'An indelible mark': Portland to honor the legacy of architect John Calvin Stevens

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PORTLAND — If you have spent any amount of time in Portland, or almost anywhere on the coast of New England, chances are you’ve seen the work of John Calvin Stevens.

Take a walk through the Old Port or a leisurely stroll through the streets of the West End, lined with magnificent towering homes, and you will find his work. Spend a weekend in a summer cottage in Cape Elizabeth or on the Casco Bay islands and you will experience him first-hand. 

“He’s everywhere,” State Historian Earle Shettleworth Jr. said. “He’s left an indelible mark on the city of Portland.”

So much so that next week, city leaders will declare Oct. 8 John Calvin Stevens Day.

One of Maine’s most famous architects, Stevens, who was born Oct. 8, 1855, and died Jan. 25, 1940, designed more than 300 buildings on Portland’s peninsula alone and dozens more in the surrounding neighborhoods and islands.

Stevens made a name for himself by mastering the shingle-style cottage that has come to symbolize coastal life in New England. Later, he mastered the Georgian, colonial-style homes made of brick. To see both, one only needs to spend a little time on Bowdoin Street, which has shingle-style cottages on one side of the street and brick revival homes on the other. 

One of those homes, 52 Bowdoin St., was Stevens’ home for nearly 30 years, Shettleworth said. 

Although Stevens is known mostly for his residential designs, Shettleworth said he is also known for his civic, commercial and religious architecture. He was an associate architect commissioned to help design and build Portland City Hall, and he designed State Street Church on High Street and the Nathan Clifford Elementary School on Falmouth Street.

But Shettleworth said Stevens is known not only for his building designs, but for the length of his career.

Stevens started his career when he was 18 and worked right up to his death. “He was involved in architecture for a 70-year period,” Shettleworth said.

Next week’s proclamation, which will be read at noon on the front steps of Portland City Hall, is the last event of a year-long celebration for the architectural firm Stevens created 125 years ago. 

SMRT, formerly Stevens Morton Rose & Thompson, was founded in 1884 and is based on Fore Street. Although it is no longer family owned, his great grandson is still involved in its day-to-day operations at the age of 71.

“It’s been a pretty varied practice over the years,” SMRT chairman and former company President Paul Stevens said. “In many ways, it isn’t really a lot different.”

The company experienced most of its growth in the 1980s, he said, when it went from having only 10 employees to about 75. During that time, SMRT ceased designing residences and concentrated solely commercial, civic and health-care buildings. 

But when Paul Stevens, a fourth-generation architect, steps down from the company, it will be the end of an era, since there is no fifth-generation Stevens waiting to take over the practice. That’s why next week’s ceremony, which will also include a Congressional Record of Recognition from a representative of U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office, is so special to him. 

“I’m the end,” he said. “I’ve very proud of what firm has accomplished. It’s very satisfying to be recognized.” 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net


JohnCalvin Stevens 002.jpgThe shingle-style cottage at 52 Bowdoin St. in Portland that architect John Calvin Stevens called home for nearly 30 years.

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JohnCalvin Stevens 001.jpgPaul Stevens, a fourth-generation architect, stands in front of the Richard Webb house at 29 Bowdoin St. in Portland’s West End. The building is one of the best examples of work by his great-grandfather, John Calvin Stevens.