Home Business and Labor After the Great Fire of 1911, Bangor Builds ‘Office World’

After the Great Fire of 1911, Bangor Builds ‘Office World’

With many kinds of brick, from Thomaston red to Flemish Black

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The Great Bangor Fire of 1911 wiped out much of the business district, but the city reconstructed it with lightning speed and lots and lots of brick. Bangor created the “perfect physical representation of the ‘office world'” emerging in the United States at the turn of the century, according to  architectural historian Gregory Clancy.

Clancy wrote the National Park Service nomination for Bangor’s “Great Fire of 1911 Historic District.” It includes 48 buildings and three parks, about half the city’s commercial district.  Remarkably, a number of talented architects from all over the country converged on Bangor’s 24-acre burned-over district to showcase a wide range of architectural styles. The district remains Maine’s first “completely 20th century urban space,” wrote Clancy.

Though the lumber industry created Bangor, the city rebuilt with brick, brick and more brick. “The district is aglow with every conceivable shade of the material, from Thomaston red, to Flemish Black, to wheat, honey, beige, and dark brown colorings,” wrote Clancy. “Additionally, bricks are laid in every conceivable direction and pattern, with Hodgin’s Morse Building being outstanding for its range — round circles to diagonals to herringbone.”

For an immigrant brickmaker named O.G. Morin, the Great Bangor Fire of 1911 turned out to be a godsend.

Great Bangor Fire of 1911

Bangor in 1911 had many small manufacturing firms making shoes, moccasins, cigars, fishing rods and trunks, to name a few. They sprang up around cheap hydro-electric power. Small businesses in old wooden buildings were beginning to share downtown with brick office blocks.

The fire started in a dockside hay shed on April 30, 1911 and spread rapidly through the wooden buildings, whipped by strong winds. People in Belfast, Maine, 25 miles away, could see the glow from the flames.

The fire destroyed 267 buildings, left 75 families homeless, caused  $3,188,081.90 in damage and ruined 100 businesses. It wiped out the library, customs house, a number of banks, the post office, telephone exchange and the main fire station. Though only two people died, the fire paralyzed the city’s commercial activity.

Aftermath of the Great Bangor Fire of 1911. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Rebuilding

Bangor then formed a municipal planning committee and hired a landscape architect, Warren Manning of Boston. Manning laid out plans for wider streets, sited public buildings and conceived of the Kenduskeag and Norumbega malls along the Kenduskeag Stream. The city also oversaw plans for the high school and library, hiring the premier architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns to design them.

Facade of the Bangor Public Library

Another elite firm, Carrere and Hastings, also did work in post-fire Bangor. So did Ralph Adams Cram, designing the Gothic Revival All Souls Congregational Church.

All Souls Congregational Church

Local architects Wilfred Mansur, C. Parker Crowell and Victor Hodgins did much of the work. The Graham Building may be Mansur’s best work.

Graham Building

The Eastern Trust Building could be Crowell’s masterpiece.

The Eastern Trust building

For the next five years, workers rebuilt the Bangor business district. The new section included 48 buildings, all brick but one, and three new parks. It showcased Renaissance Revival architecture, but also included Romanesque RevivalChicago SchoolPrairie Style, Classical Revival and Colonial Revival.

Ovide Morin

Ovide Morin was born in 1862 in St. Epphane, Quebec. Times were hard. Children went barefoot in the winter, and families ate off tables made of three boards nailed to a wall. In Quebec, people typically worked an entire month for $5.00. Morin went to work as a teenager, but could never earn more than 25 cents a day. When he turned 19 he told his father he was moving to Maine to earn a dollar a day. His whole family followed him.

Morin was 76 years old in 1938 when he told his story to Robert Grady, a writer for the Works Progress Administration.

He described how he worked on the river, in sawmills, and as a carpenter and a brick and stonemason.

One day he was working on the new brick Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s, doing rough work.  The boss then came around and said,

 ‘Morin, your father was a good brick mason. I haven’t got enough masons. Can’t you lay bricks?’

‘I told him I built lots of chimneys and I probably could if he wanted me to.’

‘All right,’ he says, ‘come over here and start on this corner.’

‘I can’t do that,’ I says, ‘I can lay bricks along the wall, but I can’t work on that corner.’

‘Gwan,’ he says, ‘I got it all marked out for you. Go over there and lay those bricks.’

“Well, I built it up five feet and I stood, back and looked at it and it was just as straight as a die. After that I called myself a bricklayer.

Plenty of Work After the Bangor Fire

Starting in 1911, he and his father had all the work they could handle for the next five years.

“What really made O. G. Morin was the Bangor Fire,” Morin said. “We had work there for five years. That fire pretty near wiped out the business section and they wouldn’t let them build with anything that wasn’t fireproof.”

The Bangor Fire of 1911 Historic District has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984.


This story was updated in 2023.

Images: Bangor Public Library By SarekOfVulcan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3222261. Graham Building By Buskahegian – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15755717. All Souls Congregational Church by By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51745039.

 

8 comments

Clare Silliman August 18, 2014 - 10:17 pm

The power lines look about the same as today. That’s pathetic.

Richard Miller August 19, 2014 - 12:40 am

Don’t see a motor vehicle anywhere.

Molly Landrigan August 19, 2014 - 4:33 pm

Well, as “they” say, it’s an ill wind that blows no good.

Linda Hanley August 19, 2014 - 7:20 pm

my grandparents came from Quebec to Maine that same year. !

Brian Webb August 19, 2014 - 9:54 pm

Did he make canoes ?

Six Churches (All Gorgeous) Designed by Ralph Adams Cram - New England Historical Society November 19, 2016 - 7:52 am

[…] 1911, a great fire destroyed much of Bangor, Maine, including the First Congregational church, which overlooked the central business district. […]

Betsy Paradis February 7, 2017 - 2:11 pm

This article is full of errors. Jean Baptiste and Domitilde Morin brought their family to Old Town in 1882 at the urging of their 19 year old son, Ovide, who was the interviewee in Grady’s piece. Ovide was a bricklayer and his son, Ovide, Jr. started the business, O.G. Morin & Company in 1919. His two brother, Louis and Edmund joined him in the business. The photo at the top is of Frank and Lawrence Morin, younger brothers of Ovide, Sr. who started their own fruit and confectionery business called Morin Brothers, in the 1890’s. Ovide, Jr. worked for them before starting his own business, but the two businesses were separate. The family didn’t ever own “much of the real estate in Old Town,” but in 1925, Ovide, Jr. and his brothers were able to purchase the McLeod block where the business was located (pictured above.) Finally, Old Town was not also known as “French Island.” Treat and Webster Island, an island in the Penobscot River, which is part of Old Town, is called French Island, because many French-Canadians settled there.

The 1911 Heat Wave Was So Deadly It Drove People Insane - New England Historical Society July 13, 2017 - 7:44 am

[…] Maine, had already suffered from one inferno two months earlier:  the worst fire in its history. The city suffered from temperatures above 100 […]

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