December 30, 2013

Portland photo collection 'a time machine'

Digitized pictures of 30,000 properties in the city that were taken in 1924 are now accessible on the Internet.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

It’s like Google Street View from the Roaring Twenties.

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This store at 885-889 Brighton Ave. in Portland’s Nasons Corner neighborhood was owned by Amos Ashnault.

City of Portland 1924 tax records

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Three D’s Variety store carries on the retail tradition at 885 Brighton Ave. in Portland.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Photos taken in 1924 of more than 30,000 Portland properties, each accompanied by property assessment records, are now online, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

“It’s like looking through a telescope at Portland at that time,” said William Barry, a research historian at the Maine Historical Society. “I love it, because it’s a time machine. You really can go back and see how it is.”

The collection – the product of a citywide property revaluation that included a photograph taken of every taxable structure within city limits – has been stored in a metal cabinet in Portland City Hall for nearly 90 years. The images, which do not include government buildings or other structures for which property taxes were not collected, have been digitized over the past four years. They now form a permanent collection on the Memory Network, an archival website operated by the Maine Historical Society.


Two views of the northern corner of Congress and High Streets (Congress Square) in 1924 and in 2013.

Historic photo: Maine Historical Society; 2013 photo: John Ewing/Staff Photographer

The collection is a boon for property owners restoring historic buildings, who use the records to help figure out what their building looked like nearly 90 years ago.

“I have found no more effective tool for getting people excited about restoring original details,” said Deb Andrews, who manages the city’s historic preservation program.

The database is searchable by address, owner, architectural style, architect and use. That means the collection is also valuable for people researching family histories and for historians studying changes in land use, architectural styles and patterns of immigrant assimilation.

The photographs capture a time when Portland was a thriving port. Horse-drawn wagons and sleighs shared the roads with Model T Fords and Stutz roadsters, and uniformed attendants at filling stations had not fully replaced the neighborhood blacksmith. The images capture a city in transformation. There are new high-rises on Congress Street, pig farms in the still-rural outskirts, fishing shacks on the city’s islands.

The database is also a visual record of entire neighborhoods that would eventually disappear under slum clearance projects in the late 1950s and 1960s, including Little Italy, a portion of which was in what we now call East Bayside.

A group of 11 children, presumably from that neighborhood, is captured in a photograph taken on Long Island, at the Italian Fresh Air Camp at the Maine Conference Women’s Home. The children posed as a city surveyor who was only interested in recording the two-story house behind them took the picture.

While historians have always had access to photographs of local landmarks such as the Victoria Mansion and the Eastern Promenade, the 1924 photographs inadvertently portray how ordinary people lived, said Abraham Schechter, an archivist at the Portland Public Library, where the documents were scanned and volunteers built the database.

“It’s not just the mansions. It’s double- and triple-deckers,” he said.

The physical collection consists of 131 books totaling approximately 30,000 pages, with each page recording a single property. The city surveyors recorded the use of each building, the architectural style, the number of units, building materials, neighborhood and owner, and value. They drew a sketch of the building’s footprint, and in some cases recorded the name of the builder and architect.

The paper records, now stored in the city planning office on the fourth floor of City Hall, were kept until 2009 in a metal cabinet in the Portland tax assessor’s office on the first floor. The frayed documents will eventually will be moved to the Portland Public Library, where they will be stored under conditions designed to prevent further degradation.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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A city assessor is caught on film as he peers through a window of a garage at 29 Pine St. in Portland’s West End.

City of Portland 1924 tax records

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A driveway splits the properties at 29 and 31 Pine St. in Portland.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer


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