There is historic home after historic home in the West End. Stroll down a brick sidewalk in the direction of the Western Prom, and you’ll observe facades with symmetrical, columned porticos and pointed windows dressed up with gingerbread trim. There are tucked-away carriage houses beckoning from crunchy gravel driveways and back gardens secreted away behind elaborate wrought iron gate work. Look up, and you’ll spot tiered turrets, asymmetrical gables, and multi-paned windows all in row. Perched high on Bramhall Hill, rambling Queen Anne Revivals, square Italianates, and formal Federal homes look out below onto the streets of Vaughan, Bowdoin, Danforth—their very names hinting at Maine’s history—and then onto the Fore River, and beyond that, all the way to Mount Washington.
Side-by-side, the Western Promenade and Spring Street Historic Districts include dozens of landmarked residences on Bramhall, Brackett, Emery, Danforth, and Pine Streets. Located on Portland’s western edge, the neighborhood is lauded for its walkability, outstanding restaurants, and pockets of green in an urban setting. It’s what many consider the prettiest part of Portland. Thanks to nearly 400 years of history, the past is evident everywhere in the West End—informing how the neighborhood developed and shaping what it is today.
The West End started out as a park. When Europeans first arrived in what would become Portland in 1632, the western area was heavily forested and swampy—neither buildable nor protected. The forest might provide cover to potential invaders, so settlers went to work clearing the land. The open field then served as grounds where residents walked, picnicked, and went bird hunting.
At the start of the nineteenth century, prosperous tradesperson and landowner William Vaughan began the West End’s first development. In hopes of increasing his own property values, Vaughan built the original bridge that connected the peninsula to South Portland. (His 1799 wooden house at 387 Danforth Street, still a residence today, is the oldest in the vicinity.) But when the national Embargo Act of 1807 passed as a way to keep the country out of war, international trade froze up. Previously wealthy merchants faced bankruptcy, and Vaughan was no exception—creditors reclaimed his land.
With the West End still relatively uninhabited, it became the site of the Maine State Arsenal in 1824. The Western Cemetery followed in 1829, and seven years after that, the promenade connected the two. (The Maine Medical Center, then called Maine General Hospital, would follow in 1874, after residents raised $100,000 for its construction.) Similar to its present state, the Western Prom featured a park and carriage road that offered views over the countryside below, and the park soon came to define the entire residential quarter.
In the mid-nineteenth century, as the maritime and rail trades flourished, the neighborhood saw the rise of its first mansions. But it wasn’t until the Great Fire of 1866 cut a swath through the city that the West End became recognizable for what it is today. Portland’s motto, Resurgam, “I shall rise again,” pays homage to the construction boom that happened in the blaze’s wake. With much of downtown destroyed, affluent residents flocked to Bramhall Hill, where they showcased their wealth and social statuses through fashionable architecture. New homes shot up in styles such as Queen Anne, Colonial, and Gothic Revivals, which were created by a succession of notable architects. Charles A. Alexander designed some of the first mansions, Henry Rowe built much of the Gothic architecture, and Francis Fassett created many of the commercial buildings. John Calvin Stevens pioneered the Colonial Revival and New England-inspired, shingle-style houses from the 1880s through the 1930s, including the landmarked shingle house he built for himself at 52 Bowdoin Street.
During World War II, locals focused on the shipbuilding industry and war efforts, and then in the 1960s, when many buildings were in decline, the Urban Renewal movement swept the city. Several historic buildings downtown were demolished to make way for strip malls and chain stores. While the residential West End remained mostly unscathed, the wrecking balls called attention to the crucial need for preservation. In 1970, the Spring Street district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1982 the Western Promenade district followed.
In the last ten years, the neighborhood has had another resurgence, one in which Longfellow Square serves as a culinary destination and students speak 29 languages at Howard C. Reiche Community School. And while the historic distinction means there’s a watchful eye on what homeowners can or cannot do—something residents consider both a blessing and a curse—there is one thing that no one’s arguing over: the West End remains one of the best-preserved Victorian neighborhoods in the country.
Read more about the area’s restaurants, shops, and parks in What to do in a day: West End.