2013-11-15 / Community

A Window on the Past

Sylvan Site: a model development in S. Portland
By Craig Skelton
South Portland Historical Society

Clyfdale Villa on Sawyer Street in South Portland has historical significance and is up for sale. (Courtesy photo) Clyfdale Villa on Sawyer Street in South Portland has historical significance and is up for sale. (Courtesy photo) When I travel, I love to see and experience how different things can be in other areas of the country. My brother-in-law and his wife bought a new home in Fairport, a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., in which the builder and Realtor held what was called a “Homea rama.” It is a kind of open house, except the home they bought was furnished and the open house event was catered. They do it this way so prospective buyers can talk to the builder about floor plans and other options and home buyers have an opportunity to speak to decorators and local home furnishing suppliers. How fun is that?

Travel back about 100 years and home buyers were treated to a Home-a-rama of sorts where contractors showcased plumbing, heating and electrical products available in the 1920s in a development called Sylvan Site in South Portland. I imagine that state-of-the-art 100 years ago was quite primitive compared to what we’re accustomed to today. “Easy” brand appliances were featured by a local power company and I imagine there were more than a few homes in Sylvan Site with them offered up.

It all began in 1907 when Frederick Wheeler Hinckley, an accomplished attorney, politician and amateur architect, built a southern colonial style home on 21 acres of land at 925 Sawyer St., which he named Clyfdale Villa. A drive by the home will reveal that it is currently on the market. I stopped in front of it and took note of the style and features not found in home construction of today. I was able to view pictures of its beautiful interior on the Realtor’s website. The quality and craftsmanship found in homes of that era is clearly visible. Although you might not find Frederick Hinckley’s name next to the likes of John Calvin Stevens in history books on the topic of architectural design and style, I think he may deserve that sort of credit.

Frederick Hinckley and his wife lived in their Sawyer Street home for about a decade before the opening of the Million Dollar Bridge prompted him to buy 85 acres around his home. The new bridge was a major improvement for trolley and automobile travel to and from Portland and Hinckley sensed an opportunity. On those 85 acres he created Sylvan Site, an area bounded on the east side by Ocean Street and between Sawyer Street and the Cape Elizabeth town line. Being all wooded land, Frederick chose the name Sylvan for its meaning to describe “woodsy” or living near or in the woods.

History records that Cumberland Illumination Co. was founded in 1877. The company incorporated in 1909 as Cumberland County Power and Light after Cumberland Illumination and other larger electricity suppliers acquired smaller companies in southern Maine. During that time of mergers and acquisitions, the foundation of the power grid for this area was being laid and it may be difficult for most of us to realize that electricity was not found in every home like it is today.

Heating of the time had advanced beyond simple wood stoves and some homes were built with gravity hot water, hot air or steam radiators. Clyfdale Villa was heated with steam, which produced a whistling sound many of you may be familiar with hearing. The radiators were large in some instances, depending upon the size of a room, and sometimes made furniture placement a challenge. Gravity hot water also had the large radiators. However, there was no whistling sound as the heated water rose up through the pipes while cooler water descended back to the furnace, unaided by circulating pumps widely used today. Hot air systems originally consisted of a giant centralized floor grate from which hot air rose. However, later systems included some ducting to distribute heated air more evenly.

Consider driving through the neighborhood to view the Spanish, Colonial Revival, Tudor, Italianate and Arts and Craft style homes that Frederick Hinckley designed. And take notice that his design talents went beyond the homes as he incorporated generous verandas as a transition to back yards that featured benches, arbors, fences, planters and trellises all surrounded by beautiful landscaping.

During a conversation with my daughter’s French teacher, Cecile LaPlante, who owns the English Tudor on Adelbert Street with her husband, she emphasized that they paid special attention to detail when adding on, to ensure the addition was in keeping with the original design. Frederick Hinckley is said to have overseen construction of all the homes on Sylvan Site and I think he would be proud of the efforts homeowners like Cecile and her husband have made in the last 100 years to retain the character in the homes he personally designed. A drive through the neighborhood would confirm that Madame LaPlante’s sentiment has been widely kept.

Although the Great Depression came between Frederick Hinckley and his dream of building 200 homes in Sylvan Site, he reportedly designed and built 37 beautiful homes, many of which retain much of their original charm and characteristics that have attracted buyers to his Sylvan Site.

Craig Skelton is a guest columnist and member of South Portland Historical Society.

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