142 Free St. should be demolished.

I’m an amateur historian who writes about Portland’s built environment. I have on my wall a reprint of a photo taken on Congress Street, looking down into Congress Square. It’s from sometime around 1890. The Baxter Library is on the left and the top of Park Street on the right. At the top of Free Street is a church. It is in the same location as 142 Free St., but it is not the building we see today. It has two towers at the street and is in a Romanesque or Italianate style. It was built in the 1850s for the Free Street Baptist Society. The architect was Charles A. Alexander, whose life and work I have spent the last decade documenting.

That building replaced an earlier one that may have looked somewhat like what is there now, but that remains unclear. What is clear to me is that what is there today is not so “old” as we may think.

142 Free St. has “historical significance,” according to a survey. That survey was based on opinion and inherent human bias towards toward the “old.”

My opinion is that, although it may have some historical value, the building has been so thoroughly altered and debased that there is little history left.

There is also the issue of it being the only old building left on that side of the street for half a block. Is there really any historic district on that side of Free Street?

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As for the Stevens connection – John Calvin Stevens was Maine’s best-known architect. But he was not a god. His work is not sacrosanct. He was not above altering historic fabric for modern uses. He was also a progressive; he saw the need for change and growth in the city. Stevens promoted new forms and styles of architecture.

To say that he would or wouldn’t support the Portland Museum of Art’s expansion plans would be to put words into the mouth of the deceased, and that is something I won’t do. I just think it is very unclear, given his body of work.

Of greater concern to me is the Charles Quincy Clapp House at 100 Spring St., also a part of the Portland Museum of Art campus. It was built in 1832 by a member of Portland’s early shipping and mercantile families, and is a gem of a building. The Greek Revival style was still very new to the U.S. when it was built. One can only imagine what people thought of something so new and unusual. It is not open to the public, and the museum is very tight-lipped on its future plans for it.

Cultural institutions often lead when it comes to architecture and public design. I believe the Portland Museum of Art is attempting, once again, to do for Portland just as the Payson building did for Portland. The museum should be allowed to remove the building at 142 Free St. in order to continue this leadership.


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