Photo: Benjamin Ford House, circa 1809, located at 139 High Street in the Belfast Historic District. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Photographed by Allen L. Hubbard (Historic American Buildings Survey), 1938, [public domain], accessed March, 2023.
The Belfast Historic District [†] consists of a large area encompassing most of the city center which includes a variety of residential, commercial, ecclesiastical, and governmental buildings. There are 283 historic properties in the district, all but 19 of these hawing been built before 1900. This gives the area a strong cohesiveness in terms of scale, materials and the architectural styles of the buildings. The boundaries of the district eliminate sections of the city which have undergone modern development or lack a high concentration of architecturally or historically important structures.
The Belfast Historic District contains one of Maine's most architecturally important concentrations of nineteenth century architecture. A large percentage of these structures date from before the Civil War, Belfast's most important period of development. Consequently, there are numerous examples of Federal, Greek Revival and Gothic Revival style buildings. Like many coastal communities, the town's early growth was dependent upon fishing, shipbuilding and commerce. Industrial diversification during the latter half of the century brought a measure of continued growth and the construction of buildings in Italianate, Queen Anne and Rennaissance styles. Post-1910 construction in the city center was virtually non-existent and this has left the area within the historic district largely intact.
First settled in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Belfast prospered due to its coastal location with an excellent harbor at the mouth of the Penobscot River. Incorporated as a township in 1773, the community experienced its first important period of growth during the early 1800s. Federal style residences such as the houses of Bohan Field (1807), 139 High Street, Ralph Johnson (1812), 100 High Street, and Hugh Anderson (1824), 55 Anderson Street, as well as the First Church (1818), 42 Church Street, are important representations among the early structures.
It was in the decade of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, however, that Belfast produced its most important concentration of architecture. Although still largely dependent upon commerce, the city was prosperous enough to experience a building boom. Local architect Calvin Ryder was especially active in turning out sophisticated examples of Greek Revival style design. Ryder's James P. White House (1842), 1 Church Street, and Joseph Williamson House (1844-45), 18 High Street, are among the finest examples of the style in Maine. Other outstanding structures such as the William Burrill House (circa 1840), 13 Church Street and the Universalist Church (1839), 9 Court Street, may have been the work of this important architect. These and other examples are distinguished for their use of match board siding, Ionic orders and wood carvings using Greek motifs. The popularity of the style was such that after Ryder left, it persisted in Belfast throughout the 1850s with local architects such as William Winslow and Francis Eastman. Winslow's William Pitcher House (1852), 29 Congress Street, and Eastman's Methodist Church (1858), 15 Miller Street, demonstrate the persistence of Ryder's influence.
In contrast, a number of wealthy merchants sought more stylistically up-to-date styles for their houses during the 1850s. The William G. Frye House (circa 1857), 55 Congress Street, the Ephraim Keene House (circa 1853), 42 Cedar Street, and the Joseph Ricker House(1849), 36 Miller Street, are examples which made use of eclectic picturesque styling on traditional house plans. The foremost example is the Charles Hazeltine House (1859), 138 High Street, designed by Boston architect Edwin Lee Brown in a scheme inspired by his New York contemporary, Calvert Vaux.
Commercial architecture tended to be more conservative during these years with Greek Revival storefronts such as the Johnson Block (1847), 93-99 High Street, with its Doric pilasters. The most architecturally advanced building in Belfast's commercial area built before the Civil War was the U. S. Post Office and Custom House (1858), 120 Main Street, by Treasury architect Ammi B. Young. Italianate style features were also employed on the Waldo County Court House (1853), 73 Court Street, by Benjamin Deane and Edwin Lee Brown.
During the years following the Civil War local industry became somewhat more diversified with the introduction of small industries producing shoes, paper and clothing. This did not, however, result in growth sufficient to establish Belfast as an industrial center. Wealthy merchants and a prosperous middle class continued to add to the housing stock with more stylistically advanced examples of Italianate, mansard and Queen Anne styles. Boston architect George Harding found particular favor locally with his main house designs for Asa Faunce (1874-75), 19 High Street, Dr. John G. Brooks (1878), 35 Church Street, and Frank Gilkey (1879), 22 Miller Street. No less important are Harding's two major structures in the commercial district, the High V/ictorian Gothic style flasonic Hall (1877-78), 77-83 High Street, and the Belfast National Bank (1878-79), 114-118 Main Street.
There were no prominent local architects in Belfast after the Civil War, leaving major commissions to outside architects such as Harding. Important contributions were also made by Wilfred Mansur of Bangor with the Oddfellows Block (1888), 98-100 Main Street, and Brigham and Spofford of Boston with the City Hall (1889), 71 Church Street. The construction of the bank, two large fraternal halls and a city hall reflected Belfast's limited economic activity during the late nineteenth century. While substantial rebuilding followed major fires in 1873 and 1885, most new construction in the commercial area consisted of remodelled storefronts and additional floors to existing structures.
This trend continued into the early twentieth century. Several large projects, such as the City National Bank (1909) by Portland architects Miller and Mayo, the Episcopal Church (1916) by R,. W. Potter of Boston and the Pierce School (1915) by Wilfred Mansur, are exceptions. New residential buildings in the district were rare, the most outstanding example being the S. L. Shute House (1914), 7 Park Street, by Frederick W. Patterson of Bangor. This noteworthy example of Arts and Crafts styling is exceptional for its interior decor. With their entirely shingled exteriors, both the Shute House and the Episcopal Ehurch are rare exeptions to the predominantly nineteenth century character of the district.
† Roger G. Reed, Architectural Historian, Maine Historic Preservation Commission, Belfast Historic District, nomination document, 1986, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
Cedar Street • Charles Street • Church Street • Congress Street • Court Street • Elm Street • Franklin Street • Grove Street • High Street • Main Street • Market Street • Miller Street • Park Street • Peach Street • Pearl Street • Pine Street • Spring Street