beforeafter

Date 2015, photo by Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer; 1924 photo from the Collections of the City of Portland – Planning and Development, Courtesy of www.MaineMemory.net item #37770

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ifty-seven feet northeast of a stone monument on the corner of Congress and North streets is a certain lot of land on Munjoy Hill.

That’s how 123 Congress St. has been defined since a 2½-story house was built there around 1865, just before a fire tore through Portland, its destruction reaching right across the street.

It wasn’t the last time that flames would threaten to burn down the house. According to city records and newspaper articles, children playing with matches were to blame for two house fires there, one in 1914 and the other in 1985.

But the house, once the family home of the official city physician, stands today – a three-unit apartment building filled with 20-somethings.

Dr. Harold Vincent Bickmore and Miss Laura Amanda Goding lived at 123 Congress St. after they were wed in 1926.

Dr. Harold Vincent Bickmore and Miss Laura Amanda Goding lived at 123 Congress St. after they were wed in 1926. Press Herald file photos

A look back at the people who have lived in the mostly unremarkable house on the top of the hill offers a snapshot of the history of the city and one of its oldest and most colorful neighborhoods – once the home of the city’s physicians and proprietors, later inhabited by immigrants who couldn’t afford to live elsewhere, and now perhaps the most sought-after rental market in the state.

Records from the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds are fuzzy on the early ownership of the house, but Portland city directories show that in the 1880s it was inhabited by John Cousens, a longtime steam engineer with the fire department who at one time served as one of three Ward 1 representatives on the city’s Common Council.

Cousens and his son also owned a store a block away on the corner of Atlantic and Congress streets. C.C. Cousens & Co. sold “fancy groceries, provisions and flour, tea, coffee, spices and choice table delicacies,” according to an 1891 publication called “Portland, Its Representative Business Men and Its Points of Interest.”

Bickmore and Goding wedding announcement

The 1926 Goding-Bickmore wedding announcement from the Portland Press Herald

Cousens is listed at the address for more than 20 years, until 1904. During that time, three different women who had been married are listed as living, each for a couple years, in the other half of the two-family house.
At least one of them, Mrs. Florence Sawyer, who lived there from 1886 to 1888, was widowed a few years earlier, her husband just 34 years old when he died.

After Cousens, the next resident listed in the Portland directory is Dr. George Turner, who had been a lieutenant and assistant surgeon in the Navy before moving into the house, where he also kept his office. He lived there from 1910 to 1915 before dying of acute indigestion the next year at 38 years old, according to a weekly journal called “Medical Record.”

Another doctor, Harold Bickmore, moved himself and his office into the house in 1922.

In 1926, he married Laura Goding. They lived there for a decade and had a daughter and a son, who later married Hattie Cutler, the first woman to chair the Maine Republican Party.

Bickmore, who went on to become the official city physician and then county physician, was a member of the Portland School Committee, a Mason, the president of the Portland Kiwanis Club and the first Maine president of the Northeastern Shrine Council.

Louis and Robert Pettis look on as flames spread through their second floor apartment at 123 Congress St., in 1985. The building was their home for 24 years.

Louis and Robert Pettis look on as flames spread through their second floor apartment at 123 Congress St., in 1985. The building was their home for 24 years. Press Herald file photo

In 1936, he moved a couple of blocks closer to the water onto Atlantic Street, before relocating to Cape Elizabeth, where he later died.

Bickmore’s departure for the suburbs and the approaching world war appear to mark a turning point for the house and neighborhood, which soon transitioned into a home with rental units occupied by workers.

In 1941, Bickmore sold the house to Pasquale Troiano, an Italian immigrant, who lived there with his wife until both of their deaths. In 1952, the house then fell under the ownership of the Mangino family, owners of the Hilltop Superette, which is still in business – though it has changed hands several times – on the corner of North and Congress streets.

The Manginos rented out the apartments at 123 Congress to several tenants over the years, including Robert Pettis and his family of six, who lived in one of the two units for 24 years.

Pettis worked as a dough maker at J.J. Nissen Baking Co. on Washington Avenue, and also went lobstering, said Pettis’s sister, Norma Gribbin, before she died in September at the age of 86. Gribbin said her brother was disabled from having polio as a child, but that didn’t stop him from working hard.

She didn’t know how much her brother paid to live there, but in 1980, the median rent in the neighborhood would have been around $740 in today’s dollars.

Rebecca Hosley and a roommate paid $500 for an apartment at 123 Congress St. in 1994.

Rebecca Hosley and a roommate paid $500 for an apartment at 123 Congress St. in 1994. Contributed photo

A fire in March 1985, caused by children playing with matches in a closet, “did quite a job” on the house, Gribbin said, and forced the family to move.

In 1986, a group of entrepreneurs, including Kenneth Bohannon, bought the house with the intention of letting it appreciate and reselling it, but the market collapsed. They ended up owning it for 15 years, renting it out as a three-unit building to young professionals and working-class people.

One of them was Rebecca Hosley, who lived in the second-floor apartment for a few years in the mid-1990s while working as a production assistant at the WCSH television station.

Hosley had been living with her parents for a few months after coming home from college in St. Louis. When she moved to Munjoy Hill on New Year’s Eve 1994, she said, the monthly rent was $500 – that would be $781 in today’s dollars – which she split with a roommate.

Right after Bohannon and his partners finally sold the house for $112,300 in 1999, he said, “property skyrocketed on the hill.” Within six months, he said, the value of the house went up $50,000.

Duncan Elder, 29, is one of the current tenants of 123 Congress Street.

Duncan Elder, 29, was a tenant of 123 Congress Street before moving at the end of the summer. Carl D. Walsh Staff Photographer

Current owner Jessica Porter, a health food writer, bought the house in 2003 for $309,000 and lived in one of the units for five years before moving to California.

She’s more concerned with having responsible tenants in the three apartments than getting the highest rent she can. Still, she said, if someone moves out after several years, it only makes sense to look at the market, which happens to be the hottest around.

The second-floor apartment that Rebecca Hosley and a roommate paid $500 for in 1994 is now occupied by three recent college graduates who pay $1,550 a month, no heat included.

Porter said she’s not likely to sell it. She can’t imagine a price anyone could offer her that would beat having a house “five blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in one of the best neighborhoods ever,” she said.

A few years ago, during a gap between tenants, Porter spent four months living in one of the apartments, working on a book. She likes having the option of doing that again.

“I plan to keep it forever,” she said.