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Exhuming the past for an 'authentic brand'

As construction crews busily beetle about the Press Hotel, formerly the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram building, a timely blog by Anthony Flint recently crossed my virtual desk about the trend of developers unearthing thematic branding tools in the skeletons of former property occupants.

For the Press Hotel, scheduled to open in 2015, that branding is meant to trade on the aura of the departed Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and the very dead Evening Express (RIP 1991).

Writing of Boston in his blog, Flint looked at how the Ink Block has sprung up from the ashes of the Boston Herald’s former home. That blog hits home when looking at what’s happening atop Exchange Street in Portland.

With a logo designed to look like a typewriter key, to marketing catchphrases like “Seven Floors. So Many Stories,” Portland's Press Hotel aggressively binds itself to a lost era, one where newspapers thrived and employed scores of writers, editors, photographers, pressman, typesetters, artists, etc. (all of whom would now be considered members of the creative economy).

There is clearly something sexy about stapling a new business or residential development to romanticized antecedents – whether actual or created.

While urban evolution is inevitable and it’s terrific that the building isn’t being wrecking balled and replaced by yet another faux-stainless-steel-sheathed cliché, something will be lost in translation.

Prettified re-telling doesn’t quite capture the sum of what was lost; there’s value in unedited stories.

 

A bit of history

To come clean, I did several tours of duty at the Press Herald, Sunday Telegram, and the defunct Evening Express. (Yes. Portland had two daily papers, one a.m. the other p.m.) I know the crevices of the building well, and many stories of a grittier time in journalism – drinking on the job, hurling furniture about, fist holes in walls, untoward language (sometimes racially charged), and rats scampering about the tunnel that connects the building to the shuttered press building across Congress Street.

I suspect the ink splattered depths of the building, the slightly off odor of the basement and sub-basement will be sanitized, replaced by the smell of fresh-cut flowers and the tasteful black and white photos of serious men setting type. (Ah, yes. The serious men setting type. My first encounter as a young editor with a member of the typesetter’s union was a succinct: “Touch that paste-up and I’ll break yer fucking arm.” Point taken.)

Many of the pressmen and typesetters were the children of immigrants, a lot of them Irish. The newspaper provided good wages and the protection of the union. Getting fired required an act of breathtaking audacity.

Newspapers were as much manufacturing plants as news plants, and like the rest of the manufacturing sector the fall has been hard.

For now, investor Donald Sussman’s money has provided a tourniquet to the two newspapers. However endless rounds of buyout offers and the threat of layoffs continue, and the future of the paper, now leasing space in the soulless One City Center, is uncertain.

Lost in translation

So, what is it about the lure of the past in naming? Is it a tribute to something lost or is it merely purloining a ready-made brand? Perhaps, in a landscape of disposable architecture the borrowing meets a need for hanging onto the authentic or unique. For marketers, the past offers the obvious, easy-to-follow storyline.

Of course this search for authenticity isn’t unique to cities or even to actual history. Flint notes that the suburban version of backward-looking development names (for example, the Pheasant Knolls, Fox Runs, Partridge Lanes of Gorham or Scarborough) are often located, without irony, atop obliterated habitat.

The borrowing runs throughout our city. The restaurant Grace fills the void of a Methodist congregation that dwindled to naught, and the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel still trades upon its former Eastland name (via a prominent roof sign), while adopting a generic interior that captures no hint of its previous life. In addition, Portland has Local 188, a popular restaurant with a name that evokes Union City chic, and Aucocisco, which harkened back to Native American roots, had been affixed to a well-regarded former gallery, as well as other entities.

In the end, what can we do to preserve the ink stains, while developing a higher-thread count evolution of our city? 

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