Hug trees, but hug old buildings as well

December 7, 2009

Some people hugs trees, symbolizing their love for those glories of nature. I hug old buildings — noble witnesses to earlier times and to the careful work of artisans one rarely finds today. Surrounded by the old buildings that define much of Portland, I feel a joyful continuity with generations of people who built these homes and workplaces.

My narrow townhouse on Danforth Street predates any tree on the block. It’s probably older than most trees in Portland, having been built in 1834. It was standing as the great fire of 1866 destroyed much of the city, while Portland’s fire department enjoyed a July 4th picnic at Sebago Lake.

After buying the sadly neglected gem, I set about restoring it. With most of the ceilings torn out, a contractor spoke with me about installing an under-the-floor heating system. Answering my concern about burying flexible plastic pipes behind a wet plaster ceiling, he replied, “Don’t worry . . . they’ll last at least as long as the house . . . certainly a hundred years!” The house was more than a hundred fifty years old at that point. I imagined that any renovations should last at least that long again.

It seemed prudent to wear a hard hat as friends helped me take down the ceilings, and do much of the other demolition necessary before reconstruction could start. They thought my hard hat was a bit of unnecessary showmanship, but withdrew their criticism when a large metal dishpan fell out of the ceiling and onto my head, drenching me with filthy water. Evidently a previous owner had “fixed” a leaky drain pipe by inserting this pan beneath it, trusting the water would evaporate faster than the drip could fill it.

The following day our mail carrier, peering into the house, remarked that her sister had lived in my house “before the war”, and asked if the sister might visit. When she came a few days later, she laughed and asked if I’d ever found that dishpan her landlord put into the ceiling fix a leaky drain.

Walking from my old house going up Danforth Street, I enjoy passing the “Tracy-Causer block”. Once a merchant’s shop downstairs and his residence upstairs, this simple brick building had become an obstacle to the developers of Portland’s new downtown. The building’s death sentence had been commuted several times, as the city struggled to protect its history. But now there was another request to tear it down. I was privileged to sit on the Portland Historic Preservation Commission reviewing a plea from the owner who had allowed the building to deteriorate. A neighbor testifying before our group likened the situation to a boy charged with murdering his parents, pleading for mercy because he was an orphan. We commuted this last death sentence on the building, and it has now become an attractive gateway to Portland’s “Old Port” district.

Passing the Tracy-Causer block again, I always smile. I’m glad to see Sam Klammen’s bottle shop still on Fore street, even if his dusty old bottles no longer fill the window. I could go on listing such humble buildings that linger with their solid grace. Yes, do hug trees. But hug old buildings as well.

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