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Maine Life | Thursday, August 19th, 2010, 2:59 pm

Portland’s five architectural wonders that could disappear next

Bryan Bruchman | Maine Observer
Is Franklin Towers a "fine example of Soviet Sentimental architecture" worth saving?

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Bryan Bruchman | Maine Observer
Is the fate of this beloved "disco-era behemoth" up in the air?

Historically-minded Portlanders often wax nostalgic about the city’s lost architectural heritage – specifically buildings and neighborhoods that were victims of mid-20th century urban renewal. The late Union Station on St. John Street is the poster child for this list of lost gems, which also includes the Grand Trunk depot on India Street, the Falmouth Hotel on the corner of Middle and Temple Streets, the old classically columned post office, and the neighborhoods that were razed to make way for the Franklin Arterial and I-295.

The strip malls, office towers, and parking garages that arose in place of these stately structures and tight-knit communities are subpar replacements indeed. Surely Portland would be better off if all the urban renewal era architecture was replaced with something just a little less ugly?

I’d be careful with that wrecking ball. Just because this generation might not care for the aesthetics of 60’s and 70’s architecture doesn’t make buildings of that vintage irredeemable. Previous generations had similar attitudes about buildings of Victorian and Art Deco vintage and one doesn’t need to be a Mad Men fan to notice the recent craze for Mid Century Modern style. Even buildings that outlive their function can be repurposed into something new – witness the swank condos that have breathed new life into many a dead mill. With that in mind, I offer up the following post-war Portland landmarks as places that could use a little more love in case they need saving in the years and decades to come.

1.) The Cumberland County Civic Center

The civic center may be only 33 years old, but according to some it is already obsolete. While both the Libra Foundation and CBRE/The Boulos Company have offered to build a shinier new civic center only to be shot down, the chorus of voices calling for something to be done about its shortcomings won’t die down. In 2008, Janet Marie Smith – the architect responsible for the renovations of Fenway Park and Camden Yards – developed a plan to give the civic center a similar makeover. Last year the Civic Center Joint Task Force invited the consulting firm Brailsford and Dunlavey to look into the economic feasibility of a face lift for the building. The debate continued this summer when the Portland Press Herald reported that Jason Snyder – the developer behind the proposed Stroudwater Place shopping center in Westbrook – announced his interest in building a sports and entertainment arena next to his as yet non-existent shopping plaza. Because part of Snyder’s vision includes luring the Portland Pirates to this new arena, the vacated civic center would be ripe for conversion (by Snyder) into a proper convention center. In short, the future of this disco-era behemoth is currently up in the air. If the renovationist camp comes out on top, the building can expect a new lease on life. However, if the apologists for an entirely new facility prevail, keeping the Cumberland County Civic Center from joining Union Station and the Falmouth Hotel in landmark heaven may be a tall order.

2.) The Maine Mall

Dead malls are becoming such a familiar part of the American landscape that there is a website devoted to them. Will the proprietors of that site ever find a reason to eulogize the Maine Mall? A year ago that appeared to be a distinct possibility when General Growth Properties, the mall’s parent company, filed for bankruptcy. The mall was already reeling from the loss of tenants like Filene’s, to say nothing of the host of smaller tenants that are no more. If this death spiral continues, will the mall become an epicenter of suburban blight, or will it’s vacant shell share the happy fate of refurbished New England mills and be adapted to new uses, such as mall farming?
Such a fate for the Maine Mall would be a sort of full-circle journey, considering the land on which it sits was once Dwyer’s pig farm.

3.) The Wyman power plant in Yarmouth

Kicking the fossil fuel habit is not proving to be an easy task for our civilization. Addictions are rough beasts and the threat of an overdose remains uncomfortably real. But let us suppose for a moment we do wean ourselves off of the corpses of dead dinosaurs. Places like the the Wyman plant will be decoupled from the power grid, letting tidal, wind, or solar power do the hard work of running our air conditioners, fueling our meat vats, and charging our cochlear phone implants. A major cleanup will be called for to undo decades of contamination and the temptation to knock everything down in the process will be great. That would be a pity because it has the potential to be one majestic ruin. What they lack in usefulness, ruins make up for in mystique and fun. Peaks Island’s annual Sacred and Profane art installation is creepy and awesome because the organizers set it up inside the crumbling shell of Fort Battery Steel. Just think of what strange rituals might take place in the ruins of the old Wyman plant.

4.) The Maine Medical Center Parking Garage

If the citizens of Portland are ever moderately successful in weaning themselves away from automobile dependence – say through mass transit or car sharing – the need for so many parking garages will abate. Repurposing them into new uses presents a unique challenge due to much of the floor being sloping ramps. If I was an ambitious gallery owner I’d buy one for a song and turn it into a home for funky art installations. Other than that, I don’t see much of a future for the parking garage if automobiles do somehow become less ubiquitous. Frankly, it won’t be much of a loss if they go the way of tanning yards and garbage dumps. Even so, I would miss Maine Medical Center’s parking garage at the corner of Congress and Gilman Streets – not the new one but the slightly older simple concrete structure that reminds me of a ziggurat, only not shaped like a pyramid. Without the automobile it would be utterly useless. I don’t care – it looks cool and I hope future generations have a chance to enjoy or be puzzled by it.

5.) Franklin Towers

This massive residential block next to Franklin Arterial conjures up images of soul crushing housing projects like Chicago’s Cabrini Green or St. Louis’s Pruit Igoe. (Christian MilNeil, a local advocate for livable cities and well known figure in the Portland blogosphere, once described it as “a fine example of Soviet Sentimental architecture.”) Love for residential superblock’s like Franklin Towers is hard to come by. Then again, the same was once said of working class neighborhoods like the one replaced by this slabby tower. Aesthetic incorrectness should not condemn a building to rubble just because poor people live there. MilNeil, despite his jab at the tower a few years ago, wholeheartedly agrees:

“Yeah, we can’t tear down Franklin Towers – even if most people think it’s ugly, it’s also home to hundreds of people who have the ability to walk to work and errands. Besides, I don’t even think it’s that ugly – it’s certainly no worse than the Portland Harbor Hotel down on Fore Street, or the Holiday Inn, or any of the city’s high-rise parking garages.”

The Franklin Towers neighborhood may very well undergo radical and welcome changes in the near future if plans to rebuild it’s namesake arterial go through. Even so, the Tower itself is not in any real danger of meeting the same fate as the neighborhood it replaced. No need to panic. Yet.

After all, it’s worth remembering that the neighborhoods razed to make way for Franklin Towers and Franklin Arterial were secure in their existence in 1950, but gone by 1970. Let’s hope the whims of aesthetic correctness don’t doom Portland’s finest example of “Soviet Sentimental” architecture to a similar fate.

Patrick Banks is a Portland-based writer who sees the past and future in Portland's present.

3 Responses to “Portland’s five architectural wonders that could disappear next”

  1. Jack says:

    Great article. My biggest problem with Franklin Towers is that is has the unfortunate distinction of being the tallest building in the State of Maine.

  2. Josh says:

    Interesting theory.

    And I, for one, actually do like the Jordan Marsh at the Mall. The rockwork and the copper eaves evokes a late 1960s je ne sais quoi.

  3. Patrick says:

    Interesting article.

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