PORTLAND — Greater Portland Landmarks is turning 50! It is a mature, respected organization at the center of urban planning discussions. It is easy to assume that Landmarks has always been that way. However, the times and conditions that created the organization 50 years ago were very different.
Picture a downtown that hadn’t seen any new building construction in 40 years, with an Exchange Street that was mostly empty buildings. Portland had been in a depression since the end of World War II. Portland’s biggest export was said to be its young people.
The city’s political and business leadership was galvanized to take big steps to renew Portland. Those steps were focused on making the city more accessible for automobiles and replacing old, rundown buildings with new ones. The common tools of the period included urban renewal, street widening and parking garages.
In this climate, a few people became dismayed at the pace of demolition of historic buildings and whole streetscapes. Their efforts were often last-minute, unsuccessful and considered anti-progress.
The demolition of Union Station in 1961 was a galvanizing moment. Edith Sills’ frustration over that loss prompted her to invite a number of community leaders, architects and academics to her house to brainstorm ways to prevent such losses in the future. The group became known as the Sills Committee and met monthly for two to three years before it incorporated as Greater Portland Landmarks.
The newly minted Landmarks was an all-star cast of volunteers who worked diligently to influence the public and private plans for upgrading the city, but they were still regarded by business and government leaders as misguided obstructionists and bulldozer chasers. They had no place at the table where decisions were being made and could only react after the decisions were made.
Greater Portland Landmarks prepared an alternative plan for the proposed widening of Spring Street in 1970 but was rejected. There were some early successes. Henry Robinson gave Landmarks its first building to save, the How House on Danforth Street. In 1967, Landmarks successfully lobbied for state enabling legislation for local historic districts.
In 1967, Landmarks was “adopted” by the Junior League for three years, which provided a significant infusion of resources, both human and financial. Programs increased significantly, and in 1969 funds were provided for a part-time executive director. This is where I entered the picture, as that first executive director, working out of the partially refurbished How House.
Being new to Portland, it was a crash course for me in the history, architectural history, politics and power structure of the city. Crisis management ruled the day. But we understood that the way forward lay not in throwing ourselves in front of demolition crews after decisions were made, but in shaping the decisions themselves. That meant impacting public opinion about the value of historic preservation as a part of the revitalization of Portland and becoming a useful part of the planning decisions.
The early ’70s saw growing education programs, walking tours and lecture series that brought the value of Portland’s historic architecture to the fore and highlighted other cities where preservation had been the centerpiece for revitalization.
Landmarks went straight to the business community with a seminar on how to use the historic structures provisions of the Tax Reform Act of 1976 as a profitable way to develop new office space in older buildings downtown, which prompted a newspaper editorial titled “Portland’s Gold Mine.”
Landmarks’ highly successful book, “Portland,” further highlighted the importance of Portland’s historic architecture. An inventory of all the historic buildings on the peninsula was completed and published in 1976. The word was getting out.
Landmarks created a revolving fund to buy and resell endangered buildings with covenants. The Gothic house, an architectural gem, was destined for demolition to make way for the Holiday Inn. Landmarks negotiated a gift of the house, moved it to outer Spring Street and sold it for cost with a preservation easement to ensure its future.
In 1973 Landmarks graduated to a full-time director, moved to larger quarters and grew its membership as well as its budget. The stage was set for the next phase, when Landmarks would have an impact on the thinking of planners and developers about how Portland could use its historic architecture.
Given the pace of development in Portland today, it is important to recall Landmarks’ early history and to remind ourselves of the city’s distinctive architectural “gold mine.”