Congress Street: Portland, Maine


Congress Street is Portland's "Main Street," the peninsula's primary east-west commercial and transportation axis.  From the street's beginnings as an access road for farmers bringing their goods to market to its development into a prestigious residential neighborhood and then Portland's commercial and cultural center, the character and role of Congress Street has evolved throughout its history.

Designated Area

Extending from High Street to Market Street.

Congress Street and High Street. Photo by Flickr user Jimmy Emerson, DVM (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Planning Excellence

The visual character of Congress Street is rich and varied, and the character of the street is one of layered historical development over time. The result is an area with a delightful mix of historical architectural styles from 18th century Colonial and 19th century Federal to 20th century International and 21st century Post Modern, with examples of nearly every significant style of residential, commercial, and civic architecture in between. This eclecticism and layering is the essence of the street's charm.

Congress Street is designated as part of the Arts District of Portland. At numerous art galleries, theaters, museums, and schools there are volunteers, tourists, and residents who participate in cultural activities and events, notably the First Friday Art Walk. Managed by the local arts agency Creative Portland, this event attracts thousands downtown each month and features street artists and performers and 50 to 70 venues that are open to the public for free to view art exhibits, performances, and more.

Monument Square, an iconic, pedestrian-only public space, is the site of many local events such as the Farmer's Market.  Portland's famous public art honoring civil war soldiers and sailors is located in the square's center. In recent years, the City of Portland has prioritized the preservation and renovation of significant architectural buildings along Congress Street, creating its distinctive character.

Portland City Hall. Photo by Flickr user Jimmy Emerson, DVM (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Defining Characteristics, Features

History and Architecture

  • Following a destructive fire started by British naval forces during the Revolutionary War, Congress Street began to be more actively developed
  • One of the first private homes built after the Revolution was the elegant Wadsworth-Longfellow House (1785); the only remaining example of a single-family residence on Congress Street
  • By 1800, leading merchants, ship captains, and other business leaders began to commission Federal style homes along Congress Street
  • Throughout the 1800s, the area between Monument Square and Congress Square filled in with notable buildings such as the lavish Queen Anne style J.B. Brown Memorial Block, the Baxter Building, the elegant Romanesque Revival Portland Public Library, and the Congress Square Hotel; squares created unique "bookends" for the blocks between
  • The Great Depression halted new construction on the street; following the economic boom of WWII, upper-story spaces along Congress Street became vacant or underutilized; a number of large homes were replaced with gas stations or converted into apartments
  • Early 19th century Federal and Greek Revival row houses are still visible

Features and Planning Accomplishments

  • Portland City Hall, one of the city's most distinguished architectural landmarks, sits on the site of Maine's first State House (1820–1832); it is the third City Hall to stand on the site and is built of granite in a Beaux-Arts style
  • First Parish Church is the city's oldest house of worship (1825) and remains remarkably unchanged; the only remaining active church in the district
  • Monument Square was designated pedestrian-only in the 1970s, and features Portland's most impressive work of public art, the Civil War memorial Soldiers and Sailors monument; also honors the former site of Portland's first City Hall
  • Buildings surrounding Monument Square include the city's first skyscraper, the Fidelity Building (1910), and the Portland Public Library (1979)
  • Federal "urban renewal" money through the ambitious Maine Way public infrastructure program (1970s) led to the rehabilitation of many buildings along the street, notably The State Theater, Portland Museum of Art, The Children's Museum of Maine; provided upgrades to street lighting and street furniture to attract new business
  • Downtown Vision Plan adopted (1991); directly impacts Congress Street and the Arts District
  • Community Development Block Grant funds totaling $90,000 allotted to three buildings along Congress Street for facade improvements; property owners matched the funds dollar for dollar (2013)

Monument Square. Photo by Flickr user Sam T (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).