The City Has Ghost Streets : Part 3 - Munjoy Hill
Beneath our very steps are layers of time’s many surfaces, substrata that lure our own imaginative powers to envision glimpses of the sounds, scents, and sights preceding those now before us. The more we discover, the more captivating become the spirits with whom we have the places of our movement in common. In the city of Portland, old and new abide, at times abruptly, side by side. Maine’s largest city, whose history may be measured by successions of resurgences, juxtaposes the weatherbeaten and the freshly built. The imposition of angular construction has often had to reconcile with the peninsula’s unsystematically shaped streets.
Subsumed under today’s maintained pavement are ghosts of vibrant streets for whom there is nary a detectable trace- if any at all. Indeed the city has ghost streets, and this third chapter of our series visits the East End of town. As addresses and their inhabitants are intertwined, so it is that as we recollect the locations of Linden Street, Murray Lane, and Larch Street, we must also bring to our story the large building which once housed our state’s most prominent bakery. The massive J.J. Nissen bakery, whose re-appropriated building continues to stand, on Washington Avenue, directly affected its contiguous neighborhood- not to mention the lives of the changed and renamed Larch Street (now Romasco Lane), and the completely extinct streets Linden and Murray- whose names were also changed briefly before becoming ghost streets.
Our action takes place on Munjoy Hill, Portland’s eastern corner flanked by Casco Bay, Back Cove, the Old Port, and downtown districts. Like the West End, on the opposite side of the city’s peninsula, Munjoy Hill is densely populated and blends a few commercial thoroughfares into its maze of residential streets. Immortalizing the name of 17th century settler George Munjoy’s family, the neighborhood has comparatively not experienced quite as much upheaval as its counterpart districts. The wrecking ball of federally-funded contemporary urban renewal had leveled the edge of Munjoy Hill at Franklin Street. Even the Great Fire, in 1866, decimated the downtown and spread east from Hobson’s Wharf, yet was halted before the flames could ascend the Hill- again, sparing the center. Historically known as something of a village unto itself, Munjoy Hill comprised institutions and businesses to support its own population of varied ethnicities. In its own fascinating way, this continuum is noticeable along Washington Avenue, whose commerce extends from Congress Street (at the edge of Portland’s oldest burial ground, Eastern Cemetery), to Tukey’s Bridge- making the traversal of Back Cove into East Deering. Glancing from the corner of Oxford Street and Washington Avenue, across from the Salvadorean restaurant (near African, Asian, and Vietnamese markets and stores), amidst the flurry of activity and traffic, is the formidably sprawling three-storey brick building which had been the Nissen Baking Company.
In order to gather the fragments we can find so as to materialize these ghost streets, some acknowledgement of the Nissen bakery is necessary. The company’s universe of round-the-clock shift workers and its presence in the neighborhood has itself vaporized into the ghost realm of what was. And it wasn’t that long ago… As recently as the late-1990s, and for 87 years, much of Portland’s eastern end awoke to a fragrance of freshly baked bread- wafting in from outside the window. Aromas can conjure up lucid memories and this writer very well recalls, as a teen in the early 80s, those countless early mornings steeped in a blend of ocean mist and new bread. It was unusual for a manufacture of such dimension to be surrounded by packed residences- and not in an industrial isolation. But the bakery incrementally grew to the 2.9 acre legacy we see today- now functioning as something of a multiple-business building with a large parking lot. We’ll visit the ghost streets of Linden and Murray (and a portion of Larch), as we salute the spirits of the expanse that grew to encompass number 45 northward though number 85 Washington Avenue, and scaling steeply uphill from the avenue to Larch street
Long before the Nissen Baking Company fully rose and settled into the shell we see today, Mr. John J. (originally Jürgen Jepsen) Nissen immigrated from Denmark to Portland where he founded his bakery in 1900 on Woodford’s Corner. He had also been managing the dining room at the Columbia Hotel, on Congress Street (today’s USM “Portland Hall”). Coincidentally- and critical to this ghost streets’ story, the year 1900 signified the first full year of the merged municipalities of Portland and the former independent town of Deering (where Woodford’s Corner is located). Mr. Nissen later purchased the Russell & Webber Bakery, and moved all the operations to 59 Washington Avenue in 1912. The wooden building, which we see in the 1914 city atlas, faced the top of Oxford Street. The subsequent addition of an oblong, perpendicular building, recessed from the avenue at number 63, attested to Nissen’s successful location in the heart of Munjoy Hill- with neighbors, pedestrians, and trolley cars just outside the front door. Nissen was far from being the only major bakery in town- many Portlanders can recall the names of Cushman’s and Calderwood’s- but it survived these counterparts, growing and delivering across and far outside the Portland area.
Indeed, a society such as a business establishment- and each of us may recall those we have personally known- can develop into a living, breathing, and integrated organism. For over a half-century, people came to work in shifts; many friendships- and even marriages- were inspired at the bakery. Generations of retired employees gathered at a Nissen social hall, which was across Washington Avenue from the bakery. A vestige from the era of family ownership, the elder Nissen knew many of the workers, was known to take doughnuts from the moving conveyors, and carried trays of bread to the prison (which, at that time, had been at the bottom of Monroe Street- where the Kennedy Park housing stands today). The work was surely heavy and repetitive. I’d had a neighbor on the Hill who had been a Nissen worker for decades- an “ovenman,” and he said his hands were in pain when he’d try to grip a pencil to write. At the company’s peak, employment reached 250 workers. By 1980, an average of 35 tractor-trailer trucks set forth from the 12 loading-dock bays on Washington Avenue, delivering nearly 200 varieties of baked goods. Nissen had grown to be the largest Maine wholesale baker, striking the balance between a local touch with large-production, outpacing counterparts in Lewiston (Lepage) and Waterville (Harris). Beyond the large markets and small grocery stores, there were Nissen outlets- notably the one at 43 Washington Avenue (today it’s a Coffee by Design café). A Maine Times study produced as early as 1979, attested to the uphill struggles of businesses such as these Maine bakeries, against the mass-distribution, increasingly automated national baking corporations.
Inevitably, the baking company on Munjoy Hill was overtaken 1999, even with a sales staff 120 strong, and a claim to a cultivated knowledge of Maine consumers’ particular tastes. Nissen refined plain old-fashioned doughnuts tinged with nutmeg, hot dog buns with the end crusts trimmed off, and found that, “Maine people over 20 prefer coarser, less uniform, and tastier” breads (an interesting thought, considering the recent popularity of “artisanal” breads). Through months of digging up information and images about the ghost streets folded into Nissen’s rise, the physical growth of the business, after 1912, is evidenced in the pictures (above) taken in 1924 which also show the additional structure at number 63. By 1947, city records attest to the property having reached Linden Street- which later became a ghost street. By 1955, the property was shown to have expanded to the south-to-north extremities of 45 to 69 (see map). By 1960, the Nissen property reached the corner of Washington Avenue and Murray Lane, and by purchasing the lots at number 83 (in 1965) and number 85 (in 1972), leveling the homes, the bakery’s parking lot was established which we see today. At the back of the lot, right up along today’s Romasco Lane (then known as Larch Street), where the terrain grades sharply uphill, Nissen built additional storage buildings. Portland philanthropist Betty Noyce hoped to help Nissen continue, by purchasing the baking company from the family in 1995. The end came soon, however, as the company was sold to the national firm Interstate Bakeries, Inc., in 1997. Interstate closed the bakery in May 1999, basing its southern Maine baking operations in Biddeford. The final edible creations to roll out of the Nissen bakery on Munjoy Hill were plain old-fashioned doughnuts, just before the Memorial Day weekend, 1999. Later that year the large, complicated buildings, and all 2.9 acres of property were bought for $300,000 by A&M Partners and is now home to studios, offices, and street-level stores.
Below: Monroe & Washington Avenue- the left portion of the building stands upon where Linden Street was. At the left edge of the picture was where Murray Lane had been.
Following nearly a century of establishment in these spaces, we are brought to imagine lingering spirits as we transition from the bustling bakery, to the hollowed factory, to the re-inhabited structures, and to the ghost streets beneath the northern addition of the building and its asphalt parking lot. As we call forth Linden, Murray, and Larch, we have the context of commerce at the core of these streets. With the years, there traversed numerous intricate lives, situations, and the materials of the trade. Conveyor belts moving rivers of rolls. Production and packing. Massive quantities of ingredients, including shortening, bread oil, molasses, liquid sugar, and flour. Delivered 4 times daily, flour was pumped through hoses into indoor silos, 50,000 pounds at a time. A stroll or drive today along Washington Avenue reminds us of the continuity of so varied a thoroughfare of merchants. What future ghosts might we be witnessing now? When we speak of spirit, dictionaries remind the inquirer of the “animating or vital principle within human beings and animals,” the root being spirare- “to breathe.” In addition to the Latin anima is the Greek word pneuma, as into the fog of history drifts that pervasive perfume of baking bread
The Nissen bakery’s expansion surely impacted its immediate neighbors, and played a role in hastening Linden Street, Murray Lane, and a portion of Larch Street (now Romasco Lane) into the great and unseen phantom atlas of ghost streets. Linden Street and Murray Lane were two parallel streets, one block apart, immediately north of J.J. Nissen, and ascended a typically steep Munjoy Hill grade- up from Washington Avenue and pointed toward Larch Street. Matching its nearby residential streets, Linden and Murray were tightly packed with wooden apartment houses. The 1920s photos of Murray Lane show clotheslines and alleys between the homes, whose forms have much more in common with the architecture of the bottom of the Hill (and Bayside) than with the affluent Eastern Promenade area. A very narrow lane connected the two streets; in some records the alley was called Linden Lane.
Linden Street’s corner landmark structures were number 69 and number 71 Washington Avenue, and the one-block long street spanned Washington and Larch. Collections of maps, commonly known as “footprint atlases,” such as Portland’s 1882, 1914, and 1956 varieties help us seek out these ghost streets, and they correspond with their contemporary Portland City Directories. House and lot numbers can be matched with names of inhabitants- albeit imperfect snapshots as they are. Recalling the beginning of our story, how Portland’s growth had made a quantum leap with the merging-in of the separate town of Deering, the important matter of redundant street names had to be settled. Like Portland, As examples, Deering had streets with names like Grant, Mechanic, and Pearl, and in each instance those 1900-era name changes took effect in the newcomer community- not on the older Portland peninsula. Linden Street was an unusual exception. Perhaps by being tucked away in the parallel universe of short streets on Munjoy Hill, two Linden Streets coexisted on opposites sides of the city- one in the Oakdale area (Ward 8) and the other on the Hill (Ward 1). Oddly enough, both Linden Streets continued to be reported in directories and on maps. The first notable exception likely paralleled a citywide re-assessment when, in the 1955 city directory (a good half-century-plus after the merger) the elder Linden Street appears listed as “Unaccepted,” its street addresses removed (with the world of ghost streets around the corner).
Alas, the redundancy was finally solved in 1956, Linden being renamed Appleton Street. By that time, Nissen Baking Company owned land on both sides of that street. In the photo showing the bakery by 1947, the center of the major structure straddled the original Nissen bakery at number 59 Washington, with the corner of Linden and Washington. Between 1956 and 1960, the bakery was extended over the former Linden/Appleton Street, to the extent that we see today. A fine vertical line in the brickwork of the present building actually shows precisely where the corner of the Linden & Washington structure had been in the late ‘40s. Eventually, with all remains of the homes on its two sides, Linden Street (known as Appleton for a brief period) completely disappeared by 1965.
Murray Lane (sometimes also known as Murray’s Lane, or Murray Court) ascended up from between the corners of number 81 and number 83 Washington Avenue. As we see in the photos from the mid-1920s, signature Portland styles such as Greek Revival and 19th century clapboard tenements, such as one might see today in Bayside and the West End, were blended together on hardscrabble Murray Lane. The Lane dead-ended, just shy of Larch Street, coming up to the official address of “Murray End.” Evidently, the thoroughness of the 1955 survey of the city revealed two streets named Murray, the other in Deering (close to Payson Park). Munjoy Hill’s Murray Lane was renamed Amity Lane, and that appears in the 1956 insurance atlas. Once again, Nissen’s expansion-by-purchase was not far behind the dissolution of the side street, the prolific baking company reaching across number 81 Washington Avenue (the south corner of Murray and Washington) by 1960, and across Murray Lane (the north corner of Murray and Washington) by 1972. Amity Lane (the ancient Murray Lane), according to Portland City Assessors’ records, disappeared in 1972, wending into the world of ghost streets with its once-burgeoning collection of homes.
Map at top: the renamed Murray Lane (Amity Lane), in 1955.
Bottom map: the renamed, and almost completely absorbed Linden Street (Appleton Street) in 1955. The Nissen property is also detailed on these maps.
Finally, in this homage to the ghost streets near what, in its day, had been Maine’s largest wholesale bakery, we visit Romasco Lane- the former Larch Street. Hunters of ghost streets have in common with seekers of genealogies the phenomenon of name-changes. City streets and people, being living organisms, are as dynamic as they are alive- and even occasions for renaming become parts of these unique histories. And context. Compare the atlases’ markings of building footprints- how they seem one-behind-another, photos showing ascending rows of houses, and the very nature of cities that scale steep hills. Looking westward, straight across Romasco Lane, the view traverses the roofs of the buildings on Washington Avenue (including the top of the large former Nissen structure). This tiered ascent continues up from Romasco to parallel Sheridan Street, and then once more to parallel North Street. Indeed, it is from the promontory at Fort Sumner Park, on North Street, that our “Davy Crockett on Munjoy Hill,” gazes west toward Back Cove. The photo, featured last year on Strange Maine, reveals a 1955 glimpse of the northern edge of the Nissen bakery, along with the tops of Linden and Larch Streets (left edge of the picture).
Larch Street became Romasco Lane in 2000. The street often had the reference of being the “road behind the Nissen bakery.” Yet as the pictures attest, Larch/Romasco has a long history as a residential street, terraced on a steep ascent of Munjoy Hill- the street’s surface often lining up with the roofs on Washington Avenue- as it spans Cumberland Avenue and Marion Street. Antonio J. “Tony” Romasco, born in 1932, had lived on Larch Street for 37 years. Tony earned the nickname “Portland’s Ultimate Handyman,” having been 40 years in the construction business, doing a great amount of work on neighborhood houses. In recognition of Tony’s work in the community, the Portland City Council renamed Larch Street, in his honor, to Romasco Lane. Tony Romasco passed away in February 2003, and his family name remains with the stories of these streets. Though the northern half of Romasco Lane is missing most of the old Larch Street buildings, the top of Murray Lane can be ascertained from between the 3rd and 4th houses away from the corner of Marion and Romasco, looking down the Hill.
The many denizens along these streets and lanes, living through centuries of seasons, living and working in such closely proximate and time-worn buildings, surely knew the tastes, sounds, and aromas of the eras before their familiar places disappeared into the realm of ghost streets we can no longer see. For those of us, the living, whose very steps trace those of old, we can partake in that mystery of the passage of time. As we tread upon today’s surfaces, we know not the depth of that which rests beneath, acutely aware that the city has ghost streets.
“From Number Nine, Penwiper Mews,
There is really abominable news:
They've discovered a head
In the box for the bread,
But nobody seems to know whose.”
- Edward Gorey, from Amphigorey