Vital downtowns: the historic preservation element

Posted June 08, 2010, at 7:58 p.m.

In his slide presentation, “Downtown Bangor: A Phoenix from the Ashes of Fire and Renewal,” recently presented at the historic Bangor Opera House, Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth provided a fascinating overview of the evolution of the Queen City from earliest frontier days to the latest developments in downtown revitalization.

A recurring theme throughout Shettleworth’s presentation was the significance of historical buildings to both the identity of the city and its economic well-being. As he put it, “The architecture of downtown Bangor, whether from the lumber boom era of the 1800s, the rebuilding period after the 1911 fire, or the more recent post-urban renewal construction projects, all contribute to form one of the most distinctive and dynamic urban fabrics in Maine.”

When Shettleworth came to a slide of a color postcard view of the Bangor Opera House with its gleaming marquee, the connection between historic preservation and vibrant downtowns became crystal clear. The 200 or so people gathered in the Penobscot Theatre to hear the talk were part of a creative economic experience, thanks to the leadership of Bangor residents who recognized the significance of preserving the structure. Attendees from throughout eastern Maine had traveled to the city, eaten in nearby restaurants, and shopped in locally owned stores — proof that the preservation and restoration of a historic building can serve as a catalyst to bring people and commerce downtown.

And let’s not forget the entertainment benefit of such a venue. The week after Shettleworth’s talk, the Penobscot Theatre opened “The Underpants,” an adaptation of Carl Sternheim’s play by comedian and writer Steve Martin. It is well-known that laughter is beneficial to one’s health, but it also can be a means to strengthen community — the community of theatergoers enjoying the hilarity together.

Finally, an educational component often accompanies performances at the Penobscot Theatre. Whether presenting “The Diary of Anne Frank” or “The Laramie Project,” the theater frequently reaches out to area schools in an effort to turn live productions into a vehicle for enlightenment. This kind of multifaceted community space is the heart and soul of a downtown area, and the historic nature of the building not only complements the spirit of the place, it also enhances it.

The Maine Community Foundation’s focus on the role town centers play in thriving communities, and how historic buildings can further that role, is largely a result of the interest of a donor for whom history was a passion, the late Deborah Pulliam of Castine. A number of institutions in this city benefited from her vision and support, including the Bangor Museum and Center for History, which is repositioning its mission for the future.

A sense of heritage and pride of place are critical components of a flourishing downtown. The Bangor Opera House, home of the Penobscot Theatre, was the perfect place to make that point, through the historical expertise of Earle Shettleworth. We left the theater with a new appreciation for both downtown Bangor and the importance of preserving and restoring historic buildings to serve as a catalyst for economic and community vitality.

Meredith Jones is president and CEO of the Maine Community Foundation. The foundation hosted Earle Shettleworth’s presentation at the Penobscot Theatre on May 13.

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