching out from its tiny brick building at 24 Plum Street, the Welch Stencil Company opened in 1855, moved to 7 Exchange Street amidst the demolition of Plum Street, and exists today in Scarborough. Across the street at 35 Plum Street, adjoining the St. Regis Hotel, was the Portland Water District office. A rugged three-storey brick building, with arched windows, at 44 Plum Street, housed the Portland Institute and Public Library. The ancestor of the Portland Public Library resided on Plum Street (both before and after the Great Fire), between the two hotels, before moving to much larger quarters on Congress Street. (The Baxter Building, at 619 Congress, opened in 1889- and is presently owned by the Maine College of Art.) You would have been borrowing and returning books on Plum Street; today, fragments of the collection from the ghost aisles of 44 Plum Street stand on shelving in the Portland Room, at the present-day Library on Monument Square (where it has been since 1979). By the 1920s, as the photo attests, the old library building on Plum Street became the home of the Boys Club. The present-day Portland Boys and Girls Club is on Cumberland Avenue, across the street from Portland High School. Perhaps, on a stroll along the passageway behind the shops on the even-number side of Exchange Street- walking up from Fore to Middle Streets, you might imagine and even sense the spirits of many generations whose steps preceded yours on substrata below the concrete you can see.

Welch Stencil Company, at 24 Plum Street.

Former Portland Institute & Public Library Building, at 44 Plum Street.
The building housed the Boys Club in the 192os.

After a gaze at what was, we come to what is. Much of Portland still refers to the Key Bank complex at Middle and Union Streets as "Canal Plaza," retaining the memory of the extinct Portland bank which had cleared the space to construct the buildings and garage we see today. The Canal National Bank’s home on Middle Street actually dates back to 1843, and though it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1866, the building was restored on its site. In 1930, Canal Bank added a steel infrastructure, and thus the building we see today at 188 Middle (The Pavilion) carries two different years at the top of its facade. Canal Bank’s growth in the 1960s paralleled the dissipation of upper Middle Street, and the bank purchased neighboring buildings (like the St. Regis Hotel) and lots (like the Falmouth Hotel’s land), with the intent of constructing a modern and expanded headquarters. In 1966, Canal Bank had even purchased the row of structures along lower Exchange Street, but these were inevitably not demolished (something to think about, next time you visit The Movies on Exchange Street- or any of the adjoining shops at Fore and Exchange). By the time Canal Bank’s projected $20 million complex opened in October 1973, the plaza has undergone several design changes, though part of the goal was to connect the reviving waterfront district- that came to be known as The Old Port Exchange- with Congress Street via the city’s reconfiguration of Monument Square. This is the time period during which Spring, Temple, and Free Streets had undergone formidable demolition and re-routing, chasing structures and institutions into the ethereal realms of ghost streets and memories. Finally, Canal Bank hired the architectural firm of Freeman, French, and Freeman of Burlington, Vermont, and Pizzagalli Construction built the complex. Part of the design change was to have Canal Plaza face in the direction of the Square, as both anchor and bridge between the two sections of the city. The city planners’ view, in 1971, was that Portland’s "downtown area ended at Monument Square." The bank’s original intent was, ironically, to include a 200-room hotel as part of the complex- and- an outdoor ice-skating rink at the plaza’s hub, in the fashion of New York’s Rockefeller Center.

Middle Street, with the eastern portion of Canal Plaza at right,
sitting upon part of the St. Julian/St Regis Hotel footprint.
The orginal Canal Bank, now The Pavilion, is at center.

Two views (above) of Key Bank/Canal Plaza, built in 1973.
The pedestrian on the path, in the bottom photo is walking
along the ghost of Plum Street.

And, finally, in this salute to Plum Street, our Ghost Street for this installment, here is an image taken in front of Doughty's, at 25 Plum- surely antiquated even when the above picture was taken. Might our smartly-dressed 1920s pedestrian be heading to a ballroom dance at one of the grand hotels? Perhaps a date at one of the elegantly-decorated lounges? Or the rendez-vous is ours, as we navigate the lanes and passages that once were, and may now only be carefully sensed, as among the Ghost Streets in this city...


Corey Templeton said...

What a tragedy. On a lighter note, I really enjoy your work, keep it up!

corey -

Michelle said...

Corey-- Change has certainly had its way with our town over the years! We'll keep trying to record stuff as we dig it up. Thanks for reading! Glad you're enjoying the blog.

Anonymous said...

very interesting blog... and nice comparison pics...I will stay tuned.......Suzan

Anonymous said...

Ghost Streets is the perfect term. You show, in an appreciative and feeling way, what we've lost. Your effort represents a kind of urban archaeology that is especially meaningful (and poignant) for those of us who walked and remember such places. They are lilting memories now.

Best regards,

Michelle said...

Many thanks for your kind comments. As I said earlier to another fan of the Ghost Streets series, I think Abraham is really pouring his heart and soul into the pieces, and it shows! We'll keep unearthing these tales for all of you out there. :)

Ed Schultz said...

Dear Ms. Souliere,

I'm writing this to you to thank you and Mr. Schechter for the article about Plum Street in the April edition of The Strange Maine Gazette. The article brought back many memories for me, as I spent many childhood hours on Plum Street at my father's place of business.

My father bought the building that is directly behind the Falmouth Hotel labeled "Portland Institute and Public Library" in 1946, when he returned from World War II. Its address was always 42-44 Plum Street. He ran a furniture and upholstery business there until 1970. And it was there that I spent many hours as a kid, and even into adulthood.

I came back from Viet Nam, in March of 1968. When my parents picked me up at Portland Airport (it wasn't an International Jetport then), they said that before we could go home they had to stop at Canal Bank first. It seems that a real estate agent, representing an anonymous buyer, had offered my father a sum of money for his building which my father couldn't afford to turn down. That day was the day they were to sign the papers completing the deal. This buyer also offered to let my father keep his business in the building two years rent-free, while he looked for another location. It wasn't until some time after that transaction that my father learned that the buyer was Canal Bank.

I had no idea that the building was once the Portland Library, but I do know that it was also the Portland Boys' Club at one time. There was still a bowling alley in the basement when my father owned it.

I remember going to the St. Regis Hotel for dinner several times with my parents, and they always talked with a Mr. Casso, who I assume must have been the son of the Agrippina mentioned in the article.

The article also mentions the Seafarer Lounge. I remember the sign hanging off the Plum Street side of the building. I also remember that one of the acts that frequently appeared at the Seafarer was "Stanley." Stanley was probably the first female impersonator to appear in Portland.

Mr. Schechter explains that Plum Street got its name from the plum trees in Deacon Titcomb's garden. The Maine Historical Society has many maps of that area, and I have seen one from 1830 that calls it "Plumb" Street, spelling it as a surveyor or architect would. An 1834 map of the same area has dropped the "b."

My father's building was also one of the few in that area to have survived the Great Fire of 1866. I don't know any of the details of how it did, or if there was any damage, but my father had learned that somehow.

The business in the building in the picture on the corner of Temple and Middle Streets was a pawn shop for many years, and just to the right of it, where the Nicelodeon butts up against the building next to it was a small lunch counter run by a couple named Jack and Helen Chude. I worked on the corner of Middle and Silver Streets for awhile in 1966 before going into the army, and would meet my father every day at Chude's for lunch. An egg salad sandwich was 25 cents, and a tuna was 35!

For whatever it's worth, the building on the map that is Buxton and Hollis Savings Bank became the home of Cole's Express, a large, Maine-owned trucking company until it was bought out by (I think) Consolidated Freightways.

I hope I haven't bored you too much with my trip down memory lane, and thank you again for the enjoyable story.

Ed Schultz

Anonymous said...

wow, thank you .
i just discovered this morning that the brother of my great grandmother had his busines at 20 plum street for a number of years before hid death in 1907.
i also had grandparents who had business' at cross and union. i finally got in the car and drove to portland to see if i could make sence of it.
thank you for doing's great work!

Anonymous said...

There is still a small portion of Plum Street that still exists in between Wharf and Fore Streets. It is blocked in by the sidewalk on Fore but is still there in it's cobblestone glory. There are always a couple of cars parked in the remaining 20 yard stretch with a dumpster and wooden stairs to the east. It would be cool if the city would put up a commemorative street sign on the side of one of the buildings to mark the historical spot. Jim

Anonymous said...

After reading this article, I called up a google map of this area to see if I could determine where Plum Street would fit in. And right about where I think it would have been is the ghost of a line extending part way from Middle toward Fore St. that goes right through the bank building. Try it for yourself - very strange, indeed!!

valvestem said...

I think maybe a very short section of Plum Street might still exist unless it to has been built over. Between Fore & Commercial Streets, between Union Street and Dana Street there is a short strip of cobblestones on a very steep drop down to Wharf Street from Fore Street. This is what remained of Plum Street, the little section continued across Wharf Street to the back of Carr Brothers on Commercial Street. Carr Brother's was allowed to close off Plum Street at Commercial with a building that connected the two buildings they used as warehouses on Commercial Street.