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Recycled Since 1866: Portland's Green Buildings

A recent report from the National Trust for Historic Preservation makes the case that renovating our existing buildings usually offers greater environmental savings and benefits than building new structures from scratch, no matter how much eco-bling they might feature. The virtues of recycling apply to buildings as much as they apply to our newspapers and food packaging.

Above: looking south towards the corner of Oxford and Franklin Streets in 1924. Ironically, the Portland Housing Authority bulldozed these handsome homes to replace them with a parking lot, which unfortunately remains to this day. Credit: Maine Memory Network.

One of Portland's greatest characteristics is the richness of its  architecture. Since 1866 (the year of the Great Fire), the city has been transforming its buildings for new uses, while also making room for well-designed contemporary renovations and infill buildings.

This hasn't necessarily been an easy thing to do: until quite recently, Portland seemed intent on throwing away its architectural assets. During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Portland, like many other cities, was tearing itself apart, bulldozing tightly-knit neighborhoods to make way for expressways and white-elephant civic buildings that turned out to be as sterile and unimaginative as the pencil-necked bureaucrats who commissioned them.

Luckily, the destruction was limited. And like the phoenix that rises on the city's seal, an important new civic organization rose from the rubble of urban renewal: Greater Portland Landmarks, an organization of historic preservationists, architects, enlightened planners, and civic leaders that has been advocating for better architecture in the City of Portland since 1964.

As an organization, Greater Portland Landmarks spearheaded tactical restoration projects (like the 1978 rescue of the Hay Building in Congress Square) and lobbied for the city's strong historic preservation ordinance that mandates high-quality architecture in the city's historic districts.

Baxter Library c. 1889

Baxter Library in 2011

The Baxter Library in the late nineteenth century (top) and today, as the headquarters of the VIA Group. Images from the Maine Memory Network (top) and the Portland Press Herald (bottom).

Preserving historic architecture doesn't merely make the city look better. It also keeps our city authentic, by reminding us who we are and where we come from. Brick warehouses in the Old Port district that once stored the seafaring cargo of Portland's ships today house highly-educated workers trading in the new commodities of the 21st-century global economy. The Abyssinian Meetinghouse, a major base of operations for the abolitionist movement and the underground railroad, is currently being restored after decades of abandonment to help promote the amazing but little-known history of Portland's early African Americans.

All over the city, buildings that had been denigrated as "slums" by clueless engineers of the 1970s are worth millions of dollars today. By encouraging us to value the city's rich architectural history, preservationists have literally added billions of dollars' worth of economic value to the city's buildings and neighborhoods. And not coincidentally, the city's revived sense of historic preservation and architectural design have paralleled its revival as a cultural center and business hub.

In 2008, the Maine state legislature passed a new tax credit to jump-start more historic preservation building projects throughout the state. So, in spite of the recession, Maine's downtowns have gained beautiful new spaces like the lofts and offices at the Hathaway Creative Center in Waterville (formerly the shuttered shirt factory that inspired Richard Russo's Empire Falls), new affordable apartments for seniors in the North Berwick Woolen Mill, and the new VIA Agency headquarters in downtown Portland (pictured at right).

It turns out that reusing buildings is "green" in the economic sense as well as in the ecological sense.

Top photo: Munjoy Hill and Portland Harbor seen from the Portland Observatory, by Christian MilNeil.

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