Aside from full-time residents and their families as well as building staff, hardly anyone has been inside the Bangor House at the corner of Main and Union streets in downtown Bangor for more than 40 years, ever since it was turned into apartments in the late 1970s.
But in its heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Bangor House was one of the grandest hotels in Maine, with an ornate ballroom, a granite piazza, an elegant dining room, and even indoor plumbing — something truly novel for the 1830s.
In the 19th century, Bangor was in its boom times as the lumber capital of the world, when ships would carry lumber harvested from Maine’s north woods to ports up and down the East Coast, to the Caribbean and even to the West Coast via Cape Horn.
According to the Bangor House’s 1972 application to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the lumber barons who profited from the industry formed a company in 1833 with the goal of constructing a “public house” to rival the newly opened Tremont Hotel in Boston. They were eager to prove Bangor as one of the major cities in the Northeast, and having a fancy hotel would help cement that status.
The Tremont, with its palatial, Greek Revival design and luxurious amenities — and its status as the first hotel in the U.S. to have indoor plumbing — served as the main inspiration for the Bangor House. Architect Isaiah Rogers designed it in a u-shape, surrounded on three sides by a granite piazza, and with a south-facing courtyard inside.
It took close to two years to build, with construction beginning in the spring of 1833 and completed near the end of 1834. It cost around $100,000 to build and another $25,000 to furnish in 1834 — that’s around $4 million in today’s dollars. Proprietors held a lavish public dinner on Christmas Eve of that year, and so impressed people with the craftsmanship of the building that newspapers at the time called it the “Second Tremont.”
It’s hard to picture it now, but the main entrance to the hotel was actually the granite portico on the Union Street side.
For most of Bangor’s history, the area along Union Street between the Bangor House and the river looked more like Main Street or Central Street, with typical 19th-century buildings running all down the street. During the urban renewal era of the 1960s, all those buildings were torn down and replaced with roads, modern buildings and empty space. Today, the Bangor House is one of the only remaining 19th-century buildings in that part of downtown.
For more than a century the Bangor House played host to some of the most famous names of the time, and offered a place to dine, dance, see and be seen for the social elite in the Bangor area. Among the first high-profile guests was Daniel Webster, the powerful Massachusetts senator who would eventually become secretary of state, who visited in 1835.
Multiple presidents stayed there over the years, beginning with Ulysses S. Grant in 1873, and continuing well into the 20th century. Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft all stayed at the hotel while stopping in town to campaign or speak — or on their way to go hunting, in Teddy Roosevelt’s case. Eleanor Roosevelt also stayed there in the 1930s.
Famed actors and musicians like Jack Benny, Ethel Barrymore, John Philip Sousa, Gene Autry, Rudy Vallee, Liberace, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Greer Garson, Tommy Dorsey and even Duke Ellington all stayed there after performing in Bangor. Explorers and adventurers such as Robert Peary and Amelia Earhart stayed there, as did major figures including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and Helen Keller. Notorious prohibitionist Carry Nation had to be carried out of the building, after she caused a scene because the hotel restaurant served alcohol.
The first of many changes to the building happened in the late 1860s when the interior courtyard was replaced with a billiards hall, and the piazza was removed, according to the American Society of Architectural Historians. Eventually, the hotel purchased the lot next door on Union Street, and a four-story wing was added, along with a new kitchen. In 1916, a full, additional floor was added to the top of the main building.
By the 1950s, however, times had changed. As most Americans owned cars at that point, people were more mobile, and demand for less-expensive lodging like motels and motor inns grew.
The Bangor House struggled to maintain its luster for several decades. The billiards hall had been turned into a restaurant, and in the 1950s, it became a Mexican cantina-style cocktail bar. In 1954, a fire destroyed a side building and the former stable on the Main Street side, which was later razed and turned into a parking lot, where today the Law Offices of Joe Bornstein stands.
In 1965, a housekeeper at the hotel, 54-year-old Effie MacDonald, was found in a room, strangled by her own nylon stockings after being sexually assaulted. Despite the best efforts of Bangor police, MacDonald’s killer was never found, and it remains one of Maine’s longest-standing cold cases. It also tarnished the reputation of the Bangor House, which was already struggling to retain clientele.
The hotel’s final local owner, Abraham Shapiro, sold the building in 1978 to Boston-based development firm Myerson-Allen Co., which won a federal bid from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to redevelop the hotel into apartments.
Today, it’s owned by Weston Associates, a Boston-based firm that specializes in low-income housing and owns 17 other developments across Maine, including Northwoods Apartments in Bangor. The Bangor House today is limited to older and disabled households that qualify for subsidized housing.