Rich in beauty and natural resources, especially timber forests, mountains, and seascapes, Maine boasts an almost boundless coastline, historically accommodating profitable fishing and shipbuilding, and other maritime-related industries, as well as coastal and transatlantic commerce. After the Civil War, Maine exploited its beauty, promoting the state’s pristine environment, smoke-free and “healthful,” to tourists.
For the last two millennia, ancestors of the Algonquin-speaking Wabanaki peoples hunted with bows and arrows, made pottery vessels, traveled the waterways and coast in birch bark canoes, and lived in wigwams. The Wabanaki comprised the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, and Micmac tribes, whose early encounters with Europeans proved devastating. Settlement by both the French and the British began in the early seventeenth century. Short-lived fortress-like settlements included St. Croix, Popham, Pemaquid, and Fort Pentaqoet (Castine). Under the Council of New England, Charles I granted Ferdinando Gorges the “Province of Maine” in 1639, and by 1650 small farming, saw-milling, fishing, and fur-trading communities appeared in Kittery, York, Wells, Cape Porpoise (Kennebunkport), and Casco (present day Portland). Early houses were invariably timber-framed, with small casement windows and a central chimney. A simple log meeting house functioned for public and religious purposes. In 1691, after the Puritan wars and the Glorious Revolution, the English monarchs, William and Mary, bestowed Massachusetts clear title to the “District of Maine” (from the Piscataquis to the Kennebec rivers). East of the Kennebec the French and their Indian allies still held sway.
The wars that raged in 1675–1763 between the British, French, and American Indians left most of these towns in ruins. Although Maine’s coastal towns began to flourish after the Treaty of 1763, British cannons again obliterated Falmouth in 1775. After 1787 the towns thrived as shipbuilding centers and entrepôts. In fact, beginning in 1781, the population burgeoned as veterans of the American Revolution flocked to the unsettled—albeit disputed—proprietorial lands in western Maine. Many squatters built squalid log huts and subsisted on barely arable lands where they timbered and planted a mix of crops. This rural poverty was soon matched by the majesty of the elegant Georgian and Federal mansions built by prosperous merchant elites and found in such bustling shipbuilding and commercial towns as Wiscasset, Bath, Portland, and York. The Napoleonic Wars opened lucrative markets for Maine lumber, salted cod, barrel staves, and shingles. Maine-built ships returned North from the cotton-growing, slave-holding South and from the West Indies with molasses (to be converted into rum or brown sugar) and other commodities, fueling a thriving commerce. After enduring a moment of economic hardship in 1807–1815 due to Jefferson’s trade embargo and the War of 1812, Maine’s economy resurged in subsequent years. Following statehood in 1820, Maine’s exuberance manifested itself in glorious Greek Revival architecture, the columned and entablatured features of its fine houses, town halls, and churches. Before the Civil War, that same exuberance revealed itself in the Italianate splendor of such residences as Portland’s Victoria Mansion.
Seagoing commerce spawned a revolution in transportation and the beginnings of industrialism. By 1860, a state once served mainly by primitive, unpaved roads boasted canal systems and hundreds of miles of railroads. These railroads opened up markets for the state’s young cotton mills and the products of its Portland Company foundry, in places such as Boston, Montreal, Chicago, and beyond. But the Civil War cost Maine dearly, not only in war deaths and the suspension of foreign immigration, but also in its loss of the West Indies trade. In the postwar period, Maine’s agriculture gravitated toward mechanized farming. The center of commercial fishing shifted southward to Gloucester, and shipbuilding from sail power (Maine’s specialty) to steam. Pre-war expectations of continued economic expansion failed to materialize. Indeed, foreshadowing the state’s economic fate, a cataclysmic fire on July 4, 1866 all but destroyed the city of Portland, the state’s financial capital. Maine’s resource-based economy had exploited the state’s plentiful lumber, granite, limestone, ice supplies, and its waterpower. There was a resurgence of industry with the cotton, wool, shoe, and paper industries in the period between 1870 and 1920, but with the exception of the paper industry, these too eventually faded.
Maine reinvented itself as a health-bestowing vacation destination, building upon the literary and artistic imagery of the state by some of its famous residents such as Charles Codman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Winslow Homer, and Sarah Orne Jewett. Increasing waves of often wealthy tourists (at first called “Rusticators”) spawned hotel and cottage colonies in coastal Elysiums such as Bar Harbor, Camden, Cape Elizabeth, and Cushing Island, as well as in lakeside retreats like Rangeley. The phenomenon resulted in architectural designs tailored to seasonal needs, notably John Calvin Stevens’s Shingle Style summer cottages.
Meanwhile, commerce, tourism, and a mix of small industry revitalized post-fire Portland just as Boston capital fueled textile industrialism and French-Canadian immigration propelled economic and population growth in towns such as Saco, Biddeford, and Lewiston. Maine architects, particularly Stevens and his once-mentor and partner, Francis H. Fassett, oversaw the efflorescence of Queen Anne, Richardson Romanesque, and other Victorian architectural styles in commercial and public buildings as well as in residential neighborhoods. By 1900 Maine’s architects were building in the Colonial Revival style as well, following national trends popularized by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Likewise, together with Portland’s progressive-minded mayor, James Phinney Baxter, a person also inspired by the Fair, Stevens helped bring the City Beautiful movement to Portland, illustrated by the Olmsted-designed necklace of parks and the monumental city hall and county courthouse assemblage adjoining Lincoln Park.
Though Maine’s economy was severely affected by World War I, a post-war recession, the statewide loss of the once-lucrative Canadian grain trade, and then the Great Depression of the 1930s, it continued to expand. Across the state, new buildings reflected the growing influence of modernism. Ranging from Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Prairie Style, and the International Style, modernist styles were found in large buildings such as Portland’s New England Telephone and Telegraph building (1931) and in smaller buildings such as those on main streets in Lisbon and Bangor. After World War II, the International Style manifested itself in the sleek, functional, glass-sheathed design of the Union Mutual Life Insurance Home Office (1971), as well as in the Gropius and Miesian-inspired summer houses which, while shedding the shingles of their predecessors, were still considered cottages. The shingles remained in notable modernist works like Deer Isle’s Haystack School (1959–1961). Postwar Maine also experienced urban renewal, and in cities like Portland, guided in part by planner Victor Gruen, large swaths of older downtown housing and commercial buildings were cleared before being restrained by the burgeoning preservation movement beginning in the late 1960s. Both Portland and Lewiston received funding from President Lyndon Johnson’s controversial Model Cities Program. In the second half of the twentieth century Maine experienced many of the same development pressures as in other parts of the United States. In the twenty-first century it struggles to balance preservation of its built and natural resources with changing economic realities. Nevertheless, across the state, revitalized downtowns and renovated historic buildings are optimistic markers of how Maine will meet contemporary challenges.
Bourque, Bruce J. Diversity and Complexity in Prehistoric Maritime Societies: A Gulf of Maine Perspective. New York; Plenum Press, 1995.
Denys, Peter Myers, comp. Maine Catalog: Historic American Building Society. New York: Maine State Museum, 1974.
Isaacson, Dorris A. ed. Maine: A Guide ‘Down East:’ American Guide Series. Second Edition. Rockland, ME: Courier-Gazette, Inc., 1970.
Judd, Richard W., Edwin A. Churchill, Joel W. Eastman, eds. Maine: The Pine Tree State from Prehistory to the Present. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1995.
Murphy, Kevin D. Colonial Revival Maine. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004. .
O’Gorman, James F. and Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr. The Maine Perspective: Architectural Drawings, 1800–1980. Portland: Portland Museum of Art, 2006.
Taylor, Alan. Liberty Men and the Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Thompson, Deborah, ed. Maine Forms of American Architecture. Camden, ME: Downeast Magazine, 1976.
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