Lesley MacVane of Falmouth toasts to Maine Preservation alongside Roger Berle as they attended the nonprofit’s first virtual event. Photo courtesy Lesley MacVane

Maine Preservation, a nonprofit focused on the preservation of historic buildings, asked supporters to take a modern leap with an app called Remo that makes it possible to “work a room,” chatting in small groups at each table. Virtually, anyway.

“I was a little dubious, looking at the app instructions,” said Janet Roberts, a Maine Preservation member since 1989. “But, actually doing it isn’t hard.”

Maine Preservation, for its 10th anniversary gala, used Remo to stay true to two elements of all their previous galas: networking and a silent auction. As delighted as Maine Preservation supporters were to greet each other maskless via video, the highlight of the digital event was a one-hour documentary-style film, “Maine’s Historic Speakeasies: Tours, Pours and Locked Doors.”

This video – now available on YouTube – takes viewers behind the doors of Portland’s historic speakeasies, located in what are now Italian restaurant Via Vecchia, speakeasy-style pub Bramhall and hotel Blind Tiger. The presentation is a fast-paced blend of local history and legend, tourism, mixology and, of course, a little architectural preservation.

“Portland Mayor Neal Dow banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol in Portland in 1851, a ban that remained in effect until Prohibition was repealed in 1833,” said film host Ned Wight, owner of New England Distilling. “Maine’s early ban on alcohol, meant that Maine also got a head start on circumventing Prohibition.”

Via Vecchia bartender Morgan Wagner-Holtz prepared cocktails that guests could purchase as kits to take home and enjoy during the event. Photo by Sean Thomas Photography

While watching Via Vecchia’s lead bartender Morgan Wagner-Holtz give a history of historic cocktails The Gibson and The Five Points – and prepare them the Via Vecchia way – nearly 100 guests who purchased gala cocktail party kits were able to sip along from home.

At 10 Dana St., where Via Vecchia serves Italian food and cocktails today, there’s a three-story Italianate building that was once a wholesale grocer in front with bootlegger access via Plum Alley (today’s Wharf Street) in the back.

“Plum Alley’s main purpose was to run items from the wharf to the back side of the buildings of Central and Plum Street, which had two major hotels frequented by seafarers,” Wight said. “The back room of 10 Dana was known as a chart house, no doubt where seaman would gather to replace and repair equipment needed for their next voyage season and perhaps a place where the seaman would buy products not sold in the front of the store.”

The video tour continues at the brick mansion at 767 Congress St. built for J. Henry and Anna Isabel Rines in 1887. In 1935, Dominic Merino, who was said to have previously opened a speakeasy in Detroit, bought the mansion and ran a speakeasy out of the basement in addition to operating Roma Café down the street. Two years after Prohibition ended, he moved the restaurant above the now-legitimate bar. A special-occasion dinner at Roma Café or a late-night drink at basement pub – now known as Bramhall – are longtime Portland traditions that continue today.

Matthew Kurt of Roma Café and Bramhall, the location of a real speakeasy during Prohibition. Photo by Sean Thomas Photography

“The atmosphere down here is a speakeasy feel,” says server Matthew Kurt at Bramhall Pub, where bear claw tubs, candlelight and legends of “spirits” are part of the atmosphere. “People love walking down the stairs to a dark building to have a drink.”

“Merino’s sons, who purchased the building in the 1980s, did most of the brickwork in the basement,” Wight says. “Wanting to match the look of the period from when the building was built, they used bricks from 100-year-old buildings being torn down. They also installed doors from the Longfellow House and stained-glass salvaged from areas around Portland.”

The video tour continues with Blind Tiger Guest House, which opened in 2020 in the 1820s Federal-style mansion at 163 Danforth St. in the West End. The house was once occupied by the Thomas family, who were so social that the home was known as “Social Corners.” The mansion’s many preserved historic elements include a hidden billiards room in the basement that was popular during Portland’s long dry years.

“This speakeasy was for those trying to find a semblance of normalcy in a changing world,” says Tammara Croman, general manager of Blind Tiger. “The name ‘blind tiger’ was a reference for a speakeasy, back in the day. They would say, ‘I’m going to the Blind Tiger.’”

After accounting for video production costs, the gala raised more than $31,000 to support Maine Preservation programs, including the nine-week Patricia Anderson Summer Fellows Program that introduces young adults to preservation trades.

“It was our first big digital event, for sure,” said development director Gina Lamarche, who produced the film along with director Sean Thomas and researcher Ana Azearo Moore.

The hybrid format, with a reasonable facsimile of socializing in person, was perhaps the modern-day version of trying to find a semblance of normalcy in a changing world. Mainers will be seeing more events like this. The Maine Association of Nonprofits did a flash poll of its members in early March that indicated that more than one-third of Maine nonprofits are planning virtual or hybrid fundraisers this year. Just 11 percent of responding organizations said that their nonprofit is planning a fully in-person event.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at [email protected]

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