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Our Beautiful Building

The Morse & Company Office Building, 1895
Wilfred E. Mansur, Architect
Text: Deborah Thompson, Ph.D.

The Morse & Co. Office Building is one of two survivors of the late 19th and early 20th century 29-building mill complex which began at the head of Harlow Street and extended along the Kenduskeag Stream. The other survivor is the frame building at 408 Harlow Street, recently restored as an apartment building with commercial space on the first floor. This important complex of mills included a grist mill, and buildings in which building products (hemlock boards, frames, doors, slabs, edgings, moldings, architectural ornament, furniture, stained glass, leaded glass), spices, processed carded wool, ash and spruce oars, pork barrel staves, salt, salt boxes, and shingles were manufactured or processed. Nearby mills, under different ownership, produced edging tools, coffins and caskets, moldings, sheathings and plaster. Commissions of the Morse mills included the Maine State Building at the 1893 World’s Fair; the trim of the Fogg Memorial, Berwick; numerous summer residences at Bar Harbor including Joseph Pulitzer’s cottage; W.D. Sewell House, Bath; the Cambridge (Mass.) Courthouse; a number of fine residences in Jamaica Plain, Brookline, Roxbury, and Boston, Massachusetts, as well as many important houses, commercial blocks and public buildings in Bangor and elsewhere in the state. The firm made large shipments of architectural elements such as chimneypieces and doors and door frames to New England suppliers and even shipped to San Francisco.

The Building was erected to plans by one of Bangor’s most important architects of the period (Wilfred E. Mansur, 1855-1921) to replace the mill’s earlier, vernacular, office building, in response to the growth in its business and reputation. It was conceived as a showroom of the firm’s capabilities, and its exterior displays a range of carefully coordinated trim details and finishes, which were available to architects and builders who used its services. While the front and north sides are masonry (granite, cobblestone and brick), the rear (east) and south sides are stuccoed. The escutcheon-like sign boards are enframed by the most delicately carved detail. The elaborate cornice detail of the building is neo-Federal, and one torus molding is carved in a pierced geometric pattern like that of some of Maine’s finest Federal houses. The small console brackets of the roof soffit evoke some of the finest Bangor buildings of the 1870’s designed by George W. Orff (1835-1908), the Bangor architect who had a major influence on Mansur’s development. The angled three-sided bays of the ground floor are framed with delicate rope-carved frames. Their leaded and stained glass transoms, typical of the period, are of the highest quality. The one feature missing from this array of exterior decoration is the roof parapet, which effectively concealed the building’s central latern from the street. Amazingly, the architect created a delicate and enchanting gem out of what could have been an overloaded assemblage of motifs.

The trim of the building’s interior was also a show place for the mill’s capabilities. The first floor, the actual office area, is finished in the most elegant, neo-baronial, Queen Anne trim of the late 1890’s. The chimneypieces on the first floor with their enframed tiles and hearths, and the one in the upstairs conference room, are outstanding examples of their type. Most of the interior trim is oak, typical for the period, although much of the fine coffered paneling has been painted over. However, in the first floor private office, the architect chose a finer wood, probably mahogany (but possibly something rarer), and this remains unspoiled, recently restored by the hand-polishing of its new owner. The door entablature in this room is the most elaborate of formal late 19th century examples known to this writer in Bangor. The second floor of the building was an open space or showroom, in which manufactured elements such as chimneypieces, pilasters, stair trim, etc. were displayed. Three steel trusses and massive timber cross beams (three pairs are concealed and one is exposed) support the roof and lantern, making it possible to keep the space open.

For twenty-five years the office of Leighton Business Systems, whose owner J. Roger Atwater, was a building aficionado who personally worked to keep the building and its trim intact, the building came into the hands of its new owners, Glen Porter and Jean Deighan in February, 2003. Its present splendid appearance was achieved by Jean who was searching for the perfect location and a larger building for her offices, with the assistance of her architect, David Lloyd of Archetype, P.A., Architects. The project involved a great deal of work on the infrastructure, systems and roofing of the building, and the lantern was substantially rebuilt. The second floor lent itself to the provision of five separate offices for associates, service spaces, and a conference room. Because there were to be private offices, Jean felt windows were needed on the formerly blind, rear, elevation, and she was successful in achieving this alteration with the permission of the Bangor Historic Preservation Commission. (The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and listed under the Bangor Historic Preservation Ordinance.) This level is fully handicapped-accessible through the new rear door. On the first level, the existing finishes were carefully restored and new arrangements made for services areas. This complicated process has not only given Deighan Associates a wonderful new work space, but it has enriched the city of Bangor by preserving for future generations one of its rarest (truly sui generis) buildings, one which may not have a counterpart anywhere else in the nation.

Text reproduced with permission from the Bangor Historical Society.