The brittle, yellowed newspaper clipping, dated Oct. 29, 1923, begins thusly:
“This issue of the PRESS HERALD is the first to have been prepared in the new PRESS HERALD building at Exchange, Federal and Market Street.”
It continues, “If this article appears Monday morning, the reader will know that the rapid transition has been successful, that the reporters have their typewriters on a suitable stand, the telegraph operators have their machines connected up, the desk men have a place to write, the compositors have their machines in operation, and the stereotypers are all fixed to stereotype. If any of these units fail to function, there just naturally won’t be any paper.”
Many, many Mondays later, that same building now sits empty and quiet. Over the weekend, moving crews transplanted Maine’s largest daily newspaper from the site it occupied for exactly 86 years and seven months to our new digs at One City Center.
From the day he purchased what is now MaineToday Media almost a year ago, publisher and editor Richard Connor made it clear that the only way to put this operation back on solid financial footing was to sell the real estate at 385 and 390 Congress St. and move to leased space elsewhere on the Portland peninsula.
But as I sat last week in my soon-to-be-former office, surrounded by bare walls, an empty filing cabinet and a few dried leaves where my floor plant used to sit, I couldn’t help but feel that something truly historic is ending here.
And as I roamed among the moving carts and the clutter-filled trash barrels, collecting one unsolicited story after another about all that’s happened in this place I’ve joyfully called “work” these past 27 years, I realized I’m far from the only old-timer who bids farewell to this tired old building with more than a little regret.
First and foremost, there’s the news – local, national and global – that passed through this place, day after day, week after week, decade after decade. The front pages, each a snapshot of history in the making, still hung late Friday afternoon in a hallway outside the second-floor newsroom:
“Lindbergh in Paris – City Goes Wild,” proclaimed the Portland Sunday Telegram from May 22, 1927.
“Fire Wipes Out 6 Towns,” lamented the Press Herald from Oct. 24, 1947, followed on Sept. 1, 1961, by “Union Station Tower Comes Tumbling Down.”
Then, hot off the presses, there’s “President Kennedy Slain By Assassin” from the Evening Express on Nov. 22, 1963, and from the Press Herald on July 21, 1969, “Earthmen Take Moon Walk.”
The treasure trove of old news clips, now stacked in a warehouse on Kennebec Street, peel back more of the story – from the original seven-story building that faced Federal Street, to the five-story, circa-1948 addition that faces City Hall, to the “new” press plant that blossomed across Congress Street in 1965 (complete with the tunnel under Congress Street that still tethers the two properties).
Check this out: Just before the first building opened in 1923, they actually hung a woman named “Carlo Stefanik” (aka “Stefanik the Human Spider”) upside down in a straitjacket from a fourth-floor window while an awestruck crowd of “several thousand people” watched from the sidewalks below.
We know it took the Human Spider a mere “one minute and a quarter” to free herself. Lost to history is why she was up there in the first place.
Here’s a sign of the time: Back in September 1948, a photo announced the debut of 17 “modern letter boards” inside the display window on Congress Street.
At a time when “twitter” was something only birds did, the black-felt panels with white-letter headlines greeted passers-by with breaking news, the latest baseball scores, the weather forecast …
And from 1953: “Three of the major garden clubs of Greater Portland have had as a special Christmas project the decorating of the windows of the Gannett Publishing Co. in a holiday motif.”
The flower ladies’ displays included sleeping children, sugar plums, Santa filling stockings while his reindeer waited patiently on the roof …
Speaking of the roof, here’s a little item from June of 1956: It seemed that Guy Gannett Publishing Co. wanted approval from the Board of Appeals to build a sundeck for newspaper employees atop the roof overlooking Congress Street.
The real legacy of 390 Congress St., though, is not the building itself. Rather, it will be the generations of newspeople who, over most of one century and a small slice of the next, filled this place with energy, excitement and, on occasion, eccentricity.
Long live the legendary copy editor Jack Sprat, who got up from his desk on deadline one night more than a half-century ago and, without a word, walked out the door.
A full year later, or so the story goes, Jack climbed up onto the Exchange Street marquis, crawled through a second-floor window, sat down at his desk and resumed working.
Longtime sportswriter Tom Chard told me last week about the night in the early 1960s when a compositor “who’d had a few” staggered down to the second floor and started raising hell in the newsroom.
Executive Editor Ernie Chard, Tom’s father, would have none of it.
“My dad had been a wrestler at Harvard,” Tom said. “So he got the guy in a half-nelson and held him on the floor until the cops arrived.”
Editorial writer and columnist Mike Harmon will never forget the night he was manning the city desk when a clearly disoriented young man walked into the newsroom – no locked doors or security back in those days.
The visitor announced he was Jesus Christ and needed to find the WGAN television studio (it was on the fifth floor at the time) so he could introduce himself to the world.
“If you really are Jesus Christ,” queried Harmon, “then why don’t you already know where the studio is?”
The cops came that time, too.
Early last week, as I walked around 390 Congress in my ever-deepening funk, I stopped by the cubicle of copy desk veteran Ken Jones and told him I planned to write about the old place.
“Why?” Jones asked with a not-too-convincing shrug. “It’s just a building.”
Two days later, Jones stopped me in the hallway and showed me a brochure, circa late 1940s, that visitors once received during tours of the newspaper. (I noticed Jones keeps it in a protective plastic bag.)
That evening, Jones called me at home, more excited than I’ve heard him in years, with an amazing discovery: According to building maintenance crew member Mark Clark, who got it from colleague Tom Purinton, who got it from his father, Stan, portions of the original Hoe press remain entombed to this day in the building’s sub-basement back by the corner of Exchange and Federal streets.
It seems that when a new press was installed in 1948, owner and publisher Guy Gannett decided it would be too costly to lift out the old unit.
“So they built a concrete wall around it and filled it with sand – and it’s still in there!” said Jones, who then sent me a long e-mail directing me to his find:
“If you come back up from the sub-basement to the regular basement you can probably walk under the sidewalk on the Exchange Street side and thereby walk on top of the press tomb. And if you put your ear against the wall in the sub-basement, you might be able to hear the presses running.”
Sure, Ken. It’s just a building.
So here I sit with that old news clip, printed by those very presses back in 1923, watching with a lump in my throat as history repeats itself.
“Of course, there is much to be done before The PRESS HERALD can say, ‘There, that’s that,’ ” wrote the unidentified reporter. “A finishing touch here and an additional step there must be completed. But the big leap has been taken. The PRESS HERALD is moved.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]