May 24, 2010

Bill Nemitz: Once again, the proof of our success will be in tomorrow’s headlines

By Bill Nemitz

The brittle, yellowed newspaper clipping, dated Oct. 29, 1923, begins thusly:
“This issue of the PRESS HERALD is the first to have been prepared in the new PRESS HERALD building at Exchange, Federal and Market Street.”

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See our special historic move coverage (slideshow, video and more).

It continues, “If this article appears Monday morning, the reader will know that the rapid transition has been successful, that the reporters have their typewriters on a suitable stand, the telegraph operators have their machines connected up, the desk men have a place to write, the compositors have their machines in operation, and the stereotypers are all fixed to stereotype. If any of these units fail to function, there just naturally won’t be any paper.”

Many, many Mondays later, that same building now sits empty and quiet. Over the weekend, moving crews transplanted Maine’s largest daily newspaper from the site it occupied for exactly 86 years and seven months to our new digs at One City Center.

From the day he purchased what is now MaineToday Media almost a year ago, publisher and editor Richard Connor made it clear that the only way to put this operation back on solid financial footing was to sell the real estate at 385 and 390 Congress St. and move to leased space elsewhere on the Portland peninsula.

But as I sat last week in my soon-to-be-former office, surrounded by bare walls, an empty filing cabinet and a few dried leaves where my floor plant used to sit, I couldn’t help but feel that something truly historic is ending here.

And as I roamed among the moving carts and the clutter-filled trash barrels, collecting one unsolicited story after another about all that’s happened in this place I’ve joyfully called “work” these past 27 years, I realized I’m far from the only old-timer who bids farewell to this tired old building with more than a little regret.

First and foremost, there’s the news – local, national and global – that passed through this place, day after day, week after week, decade after decade. The front pages, each a snapshot of history in the making, still hung late Friday afternoon in a hallway outside the second-floor newsroom:
“Lindbergh in Paris – City Goes Wild,” proclaimed the Portland Sunday Telegram from May 22, 1927.

“Fire Wipes Out 6 Towns,” lamented the Press Herald from Oct. 24, 1947, followed on Sept. 1, 1961, by “Union Station Tower Comes Tumbling Down.”

Then, hot off the presses, there’s “President Kennedy Slain By Assassin” from the Evening Express on Nov. 22, 1963, and from the Press Herald on July 21, 1969, “Earthmen Take Moon Walk.”

The treasure trove of old news clips, now stacked in a warehouse on Kennebec Street, peel back more of the story – from the original seven-story building that faced Federal Street, to the five-story, circa-1948 addition that faces City Hall, to the “new” press plant that blossomed across Congress Street in 1965 (complete with the tunnel under Congress Street that still tethers the two properties).

Check this out: Just before the first building opened in 1923, they actually hung a woman named “Carlo Stefanik” (aka “Stefanik the Human Spider”) upside down in a straitjacket from a fourth-floor window while an awestruck crowd of “several thousand people” watched from the sidewalks below.

We know it took the Human Spider a mere “one minute and a quarter” to free herself. Lost to history is why she was up there in the first place.

Here’s a sign of the time: Back in September 1948, a photo announced the debut of 17 “modern letter boards” inside the display window on Congress Street.

At a time when “twitter” was something only birds did, the black-felt panels with white-letter headlines greeted passers-by with breaking news, the latest baseball scores, the weather forecast …

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