2015-06-05 / Front Page

Willard survey is unveiled

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


What is thought to be the oldest building in South Portland, a 1725 Georgian-style residence at 42 Beach St., once reportedly used as supplementary prison space for nearby Fort Preble. (Courtesy photo) What is thought to be the oldest building in South Portland, a 1725 Georgian-style residence at 42 Beach St., once reportedly used as supplementary prison space for nearby Fort Preble. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — At its most recent meeting, Monday, June 1, the South Portland City Council took a “trip back though time,” courtesy of Greater Portland Landmarks (GPL).

In 2013, GPL placed the city on its annual list of “Places in Peril.” Breaking from the tradition of listing single significant properties in danger of being lost to the ravages of time, GPL actually placed the entire city on its list.

The reason, Executive Director Hilary Bassett said, was that while South Portland was known to possess a vast mix of architectural styles and features, as distinct neighborhoods and villages sprouted and grew over time, no survey of homes existed to document what remained, and no rules were in place to protect the more historic sites.

“Quality information equals better planning decisions,” GPL Project Manager Christopher Closs said at Monday’s meeting. “That’s really what this is about, in a nutshell.”

Tom Blake, who was the mayor of South Portland at the time and bit of a history buff — he teaches a class on Maine and local history at Southern Maine Community College — responded by asking GPL to step up and help complete the survey it said should be on hand.

Using an $8,000 grant from the Horizon Foundation of Portland and volunteer help from the South Portland Historical Society, GPL completed the survey over the course of three months last summer and fall. At the suggestion of Kathryn DiPhilippo, executive director of the South Portland Historical Society, GPL started its survey in the Willard neighborhood, an area that runs from the SMMC campus, down Preble Street to Deake Street.

“We tried to set this up as a model, or prototype, the city of South Portland could use in the future, using either city money or grant money, or a combination of both, and mobilizing volunteers,” Closs said.

For the initial survey, GPL had the help of 17 volunteers, four of whom, fortunately enough, were trained in the use of the Cultural and Architectural Resource Management Archive used by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. Together, they recorded data on 336 residential, commercial, municipal and institutional buildings in the survey area, the oldest of which, thought to be the oldest building in South Portland, dated to 1725.

That building, a Georgian-style residence at 42 Beach St., was reportedly used as a supplementary prison space to nearby Fort Preble.

“We are told there are still shackles and chains in the attic for whoever the unfortunates were who had to live there,” Closs said.

The slideshow tour given to councilors included 18 architectural styles, starting with the typical ranch home of 50 years ago, the most recent vintage eligible for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Among the styles peculiar to South Portland are the so-called fish house-type — the “least altered” of which stands at 26 Beach St. — and the bungalow, or craftsman style. As Blake points out in the walking tours he gives of the city to his students, many of the local homes in the craftsman style were kits purchased out of Sears and Roebuck catalogs in the early 20th century.

“South Portland is extraordinarily represented with the bungalow and craftsman style. We found literally dozens of them in the survey area,” Closs said.

Also well represented is the so-called foursquare apartment building; the shingle style, pioneered by Portland architect John Calvin Stevens; the second empire, or Mansard style, noted for its sloping roof line; the traditional Cape Cod home and, in Willard Square, the “boomtown facade” style, familiar from Western movies.

According to Closs, the competed survey can be used by the city for GIS mapping, placement on the historic register and applications for historic tax credits, and for making zoning and site plan review decisions. For buildings on the national register there also are benefits under the National Flood Insurance Program, he said.

“It’s amazing how much history is in our midst,” Mayor Linda Cohen said.

“As a result of this work, we now have the data and photographs of every single building from the survey at the South Portland Historical Society,” DiPhilippo said. “All of it will be cataloged and made available to the public on our Past Perfect museum software.”

According to Bassett, GPL plans to make similar presentations to the South Portland Planning Board and the city’s arts and historic preservation committee. That committee is partly an offshoot of GPL’s 2013 Places in Peril listing, appending its call for a preservation committee to an arts commission recommended by then-new assistant city manager Jon Jennings.

Bassett said the presentation to the arts and historic preservation committee will include particular recommendations for some of the buildings documented in the recent survey.

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