TEXT BY NORA SAKS
PHOTO BY DAVE WADDELL
From the August 2023 issue of Down East magazine
If you’re looking for Portland’s swanky new Puerto Rican restaurant, Papi, on Exchange Street, a bright-coral storefront with a pair of 19th-century wood-and-wrought-iron doors marks the spot. When Papi cofounder LyAnna Sanabria found the doors, which hail from Old San Juan, in an online auction, “it felt cosmic,” she says. “They’re creaky; they’re heavy. They’re annoying to do a delivery through. They looked like a childhood memory to me.”
There was just one problem: Papi is not in Old San Juan. It’s in the Old Port, one of Portland’s 12 historic districts. Ravaged by the Great Fire of 1866 and rebuilt from the ashes, phoenix-like, the downtown districtis cherished for its cobblestone streets and blocks of intact 19th- and early-20th-century Greek Revivals, Italianates, and Second Empires. “All the historic fabric you see and experience walking in that district is real,” says Robert O’Brien, chair of Portland’s citizen Historic Preservation Board. “It’s not invented. It’s not fabricated.”
To preserve that fabric, changes to the fronts of historic buildings have to go through an approval process mandated by the city’s 1990 preservation ordinance, derived from rules laid out by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Papi’s founders skipped that step, however, in what Sanabria says was a misunderstanding. Before opening their antique doors to the public, in March, they were told by the city that the entrance likely violated building codes and a standard that discourages creating “a false sense of historical development,” and that it might need replacing. Soon after, a public outcry erupted over what many deemed the government’s overreach — and prioritization of colonial narratives. “In matters of design, there is almost always more than one possible solution,” says the city’s deputy director of planning and urban development, Kevin Kraft, who is working with Papi to file the paperwork that could get the doors approved. As of this writing, it’s unclear how much of the entryway might be permitted to remain.
On its face a minor code-enforcement issue, the door saga is knocking loudly on underlying tensions in Maine’s biggest city — tensions surrounding whose stories are being represented, what the Old Port should look like, and to what end. “You’re going to talk about history — who’s history? I think that as soon as you have that conversation, it balloons into something much bigger than doors or aesthetics,” says city councilor and mayoral candidate Andrew Zarro, who believes the preservation ordinance needs updating to better facilitate cultural inclusivity, as well as efficiency upgrades, such as solar panels and heat pumps on building exteriors.
But preservationists argue that the current standards are flexible enough to accommodate a range of perspectives and needs. They aren’t intended to stop change, but rather to manage it thoughtfully, says Sarah Hansen, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks. To underscore that message, her group is following the national preservation movement in “trying to shift the conversation to be less about individual buildings and high-style architectural merit and more about community, the people who were here and those who are and will be using these places.”
Others see the historic-district standards as an unfair target. Preservation consultant Scott Hanson remembers Portland pre-1990, long before the city was appearing on any “best of” lists, and before, he says, preservation rules helped catalyze investment on the peninsula. “Unfortunately, the prosperity and change in population the city has experienced has come with a loss of memory of where the city has been,” he says. He hopes the fracas over Papi’s entrance doesn’t “open the door, so to speak, to undermining the goose that laid the golden egg.”