December 28, 2011

Picturing Portland in the digital age

A trove of images that offer an unusually detailed glimpse of the city's architecture in the Roaring '20s is finding its way online.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

Stored in the city tax assessor's office for nearly 90 years, a remarkable collection of historic photographs of more than 10,000 Portland buildings is now being digitized so they can be readily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

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Ted Oldham, a volunteer with the Maine Historical Society, takes a photo in Portland Friday.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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The historic block of buildings along Fore Street at Boothby Square, with 340 Fore St. at the far right in the 1924 archival image.

Additional Photos Below

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The three-year project, involving thousands of hours of work, is expected to be finished this summer. In the meantime, with more than half the images already online, the city is launching the new website,

The photos were taken in 1924 as part of a citywide tax revaluation. At the time, reform-minded politicians wanted to show the public that property valuations were being done in a fair and transparent manner and that nobody was getting any special favors.

The good-government effort left a legacy -- a remarkable snapshot of Portland in the prosperous 1920s, just as the city's status as Canada's main winter port was beginning to slip and Portland's port began to decline in importance.

The assessors also recorded the use of each building, the architectural style, the number of units, building materials, neighborhood and owner. In addition, they drew a sketch of the building's footprint. In some cases, they recorded the name of the builder and architect.

All this information is being manually entered into a searchable database, the first of its kind on the Maine Memory Network, an archival website operated by the Maine Historical Society.

When the project is complete, for example, a person will be able to search the database to identify all of the Greek Revival structures on Munjoy Hill in 1924, or all the commercial buildings on Congress Street.

Right now, the public can use the website to access a majority of the photographs.

Workers have been scanning and uploading the photos in alphabetical order by street name, and they have recently completed Mountfort Street. To find a building that has been uploaded to the site, just type in its street address.

The project, a collaborative effort by the city of Portland, the Portland Public Library and the Maine Historical Society, will preserve brittle and faded tax records for future generations and make them more widely available, said Deborah Andrews, who manages the city's historic preservation program.

The 1924 photos provide a more compelling argument than anything she could say to convince property owners of the value in preserving historic features of their buildings, Andrews said.

The photographs are essential for understanding the city's history, said Earle Shettleworth Jr., Maine's state historian.

"We try to keep a lookout for these things," he said. "If you can get a visual record of every building in a community, that's a remarkable resource."

He said Augusta and Lewiston are the only other Maine communities he is aware of that have collected old photographs of all their properties, and Portland is the only city to put the photos online.

Because the photos are being digitized with a high-resolution scanner, viewers are able to blow up the photos and see small details, such as the molding over a doorway.

That kind of knowledge is power, Shettleworth said, enabling property owners to do restorations correctly and making their buildings "more meaningful to them."

Other than staff time, no tax dollars are being spent on the $65,000 project. Funding is coming from grants and contributions, and the city is trying to raise $23,000 to finish the work.

Volunteers are removing the pages from the screw-held bindings in 130 tax books, scanning the front and back of each page, and also scanning the photographs separately at a higher resolution. The work is being done at the Portland Room of the public library by three volunteers and a paid project coordinator.

The 2¾-inch-by-4-inch black-and-white photos are contact prints, so they provide a lot of detail despite the small size, said Pat Mullin, project coordinator.

He said the photographers often included people in the photographs to create a sense of scale, and he enjoys looking at the people and seeing how they lived.

When the project is finished, the old photographs and paper records will be stored at the Portland Public Library.


Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:


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Additional Photos

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A modern photo of the same block by Maine Historical Society volunteer Ted Oldham.

Ted Oldham photo


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