The collective shock and sadness caused by the fall of Union Station 60 years ago Tuesday continues to reverberate throughout Portland, whether residents and visitors know it or not.

The demolition of the grandiose train station on St. John Street on Aug. 31, 1961, sparked the flame of today’s historic preservation movement in Maine’s largest city, including the creation of Greater Portland Landmarks, a nonprofit advocacy group that has led efforts to create 12 historic districts, six historic landscape districts and protected 97 individual structures or sites.

But historic preservationists are reassessing their role in Maine’s largest city, which is undergoing a dramatic transformation driven by development activity unseen since the city rebuilt itself in the wake of the Great Fire of 1866. And critics are questioning how historic preservation, which draws tourists and new residents alike, is affecting the city’s ability to build and maintain affordable housing, which continues to be in short supply.

The recent debate over the creation of the city’s newest historic district on Munjoy Hill is the latest evidence of the city’s ongoing internal struggle with preservation.

Campers arriving Union station, 1955

Preservationists leaned heavily on the stories of the immigrant workers who once populated the triple deck apartments, which lacked the inspiring architecture of the Old Port or West End. Opponents argued that the effort was less about preserving historical sites and more about stopping new development on the hill, one of the few places that allow for dense housing developments.

“We support historic preservation, but we felt it was used more as a tactic to prevent change and prevent development versus really trying to preserve homes that in the past probably wouldn’t be looked at as worthy of a historic district,” said Tim Wells, a developer and member of YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) Portland. “The members of YIMBY felt (preservation) was weaponized a little bit for other reasons.”

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The campaign to create the city’s 12th historic district also marked a somewhat new approach for Greater Portland Landmarks, which was formed in 1964 in response to the fall of Union Station.

Sarah Hansen, the group’s executive director, said the opposition to the proposal showed that the nonprofit needs to redouble its efforts to educate the public – primarily new residents and those in Portland’s off-peninsula neighborhoods – about the role of historic preservation and how it can be used to solve other challenges, like climate change. It’s also trying to focus more of its efforts on telling the stories about the community’s experience with historic sites across the city, rather than focusing on architecture and aesthetics and making those stories available to the public.

While the nonprofit continues to grow, Hansen said she’s seeing a shift in how people support preservation, especially among young people who seem more responsive to calls for action than opportunities to become ongoing members of the organization. Rather than being members, she said many people are looking for active causes to support.

“Certainly the engagement on Munjoy Hill was such a great educational opportunity for us to talk about the work that we do and the importance of preservation,” Hansen said. “That process resulted in a win for Portland, we think. Also, I think we have a whole group of people who are really invested in the city and invested in Landmarks and the work we’re doing.”

A post card depicts Portland’s Union Station, at St. John and Congress streets, in its heyday.

It was the same type of argument people used while advocating for historic protections for Forest Gardens. The beloved dive bar on Forest Avenue nearly fell to the wrecking ball to make way for a suburban-style CVS Pharmacy.

Julie Larry, advocacy director of Greater Portland Landmarks, said the group helped loyal patrons craft talking points and advised them how to present their case to the city’s Historic Preservation Board. The ruling in favor of preservation was unusual, given that the building was in disrepair and didn’t scream historical. Instead, it was eyed for its importance as a community gathering space for nearly a century.

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It’s that same spirit in which locals reacted to the planned demolition of another well-known watering hole. Larry said Greater Portland Landmarks received several inquiries from former regulars of Brian Boru, after the Press Herald reported on plans to demolish the Irish pub. A campaign was never launched, however, because the property owner canceled the demolition to allow time for the community to consider moving the building.

“That’s what we see as the future of preservation – it’s less about buildings and more about community and culture,” Hansen said. “It’s not just how intact is a building or how pristine can we keep it – it’s what story is that place telling and how are people still engaging with those stories and creating new ones.”

There’s little doubt historic preservation is a big reason why Portland is a popular place to visit and live. Glowing reviews often cite the Old Port, and cobblestone streets and the working waterfront are often cited as attractions right along with the city’s restaurants.

The Grand Trunk Office Building in Portland is the only building remaining from from the extensive Grand Trunk Railroad complex on India Street. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But some housing advocates are questioning whether historic preservation is going too far and whether it’s actually hamstringing the city’s ability to develop and meet the needs of the future, especially in terms of housing.

“They keep stretching the reasons why something can be preserved and it wasn’t the original intent of the federal legislation,” Wells said.

Last year, the City Council, for the first time, voted to reject a proposed historic district. Advocates pitched the Munjoy Hill Historic District and its modest triple-decker housing by highlighting the role the neighborhood played in housing the city’s early and diverse workforce, which included immigrants and other people of color.

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City Councilor April Fournier, who is the first indigenous person elected to the council, voted against the district. She opposed foisting additional rules on homeowners without their approval, while questioning whose history – and whose quality of life – the district was trying to preserve.

“There’s still a lot of history that still needs to be discussed and uncovered in our communities as we work towards equity,” Fournier said at the time. “For me, that’s a big piece that’s still missing in the narrative of historic preservation.”

The council ultimately reconsidered that decision and reversed course, approving the district by one vote. Councilor Andrew Zarro reversed his earlier opposition, after securing a commitment from the city to study how its existing historic districts have impacted affordable housing, the economy, socioeconomic and racial demographics and the like.

Union Station in Portland, circa 1950s Photo by James Lekousi

The city is drafting a request for proposals for a consultant to execute that review and expects to issue it in the coming weeks, according to Christine Grimando, the city’s planning and urban development director.

UNION STATION

Portland’s preservation movement began shortly after Union Station was reduced to a pile of rubble.

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The movement helped put the brakes on Urban Renewal, an auto-centric economic development strategy that sought to tear down old buildings and build anew. However, advocates could not stop Urban Renewal from eliminating immigrant neighborhoods in Bayside for the construction of the Franklin Arterial. Urban Renewal also nearly wiped out part of the Old Port, but preservationists stopped construction of the Spring Street arterial at Temple Street.

Union Station was the city’s crown jewel since it was completed in 1888. The Gothic-style, pink granite structure with its iconic 138-foot-tall clock tower was a marvel of modern construction – so much so that it served as the backdrop for a scene in “Welcome Stranger,” a 1947 film about a country Maine doctor starring Bing Crosby. It’s unclear if the scene made the final cut, since a newspaper story noted crews were concerned about filming budding trees for a scene that was supposed to be set in the fall.

For the better part of 73 years, the station connected Boston to all points north in Maine. The waiting room had two fireplaces made of red sandstone and the floor was a checkerboard pattern made of white marble and gray slate. Its cafe was decorated with heads of deer and moose mounted on the walls, which contrasted with chandeliers hanging over neatly arranged tables draped in white linens. And behind the immense granite building was the boarding area, with luggage neatly stacked in black trunks.

But the advent of the automobile and the creation of the Maine Turnpike made train travel obsolete. Passenger service ended in 1960 and Maine Central Railroad began selling off its assets.

About a year later, the station was demolished. But it did not go gently.

Images from the news accounts show the top of the clock tower – whose neatly stacked gears once orchestrated what was considered to be the most accurate time in New England – still standing stubbornly above a pile of rubble. Another photo shows two young boys, lying in the grass, watching a large black plume of smoke rise up as the clock tower was finally brought down.

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“It happened so quickly,” Maine State Historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., who witnessed the demolition as a 13-year-old boy, told the Press Herald on the 50th anniversary. “It made people realize that major components of the city’s history could be destroyed with the flick of a finger and they needed to take steps to protect it.”

Shettleworth said in an interview Friday that the demolition made such an impact on the city’s psyche because Union Station was “a crossroads for thousands of people of all walks of life,” including soldiers going to fight in both world wars. Nearly everyone had a personal connection, memory or emotional attachment to the station.

It was a very jarring loss for people in Portland,” he said. “The reaction to its loss was so deep and so broadly felt in Portland and elsewhere because it was a building that virtually everybody came into contact with.”

The Union Station clock on Friday at its current location at Congress Square in Portland Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Relics of Union Station can still be found in Portland and elsewhere today.

The clock face now sits in Congress Square Park and part of the sprawling train shed now covers the ice rink at Thompson’s Point, both in Portland.

Two of the station’s granite lampposts were once installed at the entrance of Nasson College in Springvale. But they were purchased sometime after the college closed and have been installed at the Johnson Hall Museum on Route 1 in Wells. The new owner has added an eagle with wings spread atop a sphere to each lamppost.

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And a stone marker at a cemetery in Sabattus reportedly came from the ruins of Union Station.

Meanwhile, a mural of Union Station hangs above the auditorium entrance of the James A. Banks Sr. Portland Exposition Building.

But the most enduring  legacy is the emotional reaction of residents who continue to evoke the demolition.

Union Station, filming of the movie Welcome Stranger

RALLYING CRY

Union Station has since been used as a rallying cry for preservation, especially over the last decade, while the city is undergoing a dramatic transformation due to development. It has had mixed results, however.

It was used successfully in support of the Munjoy Hill Historic District and to fight against a private developer eyeing a restaurant and shops at Fort Gorges. However, it was unsuccessfully evoked to oppose increased building heights on the western waterfront for a new cold storage building and in support of a citizen referendum to protect scenic views along the eastern waterfront – a move that would have stymied the ambitious redevelopment of the former Portland Co. complex.

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Union Station has even been used to support causes in other communities. It was cited in the effort to push back against the state’s plan to solve traffic congestion in Wiscasset and to save a clock tower in Biddeford.

More recently, it has been used by people advocating for greater investment in passenger rail in Portland and Lewiston-Auburn.

Ironically, a recent study by the state concluded that the former Union Station site – which is now the Union Station Plaza strip mall – would be the ideal place to build a new train station for the Amtrak Downeaster.

Union Station Plaza in Portland, in August 2011, 50 years after the original Union Station was torn down John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

LOOKING FORWARD

Julie Larry, the advocacy director of Greater Portland Landmarks, said she sees the future of preservation efforts looking more like arguments put forward in support of Munjoy Hill.

She said the group has been busy researching the history of off-peninsula neighborhoods and sharing that history with current residents and neighborhood groups. The nonprofit plans to make this information available online, she said.

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The group is also looking to tell more well-rounded stories of Portland’s history, including some of the darker elements, such as the city’s connection to the slave and sugar trade. For example, Larry said the landmarks office building, the Stafford House, was likely built using money earned from the slave trade. As were many buildings in the West End and many built by J.B. Brown, she said.

“That is the gritty work we’re anxious to jump more into,” she said.

Larry said the group is also looking to make a more direct link between preservation and environmental sustainability and the battle against climate change. She said new construction uses far more energy and deposits far more waste into landfills than adapting older buildings to new uses. And contrary to public opinion, historic buildings and buildings within historic districts can be retrofitted with heat pumps and solar panels.

“Historic preservation hasn’t talked much about that, but we’re planning to,” Larry said.

While the language of preservation has been changing, the fundamental lesson of the fall of Union Station remains central to the group’s work, according to the Hansen, the director.

“We never regret saving a building,” Hansen said. “But in so many cases we really regret when we have lost one.”


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