A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

All Is Not Lost: the Baxter Memorial Block

I've been meaning for a while to start an occasional series here of small-scale, tactical improvements to specific places that could have big ripple effects on their surrounding neighborhoods and the city as a whole.

I recently had occasion to browse the old photos of Portland that are available on the Maine Memory Network for a post I was writing for the Live/Work Portland blog. While doing so, a certain building on old postcard views of Congress Street kept on catching my eye: the Baxter Memorial Block, which appeared to be located somewhere on the south side of Congress in the vicinity of Oak Street (image at right courtesy of the Maine Historical Society's Maine Memory Network database).

The Baxter Memorial Block was an extremely handsome and striking Queen Anne office building. This view (at right) shows it up close, but its distinctive turret on the northern corner, and its prominent location on a convex bend of the street, helped it stand out in most any photo of Portland's main street, including shots of Monument and Congress Squares.

My morning's research had forced me to come to terms with a lot of Portland's lost buildings and neighborhoods, but this one was particularly striking. How could our city have lost a structure as beautiful — and as huge — as this one, in the middle of our downtown?

I later found out, while doing some subsequent browsing at the Greater Portland Landmarks site. The Baxter Memorial Block technically didn't ever get torn down: a husk of it is still standing on the corner of Congress and Oak. But a renovation in the 1950s demolished the turret and covered up in stucco all of the building's architectural details: demolished the soul of the building, in other words, and rendered it anonymous and forgotten. A before and after view from the GPL site (this is looking west towards Congress Square):

The Baxter Memorial Block, as was in the late nineteenth century (left) and today (right).

I'm reminded of the Kurt Vonnegut short story "Harrison Bergeron," about a dystopian society in which all citizens are forced to conform to a lowest-common-denominator standard by a "Handicapper General" who burdens the intelligent with screeching implants that interrupt their thoughts, the strong with sandbags, and the beautiful with masks. In the mid-1950s, the owners of one of our city's proudest buildings defaced it so that it would conform to the bland ugliness of the new shopping plazas and gas stations. What a miserable legacy to leave!

A detail of the ground-floor facade and the J.R. Libby Department Store, at the corner of Oak and Congress. Today, it's a Dunkin Donuts. Source.

Still — beneath the stucco, the Baxter Memorial Block is still there. I wonder how much of the brickwork and wrought-iron casings are still there, hiding after half a century in the dark.

Today, it's a low-rent building that few people want to work in — not much different from the half-abandoned shopping plazas and service stations they wanted it to look like. But imagine what it might become if someone invested the effort to restore even a hint of what its true nature.

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