A story by C. Michael Lewis from 1967-present
David and Barbara, residents of Portland, approached me for a painting commission because they loved the Miss Portland Diner. I felt that I had pretty much covered that subject 30 years ago and was ready for something else. They wanted an iconic image of Portland and Monument Square was suggested. David said his father had supplied Russell's and Stan's Smoke shops. Stan's immediately triggered a fond memory.
Near the end of junior high school young Portland scholars had to decide between Portland and Deering High Schools. We lived across the street from Deering and my brother John went there, but his twin, Abe, brought me to Portland for one of those open house days. For lunch we played pinball in Stan's Smoke Shop. That settled it...not just because Stan was so cool, more than that we were, at least for lunch period, almost adults, and Monument Square, or the whole downtown if you could get back in time, was our playground. I told the guidance counselor that I wanted to be a car mechanic like my brother. "You're too smart for that," he said (a comment that still pisses me off). Somehow he knew I liked to draw, so he suggested drafting. I could see car (design?) possibilities in that and promptly agreed. Freshman year was all about the drafting room at Walker Manual Arts Center, a few blocks from school, and upstairs from the auto shop. I bought a plastic and wood T-square in the mezzanine of Loring, Short and Harmon (on Monument Square) and was on my way. It's still hanging in my studio, and I'm still a draftsman.
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Maine Historical Society
Monument Square became the heart of Portland very early on. As the city grew 'back' from the waterfront, they named the aboriginal trails and cowpaths Fore, Middle and Back (later re-named Queen, then Congress) Streets. Where Middle curved up to meet Back the triangular intersection became a market, which it still is, Wednesday mornings in season. Old Jerusalem, a church/meeting house was erected nearby in 1740, and rebuilt in granite (but with the original cupola and steeple) as the First Parish Church in 1825. That same year the city erected Military Hall in the middle of Hay Market Square. It served as a town hall, market house, concert/lecture venue, and armory, and remained the focus of urban life even after a new city hall was built nearby in 1860.
For the next forty years Portlanders argued about what to do with it. The general consensus was to build a memorial to the Civil War dead and many proposals were presented. I liked Mayor Baxter's idea to rebuild it as a Greek temple with memorial sculpture inside a large civic auditorium. After a noisy and acrimonious referendum, they tore it down and in 1891 dedicated 'Our Lady of Victory' by Franklin Simmons, a local artist with an international reputation.
The Washington Hall Hotel was built in 1803, later called the Portland House, the Cumberland House, and in 1840 the United States Hotel. Considered Portland's finest, it hosted visiting dignitaries and at least one president until 1902, when it became home for the Edwards and Walker Hardware. It was demolished in 1970 with the complete remodeling of the square and the Casco Bank tower was built on that site.
Captain Asa Clapp built his Federal mansion in 1804 directly across Congress St. from the hotel, and it stood until being replaced in 1922 by the current Clapp Memorial Building. The family also built the Clapp Block on the other side of Elm St. and this became the home of Cumberland County Power and Light, the parent of the Portland Railway Company, whose electric trolleys branched out in all directions from Monument Square.
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Maine Historical Society
The corner office would eventually become the very cool Stanley Fink's Smoke Shop, and, in the late '50s, the Hobby Center lived on the second floor. I knew it a little later when it was between Porteous and Woolworth's. My favorite store in the world. I bought millions of model car kits and mixed, matched and sculpted original vehicles from them. The store held regular juried shows to promote such creativity, and I won a bunch of trophies. The Clapp Block was replaced with the new Portland Public Library in 1979.
The Angelone family is credited with bringing the modern pizzeria to Maine. John "Jack" Angelone ("The Master") opened his first restaurant on Veranda Street in Portland in 1947 and in the late 1950s, the Angelone family moved their restaurant to Monument Square. That block had been one of Portland's most prestigious shopping districts, but was slowly declining and was soon to become a victim of the urban renewal movement that gutted most American cities. The resulting parking lot became known as 'The Golden Triangle' for its development potential. Ten years of discussion ensued.
At one point they held a design contest to generate ideas, and 300 entries came from all over the world and were displayed in the Portland Expo. My friend Tony and I collaborated on a large solar greenhouse wintergarden with the Farmer's Market in the ground levels, but there were dozens and dozens of even more wildly creative concepts. The winning entry was a mundane modern office building that looked an awful lot like the one that eventually got built there. I did an early painting of it under construction.
Even in the nineteenth century, when there was a three story flatiron building where Angelone's was, it had a billboard on it, facing the square. For the painting we wanted one with some color and action, and, in a reference to the Miss Portland painting, decided to use something advertising Northeast Airlines. I couldn't find one that I liked, so I created one that 'might' have been there, based on some ads from that era. I had lived in Stroudwater as a boy, so the airport was a favorite hangout. If you asked politely, you could board a waiting airliner and sit in the cockpit. Some of my less well behaved friends actually snuck into the control tower. Different world then. The terminal building is still there, incidentally, but the greenhouse on top made it's way to a rooftop on Union Wharf before it disappeared.
Arthur Henri Benoit, a Westbrook clothier, bought the Frank M. Low's store in 1915 and built it into the largest clothing store chain in the state, and by mid-century the original building was added to and stylized beyond recognition. I have some vague memories of being outfitted downstairs for the dreaded back-to-school wardrobe. Specifically, there was a Madras sports jacket that appears in all three of the Lewis boys' high school class pictures. The family business closed in 1989, and it's probably best known today for the Longfellow Books store, of which, I'm proud to say, my daughter Meghan is manager.
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David said the painting should depict Monument Square in 1967 because that was the year he moved back home with his new wife Barbara. Ah, the Summer of Love. How do you say 1967 in paint, I wondered? How do you date old photos or movies? The cars, of course! At least I do. And Monument Square was a rotary, filled with cars...a virtual Place de la Concorde. Even I, brazenly street smart, walked around, never across it. "So what were you driving then?" I asked David. A 1965 Pontiac GTO. Teal. He had also owned a white Avanti, the later one with the square headlights. And there was Dad's International Metro Van in Portland News Company livery (The Metro and the Avanti, by the way, were both designed by Raymond Loewy.... weird coincidence?)
Good start, but I needed more cars, '67 and earlier, that might have been ‘circling the square’, and preferably, came with some personal associations. Let's start chronologically. In a 1958 snowstorm my family moved from Calais to Portland in a blue ‘54 Ford, kids crammed in the back with a giant Philco TV, in convoy with a Cushman Bakery Divco, not depicted (although my father and his Old Tavern Divco did appear in the Miss Portland painting).
At 14 I was the Woodfords Corner slot car champion. My friend Barry was a grownup who couldn't beat me, even with superior equipment. But he was a scuba diver, skydiver, raced a bug-eyed Sprite, and introduced me to sports cars in Thompson, CT. I finally convinced him to watch some stock car racing, and he was sitting inches from me in a crowded grandstand at Beech Ridge Speedway when a large fragment of exploding clutch whizzed between us, slicing his cheek open. Maybe the closest I've ever come to death. They paid all his medical expenses and added a car of his choice...a white 1965 Shelby GT 350, arguably the hottest car in town.
That first year of high school Abe got shipped to Vietnam, so he sold his beloved 1957 Chevy to my best friend Tommy, and that became my ride to school. The next year the school got me a job as an engineering draftsman at Southworth Machine on Warren Avenue. That meant I could leave school at noon, but I had to ride those lumbering orange GM busses until my senior year.
I learned to drive in my mother's 1960 Falcon. First trip outside of town, overloaded with parents, aunt and little sister, on a narrow and winding Rt. 26 in Grey, with no shoulder and a steep drop off, I got my first flat tire. When I went for my first driver's test, the car flunked...bald tires, inoperable door, etc. Gawd I hated that Falcon!
The job helped me save up for my very own first car. $250. for a 1961 Impala SS 2dr hardtop. Gorgeous. Huge back seat. Got me a girlfriend in no time. For some reason I decided I needed to do an engine rebuild, which wasn't entirely successful, then it got nailed by an evil Cadillac, so I decided to downgrade. My father's boss and family friend Stan sold him a blue '62 Beetle for $1 so Pa, who hated the thing, sold it to me for $2, and I discovered that driving, unlike piloting a Detroit behemoth, could be actually fun.
That was when Abe returned safely from the war, met John at Fort Lee, VA and they drove home in Louise, a hugger orange 1961 Beetle. She was prone to overheating and they had to push her across the George Washington Bridge, but she soon became my baby. With fat tires and a sun-roof, she was even more fun, and John and I did so many engine swaps that we had it down to 20 minutes, out and in. Around then my brothers were burning through a series of early Chevelles, so there's a turquoise 1964 in the painting.
After the VW's I was ready for something more substantial, and I remembered Michael Landon introducing the Corvair by flying across the prairie in a Bonanza commercial. I found a 1962 4 door for $50., and later a nice white 1963 coupe for $25. with a blown engine. Another engine swap and I was back on the road in style. To celebrate I took my girlfriend out for a joy ride, even though I had no sticker or plates. We were on Warren Avenue in a drizzle, and I suspected black ice, so I jabbed the brakes once just to see. We did a complete 360 in front of oncoming traffic. Unsafe at any speed, indeed ! I was terrified, but gained a lot more respect for the peculiar handling of the early Corvairs. I later inherited Abe's silver blue 1965 Corvair, which I still consider one of the most beautiful American cars ever produced. The vehicle dynamics were vastly improved, and even with an automatic it was a blast to drive.
In college I was briefly involved with a girl who drove a maroon 1966 Dodge Charger. Personally, I was developing a taste for European sports cars, so I scored a red Karmann Ghia. It ran great, the interior was immaculate, but the body was already starting to rot away, so I got it real cheap. I remember that when they hauled it away from out behind the barn there was a detailed floor plan of rust colored earth where it had settled into the soil. I drove it down to Marblehead to meet the parents of another girlfriend (later wife) and told them we were about to drive out to Vancouver and back. They were aghast. "In THAT?" and offered that we might take 'the Valiant' instead. It was a black 1963 Signet hardtop with only 14,000 miles that had been in storage since the late owner had been diagnosed as too senile to drive. We put 10,000 miles on it in a month.
My 1966 Datsun 1300 pickup was a real sweetheart...a simple, purely functional little vehicle, until a blown head gasket proved terminal. It shared the barn with another hugger orange VW... this time a 23 window bus with fender flares, chrome reversed wheels, big tires, sun roof and even that big visor over the windshield. I had 'picked it up for a song' because of numerous engine and transmission problems, but had great plans for it. My friends and I would sit in it on rainy days, pretending to be hippies, dreaming up creative solutions to all the mechanical problems behind us...like how about a mid-engine V6...? Life intervened though, and I had to sell it and move on.
Much, much later I asked my friend Willy, the race car driver, if he would pick us up at the First Parish church after our wedding and chauffeur us the 6 blocks home for the reception. He once drove me to a fancy party on the Foreside in a Lamborghini Espada, so I was hoping for something truly exotic. He showed up in a red original Mini. I had drawn the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Willy's race cars because his sponsor, the Turtle's creator, Kevin, was a local boy made good. I had even worked with his father at Southworth. Willy also looked after his car collection and wanted to arrive in Kevin's Mini, but it was full race with roll bar and no passenger seats, so we shoehorned into the back seat of April's.
If nothing else I wanted this painting to be an accurate depiction of the buildings that framed the square back then. I had done a rendering of the renovations to the Portland Public Library some years earlier, for which I had built a 3D SketchUp model. Using old photographs I modeled the earlier structures in their proper positions. We wanted to show the smoke shops on opposite sides of the square, so that made for a tricky composition. I worked it out using three slightly different vantage points (hence the triptych arrangement) which together presented a plausible view. Not only my brother and I, but all three of my children attended PHS, so I tried really hard to work in a bit of the school, which can actually be seen from a certain point on the plaza, but couldn't work it out. I had built nice models of that and the First Parish which appear in Google Earth 3D 'Heritage' mode, and are downloadable from the SketchUp Warehouse. Also, I was married the first time in Portland City Hall, and later at First Parish, so I got them both in with just a little nudging.
All the car models came from that SketchUp warehouse, except the Dodge Charger, which I had built for a client years ago, and has appeared in a number of my renderings. Most of them included way too much hard to get rid of detail, which strained my computer's limited capacity, but I was amazed to see the dashboard radio knobs in my Impala! That jogged some memory flashes. The '57 Buick was parked in front of the hardware store in the postcard I used to build the model, so I kept it in the painting.
I shared the work in progress with my dear friend Bob, who has made a career painting race cars at Watkin's Glen. "Am I overthinking this?" I asked. "Quite the contrary," he replied, "you've invented a whole new genre: the Auto-Biography!"
Submitted May 2021 - C. Michael Lewis 2021
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