In Focus. Charles A Alexander Part 1. Biography

Part One of an in-depth look at one of Portland’s lesser-known architects.

Chestnut Street Methodist Church. 1856

Enigmatic

difficult to interpret or understand; mysterious.

Oxford Dictionary

Although often overused, enigmatic may be the best adjective for describing Charles A Alexander through the lens of some 130+ years since his death. I sometimes liken his story to a tattered remnant of a medieval tapestry. The piece is more holes than fabric but what is there is tantalizing and perhaps a bit unsettling. He practiced in Portland for a mere 12 or so years but, in that time, created a body of work that epitomizes the romantic era that existed before the Civil War and the following industrial revolution. Although much of his work has been lost over the ensuing 160 years, enough remains to create an intriguing picture.

Charles A Alexander’s 1847 passport application. Family Search.org

Charles Albert Alexander was born in Charlestown Massachusetts to Henry Foster and Mary Jackson Alexander in February of 1827. Henry had various vocations including merchant, innkeeper, and provisions dealer. Of Charles’ early years and education, we have no information. He seems to have had some schooling and shown talent early as 1849, when he was only 22 years old, Charles was listed as a partner with the Boston architect, William Washburn.

Trade card for the American House, hotel, Hanover Street, Boston, Mass., ca. 1870 Historic New England

William Washburn was primarily a designer of hotels although he did a church or two and a couple of public buildings. The only work that can be linked to Charles Alexander is the American House on Hanover Street. Now the location of the John F Kennedy Federal Building.

Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven, Connecticut

On September 2, 1849, Charles Alexander and Mary Catherine Granger were married by the Rev. Dr. Harry Croswell in Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven CT. Interestingly, the marriage took place in the first Gothic Revival Church built in America. Mary had been born in Boston in 1827 to David and Mary Granger. David was a painter and glazier One odd note, the 1850 census has Mary living with her parents and single?! The census record has a date of August 5, 1850, a full 11 months after the wedding of Charles and Mary. Was Charles in Europe again? We know from his passport application that he was supposed to travel in 1847. A letter written by John Poor in 1851 notes that Alexander had just perfected himself in his profession by a sufficiently long residence in Europe so it is possible he was.

Portland Sugar House. Maine Memory Network

In May of 1851, Charles and Mary traveled to Portland Maine to look into moving there. They stayed for a short time before returning to Boston where their son Philip was born on November 3. In early 1852, the family moved to Portland permanently. They initially rented, then purchased half of Jonah Perley’s house on Danforth Street.

The Alexanders were like most families of the day. They attended charity events. Mary volunteered with different groups and Charles served on a board or two. A daughter, Maude Evangeline, was born in 1858. In 1859, they purchased a piece of land on the corner of Vaughan and Danforth Streets and built a home for themselves. But there were cracks behind the family facade.

The Alexander house at 395 Danforth Street. The original Mansard roof has been removed.

In early 1862, Mary Alexander filed for divorce from Charles Alexander. She cited mental and physical abuse as the reason. Mary’s filing states:

“For more than seven years last past, the conduct of said Chas Alexander towards said libellant has been of the most unkind, insulting, and abusive character. That he has frequently committed acts of personal violence and abuse on her and threatend to send her to an insane hospital and also murder her.

Mary went on to tell how she had left the house after these events only to return when Charles would apologize and “show contrition“. Her filing went on the state that in 1859 the abuse escalated to a point where she could not sleep at night for fear that “he might execute his threats“. The filing noted that Mary had become so concerned for the life and health of herself and the children that she left Portland and moved to her parent’s home in Boston in late 1859. Then it got worse

Mary stated that, on November 15, 1861, Charles A Alexander traveled to Boston and “took from her the boy whilst on his way home from school” Mary described Philip as “very nervous and of a feeble constitution”. He had survived scarlet fever but was weak and requiring ‘his mother’s care and oversight”. She was concerned that Charles would be ‘injurious to the boy’s moral character” as Charles was “exceedingly profane and impious and making fun of a spot of all religious teaching

The Maine Supreme Court, who heard divorce cases in those days, ruled for Mary and granted custody of Phillip and Maude to her. Mary sold the home to Charles for $1500. She and the children remained in the Boston area. Mary worked as a nurse and lived in various locations, the last being Bromely Park in Jamaica Plain. She died in 1885 after a fall. Philip married in 1874 and worked as a machinist. He died in 1898 of an “overworked brain“. Maude married in 1876 but by 1880 she was living with Mary and would do so until Mary’s death. She remarried in 1909 and died in 1923.

Portland Daily Press. May 14, 1863. Library of Congress

Perhaps it was the embarrassment. Maybe it was social scorn or business issues. For whatever reason, Charles Alexander left Portland and moved to New York City in 1863. He continued to practice architecture and would visit Portland at various times as would be noted in the local papers. He also put an odd advertisement for hair tonic in the Daily Eastern Argus for several weeks in 1865 wherein he stated he was residing on Vaughan Street.

Charles A Alexander’s advertisement in the October 31, 1865, Daily Eastern Argus. Library of Congress.

Daily Eastern Argus June 4, 1867. Library of Congress

While in New York, Alexander joined the American Institute of Architects. He lived on E 25th Street just off Madison Square and had an office on lower Broadway. He stayed there until 1870 when he moved to Chicago. Interestingly, he was listed in both the New York and Chicago City Directories for 1870. Within a year of his arrival in Chicago, Charles Alexander witnessed that city’s Great Fire. it must have kept him busy.

Charles A Alexander lived and worked in Chicago and even displayed some of his drawings in local exhibits. He died on May 23, 1888, at the Brevoort House while on a visit to New York. The cause of death is not listed in the records. One note says he was buried in Waltham Mass. This would make sense as his parents are buried in Grove Hill Cemetery in that town but there is no record of Charles being interred there.

Breevort House in New York. The site of Charles A Alexander’s death in 1888. Lost New York. Nathan Silver.

This completes part one of the series.
Part 2, looking at the residential and cottage works of Charles A Alexander, can be found here.
Part 3, looking at the commercial, hotel and other works of Charles A Alexander, can be found here.

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