Dueling McLellan Homes

Unlike hapless counterparts such as Vegas or Orlando, Portland dodged the housing market bust in 2008. But it hasn’t always been so lucky. The war with Britain between 1812 and 1815 cut off vital trading routes, plunging the economy into a severe depression. Without its bustling wharves, Portland was more or less an economic amputee.
Portland shipping magnates Hugh and Stephen McLellan certainly felt the pain. In 1800, each brother purchased a $20,000 home designed by John Kimball. When the economy cratered, both brothers were left in financial ruin. Hugh’s home was sold for a pittance, $4,050, to Asa Clapp, a future congressional representative from Maine.

Today, the home is part of the Portland Art Museum. It represents a halfway point between Georgian architecture and full-blooded Neoclassicism.

It retains some defining elements of Colonial/Georgian style: a symmetrical floorplan, a central door enframed by pilasters and a fanlight, brick composition, and a shallow-pitched roof. But the seasoning is more than mildly neoclassical. The portico’s slender, fluted columns and its tastefully decorated frieze and cornice allude to Hellenic prototypes. The Palladian window marks a self-assertive stylistic shift from more modest New England traditionalism.

Hugh McLellan’s home announced to his contemporaries that he was a successful merchant. According to a curator I spoke to at the museum, its sheer size at the time would have seemed extravagant to most Portlanders. Its monumentality proclaimed affluence. Hugh’s architect-in-chief surely capitalized on this feature of the home. The elongated first floor windows and roof-level balustrade accentuate the height of the building.

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