The miniature castle in Portland's Deering Oaks Park stands under a decorated tree and street lights on Wednesday night. The city is looking for a qualified food vendor to lease the historic building. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — If you’ve ever dreamed of your very own castle, the city wants to hear from you.

Portland is looking for a business selling food and drink to lease its 128-year-old miniature stone-and-slate fortress in Deering Oaks Park. It comes complete with a tiny turret, a stone fireplace and stained glass windows.

But Portland officials are solely interested in serious proposals from experienced food vendors with the fortitude to make a go of it in the cozy — and somewhat odd — venue nestled between a baseball field, a pond and a busy, one-way street.

There is no set lease price. Instead, the city is entertaining offers while putting a premium on stability. They want someone to operate it on a long-term basis — something that has eluded the space in recent years.

“Our goal is to have it activated,” said Ethan Hipple, director of the city’s Recreation and Facilities Department. “We don’t like to see it empty and we think food and beverage service is just the thing.”

Ethan Hipple, director of Portland’s Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department, stands inside the grand-but-miniature stone castle in Deering Oaks Park on Thursday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The last tenant was the restaurant Tiqua, which vacated the building at the start of the pandemic, early in the 2020 summer season. Before that, the building had a long-string of food-service vendors, going back to its construction in 1894.

But none in recent memory have stayed long.

“We would love to have someone here for multiple seasons,” Hipple said.

The request for proposals without a set lease price is unusual but not unheard of for the city. It did the same thing a few years ago for the restaurant at the municipal golf course. It proved successful.

“Money matters,” Hipple said, “but it’s not the only thing that matters. We want a good fit.”

Hipple admits the castle’s location and diminutive size are challenges for anyone looking to run a business there.

There is no real kitchen space, just a horseshoe counter. There is a large outdoor patio where dining is weather dependent but only enough space inside for a few tables.

Accessibility is also a challenge. Cars approaching on the one-way street bisecting the park only see the rear of the building and cannot turn onto the access lane where the castle stands. It is also one way, in the opposite direction.

Maine photographer Harold Miles Freeman made this photograph of the Deering Oaks castle in Portland around 1900. It was built in 1894 and the city currently looking for a tenant to run a business out of it. Credit:  Collections of the Maine Historical Society, courtesy of MaineMemory.net

Then there’s the park’s reputation for drug use and vagrancy. Hipple said it’s partially earned but also unfair as he and his maintenance crew take great pride in cleaning the park up every day in the summer.

“Whether it’s trash or needles or beer cans — the number one way to make it safe and vibrant is to activate it,” he said. “We see opening the castle as part of the solution.”

The castle was designed by local architect Frederick Thompson in 1894. Thompson was well known in his day.

He also designed several other Portland landmarks, including the Walker Manual Training School building on Casco Street, the towering Masonic Temple on Congress Street and the Portland Expo on Park Avenue.

The castle was originally built as a cozy shelter for winter ice skaters on the frozen pond across the way — hence the large fireplace. Historic records state the total cost was $900.

In 2006, the city completed a castle renovation costing $775,000. Almost half the price tag was raised by the Friends of Deering Oaks, a nonprofit steward organization which looks after the park.

Stained glass, a granite food counter and gas fireplace dot the inside of the miniature castle in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park on Thursday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Many current and former Portlanders harbor fond memories associated with the building. An inquiry on the Facebook group “Portland Maine Encyclopedia of the 1960s, 70s and 80s” garnered more than 350 responses this week.

Many people remembered eating at the snack bar inside, using its public restrooms, as well as renting ice skates, roller skates and paddle boats for the pond.

“In the late 60s, in the winter, the pond would freeze over and the castle sold the best hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts after a day of ice skating,” Debbie Breeding said. “And they always had a couple of burn barrels going to warm up little fingers.”

Several posters mentioned buying popcorn and peanuts at the castle, eating some and feeding the rest to the ducks and squirrels. Others spoke of snagging a hot dog and fries while watching a baseball game.

“Back in the 90’s it was The Barking Squirrel Cafe,” Darren McGovern said. “On Valentine’s Day 1997 we went there for lunch and ice skating. That was the day I proposed to my wife. Still going strong 22 years later.”

In the castle’s early days as a warming hut, ice skaters could leave their boots inside where they’d stay toasty. The service cost 5 cents.

A quote from hometown poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow graces the chimney inside the miniature stone castle in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park on Thursday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“When my dad was a kid in the 1930s, he would go ice skating at Deering Oaks,” Kim Lacher said. “My Grandmother gave him a nickel for the shoe check. He decided not to check his shoes and used the money for a snack instead. His shoes ended up stolen and he had to walk all the way back to Fox Street in his skates.”

Hipple said he’s anxious to get a well-fitted tenant into the castle so locals can continue creating happy recollections associated with the place.

“The more people we can get out here eating, skating and smelling the roses, the better,” he said.

Portland’s official request for proposals can be found here. A mandatory pre-proposal meeting will take place at the Castle at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Then, written proposals must be submitted by March 1.

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.