JetModern: Preservation + Community Identities

Posted on: September 21st, 2009 by Guest Writer 1 Comment
South Portland

Although limited, Portland’s mid-century building stock is functionally diverse, featuring structures that range from commercial buildings, to public buildings, to private residences.

Despite its name, historic preservation is as much about the present as the past. That being said, there are a number of incentives to emphasize or deemphasize particular aspects of the past as recorded in the built landscape around us.

Since citywide preservation organizations typically help communities see their built heritage as part of their identities, they can also help communities negotiate an identity that broadly incorporates all of their built history. In Portland, Maine, I met with Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks. We talked about some of the ways that preservationists in Portland are helping to balance how the city presents itself to visitors and residents.

She explained that, although limited, Portland’s mid-century building stock is functionally diverse. During the 1970's, the city was recovering from a break in new building construction that lasted from the 1920's until the 1960's. This long break in new building seems to have meant a lower volume of modern structures, but not a smaller variety. Portland’s mid-century modern structures range from commercial structures, to public buildings, to private residences. I was particularly interested in the challenges to preservation of modern buildings in Portland, as these buildings seem well integrated into older structures and streetscapes.

Bassett said that Greater Portland Landmarks has noted two economic changes that may challenge the protection of mid-century buildings. A less expensive alternative to Boston, she suggests that the growth of a “creative economy” in Portland is driving new construction. When coupled with the city’s desire to tap cruise visitors eager to see a port city from the 1800's, these two forces are a challenge to the city’s modern heritage. While Greater Portland Landmarks supports sympathetic new construction in historic areas, the key issue, according to Bassett, continues to be getting residents and visitors into mid-century structures. This would seem to be an approach that would work well for both visitors and residents. She does report, though, that there has not been much progress, yet.

Portland’s public library, a modernist structure, is undergoing a sensible renovation which covers formerly open areas with glass windows.

Portland’s public library, a modernist structure, is undergoing a sensible renovation which covers formerly open areas with glass windows.

In addition to increasing contact with modern buildings and emphasizing the historic content of these structures over their aesthetics, there have been successful adaptive reuse projects downtown. While not a newer building in any sense, a good example of this is Grace, a church turned restaurant. Further, Portland’s public library, a modernist structure, is undergoing a renovation which covers formerly open areas with glass windows. While not part of the building as built, these windows do provide shelter from the Maine winter while still allowing the original voids to be read. Openness to both reuse and sensible alterations seems to be a good start to me.

There are, however, some ways in which the state government also supports the protection of mid-century resources. To learn more about this, Hilary Bassett suggested I visit Barba + Wheelock, an architecture and preservation practice in Portland.

On a late Friday afternoon, I stopped by Barba + Wheelock. Much to my surprise, it was explained to me that the Maine Historic Preservation Commission has developed (with assistance from Barba + Wheelock, I believe) a supplement to statewide historic structure survey forms. This supplement has been specially designed to allow for the unique structural and layout elements which characterize newer buildings. The additional questions document:

  • a garage (attached to or below the structure, for example);
  • a porch;
  • a car port or driveway;
  • mid-century architectural elements and outbuildings like, to quote directly from the form, planters, screens, patios, retaining walls, or an upper story overhang.

What a good tool with which to capture some of the defining characteristics of newer structures. Have other states, cities, or localities developed additional questions for survey forms? I would be very interested to know how state- or local-level surveying includes modified documentation based on the age of the structure.

An influx of new building fueled (formerly fueled?) by new businesses leaving Boston and a tourism industry built around an older image of the city are assuredly threats in Portland. However, a combination of programmatic outreach to increase contact with newer buildings and inclusive statewide documentation efforts will hopefully help save the city's threatened mid-century buildings.

Next stop: Chicago.

Seth Tinkham is self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture.

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One Response

  1. Seth Tinkham

    September 21, 2009

    I made a mistake: the supplement to the survey form I mention was wholly designed by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. Thanks to Margaret Gaertner and Nancy Barba of Barba + Wheelock for correcting me.