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

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.

The photos have a political history. In 1923, good-government reformers joined forces with the city’s business establishment and anti-Catholic groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, to replace the city’s ward system and popularly elected mayor with a “professional” city manager.


Two views of the northern corner of 735 Congress Street (current home of Sawyer and Company florists) in 1924 and in 2013.


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

When the new Portland government conducted its first citywide property assessment, 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, Barry said. The photos provided visual evidence to back up each property evaluation.

The digitized photos are posted online in high-resolution files, so viewers can zoom in and see small details, such as the molding over a doorway. The 2¾-by-4-inch black-and-white photos are contact prints, not prints from a small negative, so they offer a lot of detail despite the small size

General Assistance recipients required to do volunteer work did some of the early digitizing. Later, several people, including some former volunteers, were hired to finish the job.

John Hatcher, a real estate broker who is restoring a small commercial building at 737 Congress St., said the structure was “modernized” in the 1970s after a car crashed into it. Its historic windows, transoms, and awnings were removed and replaced by a quasi-mansard facade.

Because they have the 1924 photograph, Hatcher and the building’s co-owner, Dan Kennedy, are able to restore the building to its original condition, “as it was, not as how we would have tried to imagine,” he said.


Ted Oldham, a West End resident and a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Board, was inspired by the 1924 photos to create a present-day photo record of Portland. Using a modern digital camera, he has taken photographs of every building in the city. It took him nearly four years.

In the process, he discovered that the city streetscape is more dynamic than most people realize, he said. “Things are just changing — sometimes for the good, but not always,” he said.

Other than staff time, no tax dollars were spent on the $77,000 project. Funding came from the Preserve America Fund, Davis Family Foundation, Maine Historic Preservation Commission, Portland Public Library and the Eleaner Kohn Fund. Individuals and businesses donated $7,400.

To access this archival material, see the collection on Maine Memory Network:

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

Twitter: @TomBellPortland

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.