Part 3 of an in-depth look at one of Portland’s lesser-known architects.
Charles A Alexander did not want for work when he and his family moved to Portland in 1852. The Portland Sugar House and its supporting buildings were first out. The visit in May of 1851 likely was to view the site and meet with John Bundy Brown and company.
The Portland Sugar House was massive. 10 stories at the cupola, it stretched from Commercial to York Streets and abutted Maple Street. It was lost in the Great Fire but the warehouse across York Street survived and gives us a pretty good feel for the style, if not the scale, of the sugar house.
We’re also fortunate to have a stereograph taken just after the fire by John P Soule. It shows the ruins of the sugar house with the warehouse in the background.
Lancaster Hall in Monument, then Market, Square, was built in 1852. It was used as an entertainment and meeting hall. The hall itself was on the second floor. It was a large space that could seat some 800 people. As can be seen in the photo below, it had storefronts on the square. Richard Robinson kept a dining hall and food store entered from the Center Street side for many years. Lancaster Hall was the long-time gathering place of Portland’s Republicans and also hosted such luminaries as Henry Ward Beecher, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Pierre Soule´. That a fiery Southern Democrat like Soule´ would speak in the home of Nothern Republicans boggles the mind of this historian.
The current Lancaster Building replaced the Hall in 1881. The image below is interesting as it also gives a glimpse of another building on the square that I believe may have been designed by Charles A Alexander.
In Monument Square, along with Lancaster Hall, there were 4 other buildings built to designs by Charles Alexander. One was the Willis/Adams Block noted in the image above and better seen in the image below. There is no attribution but Benjamin Willis’s heirs sold it to Charles Adams in 1855 and stated the “brick building under construction” so the time period is right. it sure looks like something Alexander would have done.
Also ‘on the square’ were the Preble House Hotel and the Hotel Deering or Deering Hall. Deering Hall would have been built sometime around 1852 or 53. By 1854 it was appearing in the local papers regularly. Alexander referenced it in his 1856/57 advertisement. That advertisement also mentioned the “Clapp Memorial Building” for Asa W H Clapp. It was between Lancaster Hall and the Willis/Davis Block. This item is interesting as when Charles Quincy Clapp died in 1868, his obituary noted that all of the family’s properties were “built to his designs”. The current Emerson / Clapp Building, the Portland Public Market House, replaced it around the turn of the century. Deering Hall was replaced by the Chapman Building in 1924.
The Preble House completed the ensemble of Charles Alexander’s works on the Square. It was built in 1858 on the grounds of the Preble Family mansion. Sources are not clear as to whether the hotel completely replaced the mansion or the hotel surrounded the mansion. The hotel was somewhat ‘standard’ in its design. A conservative design for a conservative town. Preble House was replaced by the “Time and Temperature” Building.
Moving west on Congress Street, we come to 545-549 Congress Street which was built by JB Brown to plans provided by Charles A Alexander in 1865. The building was originally 4 stories tall with a mansard roof but was expanded sometime prior to 1924.
Charles Alexander’s 1857 advertisement listed a couple of buildings on Exchange Street, the Casco Bank, and a “freestone block” on the corner of Middle and Pearl Streets. These were lost in the Great Fire of 1866 and I have not found any images of them. The first Casco Bank, which was replaced by Alexander’s building, can be seen in the lower left of the image below showing Middle Street in 1850.
Also on Middle Street, but built after the Great Fire, was the Falmouth Hotel. Constructed in 1868, it sat on the corner of Middle and Union Streets where the Canal Plaza now stands. Alexander provided plans from his New York office and visited the city during construction. It had 300 rooms. The lobby had marble floors, frescoed ceilings, and a skylighted dome over it. A grand staircase of black walnut led to the second floor which was the first floor of the hotel. It was lit with gas and heated with coal. The Falmouth Hotel closed in 1958 and was demolished in 1963.
On Saturday, May 3 of 1862, Lemuel Cushing placed the above advertisement in the Portland Weekly Advertiser seeking someone to manage a new summer hotel he had just built on Bang’s Island. Bang’s Island is today known as, you guessed it, Cushing Island. The new hotel was the first Ottawa House. As the name suggests, it was targeted at the new tourist trade created by direct train links with Canada. The advertisement listed 75 rooms, a dining room, bowling alley, billiard room, and many other amenities. Interested parties could contact either Cushing or the architect, Charles A Alexander. The first Ottawa house burned in 1888 and was rebuilt. We do not have any photos but it can be seen in the painting below from 1870.
Closing the list of hotels designed by Charles A Alexander is the DeWitt Hotel in Lewiston. It stood on the corner of Pine & Park Streets and was built in 1854 by the Franklin Company. It was demolished in 1965.
Back in Portland, Commercial Street is home to a few buildings designed by Charles A Alexander. The most notable of those is the warehouse and office block built in 1859-60 for Alexander T Galt. Galt was a shipping tycoon who served as the Canadian Finance Minister. The building is quite staid by Alexander’s standard but the Franklin Street facade shows a shape that is in his oeuvre. It is seen in the barn at Maplewood Farm in Windham and, as we shall see, in a couple of his smaller churches.
A few blocks down Commercial Street stands the Smith/Hersey Block at the corner of Union Street. The build date is normally given as 1852 which would make it quite early in Alexander’s residence in Portland contemporary with the Portland Sugar House. It also predates Hersey’s hiring of Alexander to design his mansion on Danforth Street. The block is the home of 3 Dollar Deweys along with others.
Another 100 yards down Commercial is the Richardson wharf Building. It’s an odd-looking structure that is in fact 2 separate buildings constructed at different times. The left half was built for JB Brown and others in 1864/5 while the right half was built for the Richardson Wharf Company in 1867. The design is attributed to Charles A Alexander.
Turning now to churches we have a few examples of Charles A Alexander’s work still with us and historical evidence of a couple more.
Without question, the Chestnut Street Methodist Church of 1856/57 is the best known of Alexander’s church commissions. I believe this to be the only ‘pure Gothic’ design Alexander did. The building is a survivor of the Great Fire which swept within a block of here. The congregation sold the edifice in 2007. It is now an event space called ‘Grace’. More images of the Chestnut Street Methodist Church can be seen here.
On Congress Street, in ‘Libbytown’ is a small chapel built in 1860 as a memorial to one Eliza Hanson. It is in what the local paper called “Romanesque” style. It is currently the home of the Church of the Holy Spirit.
Traveling back down Congress Street to the block between High and Park Streets, we come to the last of Charles A Alexander’s extant churches although ‘extant’ is a loose term in this case.
The spire seen right of center in the image above was the Center or Union Congregational Church. The first church was erected in 1856 and burned in 1861. The building seen above replaced it. Both were designed by Charles Alexander. The church is gone and the street shows a storefront but a walk to the parking lot out back reveals something else altogether.
On Congress, in Longfellow Square, was St Stephens Episcopal. It was erected in 1854/55 and demolished in the 1960s. It can be seen at left in the image below from 1880.
The original St Lukes Chapel sat on the corner of Cumberland and Preble Streets. The Portland Weekly Advertiser noted the building was to be ‘built of stone’ and Charles A Alexander had furnished the plans. There is a small church there now sometimes called the “Preble Chapel” but I do not believe it is the one in question as it was said to be able to seat 600+ people and the current church is not that large.
The final church in Maine no longer exists. Although there is no direct attribution, there is enough evidence to make me pretty positive that Charles A Alexander provided the design. The most obvious thing is the shape. As I noted on the Galt Block, the form of the front facade is a common link in Alexander’s works. From the Maplewood Farm to the West Congregational Chapel, the Galt Block, and here we see this shape. The other evidence is that Samuel and Andrew Spring donated to the construction and appointment of the church.
At this point, we leave Portland to look at the last few designs Charles A Alexander did after leaving Portland in 1863. There is documentary evidence for one building on White Street in New York. It is lost and the site is now a synagogue.
One building remains in Chicago. Assumption Catholic Church on West Illinois Street was built between 1881 and 1886. It is attributed to Charles A Alexander.
Lastly, there is the Jekyll Island Club. The island is in the Atlantic on the Georgia-Florida line. The club was founded in 1866 by a group of very wealthy Chicagoans. The clubhouse opened in early January of 1888, 4 months before Alexander’s death.
Much of the initial research on Charles A Alexander was carried out by Earle Shettleworth Jr in his role as Maine State Historian and the director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. Mr. Shettleworth is now the Maine State Historian Emeritus. His work forms the core of what you have read. I am very grateful to Kurt Mahoney, the current director of the commission, for making the archive of Alexander’s documents available and providing copies of images and documents when requested.
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
The list of known works of Charles A Alexander is fairly short for someone who practiced for over 30 years. That he worked in cities that underwent major changes in the ensuing years has made tracing the record extremely difficult. That being said, I suspect there are more out there.
Finally, Thanx to Mutha for encouragement, support, and bringing more coffee. ES