Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick

                                                        David Wallace in front of Bowdoin College Museum of Art
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10-5, Sunday 2-5 Closed Mondays.  Free admission
On October 16th, I visited the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.  The featured exhibit was a sizable collection of works by Edward Hopper, called Hopper’s Maine.  The exhibit featured works that Hopper painted or drew during his numerous visits to Maine between 1914- and 1929.   Included in his locations are places like Ogunquit, Monhegan, Rockland, Cape Elizabeth, and Portland.   Known for his rich use of color, light and shadow, Hopper’s art conveys a feelings of beauty and profound isolation at the same time.   He did a great job of capturing the stark beauty of Maine along with the theme of isolation which frequently recurs in writings and other representations of Maine’s history, that we have studied in this course.    Many of the pieces where done while Hopper stayed on Monhegan Island and some were done in various places like Portland Head Light.  The entrance to the museum is an ultra-modern, spacious glass cube-shaped structure which offers a choice of stairs or elevator to the downstairs galleries.  Admission is free, with a suggested donation box.  After reaching the downstairs lobby with gift shop to the left and restrooms to the right, you proceed through double doors to the first gallery.  The Hopper exhibit occupied most of the downstairs galleries.  Once you reach the end of the downstairs galleries, a long gently-sloping staircase or elevator takes you to the second floor where you are immediately greeted by an impressive wall of Assyrian reliefs.  There is a smaller gallery off to the left.  The main floor of the museum has a central rotunda with ancient Greek exhibits, two large side exhibit halls and a basement level suite of several exhibit halls.

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art, also known as the Walker Art Building, was completed in 1894.  It was given to Bowdoin by Harriet and Sophia Walker, collectors and supporters of art education, in memory of their uncle Theophilus Walker, a Boston entrepreneur and businessman.  The museum was designed by architect Charles Follen McKim of the firm McKim, Meade and White.  The exterior features a wide stone stairway guarded by statues of two large lions, statues of Sophocles and Demosthenes, (Greek philosophers) in niches in the walls, and a beautiful copper dome on the roof.  Originally built to house a collection given to Bowdoin by James Bowdoin III and his family in 1811, the museum soon began to expand its collection.  Currently there are some 15,000 objects.   In 1974, the lower-level galleries were renovated and expanded, and in 2007, a major renovation re-designed the galleries, added the impressive ultra-modern glass cube entrance, a media room showing art-related videos, and modern climate control including special window shades.  The museum is a unique asset to Bowdoin College, the town of Brunswick, and the state of Maine.

Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center, Gardiner

Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center
280 Water Street, Gardiner
Tours are free.  General hours of operation:
Monday-Friday 10am – 6pm
Performance schedule online at
                                                               Johnson Hall, present day
On November 19, I attended a one-man play called “Jimmy Higgins: A Life in the Labor Movement” at Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner.  The performance was held in a 100-seat theater on the first floor of Johnson Hall.  Johnson Hall is a four-story Italianate style brick building which was built as a theater in1864.  It remains the oldest operating theater in Maine.  The current performance space was once the livery stable in 1864.  The original performance space on the third floor is currently un-renovated and unheated. However, the first-floor performance space has regular arts programming all year round.

Circa 1864, Gardiner was a vital industrial hub.  As the northernmost deepwater port on the Kennebec River, there was a steady flow of ships and commerce from the tall ships through the steamboat area.  It was a city bristling with factories, sawmills, manufacturing operations, and of course was a key player in the commercial ice industry.  Gardiner native Benjamin K. Johnson, after returning from California in 1858, bought the Cobbossee Hotel and renamed it The Johnson House.  In March of 1864 Johnson announced his plan to build a building for large gatherings next to his hotel.  In December of 1864 a gala with banquet was held to celebrate the completion of Johnson Hall.  The Gardiner Home Journal noted that there were 500 people in attendance and that the turnout was small due to bad weather.  According to the newspaper of the time the third floor theater with balcony could seat as many as 1,200 people, making it the largest gathering-hall in the state.

 Johnson and his wife Henrietta brought in music, vaudeville, plays, choruses, lectures and all the live entertainment of the time.  They had the first traveling Broadway show “The Black Crook” (tickets cost 35 cents at the time).  The poster (a copy is still on display at Johnson Hall) notes that it had a “carload of scenery” and was “Suitable for Ladies.”  In 1888, the theater was renovated, increasing the size of the stage and decorating the hall elegantly.  At this time it was called the Johnson Opera House. 
                            Circa 1911 postcard with Johnson House at left and Johnson Hall (red brick) at center
Benjamin Johnson died in 1902, leaving Johnson Hall to his wife Henrietta.
In 1909 the building was leased to Dreamland Theater for showing silent movies in addition to live entertainment. With the introduction of the “talkies” in 1929, Henrietta Johnson approved a major renovation to the theater which added a projection booth, a sloped floor, red leather seats, and stepped-up seating in the back. The second floor housed the concession stand and rest-rooms.  It then became a full-time movie venue, which it remained until it closed in 1959. 

A succession of retails shops occupied the first floor of the building starting in the late 1800s.  After the theater closed, the second and third floors became storage for the retail shops on the first floor. 
                                          View from above the stage of Johnson Hall's 3rd Floor Theater
The building was saved from urban-renewal-style destruction in the 1980s by a group of people (one of whom was a direct descendant of city namesake Sylvester Gardiner).  The groups formed a nonprofit with the purpose of bringing performances and arts education to Gardiner and the central Maine region.  They raised $250,000 and renovated the first floor into the current performance space.  The long-term vision is to return the building to its former glory, as a 360-seat theater and conference center.  

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Portland Observatory

The Portland Observatory
138 Congress Street, Portland

Open for tours Memorial Day Weekend – Columbus Day Weekend
Admission is $8.00 for adults, $5.00 for children 6-16,
$5.00 for Portland resident adults and $2.00 for Portland resident children
The observatory has a limit of 48 people at one time and an 8 person maximum on observation deck

     On September 8th, our class went on a field trip to the Portland Observatory.  The 86-foot high (220 feet above sea level), octagon-shaped red building with light green window trim, tapers to a light green, dome-topped observation deck which commands an awe-inspiring panoramic view of Portland harbor, greater Portland and beyond.  Upon entering the building, the first thing that I noticed was the unmistakable aroma of aged pine boards.  This olfactory sensation served to help propel us back to the time of the building’s 1807 inception. With the exception of two significant renovations to address structural concerns, moisture and powder post beetle damage, the Observatory is original.  On the entry level floor we were shown a trap door which reveals the innovative stone ballast foundation below.  After ascending the first set of stairs, our tour guide gave a mini lecture about the history of the building and its uses.  The next set of stairs brought us to another floor with additional displays (one of the displays features an early painting of the observatory when it was one of the very few structures in the middle of a large cow pasture).  There are four sets of stairs (somewhat uneven) and 4 floors each with interesting facts and displays.  On one of the floors was a scale model (based on recent detective work of modern building engineers) showing how the eight massive vertical pine timbers were most likely erected (no original records detailing the tower’s construction have survived).  A fifth set of stairs leads to the outside observation deck.  Visitors are not allowed access to dome-topped observation enclosure, where the powerful telescope was once mounted.  However, a 360-degree deck with railing affords a perfectly unobstructed view.  Two interesting design features of the observatory are the octagonal walls and the stone ballast grounding system.  By utilizing the octagonal shape the wind resistance, especially of taller structures, is dramatically reduced.  Instead of having the wind hit broad sides with greater force, the wind is largely deflected off the smaller octagonal segments.  There is no section of wall that is more than 10 feet in width.  As someone very familiar with sailing ships, Moody was well aware of the functions of ballast.  The structure is anchored to the ground with a massive collection of field stone slabs.

     The Portland Observatory was the brainchild of Capt. Lemuel Moody (1768-1846).  The former sea captain commissioned its construction in 1807.  As a man of the sea and entrepreneur, Moody knew the value of having a clear view of the open ocean beyond the islands of Portland Harbor.  By erecting the 86-foot observatory on Munjoy Hill, the highest point in Portland, he was able (with the aid of a state-of-the-art telescope) to see and identify ships up to 30 miles out to sea.  Through the use of a sophisticated flagging system, he was able to signal local merchants by raising the appropriate flag that would designate the ship that they were awaiting.  In these days before steam power, having this kind of advance identification, gave hours and sometimes days of advance warning, depending on the winds.  Because of Maine’s vital maritime business this kind of information was invaluable in helping in the planning and coordinating of deliveries and shipments.  In addition to his signaling system, Moody provided a local weather report based on his observations.  Interested parties would subscribe to his weather publication. 

The observatory carried on its signaling operations from the time of its construction in 1807 to 1926.  During the War of 1812, Civil War, and WWI it was used as an observation post.  The Observatory has been owned by the City of Portland since 1936.  In 1939, the tower was restored as part of a WPA project.  Between 1998 and 2000 a $1.28 million restoration project addressed damage caused by moisture and powder post beetle infestation. 
The Portland Observatory is an amazingly well-maintained and preserved connection to Maine’s proud and prosperous maritime past.  It is a must-see for anyone from away or from just down the street.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

John Ford Statue, Gorhams Corner

The John Ford Statue
Gorham’s Corner, Portland

On September 9th, I visited the John Ford statue which is situated in Portland at the intersection of Ford, Bank, York, Pleasant, and Danforth Streets (Also known as Gorham’s Corner). The statue is an impressive ten foot tall bronze creation depicting film director John Ford seated with his right leg crossed over his left leg in his director’s chair, sporting his wide brimmed fedora and holding his famous pipe in his left hand.  The base of the statue appears to be sculpted to look like an outcropping of rock that might be found in the background of the many westerns that Ford directed.  Forming a semi circle around his statue are 6 plaques, each of which details one of his six Oscar winning films: 
                                       David Wallace posing with Gorham's Corner plaque.
 David Wallace next to the John Ford statue.
      The Informer 1935, The Grapes of Wrath 1940, How Green Was My Valley 1941, the wartime documentaries The Battle of Midway 1942, December 7th 1943, and The Quiet Man 1952. 

     A son of Irish immigrants (John Augustine Feeney and Barbara “Abbey” Curran), John Ford was born John Martin “Jack” Feeney on February 1st 1894.  He was one of eleven children.  Though the future six time Oscar winning Hollywood Director and Navy Rear Admiral was actually born in Cape Elizabeth, his statue is located in Portland proper.  As perhaps Portland's most famous son of Irish immigrants, it's seems fitting that his statue would be located in what was once the heart of the Irish immigrant population.  

    After attending Portland High School Ford moved to California to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Francis who had started a career as a film actor.   John landed his first acting role in 1914 in the silent film The Mysterious Rose.  In addition to acting, Ford worked as a production assistant and cameraman.  By 1917 Ford had made his transition from actor to Director.  Between 1917 and 1928, he directed more than 60 silent films.  Ford was one of the first directors to incorporate sound into his films.  During his 50 year career, he would increase that total to more than 140 films.  He had a reputation for shooting only as much  footage as he needed and for shooting films in sequence, which meant much less editing.  His last completed film was 7 Women 1966.  After several years of declining health, John Ford died on August 31, 1973.