Bangor In Focus
Modeled after the Tremont House in Boston and designed by Charles Bryant, the Bangor House was one of the nation's great palace hotels for more than 100 years. In fact, it has stood longer than the Tremont and its cousins that once dotted the country; the Tremont was demolished in 1895.
Guests at Bangor House included Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Howard Taft, Arthur McKinley and Benjamin Harrison. Also, entertainers and sports figures Jack Benny, John Phillip Sousa, Gene Autry, Rudy Vallee, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Duke Ellington, Ben Ames Williams, Tommy Dorsey and Ted Williams have all spent nights at the house during their visits to the Queen City.
With the lumber industry booming and the population increasing quickly in the first quarter century of the 1800s, Bangor's leaders had visions of the Queen City challenging Boston as the industrial and shipping center of New England. To put Bangor in position to stake a claim to becoming the unofficial capital of New England, 42 businessmen joined forces to develop a palace hotel. The Bangor House Proprietary, established Feb. 26, 1833, consisted of such notables in Bangor history as Thomas A. Hill, George Pickering, Waldo T. Peirce, Richard Treat, Henry Call and Rufus Dwinel.
Although construction didn't end until 1835, the hotel opened on Christmas evening in 1834 under the management of Martin S. Wood of Providence, R.I.
When it opened, the building looked much different from its appearance today. It had 3 ½ stories, with 112 feet of frontage on Main Street and 92-foot wings. The first floor had a spacious reception hall, a bar, gentlemen's parlor, ladies' drawing room, ladies' dining room, a smoking room, a reading room and a 50-foot-by-27-foot dining room. The second floor featured a large ballroom that could seat 200 for dining.
The hotel cost its proprietors $125,000 to build and furnish -- no small investment for the time.
With 75 rooms -- 60 for guests and 15 for the staff -- Bangor House was the largest hotel in Maine. The hotel maintained its own water supply, pumping water from a well to three, 2,000-gallon tanks atop the roof. All guest rooms had a fireplace, and steam heated the entire building. Improvements by the end of the 1800s would include elevators to all of the floors, electricity to all rooms, private bathrooms and direct-line telephone service.
The hotel proved so popular soon after opening that management had to turn potential guests away frequently because no rooms were available.
In 1895 the city of Bangor reduced the steep grade at the corner of Union and Main streets, exposing the Bangor House's basement level. Horace Chapman, the hotel's owner, took the opportunity to redesign the hotel's facade and expand the building. Chapman added 60 rooms by building an addition on the May Street side and converted the basement into what is now the first floor. When a fire in 1901 damaged the hotel's top floor, Chapman decided to add a floor. In the process, he eliminated the sloped roof in favor of a flat roof. The additional floor increased the hotel's number of rooms to 250, some of which were singles and some of which were suites for entire families.
An advertisement for the hotel in a 1912 Maine Board of Trade Journal pronounced proudly: "You get truly metropolitan hotel service, with 'all the comforts of home.' You'll find your friends who travel wisely invariably stop in Bangor."
"The Bangor House is a model of neatness and order, to which the guests delight to return," the Journal said in a feature on the hotel.
Although the Bangor House avoided the Great Fire of 1911, which destroyed much of the city's downtown, the building has endured several fires of its own, none worse than the one that gutted the west wing on Christmas morning in 1954.
At about 2:40 a.m., the fire -- whose cause authorities never definitively pinpointed -- short-circuited a telephone line in the hotel. The short-circuit sent a signal to the switchboard operator, who answered what he thought was a call. Getting no answer when he picked up, the operator had a co-worker investigate for possible trouble.
Within minutes, flames burst through the walls in the hotel's west wing, setting off the sprinkler system. All 71 guests at the hotel fled into the 15-degree air in their night clothes as firefighters rushed to the scene. Six engines, three ladder trucks, two aerial ladders and 70 firefighters from Bangor, Brewer and Dow Air Force Base fought the blaze for five hours. Six firefighters suffered injuries, but they succeeded in saving the hotel and preventing the fire from spreading to other buildings.
When it was over after sunrise, the fire had destroyed 20 rooms on the Summer Street side of the building. Sixty other rooms sustained smoke and water damage. Total damage to the hotel was about $250,000.
The hotel reopened soon, though, and less than three months later the owners razed the destroyed wing and rebuilt it.
Aside from boasting some of the finest accommodations to national leaders and popular entertainers and enduring its share of fires, the Bangor House experienced a chillingly dark chapter in its history toward the end of its life as a hotel.
On March 18, 1965, Effie MacDonald, a 54-year-old chambermaid who had worked at the hotel for seven years, was found by a co-worker murdered in a vacant third-floor room. The room had not been occupied for two days. MacDonald's killer had raped her and strangled her to death with her own stocking. Her killer had torn off most of her clothes.
Divorced for nine years and living alone in a room at 3 Boynton St., MacDonald had no known enemies. She had been seen alive last at 12:30 p.m. the day of her murder; her body was discovered at 2:45 p.m.
Bangor police questioned more than 100 people at the hotel. And although they told the Bangor Daily News they had narrowed a list of suspects to one, they did not ask the district attorney to file charges because they did not have evidence that would stand up in court. For a while, authorities wondered whether MacDonald's murderer was the Boston Strangler because of the similarities between her murder and the Strangler cases in Boston.
Like the Strangler cases, MacDonald had been raped and strangled with her own nylon stocking. But most of the Strangler victims were found in what some have called obscene poses, with their stocking knotted around their chin. Bangor authorities did not mention anything about the position of MacDonald's body when she was found. MacDonald's stocking had not been tied in a knot around her chin.
Massachusetts authorities visited the crime scene and examined the evidence, but reportedly determined there were enough discrepancies between the cases to conclude they were not committed by the same person.
However, Massachusetts police did keep one detective on the Bangor House case, to reportedly help Bangor police draft a personality profile of the killer.
Several people who had worked or stayed at the hotel when MacDonald was killed told police they had seen a suspicious-looking man in the hotel. They described him as stocky, about 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, short brown hair, with prominent brown eyes.
The MacDonald murder remains unsolved.
Closing leads to new life
As cities expanded outward with shopping centers and strip malls, and motor vehicles became more common, downtown hotels throughout the country found business slowing down in the 1960s and 1970s. Visitors no longer needed to walk to shops and offices. As a result, the Bangor House fell victim to the ubiquitous automobile.
In 1977, owner Abraham Shapiro, who had bought the hotel in 1973, decided to sell the building to a Portland developer, State Street Management Co., that wanted to convert the building into an apartment complex for low-income elderly.
"This is probably the best way to preserve the building," Shapiro told the Bangor Daily as workers carried out furniture and equipment in January 1978. "The new owners will tear down some of the newer additions, take off the top floor and rebuild the roof to its original style. When they get through, it'll look pretty much like it did when it was first built."
On March 28 that year, demolition crews razed the building's wooden additions that brick additions would replace. Then, in July, crews discovered a previously unknown ballroom on the third floor. At 25 feet wide and 60 feet long, with a balcony believed to have been for a band, the ballroom was identical to the one on the second floor.
Workers found the building's architecture confusing and nonsensical in places. Throughout the years, the building had endured numerous fires, but repairs were haphazard. Some trusses never reached the building's outer walls, prompting the project manager of the 1978 renovation crew to wonder why parts of the building had never collapsed.
"Sometimes I wish Charles G. Bryant would come back just long enough so I could ask him why he built this place on so many levels," the manager, Andy Voikos, told the Bangor Daily News.
Crews gutted the building and rebuilt the interior, covering the hotel's fireplaces that were in nearly every room. When they finished, the building had 120 apartments. A five-story atrium off the main entrance, topped by a skylight, greeted visitors. Tenants began moving in on July 31, 1979.
Today, the Bangor House remains a fixture and as an apartment complex for the elderly and people with disabilities. It has its own beauty shop and grocery market for tenants. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Feb. 23, 1972.
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