Part 2 of an in-depth look at one of Portland’s lesser-known architects.
In Part 1, we looked at the life of Charles Alexander and his family. In this part, we will look at his residential and cottage works. Part 3 will look at his commercial, religious, & other works.
Residences and Cottages
in 1851 Alexander provided plans for Josiah Little’s renovation of an 1802 Federal-style home on the corner of State and Spring Streets. Little was the president of the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Rail Road. Given the date, of the work, I suspect the Alexander’s had not yet moved to Portland when this was undertaken. The house was demolished when Mercy Hospital was built.
Charles A Alexander’s earliest confirmed new residential design was in 1852 for Stephen Hall. Hall was a prosperous merchant who had a storefront on Commercial Street. This was a substantial home on Park Street that is still there and was the subject of a December 2016 article. The design is exuberant and full of exquisite details. In 1857, Alexander designed a double house across Park Street for John B Carroll who was Hall’s neighbor. That house no longer exists.
Stephen Hall House
John B Carroll House
1853 saw the completion of a double-house for Harrison & James Libby on the northwest corner of Congress and High Streets. The Libby brothers were merchants who kept an office on Free Street and owned a schooner named Juana. The Libby house was demolished when the State Theater building was constructed but, luckily, we have several images of it to get an idea of the size and details.
The Libby House was a large three-story brick home with curved projecting bays and incredibly large Palladian windows on the first floor. Equally tall windows and doors with fully arched tops marked all the other first-floor openings. Quoins not only encased the corners of the building and the carriage house but between the bays as well. A series of belt lines broke the surface of the wall and marked the floor and ceiling levels for all three stories. A monitor capped the low-hipped roof.
Further up Congress Street, in what is now Longfellow Square, is a double house built in 1855/56 for James N Winslow. Winslow ran an express delivery service based on Exchange Street for several decades. The storefront on the left was added after 1910 as can be noted by this photo of the square from that year. More photos of the Winslow house can be seen here.
Not too long after he arrived in Portland, Charles Alexander was approached by a former mayor and congressman named John Anderson to provide plans to update his family’s property on the Presumpscot River in Windham. It is believed that Alexander provided plans to add the bay windows and Gothic drip moldings to the 18th-century main house along with a new barn, and a worker’s cottage and barn across the road from the house.
These structures were in keeping with the Gothic style of the main house and are all intact. An elevation plan for a hexagonal garden house exists in the collections of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. It is a wonderful bit of whimsy more Venetian Gothic than the English Gothic of the other buildings. The Anderson Estate, known as Maplewood Farm, is still owned by the Anderson Family. They have owned it for some 260+ years.
In 1853 work commenced on a wooden cottage on the Cape Elizabeth shore for Caleb Carter and Edwin Churchill. Carter was an insurance broker and Churchill a merchant. Both lived on Park Street near the Hall house and may have been spurred to hire Alexander after seeing his work. Called ‘Glen Cove’, the was a 3 story structure with vaguely stick style shape and details. It overlooked the shipping channel and Cushing Island. It is considered by many to be one of the first ‘cottages’ built on the Maine coast. It still exists although heavily altered. Due to plantings near the road, it is hard to see today.
As the Glen Cove Cottage was under construction, the nearby Cape Cottage House was purchased by a wealthy timberland owner from Bangor named John Goddard. Goddard hired Charles Alexander to design a cottage on the edge of his property near Portland Headlight. The cottage, now known as the ‘Goddard Mansion’, was a grand affair of native stone with a tower, grand entry, and a large carriage house. It is now on the grounds of Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth and is in very poor condition. Its long-term fate is, in 2022, in question.
Although Charles Alexander traveled to Europe and imbibed in the architecture of the old world, there is a new world, and contemporary, source that is worth looking at. That would be the publication of a plan book by an architect from Philidephia named Samuel Sloane. Sloane had worked as a carpenter before changing his profession to Architect around 1851. His best-known work would be Longwood in Natchez MS. Longwood is a huge octagonal house that was started just before the Civil War and never completed. More interesting to our story is Sloane’s 1852 publication of “The Model Architect“. which has several plans for villas that would seem to play directly on Alexander’s work of the time.
The mid-1850s saw a couple of designs farther outside the city. Among them was one for a civil engineer who had been involved in surveying the boundary between Maine and Canada after the “Aroostook War” named Foliot T Lally. Lally was also a veteran of the Mexican War. In 1848 he married the daughter of former US Senator and well-known Gardiner attorney, George Evans. Lally & Evans approached Charles Alexander in late 1853 to design a double-house overlooking the Kennebec River in what is now Farmingdale. Alexander provided the plan for a home that is an odd thing. Stylistically, it is ‘Stick’ but a very odd form of said style. The oversized arched windows capping the bays is probably the most eye-catching part of the plan. Those windows are repeated on the rear facade as well. The house still stands although the exterior has been altered.
In 1855 a former ship captain turned shipbuilder from Yarmouth named Sylvanus C Blanchard asked Charles Alexander to provide him with plans for a house. Blanchard was in his 70s at the time and already had a prosperous farm outside of town. From Alexander, he received the plan for an urbane house for his time spent managing the shipbuilding business on the tidewater of the Royal River. More photos of the Blanchard house can be found here.
A final note of houses ‘out of town’ is on two that are lost. One was for Dr. Nathaniel Boutelle on College Avenue in Waterville. It is shown on the 1889 Sanborn insurance map. I know of no photos of the building. It was demolished in the 70s and is now a parking lot.
A second home for which there is even less information was in Lewiston for a merchant named Charles Clark. But for its mention in an advertisement, Alexander ran in a Bangor newspaper in the mid-1850s, see below, I can find nothing on where or when it was built.
Returning to the Portland peninsula again, we move into a period of ‘big’ works. Beginning in 1854, Alexander designed and saw executed a series of large houses for some of the city’s wealthiest residents. A pair of these homes still exist while 2 others are mostly gone but their influence can be seen on the West End to this day.
Samuel Spring and his nephew Andrew were merchants who became wealthy in the South American beef and leather trade. They went to Alexander to design new homes on the corner of Danforth & Emery Streets. These were large houses of brick with exquisitely rendered details mostly in wood. The subject of an August 2016 article, they are a study on the difference between proper and no maintenance.
Moving west on Danforth Street, we encounter the remains of “Oakland”, a home built in 1855 for Theophilus C Hersey. Hersey was a wildly successful merchant and later president of the International Steamship Company who in 1854 purchased a large plot of land from Dependence Furbush. And, just like Mr. Furbush, Hersey went to Charles Alexander to design the buildings for his estate. It was a large home that mostly followed the massing of the Spring houses but included a substantial service wing on the Spring Street side and a coach-port on the Danforth Street side. As Hersey was an avid horseman, there was a large stable and carriage house on the built as well. That structure is still there and is now ‘Founders Hall’ on the Waynflete School campus. The house was demolished in the 1930s.
The Hersey mansion was big. The largest of Alexander’s residential commissions to date. But the biggest was still to come.
John Bundy Brown was a powerhouse. Starting in dry goods, he moved into sugar production, was a founder of the Portland Company, invested in railroads, and created one of Portland’s longest surviving businesses, JB Brown and Sons. Brown purchased much of what we now consider the ‘West End’ of Portland in the 1840s and 50s. On the far western edge, overlooking the Western Promenade, he built ‘Bramhall’ his palatial estate. As Charles A Alexander had moved his family to Portland to work for Brown to begin with, it is not surprising that he would design ‘Bramhall’ for his patron.
It was big. The estate covered everything from Vaughan Street to the Western Promenade and from Pine to Bowdoin Street. The house was nearly 50′ tall at the peak of the belvedere and some 50′ square with a 2 story service wing. It was the largest residence in the city bar none. The elevations show the 1st floor had 15′ ceilings with 12′ foot ceilings on the 2nd and 10′ for the 2 floors above. There was a large conservatory of cast iron on one side along with stables, a carriage house, and a garden house. The estate also had a large garden on the Vaughan Street side.
John Bundy Brown died in 1881 and his wife, Matilda, in 1901. After his death, the property began to be divided among his heirs. Bramhall was demolished around WWI. The stable remains as it was included in the lot sold to Fred Richards in 1892.
The Brown family was not done with building homes designed by Charles Alexander. The eldest child of John and Matilda Brown, Philip H, built a home on the corner of Bowdoin and Vaughan Streets in 1859, That house was demolished in the 1930s.
In 1860, James O Brown built a small home across Bowdoin Street from his brother. James died in 1864 at the age of 28.
Lastly, John M Brown built his home at the corner of Vaughan and Carroll Streets in 1867. As we shall see, this would have been after Charles Alexander left Portland for New York.
The latter half of the 1850s saw a few more residential designs. William Safford built a house on High Street between Spring and Pleasant Streets. It survives is much in the same style as the Libby house that was about a block away. Greater Portland Landmarks is the current (2022) owner. More images of the Safford house can be found here.
On Free Street, between Oak and Brown Streets, stood a double-house that was very much in Charles Alexander’s style. It was built around 1856 for a dry goods merchant named Ira P Farrington. We know of it solely from its inclusion in the 1924 tax rolls and an image in the collection of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. Both show the southwest half only. Although it would seem to be insufficient evidence, the details of the building, and the deed history, leave little doubt about Alexander’s authorship. The house’s location was incorporated into the Porteous, Mitchell, and Braun store and is now part of the Maine College of Art.
Also on Free Street, according to Alexander’s advertisement, was a double-house for Charles Davies and his son Edward. That house was on the corner of Brown Street. There was a double-house there in the 1881 Goodwin map, the 1886 Sanborn map, the 1914 Richards Atlas, and the 1924 tax rolls. But the building shown just does not strike me as coming from Charles Alexander’s drawing board.
A house built on Middle Street for John Wood and listed in Alexander’s newspaper advertisement was lost in the Great Fire of 1866 along with almost every other building on that street.
In an attempt to meet the housing demand created by the Great Fire of 1866, JB Brown and Sons build a group of townhouses on Pine Street across from the intersection of Emery Street. Charles Alexander provided plans from his office in New York. The middle units had Colonial Revival alterations to the entries in the early 20th century but the units on the ends are original. More images can be found here.
Lastly is Bonnie Brae on the shore of Lake Geneva in Linn Wisconsin. It was built for a member of the Illinois Supreme Court named Thomas Withrow in 1880. It is the last residential design that can be attributed to Charles A Alexander.