Published Date Written by Cliff GallantLooks like the former Press Herald building is going to made into a boutique hotel, which is, I have been informed, a kind of a cross between a bed and breakfast and a standard hotel. Typically boutique hotels are themed and furnished in a stylish manner, with the accent on quiet and comfort. A nicely appointed restaurant that appeals to local upscale diners as well as to guests of the hotel is usually part of the mix too. Sounds good. New hotels are all the rage in town lately, but as far as I know this one will be the first one of the boutique variety. I knew there was something missing.
In any event, it's good that the building is not going to be sitting there vacant for much longer. It's been kind of sad to see it unused. I was a little afraid that it might be razed. You never know. John Cacoulidis, who purchased the building from MaineToday Media Inc. in 2009, is the president of Grand Metro Builders of New York Corp, so, with that name, you had to wonder how much awareness there was of the building's history and significance. The recent sale takes into account the building's location in the historic preservation district, though, so not only will the building be still standing, but its new use will have to conform to certain preservation restrictions. The "Portland Press Herald" lettering embedded on the building's exterior facing Exchange Street will have to stay, for instance.
What is today called the Gannett Building was built in two sections, at different times. The first section is seven stories high and was constructed in 1923, the second is five stories high and was added in 1948. Many of us locals have personal connections to the building and mine is that I worked for many years as an advertising salesperson for the Press Herald and Evening Express when the advertising offices were on the seventh floor of the first section.
A big thrill for me was when I got to run through the very cool tunnel that goes under Congress Street over to the printing plant and yell "Stop the presses!" when an ad had been left out or there had been a last minute change to the price of an advertised item, that sort of thing. Doesn't take much for some people, I guess.
Mr. Cacoulidis seems to be intrigued by the tunnel himself, however, in as much as he has retained ownership of it and the huge parcel of land across the street it connects to. Of course he is well remembered as the man who once had plans to build ultra-highrise apartment and business complexes on the Portland and South Portland shores and connect them with a suspension bridge across the Fore River, so we know he has a pretty fair imagination going for him. It'll be most interesting to see what he comes up with in this instance. Maybe a Disneyland North? Right next to City Hall. Sounds like it could work.
Back to the Gannett Building, though. The place has an extraordinarily rich history which one hopes the new owners will manage to preserve by some means. The granite steps that go from floor to floor show the wear of decades of use by newspaper people and by visitors from all walks of life. When I worked in the building my favorite destination was the fifth floor lunchroom, both for Ginny's famous fish chowder and for the prospect of sharing a table with who knows who.
One of my favorite people to pull up a chair next to was Hal Boyle, a long-time reporter and features writer who in his later years had a column in the Evening Express called "Hal Boyle Recalls." Often the subjects of his columns had their genesis in conversations that took place around a lunch room table, and one such that has stayed with me was entitled "Marion Anderson Cures A Wino."
It seems that there had been complaints during World War Two that Portland lacked USO facilities for the many servicemen on the streets at the time, what with the North Atlantic fleet being stationed here and Ft. Williams in Cape Elizabeth being active then. In response, Guy P. Gannett, who was the founder and owner of the company, donated the entire first floor of the building to the USO, which named the venue for Marion Anderson, the famed Metropolitan Opera star, who came to Portland for the dedication and naming.
Marion Anderson, of course, was a national icon at the time she came to Portland, due largely to an episode involving her that stands as a significant event in American history. She had been denied permission by the DAR to sing in Constitution Hall because of her race, prompting thousands of DAR members across the country to resign their membership in the organization, including Eleanor Roosevelt. The climax of what grew to be a national drama was when Mrs. Roosevelt arranged for Marion Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial, where a hushed nation, seventy-five thousand people in person and millions more over the radio, heard her "America" on Easter Sunday morning in April of 1939. The country has rarely experienced a finer moment.
Hal recalled that Marion Anderson was one of the most gracious women he had ever met and when Guy Gannett asked her to sing at the dedication, even though her singing was not part of the planned events, she readily complied with a soulful rendition of "Home Sweet Home", her singing of which transfixed everyone in attendance.
The best part of the story, though, concerned an habitually inebriated individual who had snuck into a side room while the dedication was going on to avail himself of the sandwiches which had been laid out there for a post-ceremony luncheon. Hal caught him in the act, but what transpired at that point was completely unanticipated. The man was standing there eating a sandwich with tears streaming down his face, obviously deeply moved by the singing coming from the next room. All he said was: "There's a lot of onions in these sandwiches, huh?"
Hal said that he met the man a few weeks later on the street and he said that he had gone back to work and stopped drinking. Hal also said that he decided against mentioning that there were no onions in the sandwiches.
Don't know what Mr. Cacoulidis is going to come up with for a grand project, but wouldn't it be something if the tunnel under the sidewalk connected whatever it's going to be to The Home Sweet Home Hotel.