Historical Buildings Walking Tour, Portland

Historical Buildings Walking Tour (Self Guided), Portland

There is no doubt that Mainers have made a great mark in the history of the United States, and the seaside city of Portland is no exception. The local architectural heritage encapsulates several centuries, reflecting various periods of American history – from the early colonial settlers' homes to the industrious Victorians and their ornate dwellings, all the way through to the modern day with contemporary structures. It is therefore not uncommon to hear residents or visitors comment on how Portland's architectural tapestry "tells a story of its past," or how its buildings "marry the charm of the old with the vibrancy of the new."

Here, the Gothic Revival and Greek Revival coexist in the respective forms of the prominent Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and the stately United States Custom House. The Federal Era style is exemplified by one of the oldest standing structures on the Portland peninsula, the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, the childhood home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, built in 1785.

Portland City Hall is an impressive Beaux-Arts-style building that dominates the city's skyline and is the administrative heart of the local government. The Victoria Mansion (also known as the Morse-Libby House) is an opulent Italianate-style villa built between 1858 and 1860, one of the most lavish examples of pre-Civil War residential property.

The city's architectural charm and character often give rise to sentiments reflecting Portland's maritime heritage and its resilience (especially in the wake of the Great Fire of 1866). A phrase like "Portland's architecture is history written in brick and stone" outlines the feeling many hold towards the city's built heritage.

If you are a history buff or a lover of architecture then you will enjoy seeing the historic buildings in Portland, Maine, on this self-guided walking tour.
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Historical Buildings Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Historical Buildings Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » Portland (See other walking tours in Portland)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.1 Km or 1.9 Miles
Author: nataly
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
  • Portland City Hall
  • Masonic Temple
  • Wadsworth-Longfellow House
  • Mechanics' Hall
  • Porteous, Mitchell and Braun Company Building
  • Charles Q. Clapp Block
  • Victoria Mansion
  • Daniel How House
  • United States Custom House
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

1) Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, located in Portland is a significant historic landmark and serves as the seat of the Diocese of Portland. This magnificent cathedral, constructed between 1866 and 1869, is an imposing example of Gothic Revival architecture.

Situated on a city block, the Roman Catholic diocese complex encompasses several buildings, including the main church building, a parish hall, the bishop's residence, and a two-story school. The complex is bounded by Cumberland Avenue, Locust Street, Congress Street, and Franklin Street.

The cathedral's exterior is striking, with red brick, elegant sandstone trim, and a slate roof. The main façade has a central entrance within a sandstone Gothic arch. Above the entrance, a large stained glass rose window adds beauty and symbolism. The main tower on the right is adorned with buttressed corners, narrow Gothic windows, and an octagonal spire. The side walls also have intricate Gothic windows.

Stepping inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception reveals a vast and awe-inspiring interior, providing ample space for nearly 1,000 worshipers to gather and participate in the liturgy. The grandeur of the interior, coupled with its capacity, creates a sense of reverence and unity among the congregation.

One of the most notable features of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is its towering spires. Of the three steeples, the tallest reaches an impressive height of 204 feet (62 m), making it the highest point in the city of Portland.

Recognizing its historical and cultural importance, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Portland City Hall

2) Portland City Hall

Portland City Hall serves as the central hub for the city's government. Situated on an elevated position, it forms the core of a group of civic buildings at the eastern end of downtown. Constructed between 1909 and 1912, the building's historical significance led to its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

The City Hall has three stories with roof dormers and a low balustrade. It has a 200-foot (61-meter) tower at the center. The ground floor has rounded windows, and there are three entrances with grand stairs. The central entrance has the city seal. The wings form a U-shape and have two stories with projecting colonnades and Tuscan columns. The wings have hip roofs with a decorative cornice.

Inside the City Hall, the various offices of the city are located. In addition, an annex on Myrtle Street houses the renowned Merrill Auditorium, a performance venue with a seating capacity of 1,908. Notably, the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ, which was constructed in 1912, resides within this auditorium and was once the second-largest organ in the world.

The current City Hall isn't the first on this site. The original was built in 1862, replacing the 1825 hall in Market Square. Sadly, it was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1866. Another replacement, designed by Francis H. Fassett, also burned down in 1908. The present City Hall, a masterpiece by Carrere & Hastings, was built with local assistance from John Calvin Stevens and John Howard Stevens. Inspired by NYC Hall, it's considered one of Carrere's best works.
Masonic Temple

3) Masonic Temple

Located in downtown Portland, the Masonic Temple is a significant structure with historical and societal importance. Constructed in 1911 under the guidance of local architect Frederick A. Tompson, this building is an example of the Beaux Arts architectural style in the city. Not only does it boast an impressive exterior, but it also contains some of the most magnificent interior spaces in the entire state. Recognizing its historical and architectural value, the Masonic Temple was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

The Portland Masonic Temple is a prominent downtown building with a mix of brick and stone materials. It's six stories tall with a flat roof. The front of the building has five sections, with four storefronts on each side. The entrance is two stories high and has wide-paneled pilasters and a round-arch window on the second level. The second and third floors are separated by decorative stonework in a belt course frieze. The middle three bays from the third to fifth floors are recessed and decorated with Corinthian pilasters and columns, highlighting the central bay.

Established in 1820, the Grand Lodge of Maine is the central hub for Masonic activities in the state. The oldest lodge dates back to 1762, with a charter signed by notable figures like Paul Revere. The Masonic Temple serves as the primary center for Masonic operations in Maine. In 2008, due to high maintenance costs, the Masons decided to sell the building. Although plans to convert it into condos fell through, the Masons now rent out their remarkable spaces for events to sustain upkeep.
Wadsworth-Longfellow House

4) Wadsworth-Longfellow House

The Wadsworth-Longfellow House in Portland is a historically significant landmark that holds both architectural and literary importance. The house serves as a museum that showcases the legacy of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who spent a significant part of his childhood within its walls.

Built between 1785 and 1786 by American Revolutionary War General Peleg Wadsworth, the Wadsworth-Longfellow House holds the distinction of being the oldest standing structure on the Portland peninsula. It was the first entirely brick dwelling constructed in the city. General Wadsworth and his wife raised their ten children in this two-story house with a pitched roof before moving to the family farm in Hiram, Maine, in 1807.

The significance of the house is also tied to its association with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow moved there with his parents when he was eight months old and lived there for the next 35 years. In 1815, the Longfellows expanded the house by adding a third story, adhering to the Federal architectural style.

Following Longfellow's era, Anne Longfellow Pierce was the final member of the family to live in the house. Pierce conserved the residence to capture the essence of the period when Peleg Wadsworth resided there, ensuring its historical integrity. After Pierce's passing in 1901, the Maine Historical Society inherited the house, the property, and a significant portion of its furnishings. Subsequently, the Wadsworth-Longfellow House was made accessible to the public.

Today, visitors can explore the museum and gain insight into the life and works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of America's beloved poets, while immersing themselves in the historical ambiance of the oldest surviving structure in Portland.
Mechanics' Hall

5) Mechanics' Hall

Mechanics' Hall in Portland is a renowned structure and gathering place constructed between 1857 and 1859. It was specifically built by and for the members of the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association. The building showcases the elegance of Italianate architecture, crafted using a combination of brick and stone.

The building is two stories tall, with a second floor reaching 33 feet (10 meters), giving the illusion of a three-story structure. It has a timeless grandeur with a truncated hip roof. The front facade has a granite finish, while the sides and rear showcase enduring brickwork that extends beyond the first bay. The entrance is enhanced by commercial storefronts on either side, with recessed entrances leading into the main building.

Upon approaching the main entrance, visitors are greeted by paneled stone posts, serving as elegant frames, and a lintel displaying the engraved name of the building. The upper-level windows, characterized by tall openings and rounded arches, are adorned with rough textured stone quoining. Along the sides facing the street, a crafted bracketed cornice extends, adding a touch of architectural charm.

Inside the building, a spacious hall awaits on the ground floor, providing convenient access from both Congress and Casco Streets. Additionally, there is a dedicated space for the association's library. Originally designed as a large meeting space, the upper floor has been thoughtfully divided into two separate floors to accommodate evolving needs while preserving its historical significance.

Mechanics' Hall was officially recognized and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Porteous, Mitchell and Braun Company Building

6) Porteous, Mitchell and Braun Company Building

The Miller Building, also known as the Porteous, Mitchell, and Braun Company Building, is a historical structure in Portland's Arts District. It showcases Renaissance Revival architecture and housed Portland's largest department store. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.

This five-story building has a steel frame with brick walls adorned in limestone-colored terra cotta. The ground floor showcases a modern design with glass and stone, topped by a marquee identifying its current occupant, the Maine College of Art. The second to fourth floors are divided into six bays with fluted pilasters, each featuring a three-part window arrangement. Decorative panels adorn the spaces between floors. The top floor stands out with a cornice and six bays housing three round-arch windows. A corbelled cornice adds a final touch to the structure.

Originally built in 1904 by architect Penn Varney, the building was commissioned by Portland's Watson, Miller & Company. It was expanded in 1911 after Porteous, Mitchell, and Braun took over the firm. Architect George Burnham unified the facade. More expansions followed, extending the building to Free Street by 1953. The Porteous, Mitchell, and Braun Company operated here until 1991 as the city's top department store. It was later restored and repurposed for the Maine College of Art.
Charles Q. Clapp Block

7) Charles Q. Clapp Block

The Hay Building, also known as Charles Q. Clapp Building, is a historic commercial building in downtown Portland. It was built in 1826 by architect Charles Q. Clapp and is one of the city's oldest commercial buildings. The building is part of a block of three buildings at Congress Square, occupying a triangular site at the junction of Congress, High, and Free Streets.

The main building is three stories high, made of beige-painted brick with dark green trim. The lower floors have arched windows, and the third floor was added later with five windows and a projecting cornice. The second building, northeast of the first, is also three stories but shorter in height. It has square windows on the upper levels and a picture window with an entrance on the first level. The third building is 2-1/2 stories tall, with three bays, a recessed doorway, and a low balustrade on the second floor.

The main block, designed by Charles Quincy Clapp, showcases a Federal-style design. It gained its popular name, the Hay Building when Hay's Pharmacy occupied the ground floor starting in 1841. The third level was added in 1922 by John Calvin Stevens. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on January 31, 1978.
Victoria Mansion

8) Victoria Mansion (must see)

Victoria Mansion, also known as the Morse-Libby House or Morse-Libby Mansion, stands as a remarkable representation of American residential architecture situated in the heart of downtown Portland. This elegant brownstone Italianate villa, completed in 1860, was originally intended as a summer retreat for Ruggles Sylvester Morse, a prominent hotelier who had ventured beyond Maine to amass his fortune in the hotel industry in New York, Boston, and New Orleans.

The house was designed by the esteemed architect Henry Austin, boasting a distinctively asymmetrical structure characterized by a four-story tower, overhanging eaves, inviting verandas, and ornate windows. Adding to its allure, the interior of the mansion showcases intricate frescoes and captivating three-dimensional wall decorations, masterfully crafted by the talented artist and decorator Giuseppe Guidicini.

After serving as a cherished family residence, the mansion witnessed a change in ownership when the last of the Libby family members departed in 1928. Unfortunately, the subsequent economic downturn of the Great Depression, coupled with the devastating 1938 Portland flood, led to the repossession of the house in 1939 due to unpaid taxes. The fate of the abandoned mansion hung in the balance, with plans even surfacing for its demolition to make way for a gas station, proposed by an oil company.

However, the property was saved by William H. Holmes, who recognized the historical significance of the building. Determined to protect its architectural grandeur, Holmes purchased the house in 1941 and lovingly transformed it into the Victoria Mansion, paying homage to Britain's esteemed Queen Victoria.

Victoria Mansion was added to the National Historic Register. Today, it continues to thrive as a captivating museum, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in the opulent splendor of nineteenth-century America.
Daniel How House

9) Daniel How House

The Daniel How House stands as a historic residence on Danforth Street, boasting a rich history. Constructed in 1799, it holds the distinction of being one of the oldest surviving homes on Portland's Neck, having endured the 1866 fire that ravaged the city. This remarkable house serves as a prime local example of the Federal period architectural style, impressively preserved throughout the years. In recognition of its significance, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

The structure is a 2+1/2-story brick building with locally sourced bricks in common bond. It has brownstone lintels and elegant windows. The entrance has been recreated to honor its historical roots. Inside, the original woodwork and flooring have withstood time. The centerpiece is an exquisite central staircase. The house was restored in the early 1970s, preserving it for future generations.

During its construction, the Daniel How House had beautiful views of the waterfront and Casco Bay. Commercial Street, which now runs parallel to Danforth Street, didn't exist back then. Behind the house on Pleasant Street, two newer houses were built by other How family members. Despite the surrounding commercial development over the years, these three well-preserved houses serve as a reminder of the neighborhood's early 19th-century appearance and offer glimpses into its history.
United States Custom House

10) United States Custom House

The United States Custom House in Portland stands as a remarkable testament to the city's rich maritime history. Constructed between 1867 and 1872, the building was specifically designed to accommodate the growing customs business in the area.

The U.S. Custom House exhibits a masterful blend of architectural styles, primarily drawing inspiration from the Renaissance Revival and Second Empire styles that were popular in the United States during the mid-to-late 19th century. The original design of the building remains largely intact, showcasing the meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into its construction.

Rising three stories high, the custom house takes the form of a free-standing, I-shaped structure. It is constructed using durable New Hampshire granite, known for its resilience, and topped with a slate-shingled hipped roof. These fireproof materials were deliberately chosen in response to the devastating fire that swept through the city in 1866.

A distinguishing feature of the U.S. Custom House is its twin square cupolas that rise above the pavilions with pediments. These cupolas, adorned with mansard roofs, represent a characteristic element of the Second Empire style. Flanking the cupolas are double Corinthian order pilasters, exuding grandeur and providing a sense of symmetry to the façade. Arched Venetian windows, each adorned with a shallow pediment, further enhance the visual allure of the building.

The United States Custom House, with its blend of architectural styles and enduring elegance, remains an iconic landmark in the city, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Walking Tours in Portland, Maine

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Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.5 Km or 1.6 Miles