If you gazed at Portland’s skyline a year ago, you saw what people had already seen for decades. A rectangular slab of orange brickface. A slender spire. Some office windows. A digital clock.

Will Hall

Now an 18-story, 190-foot-tall apartment building is taking shape and poking above those familiar sights. Known as 201 Federal Street, the building topped off last October and is expected to open before the end of this year.

The new building may or may not quite be the tallest in the state, depending on what you measure. Spires at the nearby Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and at former church buildings in Biddeford and Lewiston all rise more than 200 feet heavenward. But let’s not quibble.

Maine isn’t exactly known for tall buildings. The newest, the Portland headquarters of medical group InterMed, was constructed in 2008 and stands 135 feet, about the height of the state’s loftiest lighthouse, on Boon Island. The InterMed building is the only Maine high-rise built this century. The next-youngest, Back Bay Tower, is 172 feet tall and was built in 1997. Franklin Towers, 175 feet, dates to 1969.

Even with the addition of 201 Federal, Maine will have the fourth-shortest tallest building of any state. Only the tallest buildings in South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming are shorter. New Hampshire boasts three buildings – two office towers and an apartment complex – over 220 feet.

Verticality seems to be shunned in Maine. Proposals for tall buildings have become lightning rods for public controversy or simply never gotten off the ground. In 2019, East Brown Cow Management floated plans for a building of up to 25 stories on an Old Port parking lot, but that idea stalled once the pandemic hit. The so-called Midtown project, a 2014 proposal to build several 14-story buildings in Bayside, fizzled out after neighbors opposed the structures’ size and began a chain of litigation.


Of course, big projects naturally attract strong public opinion, pro and con, and involve big investments and policy decisions. It’s not surprising that some plans don’t work out. Still, Maine’s shortness is remarkable.

I hope 201 Federal is a harbinger of high-rises to come. It should at least urge Portland: Grow up.


Human beings have always tried to build tall. Churches, capitols, office towers, celebrity penthouses – they’ve ascended like bars on a graph, as centers of power and money have shifted over time. Today, we also recognize that urban towers can be more cost-efficient and climate-friendly than urban sprawl. Big vertical buildings don’t have the big footprints of big horizontal ones, and so work better for cities where land is scarce and expensive.

Increasingly, however, we live in a landscape flattened by technology and the generic, one-size-fits-all culture that often goes along with it. The world is becoming a collection of identical pinpoints on a Google map; we navigate not by the stars but by Siri.

Meta, formerly Facebook, made flatness famous. Ex-manager and whistleblower Frances Haugen last year described the company’s global headquarters as “a physical manifestation of their obsession with flatness, the idea that we are all on the same level.”


Haugen said the Facebook campus – comprising dozens of numbered, low-rise buildings in Menlo Park, California – was so large that she’d regularly walk 15 minutes to attend a 30-minute meeting. She told Yahoo Finance, “That level of absurdity, that it is more important for the building to be flat than to be functional for us to go to our meetings, just kind of shows you the blindness of that religion.”

Blindness, indeed. A flat perspective makes it difficult to distinguish what is greater than ourselves, to sense the life teeming around us as more than two-dimensional coordinates. When we’re running late, we check our smartphones, not the Time & Temperature Building. Someday, will we refer to 20 West 34th St., New York City, by its address – and not as the Empire State Building?


Tall buildings bring depth to our flattened world and a vantage point from which to see it. We feel their instinctive pull – maybe they even help explain the renewed popularity of rooftops. The Top of the East lounge, on the 15th floor of the Westin Portland hotel, has reopened after a major renovation. The hotel planned for the 14-story Time & Temp may offer a rooftop bar. And 201 Federal plans a “sky lounge” of its own on floor 18.

In Boston, the top of the 52-story Prudential Tower is scheduled to reopen publicly this year after being closed since the start of the pandemic. The expanded space will no longer host the beloved Top of the Hub restaurant, but will have two new eateries, a theater and a larger observatory.

A small observatory has been standing in Portland since 1807. The 86-foot-tall, octagonal, wooden tower occupies the crest of Munjoy Hill, where developers, planning officials and residents have argued over limits on building height for years.

Much longer ago, spotters atop the Portland Observatory peered through a telescope to identify inbound ships when they were as far as 30 miles offshore. The spotters relayed news of the arrivals to the city’s bustling wharves via specially designated signal flags. For a fee, the observatory crew would hoist the colors of your ship when it neared landing.

The arrangement, which operated until 1923, saved Portland merchants crucial time and money in the race to unload cargo. A century later, our businesses and our community can benefit from similar farsightedness.

Will Hall is the business editor of the Portland Press Herald. You can reach the Business Desk at business@pressherald.com.

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