In Focus. Charles Quincy Clapp. Part 1. Early Works

When the term ‘architects of Portland Maine’ comes up, a couple of names normally spring to mind. John Calvin Stevens is the most obvious and perhaps Francis Fassett. Beyond that, only the cognoscenti would be able to suggest any others. Which is a shame as the pool of talent was deep. Hopefully, in the coming months, I can do a little to rectify that.

Charles Quincy Clapp ca: 1863

Charles Quincy Clapp ca: 1863

I am going to start with perhaps the least known but most visible of local architects, Charles Quincy Clapp. Born May 26, 1799, Charles Quincy Clapp, CQ for the sake of expediency, was the elder son of a prosperous Revolutionary War veteran and trader, Asa Clapp. The Clapps, Asa senior and junior & CQ, were heavily involved in real estate in Portland for a period stretching from the late 18th, through the 19th, and into the early decades of the 20th centuries.

Asa Clapp Sr ca: 1848

There isn’t much history regarding CQ’s education. Newspapers at the time of his death used the term ‘liberal’. That of course had a very different, if undefined, meaning then. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1817. As the first college program for architecture in the US was started in 1865, we can be sure he did not have any formal architectural schooling.

I think it’s important to note that Charles Quincy did not call himself an architect. He was a merchant and property owner/developer who did his own design work. This can be seen in the excerpts of the 1823 & 1850 Portland Directories seen below.

In 1804, Asa senior remodeled his home on Congress St, long since demolished, and may have hired the up and coming housewright/architect, Alexander Parris, to design the changes. Perhaps a very young Charles spent some time with Parris prior to his moving to Boston in 1809.

The Clapp mansion

It’s more likely CQ ‘learned’ architecture via builder’s guides and plan books. The works of Asher Benjamin et al were extremely popular in the early 19th century. Sometime around 1835, according to his biography, he donated 8 such books to the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association


When, due to the effects of the Jeffersonian Embargoes and the War of 1812, Hugh and Stephen McLellan were forced to sell their grand homes on High Street, the elder Asa Clapp was there to purchase them. Stephen’s home, now the Cumberland Club, would be given in time to Asa the younger whilst Hugh’s, now a part of the Portland Museum of Art, would go to Charles on his marriage to Julia Wingate. But for a brief period when they lived next door in a house of his design, they would live in the home until they died.20151121_101114.jpg

Charles Quincy seems to have had little interest in politics at any level. He was an aide to the governor and a state representative in 1832-33. Other than that, he seems to have kept to business and was a consistent booster of his native city.
Sometime around 1823, CQ planned and executed renovations to both his and Asa’s homes The most visible of these alterations being the extension of the first-floor windows to their current heights. In 1832 Charles was either hired or convinced the city ‘fathers’ to hire himself, history is a bit hazy here, to redesign the facade of the ‘Town House’ or city hall. The building was only 7 years old at the time.


There is a tendency to wonder why major changes might be needed so soon. Portland was in a growth spurt that would see its population jump from 8,581 in 1820 when Maine attained statehood to 15,218 in 1840. It could be the popular style of architecture was moving to the Greek Revival and away from Federal. The building was a fairly severe Federal plan. CQ did seem to display a dislike of the more restrained expressions of the style. His alterations to Asa’s and his homes endeavored to make them more ‘modern’ for the times. It would seem the goal was the same with the townhouse.
Clapp’s alterations involved covering the second-floor windows on the Market Square facade. He then added a Greek entablature held up by some rather chubby Ionic columns. This was attached to the wall and included pilasters and a fully articulated frieze. All working to close the pediment and frame the entrance. The Ionic order and full entablature would be a portent of things to come.
But Charles Quincy Clapp was not done. He also added a pair of arcing stairways to reach the second floor. Finally, he removed the cupola so prominently shown in the drawing of the original building. The cupola would end up on one of the original buildings of Westbrook Seminary now the University of New England. It is still there to this day. capture.jpgThe earliest known complete design of CQ’s was the Clapp, now Hay, block at the corner of Congress & Free Sts. It was constructed in 1826. Originally 2 stories, this group of 3 conjoined buildings is well known in the city.20161204_081258.jpg

The Free Street facades are simple with little decoration and clean-cut windows and doors.

Free Street facade

The Congress Street facades are more lively with varied arrangements of windows and doors on each building. The most prominent of these is probably the ‘flat iron’ at the head of the group. Here we are presented on the first floor with a series of round-topped windows and doors that are quite wide. When seen as a whole, the eleven openings seem to blow the entire wall surface open. There is practically no wall left. The second story shows seven windows of the same size as the first floor laid out in a more functional manner. The wall spaces between the groupings are relieved with rectangular niches.

The other two buildings in the group are more subdued. 588 Congress is a narrow 2 bay, 3 story building. It has a fairly typical first floor with a large display window with an entry to its right. Above are 4 large windows equally spaced over the 2 upper floors. 20161204_081353.jpg586 Congress has a curved display with 2 doorways to its right. Above is a handsome composition of 3 windows grouped in an opening. They are divided with paneled pilasters topped with ionic capitals. The window group is topped with a dentiled apron. The third story is a garret with 3 small square windows grouped tightly in the middle. Above this is a modillioned cornice with a flat balustrade with urns on the paneled posts.

Hay Block ca: 1912

Hay Block ca: 1912

Clapp’s next effort was the Portland Exchange Coffee House of 1828-9. It was located on the corner of Fore and Market Streets. It had shops on the first floor, including a bar on Market St, and a hotel on the upper floors. From descriptions, it seems to have been a bit controversial in its design. It, along with several other buildings owned by the Clapp family, was lost in the fire of 1866. In 1836 CQ was involved in creating a hotel in Town House Square. This was originally created by merging a set of buildings on the lots across Federal Street from the townhouse into one structure. Over time, it would see many alterations before becoming the United States Hotel which stood in what is now Monument Square until the 1960s. For this building and the Coffee House, I can find no photographic representations. All information is based on period descriptions.
Around the time the Clapps were completing the Coffee House, Charles and Julia started to plan a new home for themselves that would be built next to their current house. This building would cement CQ’s legacy in Portland down to this day. Please be sure to come back for part two of our look at Charles Quincy Clapp.

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Author’s notes:  The primary source of biographical information for this article is drawn from Joyce Bibber’s bio of Charles Quincy available at the Maine Historic Preservation’s website.  I am, as always, indebted to the Maine Historical Society and the Maine Memory Network for the ever-increasing body of information and old photos.

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