Saturday, February 04, 2012

The missing phoenix bird

The Portland Press Herald had a great article by Edward Murphy on January 27th about one of Portland's historic mysteries. About a year and a half ago Andrew Graham, quoted in the article below, emailed me wondering where the original wooden Portland Resurgam phoenix was, when he encountered nothing but "a soul-less reproduction" at Key Bank. Apparently he's kept asking around! Here's hoping the article will help find the sculpture, where ever it is today!
Have you seen this bird?
Mystery surrounds this relic from Portland's fiery past.

By Edward D. Murphy, Staff Writer

PORTLAND — A carved wooden phoenix is proving just as elusive as the mythical creature it depicts.

The phoenix was carved for the facade of one of Portland's oldest banks just after the Great Fire of 1866 scorched a large swath of the city. It survived more than 60 years of exposure to Maine's harsh weather, then another 70 years or so inside bank lobbies.

But it disappeared about a decade ago, and no one knows where it has nested since, or whether it still exists.

"It's just dropped out of sight inexplicably," said Andrew Graham, president of Creative Portland, who said he has admired the carving since it appeared in an exhibit in the 1970s. Graham is helping to lead an effort to track it down.

A replica of the phoenix, apparently made of fiberglass, is in KeyBank's Monument Square branch. The original was commissioned by Canal Bank in 1866, when the bank rebuilt after the fire and moved its headquarters to Middle Street.
Portland added the phoenix to its municipal seal in the 1830s. Canal Bank executives apparently wanted to draw on that inspiration as the city tried to recover from the fire in 1866.

The craftsman is unknown, but probably was a ship's carver who was skilled in carving wooden figureheads, said William Barry of the Maine Historical Society library.

"It's an icon," Barry said. "It was considered a local treasure. What happened to it, I don't know."

The bank put the carving on its building's roof line, where it stayed until the structure was expanded around 1930. Around that time, the phoenix was put in the bank lobby. It was moved next door, to KeyBank's Canal Plaza branch, after mergers put Canal Bank under the Ohio bank's corporate wing.

KeyBank moved the bird to its Monument Square branch in 2004. Spokeswoman Therese Myers said she thought it was the original, but a comparison with a picture of the original in a book on Maine art shows significant differences.
"It seems that we are not sure whatever might have happened to the original," said Sherry Brown, KeyBank's regional marketing manager for Maine and Vermont, in an email in August. "Apparently it was built in pieces, so we fear it may have been destroyed or trashed and not kept."

Brown could not be reached for comment this week.

Earle Shettleworth, Maine's state historian, said the city deserves a better answer.

"It's certainly one of the great symbols of the city and we ought to know where it is," he said.
Check out the full text of the Press Herald article for more, including photos:
The photo below, from a stereoview in the New York Public Library digital archives, shows the Canal Bank building after the fire in 1866.

You can view the original image here:¬word=&d=&c=&f=2&k=0&lWord=&lField=&sScope=&sLevel=&sLabel=&imgs=20&pos=90&e=w

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