Welcome to CityScapes, a column in which we explore some of the nation's oft-overlooked cities and towns: their local history and real estate offerings. Have a suggestion? Do let us know.
Augusta might be the political capital of Maine, but when it comes to all things social, cultural, economic, and, well, cool, Portland takes the cake. Home to a booming culinary scene, modern Portland has become the city for hip, young Mainers. Allagash Brewing Company, the pioneering Belgian-style micro-brewery, and Rogues Gallery, the workwear-inspired men's fashion house, both got their start in Portland's trendy waterfront nabes. And they didn't have to look far for inspiration: the hard-working, hard-drinking traditions of men-of-the-sea remain close at hand on Portland's commercial waterfront. Today, the city retains much of its architectural heritage, in spite of a series of fires, including the brick warehouses and shopfronts of Old Port, the ornate Victorian mansions of West End, and the Customs House (above) on still-bustling Fore Street.
First permanently settled by European colonists in 1633, Portland, then known as Casco, quickly became a major port, thanks to the shorter crossing from England, the ample supply of timber for shipbuilding and repair, and the well-protected, deep-water harbor. Despite the close connection to the sea, and much like our first CityScapes subject, Flagstaff, Ariz., Portland's fortunes rose to greatness on the back of the locomotive. Founded in 1853, the Grand Trunk Railway (above) ran freight down from Montreal to ice-free Portland Harbor in the depths of winter. This provided regular business for Portland's shipping merchants, who had been hard hit by the Embargo Act of 1807 (which forbade trade with Britain) and the War of 1812. This newfound wealth was quickly transformed into grand Victorian homes on the city's West End, and those that survived a series of late 19th-century fires have been largely preserved, thanks to a robust historical preservation movement. Though the Grand Trunk Railway faded into obscurity following the loss of its president aboard the Titanic in 1912, Portland soldiered on. Today the railway has been replaced by a pipeline that runs in the opposite direction, carrying crude-oil from ocean tankers up to Canadian refineries. Economic success has led to a revitalization of the old downtown, where a slew of well-regarded restaurants now share space with the classic architecture and cobblestone streets of yore (below).
WHAT'S ON THE MARKET NOW:
? Get a functioning Portland biz and a grand new home all in one with the Pomegranate Inn, a bed-and-breakfast on the market for $2.25M. The interior has plenty of historic detail; it's a pity the absurd floral wallpaper and painting had to distract from it. We say cast out the guests and return this 1884, eight-bedroom mansion to its former glory.
? More affordable options abound outside of the coveted West End, like this Greek Revival home north of the University of Southern Maine campus. Asking $495K, the grand spaces underwent an ill-advised renovation that led to such gems as a mirrored fireplace surround and a red-lit basement rec room. It'll take some work to get this grand dame back up to its former standard, but $500K for six-bedrooms and 6,000 square feet isn't half bad.
? Now for something a little more manageable. How about heading back to the West End for a two-bed, two-bath condo in a classic Victorian mansion? Set on the ground floor, this $390K apartment enjoys the height and detail of the parlor level, including extensive moldings, original pocket doors, and carved wood mantelpieces.