The sale of two landmark local complexes in the past few months provides major opportunities that deserve to be watched carefully by the public. Both represent an authentic record of Portland’s unique heritage.

The Portland Co. on the eastern end of Portland’s waterfront was recently purchased by a group for development into a mixed-use complex with an emphasis on housing. Last month, House Island was purchased by a development group intending to add a number of houses to this 24-acre island near the entrance to Portland Harbor.

The Portland Co. complex, which consists of more than a dozen primarily brick buildings dating as far back as 1845, is the only intact 19th-century industrial facility on the Portland waterfront.

Its component buildings show the evolution of industrial processes and assembly methods in the 19th and 20th centuries that produced locomotives (630 of them), boilers, engines, elevators, paper mill equipment, cast iron building storefronts, street lights, manhole covers and a host of other essential products that supported life in Maine, the United States and the world.

The Maine Historic Preservation Commission has said that the “property derives its significance due both to the rarity of this type of antebellum foundry complex, and the widespread impact of its product line,” which “drove the economic growth of Maine.”

Reusing these historic buildings as part of a large mixed-use development won’t be easy, however. They range widely in size and condition. The site poses challenges, with a grade change from 12 to 88 feet above sea level.

But ample examples exist of the reuse of historic industrial complexes as linchpins for larger mixed-use developments, including Boott Mills in Lowell, Massachusetts; the Pearl Brewery in San Antonio, Texas; or the many heritage buildings in Toronto’s Distillery District.

House Island tells Portland’s story through as broad a range of history as the Portland Co. portrays, in this case from 1808 to 1938, involving not manufacturing but national defense and immigration policy and practices.

On the west end of the island, Fort Scammel was established in 1808 for the defense of Portland’s harbor, as we are the closest port in the U.S. to Europe and there were concerns at the time over a possible war with Great Britain. During the Civil War, the fort was expanded and rebuilt with stone bastions on the east and west sides and a major earthwork connecting the two bastions.

By the turn of the 20th century, the fort was no longer in use. The eastern half of the island, owned by two families for most of the 19th century, was the site of a highly successful business that involved catching, drying and shipping cod. There were numerous wharves, fish houses and two dwelling houses.

These families sold their land to the federal government once it became clear that an immigration and quarantine station was to be built on the island. Because of the prevalence of cholera in immigrants’ countries of origin, the U.S. Public Health Service had decided to create a quarantine station for people coming to the U.S. from European ports.

Three buildings had been completed in 1906: a detention building, a small hospital and a gambrel-roofed doctor’s residence. The immigration station was busiest early in the 1920s, following the adoption of the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921. The three original buildings that stand today illustrate an interesting and important chapter in Portland’s history.

The federal government closed the immigration station in 1923 and offered it for sale in 1938. By mid-century, Hilda Cushing had purchased both halves of the island from private owners, generously making the island accessible for private tours and parties and interpreting its history for numerous visitors for more than 50 years.

The stakes are high for both of these complexes as private owners seek to use the land for more intense development yielding higher financial returns. The possibility is there in both cases to see successful development together with skillful architectural and site preservation. Physical preservation of the buildings and landscapes that embody these stories, such a rich part of Portland’s history, could make them the linchpins for successful developments.

We hope that there will be easy public access for Portlanders and tourists to the Portland Co. complex buildings and House Island’s Fort Scammel and at least exterior views of the immigration station buildings so important to this city’s past.

Over the coming months, Portlanders will want to carefully watch the developments proposed for each of these key complexes.

— Special to the Press Herald

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. 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.