Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Wadsworth-Longfellow House

                                     The Wadsworth-Longfellow House 

                                           David Wallace in front of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House
                              David Wallace in the garden behind the Wadsworth-Longfellow House

                                        Wadsworth House and store as they appeared circa 1786
                                                  (Notice the absence of a full third floor).
    On Sunday October 1st, I went on a tour of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House.  The cost of the tour was $12.00 for adults, $10.00 for senior citizens and students, $3.00 for children and free for anyone age 3 or under.  Our tour guide was a very knowledgeable man named Howard.  While our tour was assembled at the main entrance to the house, Howard presented a brief history of the house as he took us back in time to get a mental image of what Portland would have looked like circa 1786, when it was built.   As the name implies, the Wadsworth-Longfellow house was home to both the Wadsworth and the Longfellow families.  The handsome three story brick house, (originally two stories) with an attached barn and store, was built by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s maternal grandfather General Peleg Wadsworth, a veteran of the American Revolution.  After surviving a combat wound and being taken prisoner by British forces, Peleg and his wife Elizabeth chose to build the house in Falmouth (as Portland was formerly known until 1786).  Though today it stands as an anachronism in the heart of downtown Portland, the house originally was surrounded by farmland away from the more thickly settled part of Falmouth in the Munjoy Hill area.  Peleg Wadsworth chose the current location thinking that its proximity to the busy harbor and the main roads was perfect for conducting business.  (He turned out to be right).  Construction of the brick house (very unusual at the time) began in 1785 and was completed the following year.  In 1786, the house on pastoral farmland would have commanded an unobstructed ocean view, since the shore line was much closer circa 1786 (This proximity to the water was described by our tour guide as “about two blocks away.”)  When construction of the house was complete in 1786, Peleg and Elizabeth took up residence with their 6 children.  They would go on to have another 4 children while living in the new house.  One of their original six children was Zilpah, mother of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  
     As we progressed through the house tour, our guide pointed out interesting features of the house, along with related anecdotes.   In addition to being made a brick, the house's other atypical design feature was the placement of the chimneys.  Instead of being centrally located in the house, the chimneys were placed on the outside ends of the house, so that every bedroom could have a fireplace.   

After Peleg and Elizabeth moved to Hiram, where Peleg had considerable real estate holding and investments, their daughter would marry Stephen Longfellow and go to on raise their own family in the same house.  It was when William and Zilpah were in possession of the house that a full third floor was added.
     As Stephen began to conduct more of his law practice locally, he set up an office in the parlor.  A bookcase with his law books still survives today.  It was just off that parlor in a small side room where Henry spent many hours writing in contented solitude.    
     The house was occupied continuously by members of Wadsworth and then Longfellow family from its construction in 1786 until the death of Henry’s sister Anne Longfellow Pierce in 1902.  Anne lived in the house for 87 of her 90 years.  Anne had been married to a Bowdoin classmate of Henry’s (George Washington Pierce) who died from typhus, leaving Anne a heartbroken young widow.  Her loss would be compounded by the death of her sister also from typhus.  One of her remaining joys was gardening, and a lovely garden still remains behind the house.  During the years that she lived in the house, Anne refused to embrace modern conveniences of the day such as indoor plumbing, although she did have the house refurbished in 1851.  We have her to thank for the well-preserved and un-modernized house, with all of its original contents, that stands today.   In accordance with Anne's will, the house was left to the Maine Historical Society, in whose capable hands it has rested ever since.  As with the Victoria Mansion, the Wadsworth-Longfellow house is one of the very few historic house with so much of its original contents.  For anyone interested into taking a trip back in time, I highly recommend a visit.   

David Wallace


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Victoria Mansion

The Victoria Mansion109 Danforth St, Portland

     On October 1st, we went to visit the Victoria Mansion on 109 Danforth Street in Portland.  Tour tickets are $15.00 for adults, $13.50 for Senior Citizens, $7.00 for college students and $5.00 for ages 17 and under.  There is a very well-placed and visible sign which stands on the front lawn to the left of the mansion. Our tour guide was a very outgoing, informative and personable young man named Adam. 
     As awe-inspiring as the historic Italianate-style brick and brownstone house is from the outside, the interior made the exterior pale by comparison.  I was immediately struck by the incredible degree of detailed ornamentation and d├ęcor of the rooms.  Our tour began in the guest parlor, which in keeping with the tradition of the day, was the most exquisitely furnished room in the house.  Before the days of the telephone and the internet, people would present their card and wait to be received by the homeowners.  The parlor was specifically designed to impress visitors while they waited.  Ostentation was not frowned on, but highly desirable.  An ornately carved marble fireplace has a gilded framed mirror above, the intricate design of the carpet is duplicated in the ceiling design, the faces carved in the chairs were echoed again above the windows.
On the first floor, the dining room is decorated with many kinds of wood, some made to look like marble and other stones. Outside the dining room is a marble sink where guests could wash their hands before supper. The large living room is elegant, and all the furniture, wall hangings and art are part of a flowing composition.  Throughout the house there is tromp l’oeil painting on the walls, done by an Italian immigrant artist.  The main hall, with its soaring ceiling, is dominated by the wide “floating” staircase with a beautiful banister that curves off to the left and right along the upper part of the hall.  At the roof level there are decorated windows in an atrium effect.  As you walk up the stairs, ahead of you is an intricate and beautiful stained-glass window.  Along the upper hall are bedrooms.  One has a built-in four-foot-deep bathtub, also very unusual at the time.  Perhaps the most striking feature is the ornate Turkish smoking room, where the gentlemen would smoke after dinner.  The elaborate chandelier could be lowered so they could see to play cards.  Ladies were not allowed to see the men smoking, so pocket doors closed off the room.
At a time when indoor plumbing was still a rarity, the house had a 1000-gallon cistern on the 3rd floor. Gravity fed the water down into the bathrooms and kitchen.    

The Victoria Mansion—David Wallace, rt.

The Victoria Mansion, also known as the Morse-Libby House (named after the two families who resided in it until the early part of the 20th century) was built between 1858 and 1860 as a summer home for Ruggles Sylvester Morse and his wife Olive.  Originally from Maine, Mr. Morse made his fortune as a hotel proprietor in New Orleans.  He and his wife wanted to have a beautiful showcase home in which to spend their summers, and he wanted features found in his hotels to appear in his house. Morse hired architect Henry Austin to build this Italian villa-style house and interior designer/furniture-maker Gustav Herter to design and furnish the interior.  That was highly unusual at the time.  During the Civil War, although the house was finished, the Morses could not live there because of his Southern sympathies. But they did live there in summers from 1865 to 1893, and Morse even conducted some business in an office/library at the back of the house.

After Ruggles S. Morse passed away in 1893, his widow Olive made a detailed inventory of the mansion’s contents.  In 1894 the house and all of its contents were sold to Portland merchant Joseph Ralph Libby.  Members of the Libby family continued living in the house until 1928, and during that time, they sold many of the items or gave them away to other family members.  After 1928, the house was largely empty and abandoned.  During one of the winters, snow broke the atrium windows in the roof of the hall, allowing water to leak in over the years. 

After narrowly escaping demolition to make way for a gas station in 1940, the house was saved and it has operated as a museum ever since. As with all historic buildings, the process of restoration is ongoing.  Fortunately, about 90% of the original furniture was returned by Libby family members or found through research and purchase, so the house looks almost exactly as it would have in its heyday.  It is one of the few historic homes in America which is furnished almost entirely with original pieces. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Battery Steele on Peaks Island

 Battery Steele, Peaks Island
   On a perfectly sunny and beautiful September 11th, 2011, we visited Battery Steele on Peaks Island.  It's a good 20 minute walk from the Ferry terminal.  We took a scenic route starting from the 5th Maine Regimental Museum.  Battery Steele can be easily accessed via the Peaks Island landfill.  Though it was a nice walk, it would be no problem to drive right up to the battery's entrance.  Other than a small metal sign on a pole in front front of the entrance, there wad no evident additional information.  A plague about the battery's history and function would definitely be in order.  Admission is free and the tour is self-guided.  As a person who has visited numerous abandoned fortifications with generally restricted interior access, I found Battery Steele to be extremely accessible and explorable.  Speaking of interior access,  I would highly recommend a flashlight for exploring the voluminous and very dark inner recesses of the battery. 
                                                              Entrance to Battery Steele
                            (The beginning of the main corridor is the dark area on the left hand wall).

                  David Wallace and stepson in front of gun Battery Steele 16-inch gun emplacement #1 
                              View of the ocean from the top Battery Steels 16-inch gun emplacement #2
     During WWII, Battery Steele was part of the Peaks Island Military Reservation which occupied 198 acres (more than 25% of Peaks Island).  Battery Steele is an impressive concrete complex which measures more than 500ft long and perhaps 200ft wide.   Two 16-inch guns capable of firing high explosive shells weighing 2,240lbs up to 30 miles, were assisted by a very early computer which was supposed to help triangulate the position of enemy targets.  (In one of the upstairs rooms of the 5th Maine Regimental Museum dedicated to WWII, there is an interesting newsreel which showed the 16-inch guns being test fired in a wartime exercise and a surviving panel from one of the computers). 
      Though gun emplacements like Battery Steele were built to provide a defense against attack by German battleships, submarines (U-Boats) were the only known enemy naval presence in the waters off Maine’s coast during WWII.

The massive gun emplacements of Battery Steele are situated at each end of a extensive connecting concrete bunker complex which would have housed the command, communications and fire control center.

 View of the main corridor which runs between the gun emplacements at each end of the battery  (For perspective on how massive this space is, consider that the tiny white spot in the center of the picture is the opposite end of the corridor).  

                       View to the outside from one of the large side rooms off the main corridor

Though the guns themselves are gone, it isn’t hard to imagine how impressive they must have been.  If we think about how incredibly loud rifles and shotguns are when fired and they have a barrel opening which is less than an 1 inch, it must have been a positively thunderous explosion whenever the battery fired their guns with a 16- inch barrel opening.

For me, Battery Steele is very sobering 3-D testament to the enormity of the U.S. war effort during WWII and Maine's significant contribution to national defense.  For anyone interested in keeping vital parts of our state's history alive, it should be reassuring to know that on October 20th, 2005  Battery Steele was put on the National Register.  

David Wallace

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fifth Maine Regimental Museum

 Fifth Maine Regimental Museum, Peaks Island

On Sunday September 11, 2011, I took a trip with my wife and stepson to Peaks Island to visit the 5th Maine Regimental Museum and Battery Steele.  After a pleasant 15 minute ferry ride from the Portland Ferry Terminal we arrived on Peaks Island.  The museum is about ten minute walk from the ferry terminal.  You start by simply taking a right on Island Road at the first intersection at the top of the ferry ramp and continue along as the road bends gradually to the left.  The museum is architecturally designed in the Queen Ann style structure with a wrap-around porch.  From the back, it commands a beautiful view of the island’s rocky shore and the ocean beyond.  

                                                    David W. in front of the 5th Maine
                                                               158 Seashore Ave
The 5th Maine Regimental Museum 45 Seashore Avenue, Peaks Island was built in 1888 largely by veterans who served in Maine’s 5th Regiment during the Civil War.  It was built as both a structure to honor the fallen of the 5th Maine and as a place for surviving veterans and their families to have reunions and spend summer vacations.  The 5th Maine consisted of between 1,000 and 1,500 men.  Three of the ten companies were soldiers from Portland (circa 1860s a company was composed of roughly 100 soldiers).   At its peak use by Civil War veterans and their families, the building had 15 sleeping rooms for families on the second floor and several kitchenettes on the ground level. The building's architecture is in the Queen Anne-style with a wrap-around porch. 
     After climbing a broad wooden staircase you reach the beautiful deck which is covered by a wrap-around 
 roof.  There is an entry room with a staircase to the left, assorted literature about the building and a basket for a suggested $5 admission fee.  Then  you proceed into a magnificent great hall.  The most attention- grabbing features for me were the many stained glass window panes in red,orange, yellow, and blue, each engraved in the middle with the last name of one of the soldiers who served in the 5th Maine.  We were there on a very sunny day and the effect of the sun coming through the colored glass was quite beautiful; giving the great hall a magical feel. 
There are many interesting civil war relics displayed in glass cases along the outer walls of the room.  There are assorted musket/Minnie balls, a piece of the stockade fence from Andersonville Prison, various cannon balls and explosive shell fragments, some swords and at least one rifled musket.  In a room off to the side is a regimental flag which was carried by the regiment during the war.
On the second floor of the building there is a room to the right at the top of the stairs which is furnished in the style of the 1880s when people would have visited there.   Also there are rooms with historical  memorabilia and photos, including a room devoted to WWII, and a small library.. 
                                  View from the back porch of the 5th Maine Regimental Museum

  Another aspect of the 5th Maine which I found appealing was the authentic feel of the place.  Our tour guide was a volunteer who was passionate about the museum and Civil War history.  I also really appreciate museums like 5th Maine in which you can get closer to objects and artifacts.  I found the 5th Maine Regimental Museum to be a charming, informative and very interesting piece of Maine and U.S. history.

David Wallace