The Universal Notebook: Preserving the Portland you don’t see

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Last Tuesday, I spent the morning walking and driving around Portland looking for hitching posts and carriage mounts.

I thought I spotted a carriage mount, a block of granite used to step on to get into a horse drawn carriage, on the Eastern Prom, but it turned out upon closer inspection to be the cover for an underground electrical conduit. I had better luck up on the Western Prom.

Across from the end of Pine Street I found a granite block sticking about 2 feet out of the grass. Eureka! Then I thought I spotted another one down at the far end of the promenade across from Bowdoin Street, but it turned out to be a true meridian marker, marking longitude 70 degrees, 16 minutes. Not sure why, but I bet folks who rode in horse-drawn carriages knew.

The best carriage mount I found after two hours of looking was in front of the Zebulon Babson House on Danforth Street. Figures it would be well preserved, because the 1830 Babson House is one of the hundreds of Greater Portland Landmarks’ marker properties in the city. And it turns out GPL actually has a map of hitching posts and carriage mounts. Could have saved myself a lot of time.

The reason I went looking for hitching posts (didn’t find any, though I am told there are two on Spring Street) and carriage mounts is that GPL lists Equestrian Street Artifacts, c. 1840-1910, first on its list of five Places in Peril for 2015.

The others are the self-nominated Sacred Heart Church on Mellen Street, the Hub Furniture building on Fore Street, a pre-Revolutionary War private residence in rough shape on Congress Street in Libbytown, and an abandoned schoolhouse on Winn Road in Cumberland. It seems the Hub Furniture building was originally the home of the Curtis & Son Chewing Gum Factory that produced spruce gum for the masses. The Cumberland school is one of only two known one-room brick Greek Revival schoolhouses in Maine.

Greater Portland Landmarks was founded in 1964 in response to the demolition of Union Station on St. John Street in August 1961. Since that time, GPL has researched and published the architectural history of Portland, helped write the city’s historic preservation ordinances, had 72 properties designated as historic landmarks, placed historic place markers on close to 300 other buildings, worked to have eight historic districts designated, and generally advocated for historic preservation as a tool to balance growth and development.

In my book, GPL has been hugely successful. Portland is a pretty well-preserved little city.

In 2012, GPL started its Places in Peril program “to draw attention to threatened and vulnerable sites.” The program has had some major victories, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation adding the Abyssinian Meeting House, the nation’s third oldest African-American meeting house, on Newbury Street to its list of the most imperiled properties in the country.

Other key Portland Places in Peril include the Eastern and Western cemeteries, the Portland Co. locomotive complex on Fore Street, and the 1903 Grand Trunk office building standing all by its lonesome at the foot of India Street (huge Grand Trunk grain elevators were torn down in 1943 and 1974). GPL is also busy advocating for an appropriate relocation of the 1888 Union Station clock, which currently resides in Congress Square Plaza, site of a recent development battle royal. May I suggest the Portland Transportation Center on Thompson’s Point, which is both where trains arrive and depart the city today, and closer to the former site of Union Station than Congress Square?

As soon as the GPL equestrian street artifacts map arrives, I plan to take to the streets again. Searching for iron hitching posts and granite carriage mounts while cruising the 19th century streets of 21st century Portland without a map is kind of like trying to read the punctuation in a sentence rather than the words: You’re ignoring the obvious while trying to see things you usually don’t see.

And that’s the beauty of the Places in Peril program, calling attention to the overlooked.

I’m not sure a handful of hitching posts and carriage mounts left over from the horse culture of the 19th century are all the important architecturally, but they do give you a new appreciation for things like phone booths and parking meters, artifacts of the pre-digital age that are fast disappearing and will one day no doubt make a GPL Places in Peril list of the future.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.