It’s time for people around here to see the light.
More specifically, it’s time for us all to really slow down and drink in the incredible holiday light displays illuminating most of downtown Portland this time of year.
Portland has an amazingly creative and festive collection of holiday lighting, which is unmatched by most cities of similar size. But if you only drive through town, or walk from your parking garage to your office, you might not appreciate just how many lights Portland has or how spectacular they are.
So this year, give yourself an early present and take a walk. An evening walking tour of downtown is really the best way to experience Portland’s lights and get the full, cumulative effect of their power.
At the heart of Portland’s display are the lighted metal sculptures made by Portland artist Pandora LaCasse. More than 150 of her structures, holding thousands of lights, can be seen all over downtown. They are shaped like balls, diamonds, ovals, tear drops, and come in just about every color.
LaCasse began bending and welding her metal sculptures for Portland’s Downtown District in 1999, in Tommy’s Park. Now she and her crew are hired to decorate spots all over the downtown area, including Commercial Street on the waterfront, Boothby Square and Tommy’s Park in the Old Port, Congress Street, Congress Square, and Longfellow Square. But LaCasse’s lights are not the whole story. The city and shop keepers seem inspired by her work, and each year they add more creative lighting creations of their own. So on some blocks, there are literally lights everywhere you look.
Here then, are four suggested routes for touring Portland’s downtown lights on foot (feel free to meander over to Deering Oaks Park, too, where the lights look just as stunning away from all the city hubbub). You could spend as little as 15 to 30 minutes, or a couple hours, depending on how much you want to walk and whether you browse gift shops or buy a hot chocolate.
Distance: Half a mile (see map below). Allow 15 to 30 minutes.
Stand at the corner of Commercial and Cross streets, near Union Wharf, and look east down Commercial Street. The view to your left is breathtaking. Block after block of three and four-story brick buildings, built in the 1800s, are festooned with dozens of blue, white and green light sculptures. The circles and half circles look like gum drops, according to my daughters, 11-year-old Sophie and 7-year-old Dinah, who joined me on my recent lights tour.
When walking along the street, take the time to stop and look up along the side of one of the sculpture-covered buildings. You can look right through the frame of one sculpture to the next, creating a prism effect.
At the east end of Commercial Street, near Franklin, the managers of the Hilton Garden Inn have contributed to Portland’s light show. The outline of the top floor is lit in neon green for a few minutes, then it fades to red for a for a few more. Than back to green.
Distance: Two tenths of a mile (see map below). Allow 20 to 40 minutes.
The LaCasse sculptures in Boothby Square are on poles more than ten feet in the air, at either end of the oblong-shaped square. They look a little like fuzzy erasers on the ends of pencils. Across Fore Street, the Merrill Lynch office is well lit, with tiny white lights on a dozens bushes in front, and two giant light-up snowflakes on the facade.
Looking up through the LaCasse sculpture in the square, the moon-lit clouds mix with the colored lights.
As you walk to Tommy’s Park, up Market Street, notice the trees in the courtyard of the Regency Hotel. Hanging from the trees are light strings where the white light shoots down the string. “It looks like shooting stars,” Sophie said as we passed by.
At Tommy’s Park, just stand in the middle and let this scene created by LaCasse envelope you. Every inch of every tree is covered from ground to tip top by tiny orange and yellow lights. Large sparkling blue teardrop shapes hang from branches. The lights give a dramatic glow to the Trompe-l’oeil (“trick the eye”) painting of a building facade – on a building facade – at one end of the park.
Distance: Half a mile (see map below). Allow 30 to 60 minutes.
This is the probably most dramatic stretch of lights in the city. Congress Street has some 40 LaCasse structures just on the light poles, shaped like diamonds, circles and ovals.
Start at Monument Square, where dozens of strings of white lights look like sparkling spaghetti atop the trees lining the sidewalk between the square and Free Street. Then stand at the city’s 45-foot-tall Christmas tree and gaze at the multi-colored lights.
Across Congress Street, the Time and Temperature building sports more than two-dozen bell-shaped forms, lit up in swirls of red and white. Up Congress Street a bit, another 20 or so lighted sculptures form a festive waterfall on the front of the Maine College of Art building.
At Congress Square, as in Tommy’s Park, you have to step into the plaza and be enveloped. Here again the trees are covered with lights, mostly red and white with purple spheres hanging from the branches. Dinah thought they looked like “candy canes with gum drops hanging off.”
Distance: About two tenths of a mile (see map below). Allow 10-20 minutes.
The light pole spheres continue down Congress Street. There are yellow teardrops, green diamonds, red balls, green gum drops and purple ovals. It’s fun to look down the street and view all the lights mingling with the red tail lights of cars. As you walk down the street toward Longfellow Square, you’ll see another LaCasse scene that includes trees covered in lights. The tiny lights are blue and green and together the blend into sort of an aqua color. Purple/pink spheres hang from the branches. At one end of the park is the statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Portland poet. Usually he’s got presents under his chair and a scarf around his neck this time of the year, but was not festively attired yet when we toured the lights.
Even though he was known for his visual imagery, there’s no way Longfellow could have ever imagined his home city would ever have such a dazzling appearance and sheen for the holidays.