The Personality of Portland


By Joshua Bodwell

Photography François Gagné


An architect who is an artist with urban renewal

The elevator growls like a wounded beast as it rises toward architect James Sterling’s Portland office. The August day is sweltering and the elevator is packed. A pudgy bald man wrestles with a guitar case on his shoulder. The man beside him, who has a steel hook for a hand, is dressed in clothes too heavy for a summer day. A photographer with a bulging bag of equipment at his feet pokes furiously at his iPhone.



Sterling’s building, located at the busy intersection of Congress and High streets, is overflowing with painters, photographers, musicians, and jewelers, as well as counselors, attorneys, and non-profit organizations. The building’s character and energy are about as urban as Maine gets, which makes it a perfect fit for Sterling, a community-minded, award-winning architect with artistic leanings.


Just back from a midday game of squash, the wet-haired Sterling is at his desk, fiddling on the computer. The windows are open wide, and a breeze drifts up High Street from the harbor. The Portland Museum of Art, one of the city’s architectural icons, stretches out below. Sterling’s space is part architect’s office—rolls of plans and building models stacked here and there—and part artist’s studio—strange trinkets are scattered about, and odd photographs and magazine pages are tacked up everywhere for inspiration.


Sterling pushes his mouse aside and turns from the computer where he has been manipulating the digital blueprint of an old church. The massive structure is going to be converted into a new public space, and he is trying to offer the client a variety of options. Reinvention has become one of Sterling’s trademarks—with an openly effusive enthusiasm for Maine, and especially for Portland, it’s a niche he takes seriously.


Born in Warwick, New York, the 59-year-old Sterling still vividly remembers the summer trips his family took to their house on Squirrel Island off the coast of Boothbay Harbor. “We drove up through all the bric-a-brac of Route 1 to that incredible place,” says Sterling, his brow furrowing and eyes narrowing with sincerity. “We moved around when I was a kid, but Maine became my mystical home.”


By 1972, Sterling had moved to Maine to attend Bowdoin College. After earning his master’s degree in architecture from Washington University in St. Louis, he resettled in Maine. It was 1976 and a new architectural era was dawning in the state. Sterling remembers walking Portland with a tackle box full of drafting tools, doing piecemeal work for Winton Scott, Scott Teas, George Terrien, and any other architect with a project going. “There were already such great architects in Maine, even then. It’s sort of uncanny,” marvels Sterling. On the street below his office, a motorcycle whines by and car horns blare. “I think it’s partly because of the level of freedom available here. And let’s face it, this place is very inspiring, too—architects want to work here.”sterling1.jpg


Though it might not appear so at first, one of Sterling’s most recent projects in Portland—a mixed-use building at 490 Congress Street—was inspired by the brick facades nearby. Now sheathed in coated-copper siding, the building went from two mismatched floors to five harmonious stories. Sterling says he discovered the various elements of the design in buildings up and down the street. “Yes, it’s contemporary, but it leaves things open, too,” says Sterling. “I try to avoid doing things that will appear dated.”


Although the building won an Honor Award from the Maine Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Maine) this year, Sterling is aware that some have been wary of the addition to Congress Street. “There are some buildings that the community is just starting to appreciate,” he says, motioning toward his office window and the four half-moon brick arches atop the Portland Museum of Art. Certain buildings may challenge the city’s ideas about architecture, but Sterling appears committed to pushing the possibilities of design as long as the end product is architecturally and aesthetically consistent with its surroundings.


While innovative commercial and residential work interests him, Sterling has a particular affinity for community projects, which feed his passion for using architecture as an instrument of social change.


When Sterling developed his plan for the Preble Street Resource Center—a community center in Portland that offers help and advocacy to those struggling with homelessness, hunger, and poverty—he conducted more than eighty interviews. Sterling relished the complexity of this predesign phase, which required him to take into account many different needs and concerns. “I sought out the DNA of how that building would be used, and then built upon it,” he says. In 2006, Preble Street took AIA Maine’s top honor: the Award for Excellence.


“In many ways, Portland has begun to feel more like a big town than a small city to me,” Sterling says with a smile. He leans forward suddenly, snatches a pair of binoculars from the jumble of paperwork on his desk, and peers through them toward the museum. “I thought I saw an owl out there,” he says casually before settling back into his chair. “Mostly we just see seagulls and pigeons,” he adds with a chuckle.


Sterling’s adoration for Portland is obvious; he sees past its blemishes and missteps, its half-starts and frivolous controversies. “Never mind all that,” he says, returning his attention to the view outside his office windows. “Portland just has that magic.”


sterling2.jpg It’s a magic Sterling has felt ever since he was a young boy passing through the city on his way to Squirrel Island, and it’s remained a source of inspiration that he has not only drawn upon but added to over the past three decades. “I guess it sort of turned out that way, didn’t it,” he says with an air of disbelief as he reflects on his contributions and his standing as one of Portland’s old-guard architects.


The young saplings that Sterling remembers seeing planted along the streets and parks in 1976 are now tall and mature. He has seen design fads come and go, and he’s seen architecture firms start up and sputter out. And he has taken note of what remains.


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