My family is extremely fortunate to live for part of the year in a shingle-style cottage designed by John Calvin Stevens. We love the house, which we bought many years ago, and are delighted that there are so many examples of Stevens’ distinctive architecture in the Portland area. Although he was an extraordinarily creative designer, the former Chamber of Commerce building in Congress Square is not one of his finest works.

In fact, Stevens did not design it. He instead made some modifications to a rather plain 85-year-old building originally built as the Free Street Baptist Church. When Stevens and his son updated it in 1926 for the Chamber of Commerce, the building became much more impressive when set alongside the older brick buildings then located on Free Street. With the demolition of the buildings on one side (now a vacant lot) and construction of the Payson Building on the other, however, it no longer fits.

Stevens’ addition of a faux Greek Revival façade on a rather plain building might have worked in 1926. It no longer does. More importantly, unlike many of his other buildings, it was never great or distinctive architecture. Although some bastardized architecture that blends different architectural styles can be extremely interesting, this building is not one of them. And because the times and its neighbors have changed, its weaknesses have been exposed. Indeed, in its present setting, the effect of its overdone columns appears, in my judgment, somewhat akin to putting lipstick on a pig – to use a well-traveled cliché (with some exaggeration).

The Portland Museum of Art, on the other hand, has become one of the most important cultural icons for Portland and, indeed, for Maine. Its collection – thanks, in large part to contributions of significant works over the past few decades from the Payson family and Betty Noyce – has grown substantially in both quantity and quality. Hopefully, it will continue to do so. Already, however, it needs more space.

I love many old buildings and will always regard the destruction of Union Station and its replacement by an ugly strip mall and parking lot as the most significant architectural tragedy in Portland of the past century. I also admire the Historic Landmarks Commission for its major role in ensuring that colossal errors like that never occur again. Our architectural heritage should certainly be protected. But this is not the battle to fight.

We cannot make progress by being completely mired in the past. Change will always be uncomfortable for some, but in a dynamic contemporary city, it is essential. Yes, we can debate the design of the PMA’s proposed addition. Does it try to touch too many politically correct bases at the expense of a thoughtful connection to the widely admired Payson Building, designed by another great Portland architect, Henry Cobb? Perhaps. Indeed, many might favor at least a few tweaks.

But like all interesting and somewhat innovative architecture, it will attract attention, foster healthy debate (as the current design already has) and draw even more attention and activity to a burgeoning cultural center of the city. A new building – much of which will occupy a vacant lot – will enhance Congress Square, provide much needed space for the museum and attract even more visitors to help local businesses. It will enhance the overall vibrancy and revitalization of our city and, in particular, its downtown area.

I agree that changes to a designated historic district can be a dangerous precedent for historic preservation. It could well become a slippery slope. Nonetheless, virtually all change involves some risks. In this instance, if community leaders recognize that this is a special case never to be casually repeated, the benefits of proceeding with this particular project substantially outweigh the negatives voiced by many of its opponents. Let’s get on with it, provide the necessary approvals and let construction begin.

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