PORTLAND — The current exhibition in the Lewis Gallery at the Portland Public Library, “Images of Change: Greater Portland’s Cityscape Since 1960,” serves as a potent visual reminder that we need to keep an eye on our city’s architectural heritage.

Deserving our attention aren’t just the fancy, architect-designed homes that grace the West End or the rich urban fabric that lines the streets of the Old Port, but also the ordinary houses and older three-story apartments that fill Munjoy Hill, the industrial buildings that run along between Commercial Street and the harbor, and the bits of Mother Nature that crop up in our city parks, through our sidewalks and down by the waterfront.

With recent controversies brewing over public spaces on Congress Square, the rehabilitation of the Cumberland County Civic Center and the removal of public sculpture from Fore Street, it is clear that Greater Portland Landmarks still has a vital role to play after 50 years.

The tearing-down of Union Station, which was Landmarks’ first call to action in 1964, remains an inspiration for critique in the post-modern photographs on view in the exhibition. Sadly, however, the Union Station clock seems neglected and overlooked at the center of Congress Square.

Congress Square, marked by its crossroads, hilltop elevation and landmark architecture including the Hay Building and Portland Museum of Art, deserves better. The city government and citizens need to give closer scrutiny to the proposed plans to fill the square, keeping in mind Portland’s past and its future. Covering over the square with an extension of the old Eastland Park Hotel seems an easy fix to the problems of loitering and trash, but it is not a real solution.

As the new name for the hotel, Westin Portland Harborview, implies, this site provides visitors and residents alike with a view of the city and beyond. At the heart of the Arts District, this site deserves closer scrutiny from both urban planners and landscape architects. Selling part of the site to a hotel chain might improve city tax revenues, but it does little to improve the city fabric.


As the photographs in the current Landmarks exhibition show, what attracts both attention and devotion in our city are views of the harbor, a focus on our older buildings with signs of the past and corner parks that provide respite and a glimpse of nature. Any plans for developing Congress Square need to include all three.

The Westin has taken the first step in refurbishing the old hotel and opening up its rooftop bar for spectacular views of Casco Bay and Back Cove. We need to keep the next two concerns in mind as the city moves forward with its plans for developing the open space in front of the hotel.

Popular arts events like the monthly First Friday Art Walks and the recent Jenny Holzer screening on the brick facade of the Harry Cobb-designed PMA have successfully engaged a broad audience and made Congress Square come alive with energy.

Every year, Pandora LaCasse’s holiday lights transform the public spaces of Portland in magical and artful ways. It will take this kind of collaborative effort between artists, architects, city planners and citizens to make this happen on a daily basis at Congress Square.

If the Union Station clock could once again serve as a catalyst, then the preservation efforts of Greater Portland Landmarks will have achieved another success. Rather than rushing through a quick decision in a City Council meeting, we need to take a breath and consider some alternative proposals.

Over the past few years, the Maine American Institute of Architects’ Architalx lectures have shown how successful landscape designers in the United States and Europe have been in developing urban spaces. It might just be worth the wait to hold a design competition for developing Congress Square, the results of which could be examined by all of Portland.

In the meantime, the city could come up with short-term solutions for the space – a summer park with a cafe, monthly dance and performance programs tied in to First Friday events, outdoor screenings of video and film, a temporary skating rink in the winter. This is the moment to turn Congress Square into a new Portland landmark for everyone.

— Special to the Press Herald

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