PORTLAND, Maine — The Congress Street site where Portland City Hall now stands once played host to a talk by Charles Dickens, as well as public floggings.
On Wednesday, the massive granite building celebrated its 100th birthday, proving that in this case, the third time was indeed the charm. Previous city halls on that same location were burned down in 1866 and 1908, giving special meaning to the firebird phoenix and Latin motto — “Resurgam,” meaning “I will rise again” — found on the city seal and at several locations around the building.
And while on the one hand, City Hall serves as the functional home of the largest municipal government in the state of Maine, on the other it’s a tourist attraction like any other prominent historical building.
“I think Portland City Hall is one of the most recognizable famous landmarks in the state of Maine,” said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg Wednesday. “Next to the Portland Observatory, it really is the iconic structure of Portland. Tourists walk in here every day, and the clock tower can be seen throughout the city.”
Portlanders might have been celebrating more than 150 years of having the building if not for the city’s early history as America’s conflagration capital. Portland was leveled by blazes four times, including the famous 1866 fire that destroyed 1,500 buildings, displaced 10,000 residents and killed two people.
At the time, before Mrs. O’Leary’s legendary cow kicked over the lantern five years later in Chicago, it was the young country’s most devastating conflagration.
The 1866 blaze gutted the new city hall that been erected there less than 10 years earlier.
“A few years later, city hall was opened again,” said Michael Daicy, a retired Portland firefighter and longtime department historian. “And then in 1908, city hall was on fire again.”
Daicy said historians believe the 1908 fire, which caught in the early morning hours of Jan. 24, started in the electrical wiring in the fire alarm room, housed in the third floor of the building. Because the blaze’s first order of business was to debilitate the city’s alarm, firefighters at the station right across Congress Street weren’t aware of it until it was too late to save the building.
“A lot happened at that fire,” said Daicy. “But they did get to save quite a few documents. The city clerk and several other city officials heard about the fire and went in to save as many city and county documents as they could.”
The third try turned out to be the one that lasted, and Daicy said the city learned its lesson, and built a dedicated fire alarm building on Federal Street.
“Like the new City Hall, the new fire alarm office was made of as many fire resistant materials as they could find — brick and reinforced concrete, with metal equipment and slate and glass,” he said. “It was all pretty state of the art for 1909.”
The current City Hall was dedicated on Aug. 22, 1912. Famed New York architectural firm Carrere and Hastings designed the new structure, with local architectural help from the famous father-and-son duo of John Calvin and John Howard Stevens.
Installed in the building at the time was the massive Kotzschmar Organ, the largest musical instrument in the hemisphere when it was assembled. The organ, also celebrating 100 years this summer, is being taken down for extensive repairs.
“John Carrere, who helped design City Hall, is quoted as saying he would rather have his reputation as an architect rest with Portland City Hall than any other building he’s associated with,” Clegg said.
That’s saying something, considering Carrere was associated with the New York Public Library and the ornate Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, Fla., which is now a historic part of the Flagler College campus.
“Portland City Hall bespeaks a community that wanted to have some of the finest architecture and high aspirations for how its center of government looks,” said Hilary Bassett, executive director of the organization Greater Portland Landmarks. “We consider it one of the highlights of the city landmarks in Portland.”
While City Hall is celebrating its 100th birthday, that plot of land has always been important to Portland. As a community center, residents over the course of history gathered there to hear talks by author Charles Dickens and Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, among others, said Jamie Rice, research librarian with Maine Historical Society.
Going back even further, the site of today’s City Hall in the late 1700s was home to the county’s courthouse — a spot which at the time was decorated by whipping posts, gallows, the stocks and pillory.
The penalties administered from what is today 389 Congress St. were more severe than parking tickets in those days.
Thomas Bird was among the more recognizable unlucky ones, convicted of piracy and murder for killing the allegedly cruel captain of his ship, and was hanged at the site after President George Washington rejected his request for a pardon.
“It just sort of gives you a sense of how we’ve changed in terms of how we govern over the years,” Clegg said.