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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Mansarded Italianate in Maine

The United States Customs House

I have spent almost every summer of my life in Maine and a good portion of it in the city of Portland where incidentally, I was born. After my parents retired and and moved up there from New York City in 1990, I have since enjoyed every season up there and to this day, it remains to be one of my all-time favorite cities. From the time of my childhood up until now, Portland saw a tremendous evolution in it's massive renovation from being a virtual ghost town back in the 1970's (which purely for romantic reasons, I confess to missing) to a bustling tourist and cruise ship destination which, according to a New York Times article written a few years ago, boasts the highest amount of restaurants per capita in the United States. The restaurants are good, too.

Portland, Maine once enjoyed the status of being one of  the most important seaports in the country with a rapidly growing customs business in the 1800's. After a massive fire destroyed most of it's commercial buildings in 1866, the city was rebuilt. 

A city rife with mostly Victorian style structures, it hosts an amalgam of many different revival styles conducive to the architectural era. The Customs House is one such prominent example. The Italianate style building that still stands today near the city's waterfront was completed in 1872 under the architectural supervision of Alfred B. Mullett.




Palazzo Ducale in Genoa, Italy
The Italianate style derived from the Renaissance Italian palazzos and was one of the most popular revival styles in the Victorian Era from the mid to late 1880's. The buildings were boxy in shape but had a more open and airy feel as well as less symetrically rigid design than the Greek Revival style. Most notable architectural details included the use of wide cornices, doors and windows with overhangs with the wide use of ornamental brackets underneath them. The building is dominated by rounded windows which are framed with attached doric columns and a balustrade surrounds the entire building.


The Neo-Baroque and Second Empire style became a popular architectural vogue in the United states in the 1870's and was heavily influenced by the fanciful architecture built under Napoleon III in the 1850's and 1860's in France. One of the most prominent characteristics included the element of the Mansard roof which is a steeply sloping roof shingled with slate as seen on the cupolas on the Customs House. Mansarded roofs became highly popular in both Europe and the United States after the construction of the Musee de Louvre in Paris and were designed to functionally create more interior space than traditional sloping roofs.

Mansard roof on the Louvre Museum
The Mansarded roof has always held a deep fascination for me as it strikes me as a mysteriously handsome design, yet also an elegantly disfigured and spooky one. The evolution of this roof style  historically traces back to the Gothic era. Today, we think of it as the archetypal element for haunted mansions infamously portrayed in such scary movies such as in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" and the majestically decaying abode that houses the twistedly wholesome Addams Family, one of my all time favorite cartoons created by the inimitable Charles Addams. Perhaps this is one reason it holds such a ghostly allure for me, but as an architectural enthusiast, the real-life counterparts are always a joy to behold.

Restoration of the building was begun in 1998 and it is listed in the National Registor of Historic Places. It has maintained most of it's architectural integrity due to very little changes made to it.

312 Fore Street, Portland, Maine.