Portland wears its bruises. It’s limped through its share of lean times. It’s been burned to the ground by invading armies. It was the scene of an infamous rum riot. It’s a messy, workaday city, but this is a good thing. Many old New England towns become historical confections, lovely little tourist traps that feel about as genuine as the Main Street Electrical Parade. It’s not that Portland doesn’t have local flavor and historic architecture, there’s plenty of brick-lined antiquity to go around, but what I find interesting is that there’s still honest-to-goodness history to be discovered amid the city’s loose ends, detritus, and errata. Sometimes the best thing for a city is for it to not spend too much time caring about itself.
Take for instance the Abyssinian Meeting House, located on a neglected patch of Newbury Street, right around the corner from the Shipyard Brewery. The 180-year history of the building is a topsy turvy goody bag of American greatness mixed with the sad and all-too familiar narrative of 20th Century American decay. Over a handful of decades, the meeting house went from being a hub for Portland’s African American community, playing host to such abolitionist luminaries as Fredrick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison, to being thoughtlessly stuffed with ramshackle tenement apartments, its one-of-a-kind architectural features (like the tripartite arched fan that peaked out from the top of its front facade) stripped away along with its place in history.
Remember, however, that Portland’s motto is “resurgam,” and so the Abyssinian Meeting Hall has been tasked to rise again. A careful restoration is underway, helmed by the Abyssinian Restoration Project and Preservation Timber Framing. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to briefly poke around the meeting hall on a wet and cold Sunday morning. Walking under the massive beams that support the peaked roof of the meeting house, it was easy to sense the building’s past awakening under the steady tutelage of talented individuals. Faded wallpaper and rotting laths line portions of the old walls, rows of neatly-placed divots on the wide planks of the floor mark off the spots where pews once sat. The old windows are being rebuilt and replaced (the aforementioned fan is already back in its proper spot). The meeting hall still wears its many years and many lives, its age never more evident than on a slushy and cold winter day, but there’s a beauty in its bruises.
For more on the history of the Meeting House, check out this article by Cliff Gallant over at the Portland Daily Sun, and to support the restoration project, visit the Abyssinian Meeting House Restoration website.