PORTLAND – It was 40 years ago Friday that the grand 138-foot clock tower at Union Station was demolished in a blur of dust and rubble, a scene that remained embedded in people’s minds for days, months, and even years.
The sprawling granite train station was not Portland’s only landmark to fall victim to the wrecking ball during the urban renewal of the 1960s, but its impact was certainly the greatest.
Black and white pictures of the clock tower crashing to the ground, on Aug. 31, 1961, offered a stark reminder that the city was losing its historic and architectural gems. Those images helped jump-start the city’s historic preservation movement, which has helped keep the city’s historic character alive.
“There were other losses, such as the old post office, but I think the pictures of Union Station really stayed in people’s minds,” said Jane Moody, an early member of the preservation group Greater Portland Landmarks, which was founded in 1964 as a direct result of the Union Station demolition. “Most of the citizenry today never saw Union Station, but they have the pictures.”
The demolition of Union Station had an emotional impact on people because the 73-year-old building was so widely used. It was a symbol of Portland’s hospitality and a gateway to the world beyond Maine.
After it was torn down, people grabbed pieces of its granite as souvenirs. The clock face was saved and today stands in Congress Square downtown.
“The station was such an integral part of people’s lives, it was how everyone traveled at that time,” said Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. “It really caught people off guard. Passenger service ended in 1960, then a year later it was torn down.”
A Boston developer purchased the building for $250,000 and planned to build a shopping center there. The one-story replacement building, which still stands today, houses a grocery store, a Chinese restaurant, a second-hand clothing store and liquor store, among others.
“It was just an era when old was bad and new was good, that was everyone’s mind-set,” said Pam Plumb, who became the first executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks in 1969. “Take a good look at what’s in Union Station’s place now, it’s so bad, architecturally. It’s sad to think that all those stores could have been housed in the station, we could have had both.”
Because of all the preservation efforts which have come after the fall of Union Station, Portland is now a city where historic buildings are looked at as a valuable economic and cultural asset.
“Today if the old post office was vacated, developers would be lining up to buy it,” said Shettleworth.