PORTLAND, Maine — The red sign still glows high above the city: But east is now west.
With the parting of a ribbon, the Eastland Park Hotel became the Westin Portland Harborview on Thursday.
The 18-month, $50-million project ushers in 289 rooms, 100 jobs, panoramic views of Portland and renewed vitality for a downtown area that had long languished.
“This is really a great day for Portland,” said City Councilor Edward Suslovic, one of scores of upbeat city officials and business owners buzzing about the opening ceremony. “This is a recapturing of the city.”
Located on High Street in Congress Square, the first Westin in Maine is a far cry from the old Eastland. Opening in June 1927 and closing in June 2012, that hotel marked
“a period of 85 years of building memories for a lot of people in this city,” said Bruce Wennerstrom, the new hotel’s general manager, addressing the crowd in the grand ballroom.
Thursday signaled the opening salvo in Portland’s hotel boom, which will add 580 new guest rooms to the city in the next decade. The Courtyard by Marriott just a few blocks away at 321 Commercial St. is slated to open this spring, followed by Hyatt Place at the corner of Fore and Union streets. Those will be joined by a boutique hotel at the former Portland Press Herald headquarters.
The Westin is expected to have a 60 percent occupancy rate with 500 people coming through at any time, said Wennerstrom.
The hotel where Charles Lindbergh stayed after his trans-Atlantic flight also famously turned down Eleanor Roosevelt and her dog because of a no-pet policy. The new owners, who are pet-friendly, took pains to protect the past and welcome the future.
During the construction period, “people shared stories about how they got married here, parents met here, they had their senior prom here, the memories just go on and on,” said Wennerstrom, who thanked the neighborhood for putting up with trucks and noise during the extensive rebuild. “We are very proud to have this opportunity to restore it.”
The entire hotel has been renovated from top to bottom. There are plush new guests rooms, eight meeting spaces, a spa and a restaurant called C2 (for Congress Squared). Executive chef Michael Bates-Walsh of C2 admits there is “a lot of competition, but Portland is a fascinating food city.”
His signature dishes include smoked gouda lobster mac and cheese and smoked chicken wings. C2 will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and is designed to become the spot to power lunch or even power breakfast.
Amid the updates, historic footnotes remain. The sweeping banister, where brides made their entrance, still graces the grand ballroom. Weddings are already booked for March. The room is now cast in a modern glow with LED chandeliers and ambient, colored lights.
The second icon that’s been restored is the cocktail lounge Top of the East.
The hotel’s crown jewel has doubled in size and dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows offer a jaw-dropping view of the city, Casco Bay and beyond. “Wow,” said Suslovic, taking in Mount Washington in the distance.
The Eastland opened during Prohibition and the Top of the East was a sunroom where people “sat in rockers and read and drank tea,” said Wennerstrom. “Now it’s going to be the place to see and be seen.”
New Portland restaurateur David Levi, who opens Vinland on Congress Street on Dec. 26, looked down upon his new restaurant from the stunning vantage point. “When I took on the lease last January, this was a reason,” he said, perusing the city from on high. “The 289 rooms in this hotel will go a long way toward filling our 39 seats.”
Likewise, Mary Allen Lindemann of Coffee By Design sees the upscale hotel as a harbinger of prosperous times ahead.
Opening on Congress Street in 1994, when the “arts district was the porno district,” she saw potential. The hotel “shows people that this neighborhood is worth $50 million.”
When the Eastland closed, a year and a half ago, “business dropped dramatically,” she said. “We are very excited that people from around the world will see this neighborhood.”
Everyone, including Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who made a few brief comments, was pleased with the outcome.
“Since 1977, when I moved here, there have been a number of owners of this property,” said Brennan addressing Wennerstrom and crew. “I hope you will be the last.”
Having the high-end hotel take over a tired grand dame in what used to be the city’s center is “a symbolic start to the resurgence of this part of town,” said Steve Hewins, executive director of Portland’s Downtown District. Like many advocates of this neighborhood, he said it needed the TLC.
Congress Square Park, adjacent to the hotel, has for months been a flashpoint for controversy. The proposed sale of a portion to RockBridge Capital LLC, who owns the Westin, is in legal limbo. But it did not taint the ceremony.
And seeing fellow Portland hotel owners at the opening spoke volumes, said Suslovic. “It’s really a positive statement for investors in Portland’s future.”