Several residential types prevail in the historic district. The first is a symmetrical cubical block with one entrance serving one family. The second type, a double house, or duplex, is similar to the first in size and shape, but has two centered entrances for two separate families, but with the unit divided in the middle by a party wall. Interspersed among these two types are a few asymmetrical houses, several more rectangular than square in plan, and a few having their narrow ends on the street. Yet despite this diversity, cohesiveness prevails because of common building materials and heights of buildings at approximately three stories.
This community of interrelated but differentiated structures creates streetscape uniformity, while allowing for diversity among the inhabitants in terms of wealth and housing needs. The uniformity does not become monotonous, since the use of different styles gives the individual units a rich sense of eclecticism that was an important aspect of the Victorian aesthetic. Moreover, the district was a place where most of Portland’s late nineteenth century architects worked, including Francis H. Fassett and John Calvin Stevens.
The Deering Street area began as a cow pasture, part of the land holdings of the Nathaniel Deering family. By the 1850’s population pressures led to an expansion of residential building down State Street toward Deering’s pasture. Nathaniel Deering gave the city land for streets in the area and began dividing his property into house lots. However, the major development of Deering Street did not come until after the Great Fire of 1866, when the downtown area was rebuilt more exclusively for business purposes and the displaced families sought new homes in other sections of the city. Deering Street was a major recipient of the new residential building boom, with a number of houses built on speculation.
The Deering Street Historic District was the neighborhood in which several of Portland’s most influential politicians lived, at a time when Maine had a disproportionately large influence in the federal government. Thomas Brackett Reed, Congressman for twenty-two years and Speaker of the House for three years, lived at 32 Deering Street from 1888 until his death in 1902. The three-story double house (a National Historic Landmark) was designed by Francis H. Fassett and built in 1875 -76. It is taller than the adjacent buildings and anchors the corner of Deering and State Streets. It features fine ornamental detailing with tiles inset into the string course between the first and second stories and in the sandstone caps over the windows. A brick tooth molding separates the second and third stories and a bracketed wooden cornice articulates the eaves.
At the corner of Deering and Mellen Streets, 73 Deering Street, lived Francis Fessenden, a general in the Civil War before becoming mayor of Portland. The Italianate house was also designed by Francis H. Fassett and built in 1868. A symmetrical cubical block, it features a mansard roof supported by paired brackets and entrance portico held up by paired columns. The Second Empire style James Phinney Baxter House, built 1869 – 1870 at 61 Deering Street, was home to one of Portland’s most successful and influential citizens. After making his fortune early in life with the founding of the Portland Packing Company, Baxter devoted much of his life to public service and philanthropy. He hired the Olmsted Brothers firm to draft the first comprehensive plan for Portland’s parks, persuaded property owners to donate land around Back Cove to create what is now Baxter Boulevard, and donated the funds to construct the City’s first public library, among many other accomplishments. Sadly, his house was demolished in 1974, one of the few buildings lost in the District.
John Calvin Stevens emerged out of the architectural office of Francis H. Fassett, and his work in the Deering Street Historic District evolved from the Italianate and Victorian character of Fassett’s work to the Colonial Revival with which he gained a national reputation. The Dr. E. Eugene Holt House (1883 – 84) at 723 Congress Street features the Richardsonian Romanesque that characterized much of Fassett’s work. The brick two-and-a-half story house has a central entrance on a façade that is made asymmetrical by the entry porch which connects to the bay on the right side. The most Richardsonian Romanesque features are the parapeted gables of the roof-story dormers, which have carved stone terminals. [This house and others from this district which face onto Congress Street are proposed to be shifted into the pending Congress Street Historic District when it is designated.]
Shifting from brick to clapboards and shingles, Stevens designed the Samuel T. Pickard House (1884) at 743 Congress Street in the Queen Anne style house features an asymmetrical plan and an exploitation of the various ways in which wood can be worked: clapboards on the first story, shingles on the second story and gable ends, and carved wood reliefs in the pediment above the entrance and between the windows in the gable.
Steven’s most characteristic Colonial Revival mode, however, is the Shingle style William H. Thaxter House (1884) at 52 Deering Street. The rectangular house has its narrow end on the street and this front is asymmetrical because of a corner projecting bay and the entrance on the side. Brick is the material of the first story, with shingles used for the second story and the gable end.
The expansion of the District in 1997 included two churches which were built to serve the residents of the Deering Street District and the adjoining Parkside neighborhood. The cornerstone for Sacred Heart Church was laid at the corner of Mellen and Sherman Streets on November 15, 1896. Designed by Francis H. Fassett and Edward F. Fassett, its Italian Renaissance style is unique among Portland’s churches. Modeled after the Church of Notre Dame de la Guarde in Marseilles, the church held its first Mass in the basement chapel in April 1897. The main building was completed in 1915. Immanuel Baptist Church and Parish Hall, at High and Deering Streets, was designed by E. Leander Higgins in the English Perpendicular Gothic style and was built between 1925 and 1927. The soaring façade of the church faces onto High Street with its tower anchoring the corner with Deering Street. An open cloister with stone tracery (matching the windows in the church) in the openings connects the tower to the Parish Hall. The domestic scale of the Parish Hall provides a nice transition to the neighboring residences on Deering Street.
The above examples illustrate the richness of the Deering Street Historic District, but they by no means represent the full extent of the architecture there. Most of the one hundred-thirty structures were built in a relatively short and discrete period (1850 – 98) and are unified by their residential function and styles, which are sufficiently diverse to preclude monotony. The district is also important as the neighborhood in which several of Portland’s most famous citizens lived, and where its best architects worked. Moreover, the built and natural environments still combine in much the same way that they did more than one hundred years ago, especially on Deering Street. There the trees in the esplanade between the brick sidewalks and the street contrast with and soften the effect of the predominantly brick houses and produce the full visual effect of a Victorian neighborhood.
Deering Street Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and locally designated in 1990. The district was expanded in 1997.