‘This is a sacred landscape’: $1.4 million restoration of Portland’s Fort Allen Park nears completion

Posted July 01, 2014, at 1:59 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Three years after plans were proposed for a sweeping, $1.4 million restoration of Fort Allen Park, and nine months since ground was broken, one of the city’s most beloved and historic open spaces will soon be open again.

But for now, visitors won’t see several of its familiar attractions.

The five-acre park, on the southern tip of the Eastern Promenade, has been closed for reconstruction since October. Now the work is nearly complete, and outdoors lovers will regain access to the park over the next few weeks, Diane Davison, executive director of Friends of the Eastern Promenade, said on June 27.

Parking for people with disabilities also will be available along the park’s horseshoe-shaped drive during Independence Day festivities on Friday, according to Davison, whose volunteer group is working with the city to oversee restoration.

Finishing touches, including utility work and repaving of the drive, will be made later in July, she said. A formal celebration of the park and the bicentennial of Fort Allen is scheduled for Sept. 19-20.

The city is spending more than $1 million in capital funds and other support to restore the park, a National Historic Place that receives about 100,000 visitors annually. The balance of funding comes from private and foundation sources.

Back to the future

Named after Revolutionary War hero Gen. Ethan Allen, a fort was built in 1814 on the current park grounds to protect Portland from British warships. The site had housed a five-gun battery for similar purposes in 1775, but construction of the fort during the War of 1812 included an ammunition magazine and a troop barracks.

Today, the fort’s 200-year-old earthen berms, which once shielded American guns, are smaller, but still visible atop the park’s gently sloping hill.

The rest of the park is now restored to resemble its appearance during another era: 1890-1930, the period when the grounds were acquired by the city and converted for public use.

In subsequent years, the park suffered from poorly conceived modifications, according to Davison. Some people criticized it, saying it had fallen into disrepair.

“This is a sacred landscape,” she said. “We’re happy to be restoring it to the level of integrity it deserves.”

Most of the park’s evergreen trees, which had blocked panoramic views of Casco Bay, have now been removed. (An exception is a squat mugo pine tree, near the park’s bandstand and a favorite “jungle gym” for neighborhood children.)

The trees were not included in the original Eastern Promenade design, by legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also laid out New York’s Central Park.

As they did a century ago, shade trees and period-style benches now line the park’s border with the Eastern Promenade. A walkway again stretches from the street to the park’s iconic bandstand.

The drive, which had been straightened in 1984, now follows its more sinuous original route. Cobblestones and restored paths flank the roadway.

Other improvements blend old and new.

An overlook of the bay has been cleared of brush, spruced up with benches and wrought-iron fencing, and made accessible to people with disabilities. The bandstand has been repaired and repainted, but also outfitted with WiFi and 21st-century electronics that will allow concerts to be broadcast more effectively.

A monumental task?

The park’s monuments of granite and iron remain much the same.

They include the mast and memorabilia of the USS Portland, a World War II cruiser that fought in several of the Pacific Theater’s most important battles; memorials to veterans of the war’s “Arctic Campaign” and to the Union army of the Civil War; and a monument recognizing victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Absent, however, are two Civil War siege cannons and a 10,000-pound gun from the battleship USS Maine, whose 1898 sinking triggered the Spanish-American War.

The artillery, installed in the park during the early 1900s, has been undergoing much-needed refurbishment. Carriages for the Civil War cannons had rotted; an ornate base for the Maine gun is being completely rebuilt.

That portion of the park project was originally expected to cost more than $90,000, according to Davison. Last week, she learned the price estimate had gone up.

“The cannon restoration is huge … We’re now looking at $140,000 to bring all the cannons back to the park,” she said.

Friends of the Eastern Promenade is now raising funds for the cannon work, as well as for the addition of interpretive park signs and other improvements. Pledges so far total $90,000. Davison said she’s optimistic the work will be done in time for the September bicentennial.

On Sunday, Susan Annett was one of a growing number of visitors who can’t wait that long. Ignoring the closure signs, the Washington Avenue resident strolled a park walkway with her twin 4-year-old daughters.

“It was frustrating when we couldn’t walk here last fall. I’ve always enjoyed spending time here,” she said.

“It’s interesting to imagine what the park must have been like 100 years ago. Good thing we don’t have to wait another century to see for ourselves.”