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.
As a symbol, the phoenix was apt. In mythology, the phoenix is a sacred bird that lives for 500 years, then builds a nest of twigs that ignites, with a new bird arising from the ashes of the old.
Portland had rebounded from four major fires — two set by American Indians who were unhappy with the newcomers on their land in the 17th century; one set by the British navy in October 1775, to punish a colonial port deemed insufficiently loyal to the crown; then the blaze on July 4, 1866.
The Great Fire, supposedly started by boys playing with firecrackers, was pushed by a stiff wind across much of the peninsula.
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.
A facilities manager who might be able to shed light on who ordered up a replica and what happened to the original is on vacation and couldn’t be reached Thursday, Myers said.
Last year, when Graham asked after the phoenix, another KeyBank official said she looked into it.
“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.
Graham said the Phoenix belongs in a Portland museum, not in some corporate warehouse, if it hasn’t been destroyed.
“It disappeared and was replaced by this really mediocre facsimile,” he said. “It’s like the Portland Observatory. If you were to replace it with a facsimile, that’s wrong.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: