Portland Water District’s intricate, historic roofing project nearly complete


Video of roof work

PORTLAND – As the nearly 100-year-old slate roof atop the Portland Water District’s Douglass Street headquarters slowly disintegrated, the public utility faced a decision: How should it honor the heritage of the John Calvin Stevens-designed structure in a way that was fiscally responsible?

Turns out, there was no decision at all.

The PWD Board of Trustees understood that it is appropriate and responsible to preserve and protect the architectural legacy they’ve been granted.

“Portland is a heritage-focused city,” said General Manager Seth Garrison, explaining that Portland was among the first cities in the U.S. to embrace the concept of providing public drinking water in the 1860s. “People value our history and its representations. The PWD facility is an iconic Portland structure.”

The winning bid to replace the roof came from The Heritage Company Coppersmiths of East Waterboro. Not only is that a Maine-based company specializing in meticulously replacing slate and copper roofs, but it submitted a bid that was below what roofing companies using composite material quoted at the time. While not as inexpensive as some other roofing systems, slate provides extremely good value in terms of lifecycle costs by providing a very long lifespan.

Portland Water District decided to replace the roof on the structure, originally built in 1928, over multiple years in order to space out spending. While most of the work was recently completed, a small section remains to be repaired in 2024 or 2025.

“The Vermont Green slate-and-copper roof looks new, yet also appears nearly identical to what was removed,” said Christopher Crovo, Executive Director of Asset Management and Planning. Planning for the project began in 2015-16, Crovo explained, because the kind of roofs placed on public buildings designed by John Calvin Stevens early in the 20th Century are as intricate as they are durable.

A pleasant surprise beneath the slate roof, which was starting to break apart, has been the good condition of the thick, wooden roof sheathing beneath the slate. “It was in great shape, all things considered,” said Joshua Hudak, Facilities Manager for PWD.

Victor Wright, owner of Heritage Coppersmiths, explained why: “The original installers used three-foot sheets of roofing paper at 18 inches (part), which made it double thickness. This accounts for the quality of roof structure we found when we removed the slate.”

In other words, the building that has been home to Portland Water District since the late 1920s, was built to last. Today, some 130 of the water district’s 200 employees work out of the Douglass Street headquarters.

The extensive roof repair project will cost approximately $900,000, spread over seven or eight years, from planning to completion.

Maine’s famous building designer

Mainers who appreciate history and know about John Calvin Steven’s illustrious and prolific architectural career would not be surprised to learn that his work has withstood the test of time.

Born in Boston in 1855, Stevens’ family moved to Portland when he was two years old. His architectural career took off in the 1880s, first in Boston, and then back home in Portland.

Over the ensuing decades, Stevens’ and his son designed scores of residences, libraries, municipal offices, hotels and theaters. His enduring landmarks span the state, from Houlton’s Cary Library to what is now the Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport. Much of his work is found in Portland proper, including the State Street Congregational Church and numerous West End residences.

What is less known about Stevens – and germane to the PWD roof project – was his philosophy that when public buildings are designed with function and comfort for employees in mind, they work harder and with more dedication.

Back in 1928, Portland Water District trustees initially thought they would build a basic, three-story wooden structure with a utilitarian garage for equipment. However, the Douglass Street neighborhood was essentially an “outskirt” of the city of Portland back then. Stevens and the trustees decided a more sprawling, one-story design would fit the neighborhood better and serve the water district’s needs more efficiently.

An artist as well as an architect, historians then and now have noted that Stevens sometimes threw in extra “touches” with his projects. Portland Water District was a beneficiary of this. The building’s copper weather vane showing a horse-drawn carriage sprinkling water behind it to keep dirt roads from becoming dusty clouds is a Calvin Stevens’ piece of art. It sits atop the Douglass Street building, and it serves as the water district’s logo to this day.

Much thought went into the Douglass Street design back in 1928, especially how it would appear in its part of Portland’s up and coming Brighton Avenue neighborhood.

Historic account of the grand opening

According to the premier historic report about the Portland Water District, “Drink It In,” written by Barbara Brewer in 2019, Calvin Stevens offered many remarks when the Douglass Street building opened in January 1929. Even back then, he was cognizant that spending on a beautiful public building and garage could be questioned.

The book quotes Stevens as saying: “I think you will agree with me that Water Companies have little to show for the money which they spend. Most of it is buried, and no matter how much thought and attention we have given to these waterworks, there is nothing to show the public.”

Stevens went on to say that companies providing “pure water” must pay attention to every detail in their line of work. The famed architect said his newly designed building, while exquisite, should reflect the same demanding level of attention and care.

When you put all of this together, Garrison, the Portland Water District General Manager, said preserving quality structures and the honoring Portland history represents the ultimate win-win scenario.

“The building attracts people with its character,” Garrison said. “It is a facility that customers and people in the neighborhood can take pride in.”

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