PORTLAND, Maine — Maine Medical Center’s massive, concrete employee parking garage has loomed over the city’s southwestern gateway since 1972. In those 48 years, it’s become a local icon marking the end of the suburbs and the start of downtown.
Situated close to the sidewalk and halfway up Bramhall Hill, the gray monument to Brutalist efficiency seems even taller than its 10 stories. The garage is visible, along with the rest of the towering hospital, at least a half-mile away, from outer Congress Street.
But not for much longer. In June, workmen with heavy equipment started taking it down, making way for a gleaming, new building.
The coming structure will situate Maine Medical Center’s main entrance directly on Congress Street, making it more prominent. The hospital has been buying up adjacent properties in the neighborhood, while working with the city’s planning board to rezone those sites for its future needs. The demise of the old garage is the latest step in a years-long hospital expansion that’s altering the look and feel of Portland’s downtown approach.
“The garage is certainly iconic,” said Eric Stark, professor of architecture at the University of Maine-Augusta. “It’s a pretty nice piece of Brutalist architecture because of its unrelenting pattern.”
Brutalist-style buildings are known for their raw concrete, muscular appearance and repeating geometric patterns. Without the garage, the University of Maine Law School on Falmouth Street is the lone Brutalist structure in town.
Stark, who lives on Munjoy Hill, said he understands why the garage has not been universally admired. Its proximity to the street can make it feel overpowering. Still, he admired its utilitarian nature.
“I think most parking garages are awful,” Stark said. “This one didn’t pretend. It was what it was. It had a kind of honesty to it.”
Other Portlanders won’t miss it at all. Artist and silk screener Fletcher Curran is one of them.
“I see no problem with removing an eyesore of a parking garage for more hospital,” Curran said. “They are going to need it.”
Conversely, Curran’s brother and former Portland mayoral candidate, Travis Curran, is sad to see it go.
“I’ll miss it,” the other Curran brother said. “I was born there and [the garage] was always a significant landmark to use when I first was learning how to drive around Portland. [It was] the North Star to the Eastland’s Big Dipper.”
The garage was originally built in 1972 as a seven-story structure, according to Maine Medical Center spokesperson Matt Wickenheiser. All of its concrete was cast on site during construction. In 1982, three floors were added for a total of 10 stories. At its peak, the garage boasted 1,280 parking spaces in approximately 380,000 square feet.
The hospital already has constructed its replacement a few blocks away on St. John Street, behind the Eagles Club. It sports roughly double the parking at 2,450 spaces. Maine Medical Center ferries its employees back and forth in a small fleet of minibuses, 24 hours a day.
The old garage is close to residential housing, busy Congress Street and the hospital’s own surgical unit. It’s also right next to the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital. That makes taking down the colossal edifice a delicate task.
“We are dismantling the garage in a precise, methodical and careful way,” Wickenheiser said. “This allows us to minimize vibration, dust and noise and the overall impact on the area.”
Wickenheiser also said crews expect to bust up and remove 25,000 tons of concrete, along with 3,000 tons of steel before they are done. He expects most of it to get recycled.
The new building taking its place is the final phase of Maine Medical Center’s current $512-million expansion project. However, the hospital has more or less been expanding for the past 15 years — and its growth doesn’t seem likely to stop soon.
In addition to building and expanding another public parking garage on Congress Street since the early 2000s, Maine Medical Center has added floors to its east tower, crowned them with double helicopter pads and built the massive replacement garage. It also acquired several nearby properties, including buildings housing the Pizza Villa restaurant and the Greyhound bus station.
Pizza Villa has been operating since the 1960s and the bus station is home to another iconic Portland landmark: the giant, faded Greyhound logo painted on an adjacent brick wall.
“I moved to this neighborhood, or what’s left of it, in 1992. It has been an MMC construction site most of the time I’ve lived here,” said neighbor Loraine Lowell. “A lot of the remaining flavor of the neighborhood will be gone. And while the construction continues, folks living in the area will continue eating and breathing a lot of concrete and construction dust.”
In 2018, the city zoning board and city council approved a sizable “institutional overlay zone” for the hospital that stretches up into the West End, down into the St. John Valley neighborhood and all the way to St. John Street. The zone includes properties the Maine Medical Center does not currently own, such as the building housing Salvage BBQ & Smokehouse on Congress Street.
The hospital has not revealed any specific plans beyond finishing the new building on Congress Street.
Wickenheiser said he expects the old garage to be completely removed by fall. That’s when construction will commence on the new, 265,000-square-foot, six-story building. In addition to presenting a new main entrance, it also will house single-occupancy, private patient rooms and state-of-the-art procedure rooms centered on cardiovascular care.
“This new building will include a new public entrance to MMC from Congress Street, including drive-thru vehicular access to the visitors’ garage,” Wickenheiser said. “It will provide patients with a convenient, modern and easy way to access state-of-the-art care for all who need it.”
It is slated to open in mid 2023. By then, the Brutalist parking garage will be just a drab memory for many.
“I remember when it was going up, I was 10,” said lifelong Portlander James Pappaconstantine, “but I always felt it was pretty ugly.”