277 Congress Street. The James Cunningham house.

A funky little Queen Anne in the India Street District. Built ca: 1875-80

A story in which we meet a man who it can truly be said built much of the Portland we see today.

James H Cunningham and his brothers Francis & John emigrated from Ireland to the US and arrived in Portland in 1863. James was 24 years old at the time and had been trained in the family trade of masonry along with his brothers. Their timing would prove to be propitious.

Exchange Street after the Great Fire of 1866. Image property of the Maine Historical Society.

In 1866, Portland would suffer the worst fire in its history with over 1000 structures leveled. The need for masons after this event was tremendous.

In December of 1874, Cunningham purchased a lot of land facing Congress Street just off the top of India and abutting the Gothic Revival Rectory of St Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Church. The lot is a mere 45′ wide. After removing the drive at the right and right of way at the left, more on that later, the house is around 31′ wide. Originally the lot was, as most were in these blocks, quite deep at 132′. Subsequent divisions have trimmed it to 75′.

The house has a lot going on in a small footprint. It’s 2 stories with a third under the garrett. The overall scheme speaks of the influence of Francis Fassett. This is not surprising as James would build many structures from Fassett’s office and his nephew John would apprentice in the office before attending the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts. Here, the mason’s art would be on stage.

Beginning with a discreet water table, we progress upwards we have overfired bricks in a geometric pattern on the bay. At the first-floor ceiling line is a band of bricks in a vertical saw-tooth pattern contained in with soldier courses. The beltline is a minimal saw tooth pattern made with the headers of the bricks. There is a repeated ceiling band. This time the soldier courses are of overfired brick. Finally, we have a stud pattern on the frieze. The third-story windows in the middle of the roof lines are a Fassett ‘signature’ but not usually this bulky. They are in the 1924 photo but I am not sure if they are original

A feature of note is the Palladian window in the northeast wall. It’s a bit too tall but is quite nicely scaled with the upper portion capped with an tympanium of sorts.

This window is not something you would find in a typical Francis Fassett design. I believe you would be very hard-pressed to find it on any of his works extant. The Palladian window is a detail that John Calvin Stevens would employ many times over in his later works. Stevens entered Fassett’s office as an apprentice in 1873 after graduating from high school. Could this be some of his earliest work?

Beyond the masonry details, there are more bits of decoration. A lozenge-shaped molding caps the first floor of the porch with a similar detail on the bay. The metal fretwork in the panels of the second-floor porch and dormer is not visible in the tax photo so they are later. The brackets are well scaled with the switch to a larger form on the corners a nice break in the rhythm.

1938 Postcard for the Lafayette Hotel. Image property of the Maine Historical Society

James Cunningham had a very successful career as a mason building such Congress Street landmarks as the Baxter block, Brown Memorial block among many. In 1903, having retired from the masonry business, he built and operated the Lafayette Hotel at the corner of Congress and Park streets. Fassett would provide the design. The family would run it until the 30’s.

James Cunningham died on Nov 8, 1913, from injuries sustained in an auto accident in 1910. He was buried in the family mausoleum in Calvary Cemetery in South Portland. His family would retain ownership of 277 Congress Street until 1921.

In September of 1922 St Paul’s Parish, next door purchased 277 Congress Street from Carroll B Skillin. Skillin had purchased it out of foreclosure that same month, The person foreclosed on, Mary Kroot, having purchased, mortgaged, and defaulted in 10 months time. The parish was the owner of record in 1924 when it was noted to be in “poor” condition inside and out and fetched $150.00 a month as a rental. During the parish’s ownership, 2 mortgages were taken out and closed against the property. In November of 1930 St Paul’s sold the property to Gioconda Polito, what a name. At this time, the 6′ wide right of way on the left of the property was delineated and held, as it still is, by the parish.

Currently, the building is listed as apartments and is owned by an LLC from South Berwick. With the neighborhood seeing a building boom and gentrification, it’s a wonder how long it will be before the renovation wave sweeps over 277 Congress Street.

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