Well, that was my dump. The construction site at 645 Congress St. was formerly the University of Southern Maine’s Portland Hall dormitory complex, my home for four years as a USM undergrad. It’s now owned by State Sen. Justin Alfond and developer Greg Shinberg, who’ve demolished most of the dorms to make way for 56 small apartments, a new parking lot and some retail space. They hope to have tenants this December.
The three wings at the rear of the property were smashed up and shipped off this summer. The ugly building that “affronts Congress Street” — as the developers’ Web site, 645congress.com, describes it in a Freudian slip — will remain, though they promise its stucco façade will be replaced with a more attractive material (there’s brick underneath).
Built over 100 years ago, the property has been a rooming house, various motel/hotels, and Section 8 housing. USM bought the property in the late 1980s and linked the buildings together to form the Frankenstein monster that was Portland Hall.
When I moved in earlier this decade, the place was really showing its age: threadbare carpets, flickering fluorescent lights, stained ceiling tiles. The busted pool table in the lounge was an object lesson on “The Tragedy of the Commons.” (The table was replaced while I was there, but students wrecked the new one in just a couple months.)
Though it was dumpy, Portland Hall was actually a decent place to live. And you couldn’t beat the price. It cost me less than $500/month, with heat, electricity, Internet, cable TV and land line included.
The building was never as good a deal for the university. In fact, USM had been planning to sell it for over a decade before Alfond and Shinberg stepped up last fall. “That facility never paid for itself,” said Craig Hutchinson, USM’s Vice President for Student and University Life. Portland Hall was costing the university about $200,000 a year, an expense officials expected to double as it continued to deteriorate. Meanwhile, enrollment by traditional college-age students kept declining, USM finished construction of new dorms on its Gorham campus, and the privately owned Bayside Village student apartments on Marginal Way were becoming available. That’s why it made sense to sell Portland Hall, even at a loss, said Hutchinson.
The thrown-together look of the complex matched the dorm’s inhabitants. USM leased rooms to students attending Southern Maine Community College, Maine College of Art, and other schools. A couple of my best friends in the dorm weren’t even students. One was a 17-year-old ward of the state transitioning to adult life from foster care; another a 24-year-old Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute grad doing an internship at National Semiconductor.
USM housed all the students enrolled in its foreign exchange program at Portland Hall, and offered suites for students with children, so there were always a few toddlers around. Over the years, I shared a room with, among others, a gay art student; exchange students from Ghana, Armenia, Laos, and Japan; and an SMCC student studying masonry. Politically radical transexuals lived down the hall from cud-chewing conservatives who once put signs reading, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” on their doors.
It’s hard to imagine a more diverse group of people residing under the same roof. We were all ostensibly overseen by a Residential Life staff who kept stressing how important it was to “celebrate” that diversity. These perky camp-counselor types organized nightly arts-and-crafts projects that involved pasting photos from back issues of O and Elle next to words like tolerance and acceptance spelled out with cut-out construction paper. This approach is of dubious effectiveness in a dorm full of one’s peers. It’s naive to the point of being absurd when you’re living with Palestinians and Rwandans who tell blood-curdling stories about ethnic cleansing in their backyards. But we all managed to more-or-less get along.
Before the demo crew trucked the last of the rubble away, I returned to 645 Congress with one of the friends I’d met there. We poked around and climbed into a section of the building that was still standing, then wandered around the tilting hallways of our former home. Bundles of wire and insulation spilled out everywhere. My friend scraped the number off the door of a room one of our friends had lived in, and took a picture of me standing next to a flyer that still declared Portland Hall a “no smoking building.” Before we left, we both took a leak on the rubble in the approximate location of his former room.
I’ll never have a chance to meet as many wildly different people in such a short amount of time as I did during my Portland Hall days. As I approach my 30s, doubts threaten to metastasize into regret: Did I take the best advantage of that time in my life? Why did I spend all those nights playing video games, or doing homework, when I could have been partying?
That part of my life is gone forever, and now, so is the building where most of it took place. I’m gonna miss that dump.
— John Bronson