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The Big and the Beautiful

There is an old saying that it’s not always the prettiest woman or most handsome man that makes the best dance partner.  Sometimes, at a party, you don’t want flashy, you just want steady, reliable, and solid.  Portland has plenty of pretty buildings, a surfeit of them.  With our rich Victorian pedigree, this is easily one of most architecturally unique cities in all of New England.  But, for my money, some of the most beautiful and interesting buildings that we have are square, massive, and architecturally dull as dishwater.  They’re located on the water down on the wide expanse of Commercial Street, and they have all long since fulfilled their original purpose of serving the diverse range of sailing/steamships that once docked here (going from here to everywhere in the world) and the giant railroad that occupied Commercial Street in the mid- to late 19 century.

Here, as an example, is the iconic building that dominates (and effectively is) Merrill’s Wharf.  It’s a building formerly known as the Twitchell-Chaplin Grocery Company Building and it was built in 1884 as a spice mill.  It has seen a number of uses through the years, including cold storage, being a candy factory, and being part of the complex that housed the world’s biggest cannery.  Its facade is 300 feet of gorgeous red brick and it houses 100,000 square feet of office space.  It sits on a beautiful marine seascape that can only be fully appreciated by standing in the shadow of the building on a sunny day.

It also has a story that is as good as any mansion in town.  And that story, perhaps, more accurately reflects the modern history of Portland.  In the mid 1980’s this massive building barely had windows.  It was largely a shell.  In 2011, barely 20 years ago, it was meticulously rehabbed and it now houses one of the biggest law firms in Maine as its anchor tenant, among other commercial entities.  It has come back from the edge of the abyss in much the way that the current Portland waterfront has.  In 1979, Portland’s waterfront was declared one of the most dangerous, dirty, and seedy waterfronts in all of America.  Wander out to the end of Merrill’s wharf and you would not guess at that history today.  It is bustling with lobster boats and lawyers, and there’s lots to look at in every direction.

a boat is docked next to a body of water

a boat sitting on top of a building

Check out the exposed beams inside the Pierce Atwood Building.

And whatever you do, make sure you go out to the end of the wharf.  Out there you’ll find a blank space and even the blank spaces here have a story to tell.  This is the “desert”, the area that fishermen need to repair their nets and it exists, as it probably did 100 years ago, thanks to Portland’s famous working waterfront law which has mandated since the 1970s that 70% of the use on our harbor has to be marine related.  The blank space tells a story.  The fishermen you encounter out there will tell you even better ones.

a bird sitting on top of a sandy beach

And so, you can wander Portland’s historic West End or the Eastern Prom, and see absolutely spectacular houses.  I encourage you to do so.  But, remember, sometimes the best dance is with their more homely stolid cousins.
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Written by Portland Tour Guide – Ross

a man standing next to a body of water

Referred to by his family as a “fuzzy foreigner”, Ross grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada, fell in love with a woman from Boston, and has been in Maine raising his family for over 20 years now. He loves Maine and loves his job as a tour guide, both for the interaction with new people it affords him (don’t be surprised to get as many questions as you ask) and the constant exploration he is always making of the many intricate and fascinating links between his adopted state and his homeland.

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