The Old Port’s easternmost blocks are dominated by a modernistic hotel (the Hilton Garden Inn), monolithic office buildings and the gargantuan parking garage at the corner of Fore and Pearl streets. This is definitely the shallow end of the Old Port, as far as historic architecture is concerned. Yet one holdover from the turn of the last century endures: 291 Fore Street.
This former chewing gum factory is all that remains of Portland’s Little Italy. Portland’s Slum Clearance and Redevelopment Authority deemed the neighborhood a blight in 1952. The neighbors were feisty, and fought off the bulldozers for six years, but ultimately City Hall had its way and the entire neighborhood — including the city streets of Vine, Deer, and Chatham — was swept away.
Somehow, 291 Fore managed to survive.
Unlike the dumps previously profiled in this series, this building hasn’t been abandoned to the elements. The first floor is occupied by Hub Furniture’s tidy showroom. An upward glance, however, paints a different picture.
The upper four floors of the building appear to be unused. One can see lots of dusty old mattresses, cardboard boxes and pieces of wood through the dirty windows, some of which are missing panes.
Why this prime Old Port building is in such a haphazard and potentially combustible state is one mystery. Why it’s been allowed to remain that way is another.
I made repeated attempts to get Hub Furniture president Sam Novick to comment, but was continually put off and rebuffed. City tax records indicate the property is owned by Sam’s parents, Jack and Rose Novick. Reached by phone, Jack Novick, a resident of Dartmouth Street, curtly said he was retired, then hung up.
The Portland Fire Department apparently lacks the resources to inspect commercial buildings like this. “Our primary focus is residential buildings,” PFD fire inspector Ben Wallace said, citing budget constraints.
Jan Beitzer, executive director of Portland’s Downtown District — the quasi-public organization dedicated to improving the appearance and safety of Portland’s downtown and Old Port — said she had not noticed the building’s dilapidated state.
Maybe someone will pay attention now.
— Patrick Banks