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.
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.
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.
Local architects Wilfred Mansur, C. Parker Crowell and Victor Hodgins did much of the work. The Graham Building may be Mansur’s best work.
The Eastern Trust Building could be Crowell’s masterpiece.
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 Revival, Chicago School, Prairie Style, Classical Revival and Colonial Revival.
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.
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.