When Joseph Langlois and his family purchased the house at 15 Fifth St. in Bangor, they knew they were buying more than just a place for them to live. They were also buying a piece of history.
That’s because for about 30 years in the late 19th century, Bangor statesman Hannibal Hamlin lived there, from the time of his tenure as vice president under Abraham Lincoln until his death in 1891.
Since 1979, the six-bedroom, 6,000-square-foot house has been on the National Register of Historic Places, and Langlois is just the fifth person or entity to own it since it was built in 1850. It’s one of only a handful of presidential or vice-presidential residences in the country that is owned privately, and few photos of the home’s interior have previously been available to the public.
“It was the right house for us,” Langlois said. “But the fact that it’s got such an incredible history, including from the Civil War, was something we couldn’t resist.”
The house was built around 1850 by William T. Hilliard, who designed it in the Italianate style. In 1862, Hilliard sold the house to Hamlin. After Hamlin’s death, the house was owned by his family until its donation in 1933 to the Bangor Theological Seminary. The seminary used the house as the residence for its president until 2005.
In 2007, it sold its entire campus, including the Hamlin house, to property developers including Paul Cook of Bangor, before the school closed permanently in 2013. It also auctioned off most of the contents of the house, including items like paintings owned by the Hamlin family, and Hamlin’s top hat.
In 2013, Langlois, who since 2019 has owned Bangor Floral; his husband, Guy Ortega, who owns Salon Bonifacio in Brewer; and Langlois’ mother and sister were looking to buy a house they could all live in comfortably. At the same time, the Hamlin house had gone up for sale, after several years being operated as a rental by local developer Cook.
Clockwise from left: Joseph Langlois walks past original wall cabinets on the third floor of the historic 1850 house; Langlois shows a picture of Hannibal Hamlin sitting in a chair in front of the fireplace seen at right; Langlois shows off the built in shutters on the home. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
“It was a house that was big enough for the four of us to live in without feeling like we were tripping over each other,” Langlois said. “Although it’s also so big that at times we had to use cell phones to find each other in the house.”
Owning a house with such a long and storied history comes with a certain level of visibility. Random passersby have knocked on their door looking for a tour, after seeing the sign out front noting its most famous resident and thinking it was a museum. Though the house is not open to the public, Langlois has, on occasion, obliged them.
Langlois has also had former presidents of the Bangor Theological Seminary and their children reach out, to see if they could come visit the house they once lived in. In the basement, a door to a pantry is labeled as “The Red Club House,” which Langlois said was once the “secret” playroom of the children of a former seminary president.
And two years ago, Langlois got a message from someone on Facebook saying that he owned an old bed box that belonged to Hamlin while he was ambassador to Spain in 1881 and 1882. As it turned out, among the pile of old skeleton keys that was left at the house was one labeled “Hamlin bed box.” When Langlois tried the key on the lock on the box, it worked. He now uses it as a coffee table in a living room.
Langlois and Ortega have kept as many of the original features of the house as possible, from centerpieces like the ornate Italian marble fireplaces in the front parlor, to little details like the doorbells, which are operated by a pulley and string. Langlois in particular loves its large, screened-in porch, where they eat dinner and relax during the warmer months.
There are also items in the house that once belonged to Hamlin, like the brass “Hamlin” nameplate on the front door, and a permanent train ticket issued specifically to Hamlin, that allowed him to ride for free on the Eastern Railroad out of Bangor, the latter of which Langlois purchased at auction a few years ago.
“It’s been really fun to find things to bring back to the house,” he said. “When I pass away or sell the house, all this stuff will go with it, so it stays connected.”
Clockwise from left: Original door bell on the Hannibal Hamlin house in Bangor; The original name plate that hung on the front door. Joseph Langlois, current owner, has moved it to the inside of the door to preserve it; Part of the original doorbell; Joseph Langlois has a table of Hannibal Hamlin items he has collected from auction houses and said it has been “fun reconnecting things back to the house.” Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
They have added some of their own touches, however, including Langlois’ collection of Asian art and furniture, and a modern kitchen. They also renovated the previously untouched third floor, formerly the servants quarters, to feature a new living area and additional bedrooms.
Per both local and federal historic preservation regulations, they cannot alter the exterior of the building without permission. That means that adding things like additional parking or improving the roof can take months or even years to approve.
The roof itself is set with hundreds of individually cut slate tiles laid in a beehive pattern, and is topped with tin. Langlois said that until 2018 the slate was maintained by local roofer, Walter Musson, who was renowned in the area for his speciality in slate roofs. Musson died in early 2019 after a fall from a roof, and since then it has been hard to find a slate roof specialist in eastern Maine.
“That’s the thing about houses like this. The way they were built back then, craftsmen really put so much care and knowledge into what they did,” Langlois said. “These are kind of dying arts. That skill isn’t something many people know how to do anymore.”
Hamlin was born in 1809 and raised in the Oxford County town of Paris. In 1833, he moved to Hampden and set up a law practice, where he lived until moving to Bangor in 1862. In 1835, he was elected to the Maine House of Representatives, followed in 1843 with his election to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1848, he was appointed to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy, a position to which he was reelected in 1851. He briefly served as Maine governor in 1857 before returning to the U.S. Senate.
Lincoln chose Hamlin to be his running mate in 1860, with Hamlin’s strong opposition to slavery and his identity as an easterner balancing out Lincoln’s roots as a midwesterner. Though the role of the vice president back then was quite different from how it is today, as president of the Senate, Hamlin had a leading voice in opposing slavery and pushing for the adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln opted for Andrew Johnson as his running mate in 1864, however, choosing a southerner who he believed could better help reintegrate southern states back into the Union after the Civil War. Johnson’s term started in March 1865, and Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865. Hamlin missed the presidency by just one month, and Johnson later came to be judged by historians as one of the worst presidents of all time.
Living in a house that’s as steeped in legacy as Hamlin’s comes with a responsibility that Langlois hopes to live up to. Though he and Ortega have hosted a few weddings there, and have entertained the idea of turning the second floor bedrooms into a bed and breakfast when they retire, for now, they’re content to enjoy it simply as a residence, and to maintain it properly.
“It would be awful to think of this house being all modernized, and have all its historic charm removed,” he said. “I think you’re kind of obligated to respect the past, in a house like this.”