The days when the Eastern Promenade was studded with decayed apartment houses in the grip of miserly slumlords have long since been assigned to the ashheap of history — right alongside the Soviet Union and the moderate Maine Republican. Yet a closer look can reveal vestiges of a long-lost era when gentrification was something that happened to other Portland neighborhoods.
One such vestige isn’t even a building anymore. All that’s left of 224 Eastern Prom is a rickety foundation and some weathered floorboards. A window well into the cellar is unblocked and the back side of the foundation has crumbled away, creating a gaping hole for critters and zombies to use. The surrounding lawn, however, is surprisingly well kept for such a ruin.
The property was an even bigger eyesore in years past. Pictures taken by the Google Street View crew in July 2009 show a sad, two-and-a-half-story, boarded-up home stripped of its porches and siding. And even then, the rot wasn’t recent. How it got that way appears to be a story of neglect and empty promises dating back to the 1970s, punctuated by a tragic death in 1981.
According to Tom O’Donnell, who lived across the street from 1997 to 2001, the place was boarded up after the owner died. O’Donnell, now of Farmington, recounted via Facebook a third-hand account from his former landlord — a “great story if it’s true.” Years ago, the story goes, the owner was renovating the building, had a heart attack, and died on the spot. “His wife was devastated and had the place closed up, leaving his tools and everything right where they were,” recounted O’Donnell. “Didn’t have the heart to finish renovating or to sell it. Years passed, and by the time [my landlord] told me this (1997-ish), he said the building wasn’t up to code and would need a lot of work to be rented anyway, so it was probably a lost cause.”
O’Donnell didn’t know the owner’s name, but a quick check of city records revealed that the building belonged to Gilmore Nichols and his wife, Lulu. City zoning inspector Marge Schmuckal noted that whoever tried to secure the building did a half-ass job, boarding up only the lower floors. “A lot of pigeons and stuff got in — rain and stuff like that,” she said.
Further digging yielded a treasure trove of old inspection reports and memorandums that indicate the place was a dump at least as far back as 1973, when the Housing Division (at that time part of the Health Department) cited Nichols with 46 violations — including, but far from limited to, exposed wires in the hallway, an exposed oil line in the cellar, crumbling plaster and numerous broken windows. By January 1974, housing inspectors had declared the place unfit for human habitation. Over the next five years, Nichols sporadically worked on the property and apparently had grand plans to turn the place from a three- to a five-unit dwelling.
Meanwhile, bureaucrats in City Hall were growing increasingly exasperated, and by 1979 the City Council let it be known they wanted the building gone. A memo to the Council dated March 16 of that year from Housing Inspections Chief Lyle D. Noyes stated, “It would appear to me that the City Council has been more than fair in accommodating Mr. Nichols during the past four years. The building is a blighting influence on the neighborhood as a whole and based on the finding of the latest inspections, we would again recommend and order to demolish.”
Yet not only was the building still standing two years later, Nichols had apparently gotten the go-ahead to do additional work on it, including the removal of three porches and the enclosure of two remaining porches for use as bedrooms. A certificate of approval issued in August of 1981 indicates Nichols had permission to install fixtures for five different bathrooms. But by then it was too late — records from Brooklawn Memorial Park show that Gilmore L. Nichols had been dead and buried there since June 19 of that year. An obituary in the Portland Press Herald reveals that Lulu passed away in 2009 and is buried in the same cemetery.
While the story of a grief-stricken Lulu boarding up her husband’s tools hasn’t been corroborated, the fact remains that decades passed before the building at the corner of Turner Street and the Prom finally came down. It was finally purchased by Crandall Toothaker in 2006, and he got permission to tear the dump down in late 2009.
Toothaker owns a lot of property in town and has a solid record of rehabilitating dilapidated buildings. He said his current plans envision a three- or four-unit building on the site, though he hasn’t submitted any paperwork for the project to the city and doesn’t plan to get started for another year or so. In the meantime, Toothaker said he does intend to cover the gaping hole into the basement.
If anybody finds Gilmore Nichols’ tools in there, please let me know.
— Patrick Banks