Portland, Maine Walking Tour (Congress Street)
This short historical walking tour starts at the Morse-Libby Mansion and travels north along Congress Street and includes several museums in addition to historic buildings and monuments.
The U.S. Courthouse of Portland, Maine, is a classic example of the Italian Renaissance Revival architectural style that was erected in 1911 within the growing public district in Portland, next to Lincoln Park. Designed by Supervising Architect of the United States Department of Treasury James Knox Taylor, this U.S. Courthouse is named in honor of Edward T. Gignoux, a local federal judge who passed away in 1988.
One of the few remaining buildings designed in the Gothic Revival architectural style in the entirety of the city, Portland, Maine’s Chestnut Street Methodist Church stands as an exemplary specimen of an architectural style that is fading from the face of Maine. The Church was designed by a renowned architect of the time by the name of Charles A. Alexander, whose other marvelous designs dot the City of Portland. Having served the City of Portland in multiple faculties over the years since its construction in 1856, the Church now serves as the home of the “Grace” restaurant, which seeks to offer a quality dining experience beneath the colored sunlight that pours in through the Church’s stained glass windows.
The First Parish Church of Portland, Maine, currently the home of the Portland Unitarian Universalist congregation, is the oldest religious worship building in Portland. Dedicated in early 1826, the church was designed by John Mussey and built by mason Henry Dyer. In addition to being the earliest place of worship in the city, it also holds the record of being the first granite structure of note constructed east of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This church has had an active congregation for all of its nearly 200 years of service to the City of Portland.
Congress Street of Portland, Maine contains some of Portland’s most historically significant buildings. Named in 1823, Congress Street had actually been established as Back Street much earlier, being one of the first natural roads to arise as a result of the settlement of the Portland Harbor. As a result of its early establishment, Congress Street became home to a number of “first” structures, including numerous religious structures and business centers. Congress Street is also home to the only still-operating immigrant synagogue in Maine.
Portland proudly showcases a total of four Civil War Monuments throughout the city. However, the most popular and easily the most famous Civil War monument is the Portland Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, also known as Our Lady of Victories. Located in the beautiful Monument’s Square in Downtown Portland, the Our Lady of Victories monument features a central, 14-foot-high bronze statue of the female “Victory,” a symbol of unity. She holds a flag in one hand and a shield and branch of maple leaves in the other, and according to the sculptor Franklin Simmons, Victory is modeled after the Roman Minerva, goddess of both wisdom and war. The granite base of the monument displays groups of bronze figures, symbolizing Maine’s sailors and soldiers who gave their lives during the Civil War.
A significant portion of Maine’s literary, political, and cultural history can all be found within the walls of the U.S. National Landmark, the Wadsworth-Longfellow House. Built between 1785 and 1786 by General Peleg Wadsworth, the Longfellow House carries the proud role of being the first brick dwelling in Portland as well as the oldest standing structure on the Portland Peninsula. One of the most important people associated with the Longfellow House is American poet Henry Longfellow, who gained international fame for his work, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” For over 35 years, Henry Longfellow grew up and worked in his family’s home. The last person to live there was Anne Longfellow Pierce (1819-1901), Henry's younger sister. Mrs. Pierce would go on to live in the house until her death in 1901. According to a deed she executed in 1895, the house passed to the Maine Historical Society after her death to be preserved as a memorial to her famous brother and their family. Nowadays, the Maine Historical Society operates a museum and archive within the historic Wadsworth–Longfellow House. The Museum's diverse collection features over 15,000 artifacts, and exhibits and galleries depict five centuries of life, history, and culture in Maine.
Portland has always been a prominent curator of the arts in Maine, and the Museum of African Culture in downtown Portland reflects the area’s growing interest in the customs, culture, and art coming from the beauty and mystery of Africa. Specializing in tribal art and culture, some of which focuses on ancient customs still prevalent in rural African society, the Museum of African Culture presents a multifaceted nuance of the African diaspora. Visitors to the museum can explore the museum’s vast Contemporary Art Gallery, several permanent and changing exhibits, and a wide array of events, including discussions, workshops, and performances by black artists living in Maine as well as other artists who draw inspiration from the African Diaspora.
The J.B. Brown Memorial Block is a beautifully preserved commercial block that stretches along Congress Street and has been a center of business activity in Portland from the time of its construction in 1883 to the present. The J.B. Brown Block represents a unique downtown design as it is one of only a few to feature the Queen Anne style of architecture. The building's designer was none other than John Calvin Stevens, one of Maine’s most well-recognized architects and designers.
The Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine is a multiple award-winning venue featuring a myriad of interactive and educational exhibits aimed at children and families alike. Located in the historic Arts District in downtown Portland, this children’s museum seeks to inspire discovery and imagination through a mix of educational and exciting activities. At the same time, the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine carries the proud role of being an indispensable resource for the community as well as parents and educators, hoping to foster greater development and learning for visiting children. Packed with a variety of fun and educational exhibits spanning four floors, the museum features exhibits such as Camera Obscura (which teaches how eyes see light as well as the origin of photography), the Our Town recreation of the essential elements of a small village, and the Explore Floor’s several nature and space themed exhibits, among many others. The theatre, which originated in 1923 and later joined the museum in 2008, produces theatre shows for kids, by kids.
The Charles Q. Clapp Block, more colloquially known as the Hay Building, is an iconic “flat iron” style building in downtown Portland, Maine. It was constructed in 1826, having been designed by renowned Portland native architect Charles Quincy Clapp, who was responsible for a number of other influential and iconic buildings in the City of Portland. As of its acceptance onto the National Register of Historic Places in January of 1978, it had housed a pharmacy on its first floor continually since 1841, when pharmacist H. H. Hay opened one of his two pharmacies there. As of the creation of this article, the building now houses a number of businesses including a café.
The Portland Museum of Art carries the proud role of the being the cultural heart of the entire city. With over 18,000 decorative and fine arts dating from the 18th century to the present in its collection to its three architecturally significant buildings that showcase three centuries of American art and culture, the Portland Museum of Art attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. In fact, because this museum dates back to 1882 when it was known as the Portland Society of Art, the Portland Museum of Art is the oldest public art institution in Maine. From major European surrealist works to one of the liveliest postwar collections in Maine, this museum highlights the rich traditions of art in the state as well as from around the world, while curator talks, movies, and other educational and outreach programs continue to push for a vibrant, enlightened future for the community.
Designed and built in 1832 by the real-estate entrepreneur that inspired its name, the Charles Q. Clapp House has been a continual presence in the history of Portland, Maine. Throughout its long life, the house has served as a residential mansion, the home of the city mayor, an impromptu bank and a meeting place during the hard times that followed the Great Fire of 1866. The building was purchased by the Portland Society of Art in 1914. This historic house now holds a fine arts school. Designed with a fusion of Greek styles, the Charles Q. Clapp House represents one of the earliest and most well-preserved examples of the Greek Revival architectural style in the State of Maine. The building is one of only a few residential buildings constructed in the Revival style in this section of Maine. The Clapp House is currently owned and operated by the Portland Museum of Art. The building houses a number of art studios within its walls that appear much as they did in the early 19th century.
This historic building on Gray Street in Portland, Maine houses the Maine Irish Heritage Center. The building originally served as the first Catholic parish in Portland. The St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic Church was established in 1830 to serve the growing Irish-American immigrant population. At the time it was built, the church dominated the city's skyline. Today, it has become a hub for Irish culture and entertainment as well as historical and genealogical research The purpose of the Maine Irish Heritage Center (“MIHC”) is to protect, preserve and restore the historic landmark that was formerly St. Dominic’s Church, to provide a meeting place for Maine’s diverse communities, and to promote Irish culture, history and heritage by telling the story of the Irish people and the state of Maine. The MIHC offers multicultural events at the Center and stands proud to represent all immigrants who came to America to make a better life for their families.
The Morse-Libby House, also known as the Victoria Mansion, carries the proud role of being one of the most important historic homes of the 19th century throughout the United States. Built between 1858 and 1860 as a summer home for Ruggles Sylvester Morse, a Maine native and esteemed hotelier for several luxury properties in New Orleans, the Victoria Mansion showcases the pristine beauty of 19th-century Italianate architecture, while its furnishings and interior design preserve the nuances of the wealthy lifestyle of the time. In fact, this building is widely renowned as one of the finest and most well-preserved examples of an Italianate and brownstone town house. A year after Morse died in 1893, his widow sold the house with most of its furnishings to New England merchant Joseph Ralph Libby. Unfortunately, the house met great peril when the New England Hurricane of 1938 (also known as the Yankee Clipper), and in 1940, it was scheduled to be demolished and replaced by a gas station. Retired teacher Dr. William H. Holmes purchased the property to save it, and despite the changing owners, the house still retains much of its original grandeur and beauty.