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Event to mark 50th anniversary of the fall of Portland's Union Station

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Event to mark 50th anniversary of the fall of Portland's Union Station

PORTLAND — At the turn of the 19th century, Union Station was Maine's transportation hub, greeting and sending off tens of thousands of travelers every year.

Steam trains from all over the country brought tourists to the region, and parents sent their sons away to war and, with a little luck, welcomed them home in the station's vast indoor waiting area, with its 18-foot tall walls, two fireplaces, stained glass, oak benches and checker-board marble and slate floors.

For 72 years, the rugged but elegant Gothic structure of red stone, pink granite and brick stood at the corner of Congress and St. John streets. It's 138-foot tall clock tower rose like a monolith at the foot of the Western Prom.

John Marcigliano, a retired Portland teacher who produced a video and book about the station, said travelers would set their time pieces to the clock because of its accuracy. A clock keeper climbed 54 steps to the dial, which measured eight feet in diameter and was made of solid brass, to wind the clock once a week. 

"One hundred thirty-three turns – no more, no less," Marcigliano said. "It did have the reputation of being the most accurate time piece in New England."

But in 1961, the station fell victim to urban renewal, a development philosophy designed to rejuvenate declining cities by tearing down old structures and building new ones. On Aug. 31 of that year, the clock tower fell into a cloud of its own dust to make way for the strip mall that still bears its predecessor's name. 

Part of the original clock is now displayed in Congress Square. And a sign marking the Union Station Shopping Plaza contains a small clock with Roman numerals.

But it doesn't keep accurate time.

"The loss of that building was a critical point," said Hilary Bassett, the executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks. "That was the moment that got Portland's preservation movement going."

Wednesday, Aug. 31, is the 50th anniversary of the demolition of the clock tower at Union Station. Greater Portland Landmarks will host a "Remembering Union Station" event at its offices at 93 High St. from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

The event will include a viewing of Marcigliano's 50-minute documentary, "All Aboard for Union Station," produced in 1990. Old photos will be on display and a discussion will follow.

Marcigliano said the construction of Union Station represented a shift in construction brought about after the Great Fire of Portland, which burned a third of the Old Port in 1866.

Builders shifted from wood to more durable materials, like granite and marble.

In addition to Union Station, other buildings that represent the shift include Portland City Hall, the Canal Bank building on Fore Street, the Custom House and part of what is now Maine Medical Center.

Although the train station is no longer standing, its former administrative offices still exist at 222 St. John St.

Marcigliano said he began researching Union Station as his master's thesis. But the project mushroomed when he began speaking to people who witnessed the demolition.

"The emotional reaction at the time isn't as big as it is now – until it was gone," he said. "It was near and dear to their hearts."

But Marcigliano said the rise of the automobile made the train station obsolete. When it was demolished, the only living creatures using the building were the rats.

If anything good came of the demolition, Bassett said it was the creation of Greater Portland Landmarks.

The nonprofit group has been a voice of preservation since it was incorporated in 1964.

After spending its early years surveying the city's historic buildings and raising awareness, the group turned its sights to establishing nationally recognized historic districts. 

In 1989, the group won its biggest triumph with the passage of the city's historic preservation ordinance, which requires developers to maintain historic features of old buildings to the maximum extent possible.

While many people think the train station was a publicly operated facility, Basset said that was not the case. It's owner was Maine Central Railroad, a private business concerned about its bottom line.

"Their profitability was gone," she said. "They had to make a decision."

That led to their decision to sell the station and its six acres of land to a Boston developer for $250,000.

But when the time came to tear down the old building to make way for the strip mall that still sits there, the old building did not go gently.

It took six weeks to bring down Union Station, which had brick and granite walls nearly 2 feet thick.

"It was really built to inspire," Bassett said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.