Maine Stays Portland Is No Longer A Place To Just Pass Through.

Posted: October 09, 1988

PORTLAND, Maine — "Oh, yeah - Portland. That city where you stop for lunch on the way to Mount Desert Island."

Once upon a time, maybe, but no longer.

Maine's largest city now offers superb art museums and galleries and enough upscale shopping, dining and lodging to warrant a stay for a weekend, or even longer.

Traditionally travelers have passed through this peninsula city, with its pervasive sense of the sea, on their way to Nova Scotia (the car-ferry Scotia Prince offers daily service to Yarmouth), or to such coastal resorts as Boothbay and Bar Harbor. Portland also is a stop en route to Maine's Western Lakes region and its waterfront is the departure point for ferries to a half- dozen summer islands in Casco Bay.

But Portland is a city that has changed dramatically in the last decade. The rejuvenation was spurred in part by fears that the historic harbor area would be destroyed during the 1970s - sacrificed to the gods of progress.

"Bangor had just been flattened in the name of urban renewal, and it looked as though this worn-out waterfront district was just a step away from the same fate," recalls Frank Akers, who happened to be managing a waterfront foundry at the time.

Akers began buying up buildings for a song, renting out storefronts for $50 a month, and soon there were merchants enough to sponsor a "Name the Area" contest. The Old Port Exchange has been a spectacular success.

About five blocks square, the Old Port now harbors about 100 shops, restaurants and galleries - and one hotel, the posh Portland Regency, nicely housed in a 92-year-old brick-and-granite armory. Rising rents long ago dislodged many of the pioneer merchants but a surprising number remain.

"I remember that first February," says John "Jock" Robertson, a former Washington stockbroker who bought an old restaurant-supply business on Exchange Street in 1971. Robertson's Whip & Spoon, selling cookware, cookbooks, coffees and gourmet foods and wines, is now housed in a four-story, vintage-1851 building at the corner of Market and Commercial Streets.

"The rent is high but so is our visibility," says Chris Peck of the Maine Potters Market, a pioneering 14-member cooperative that recently moved up from its narrow, old Moulton Street space to a corner of the Mariner's Church.

Other Old Port old-timers include the Women's Exchange (55 Exchange St.), a nonprofit outlet for hundreds of traditional crafts artists, and Joseph's (410 Fore St.) featuring well-tailored, chic clothing for men and women.

Bookstores, antique shops and boutiques have all done well in the area, and Benoit's, a longstanding department store up on Congress Street, soon will be moving down to the Old Port.

The Old Port's crafts galleries, in particular, have been prospering. Nancy Margolis has doubled her space at 267 Fore St., reserving half of it for special, museum-quality shows. And Abacas/Handcrafters Gallery (44 Exchange St.) offers two floors full of craft items, from furniture to jewelry. The Stein Glass Gallery, displaying stunning pieces by 30 artists, has expanded since moving here three years ago from New Ipswich, N.H., to 20 Milk St.

But, as interesting and stimulating as it is, shopping also helps build an appetite. Which is fine, because Portland has the answer - or, rather, answers. A recent article in Restaurant Business, a trade magazine, noted that Portland has more restaurants per capita than any other American city except San Francisco. Certainly no one need go hungry in the Old Port area - where pioneer places such as the Old Port Tavern, F. Parker Reidy's, Carbur's and Horsefeathers continue to thrive, and where options now include Northern Italian sauces at Raphael's (36 Market St.), New American cooking at Cafe Always (47 Middle St.) and Japanese fare at Shiki (111 Middle St.).

"I know of 40 restaurants either here or about to be here," says Joe Soley, an engaging Baltimore-born builder and MIT professor who now owns a dozen Old Port buildings.

And Soley should know. His Seaman's Club (375 Fore St.), which specializes in fresh fish, has expanded no fewer than six times since he acquired it in 1984. He also owns the Baker's Table (434 Fore St.), which features homemade soups and breads.

But the Old Port is not all restaurants and boutiques. There's Sam Klaman, for instance, proprietor for the last 54 years of a bottle shop at 428 Fore St. Klaman, who refuses to sell his four-story, primitively wired building, presides over thousands of bottles of every size and shape - treasures such as the old, green prune-juice bottle, which, at $3.50, makes a great little vase.

A recent issue of Down East magazine compared Sam Klaman to "an old boulder holding fast against the sweeping avalanche" of change.

The gathering speed and scope of change in Portland may well be compared to an avalanche, one that is rolling down Congress as well as Fore Street. Portland's traditional main drag for shopping, Congress Street also holds considerable appeal for visitors - many of whom now come to town specifically to see the Portland Museum of Art (7 Congress Square).

It's been five years since the dramatic new Charles Shipman Payson wing quintupled the size of the old museum. Built to house Payson's collection of 13 watercolors and four oil paintings by Winslow Homer, the wing also displays an extensive collection of American painters, including John Singer Sargent, George Bellows and James Wyeth.

Art lovers should also cross the street to the Baxter Gallery at the Portland School of Art (619 Congress St.). And they certainly should take 10 minutes to drive out Congress Street and up Route 9 to the Joan Whitney Payson Gallery of Art, a jewel box of a building on the campus of Westbrook College.

Until it was sold at auction last November for $49 million plus almost $5 million in commission, van Gogh's painting Irises was a part of this gallery's collection - an exquisite grouping of masterpieces by Sargent, Cassatt, Degas, Renoir, Homer, Wyeth and others. Maurice Prendergast's Rhododendrons, an 1899 watercolor depicting the Boston Gardens, itself is worth a trip.

Portland is an exceptionally easy city in which to find your way around, but there are so many distinctly interesting neighborhoods that it's wise to take advantage of "Wally," Portland's open-sided trolley. Portland Landmarks (165 State St.) also offers special summer walking tours of specific neighborhoods and an excursion or two to private, architecture-rich Cushing Island.

Obviously, there is enough in Portland to keep you busy for more than a day or two, and the hotels and inns are an added reason to stay. The 95-room Portland Regency (phone 207-774-4200; $98 double), opened in January in the heart of the Old Port. It offers rooms decorated with reproduction antiques and equipped with such amenities as TV, two phones and mini-bar. A formal dining room fills the central, atriumlike center of the hotel, and there also is an informal pub, an attractive lounge and a full health spa.

The Sonesta Hotel Portland (phone 800-343-7170; $79 to $105 double) is a 200-room, 12-story landmark, built in 1927 as the Eastland Hotel. It recently has been refurbished and stands conveniently just across from the Portland Museum of Art. The high-rise Holiday Inn (phone 800-465-4329; $75 double) is also convenient to the museum. There is also the new Inn by the Sea (phone 207-799-3134), sited on a rise above Crescent Beach State Park in Cape Elizabeth. This luxurious compound is an easy 10-minute drive from downtown Portland and features elegantly appointed suites and cottages ($170 to $185 per couple in June). Other in-town options include the Inn at Park Spring (phone 207-774-1059; $75 to $85 with a light breakfast and afternoon tea), an 1890s townhouse with just two guest rooms. Or you might consider taking the 17-minute ferry ride to Peak's Island - where Bunny Clark's informal little Moonshell Inn (phone 207-766-2331; $28-53) overlooks the city.

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For additional tourist information, contact the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce, 142 Free St., Portland, Maine 04101, or phone 207-772-2811 and ask for ext. 319.

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