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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: February 4, 2015

Greater Portland Landmarks exhibit highlights what the city has lost and saved

Written by: Bob Keyes
The demolition of Union Station, which is pictured here before it was demolished in1961, was the catalyst that led to the establishment of Greater Portland Landmarks three years later.

The demolition of Union Station, which is pictured here before it was demolished in1961, was the catalyst that led to the establishment of Greater Portland Landmarks three years later.

Greater Portland Landmarks continues its 50th anniversary celebration with a long-term wallpaper-style exhibition of photos that documents efforts to preserve the city’s architectural character.

The exhibition also shows some of the buildings and other cultural gems the city has lost to demolition over the years and recognizes key members of the organization who led efforts to prevent further demolition.

“We want to tell the story of preservation in Portland and particularly call attention to the fact it’s been a progressive effort to preserve the architecture and culture of the city. It really has taken 50 years,” executive director Hilary Bassett said.

The photos, postcards and other artifacts are presented as a collage, arranged chronologically with text, to show how Portland has evolved over the last half century. The wallpaper covers the reception area of Landmarks’ offices at 93 High St. In addition, the organization recognized its eight founders by reproducing in large scale their signatures from the nonprofit organization’s articles of incorporation, which were signed in 1964. Those signatures ring the top of the walls of the Founders Room.

The offices will be open from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday as part of First Friday Art Walk. Additionally, the offices will be open regularly from 11 to 1 p.m. Fridays if people want to come in for a look.

“We’re not set up to be a museum gallery, but we do want people to stop in and see what we’ve done. I think our story is best told with photos that show what we’ve saved, what we’ve lost and how we’ve arrived at the point where we are today,” Bassett said, noting that Landmarks is more accustomed to publishing books than mounting exhibitions.

This one feels a little like a book: It is dense with information that encourages people to take the time to observe, read and discuss.

Jennifer Pollick, who manages Landmarks’ education programs, assembled the exhibition. She includes many obvious photo choices, including the elegant Union Station. Its demolition in 1961 led to the establishment of Greater Portland Landmarks three years later. The loss of a beautiful building, which came down in an era of urban renewal, surprised many people in Portland and spurred them to action, Pollick said.

“These buildings were being torn down. They were old and symbolic of the past,” Pollick said.

She included photos of a less recognized railroad depot, the Grand Trunk, which was on the waterfront by India Street. There are photos of Spring Street before it became a thoroughfare divided by medians and anchored by buildings noted for their unfortunate architecture. Before that, Spring Street was lined by trees and stately structures.

There are many images of Portland’s seedier side as well, including one of the Hay Building covered in advertisements. It’s important to include those photos because they show what Portland looked like before attention was paid to historic preservation, Pollick said. “You get a sense of why people wanted to take certain buildings down, but you also get a sense of why they were important,” she said.

The other angle emphasized in this exhibition is the effort required to make historic preservation a part of the city’s public policy. Greater Portland Landmarks spent its first 25 years pushing for an ordinance to make historic preservation a priority. It took a long time and a lot of effort to get an ordinance on the books, Bassett said.

For many years, before it had the legal authority to fight for preservation, Landmarks attempted to accomplish its goal through delay tactics. When projects were proposed that Landmarks deemed adverse to the city’s historic core, it raises questions and posed roadblocks. Many times, those efforts succeeded. One example is the Tracey-Causer building on Fore Street at what is known as Gorham’s Corner. It was built in 1866 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. But before that, it was targeted for demolition.

Landmarks succeeded in raising enough questions about the project that developers dropped plans when the economy shifted. A decade later, the building was restored, and now it is home to Zapoteca, a popular Mexican restaurant.

50 YEARS OF HISTORIC PRESERVATION IN PORTLAND

WHERE: Greater Portland Landmarks, 93 High St., Portland
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Friday, and 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 6, as part of First Friday
HOW MUCH: Free
INFO: 207-774-5561 or portlandlandmarks.org

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