May 16, 2017

Top Historical Places to see in Portland, ME

First settled in 1632, Portland, Maine has a wealth of history to charm any visitor or resident. From the cobblestoned elegance of its famed Old Port to graceful brick houses that preserve 19th-century architecture, Portland is full of old-world allure. Here are the top historical places to see in this serene, relaxing and charismatic seaside city:

1. Victoria Mansion

This lavish, multi-story house, also known as the Morse-Libby House for its former inhabitants, is famous for its beautiful architecture and rich, detailed interiors. Its exterior was influenced by Italian villas, and today it is one of the country’s best original examples of this style in brick and brownstone.

If its grandeur calls to mind the elegance of 19th-century hotels, that’s because it was originally built for hotelier Ruggles Sylvester Morse and his wife Olive. Constructed between 1858 and 1860, it was designed by Connecticut-based architect Henry Austen for the Morses as their summer home, and was one of the most modern homes of the time, with hot and cold running water as well as flush toilets and central heating.

Morse brought his eye for luxurious opulence to the home, and one of the house’s most standout features is a 25-foot long stained glass skylight. He also hired one of the most influential cabinetmakers and interior designers of the time, Gustaver Herter, to decorate the mansion in gilded surfaces, plasterwork and oversized mirrors that seem more appropriate for a palace than a home. To complete the look, he hired Italian artist Giuseppe Giudicini to create original trompe l’oeil paintings and frescoes for the walls.

After Morse died, his wife sold the house to the dry goods merchant J.R. Libby, whose family lived there until the end of the 1920s. Thanks to their efforts in preservation, around 97% of the house’s contents are original.

2. Portland Observatory
America’s oldest maritime signal tower, the Portland Observatory was built in 1807 and is the last of its kind in the country today. During Portland’s prime maritime period, it was built to let merchants working at the port know which ships were entering, and even featured a telescope so watchers could identify ships as far out as 30 miles away.

Situated on Munjoy Hill, it can be seen from both the open ocean and the wharfs. It was constructed in lighthouse-style architecture with an octagonal design that lets it withstand wind pressure, even with the absence of a basement. It stayed in use until 1923, when it was decided that thanks to technological advancements and improvements in radio communication, it was no longer needed.

Today, you can visit the building between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, when volunteers give guided tours on its history. On clear days its view extends to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

3. Wadsworth-Longfellow House
The childhood home of beloved poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, this stately brick home also has the distinction of being the oldest standing structure on the Portland peninsula, and of being the first building constructed entirely in brick in the city.

It was built by the poet’s grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, as a two-story Federal architecture-style home from 1785-1786, with a third story added later by Wadsworth Longfellow’s parents. Growing up in the house from the age of eight months till when he was 35, the house today stands a monument to the poet and his family, including his sister Anne, who preserved the house and donated it to the Maine Historical Society in her death in 1901.

Today you can go on guided visits that explore the house and show how people lived in the 19th century, thanks to an array of original artifacts and furnishings in the parlor, sitting room and front hall. Next to the house, on what used to be family farmland, the Longfellow Garden Club designed a Colonial Revival-style garden that only adds to Portland’s tranquility.  

4. The Shanghai Tunnels
For history of a more bootleg type, don’t miss Portland’s Shanghai Tunnels. Part legend, part reality, the Shanghai Tunnels were constructed in the 1850s, reputedly as a maze of interconnected basements, rooms and tunnels that led from Old Town Chinatown to the sea.

The tunnels were reportedly used for a number of different purposes, from shifting illegal goods between the town and the boats, to housing underground opium dens and gambling houses, or even as temporary prisons for people who had been kidnapped to be sold as slaves in a practice known as “shanghaiing” or “crimping”.  

While it’s uncertain how much of this is true, you can still take tours led by local groups and historians that will take you both above and below ground, into musty basements and passageways that, though blocked, will spark your imagination about the city’s wilder history.

Image: Bex Walton via Flickr

5. Abyssinian Mansion

Maine’s oldest African-American church building cuts a humble, low-key figure on Newbury Street in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood of the city.

Built between 1828 and 1831 with a brick body, simple windows and an arched fan that decorates the outer fa├žade, The Abyssinian Mansion was an important cultural center for local African-Americans. People would gather here for meetings, classes, worship, speakers, and concerts. At one point it was even a schoolhouse for children in the local area.

Since then, it’s been used as tenement apartments, an antique store, and even a stable. An archeological dig in 2008 helped to discover more original details, and today is run by the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian, a historic prevention group.

One of America’s oldest cities, Portland is full of historical gems to discover and explore, and there’s definitely something for every type of explorer within the family.

Author Bio:

Chestnut Portland is a quiet community of one, two and three bedroom townhomes in Portland and Scarborough, Maine that is perfect for anyone looking for easy access to day-to-day life, but also a little fresh air and breathing room.

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