Sacred Spaces – Part 2

It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present, over a mutual concern for the future.

William J. Murtagh, First Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places

It has been 100+ years since the first immigrants stepped onto House Island to be processed at the House Island Immigration and Quarantine Station

The original correspondence between the U.S government officials, local businesses, politicians, architects, contractors are retained between planks of cedar, tied with a red ribbon and wedged into a box at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. I untie the ribbon and carefully unfold the documents – some written in the calligraphy of the time. Later letters were typed on onion skin paper.

Although the local Portland businessmen and politicians at the time supported the government request to build the Quarantine and Immigration Station, they petitioned that the building not be on any of the populated islands of Casco Bay so as not to impact the budding tourism industry.

Archive 3 Archive1 Archive2

Many of the immigrants that passed through House Island were bound for New York and Boston. They came for a better life – to escape oppression or persecution, to find religious freedom, to seek economic prosperity. They came hoping for a new life in a new land.

They left family and friends and a familiar way of life.

They traveled in steerage for up to 18 days.

They arrived not knowing where they would sleep that night or where they would obtain a meal.

Those that ‘passed inspection’ by the Inspectors and Doctors on House Island were taken to Portland, placed on trains at the Grand Trunk Station and sent on to their intended destination.


Those detained wondered if they would eventually be allowed to stay or be returned.

The 1924 Quota Act that would restrict the number of Eastern Europeans coming into the U.S. loomed. Steamship companies, predicting the future loss of business, increased the number of ships leaving Europe.

Uss George WashWhen 23-year-old Bela Gross left France in 1923 aboard the U.S.S. George Washington, he had a passport, money, a career as a linotype operator and dreams of a better life. He left behind his heritage and his history. He was hoping to locate surviving relatives to replace those he lost in the White Terror events in Hungary. 


In November of 1923, 218 immigrants were detained on House Island. Coincidentally, it was the same time as the National Council of Jewish Women of Portland established the kosher kitchen at the Quarantine Station.

Bela Gross was one of those immigrants.

The Custom House Inspector determined – incorrectly – that the Russian quota had already been met. Allowing Bela to enter the US would exceed the quota. He denied entry.

Rather than be returned to Europe, Bela Gross jumped into the dark waters of Casco Bay. Patrolman Thomas Conley followed him into the bay. Officer Conley was born in 1883, the son of Galway emigrants and lived on Munjoy Hill. ( His brother was the well-known boxer Bartley Connolly. One of my closest friends growing up was Michael Connolly. (Yes, a relative.)

Bela art

Friday, November 16, 1923: Boston Herald headline:

Is Rescued After Leap Into Harbor – Immigrant Feared He Would Be Unable to Enter U.S.

…After great difficulty, customs men rescued Gross with a line and he was taken to police headquarters.

He was a billiard hall keeper before becoming the first Jewish police officer in Portland in 1912. Patrolman Simon Rubinoff, a speaker of Russian, interviewed Gross and discovered that Gross,

orphaned at an early age, had wandered from Russia to France where he obtained a Russian passport and visa…(and) feeling quite alone in the world, he was attempting to come here to live with an uncle in Detroit.

Following the rescue, it was learned that Bela had lost his passport. At that moment, he became a man without a country. (Think Tom Hanks movie: The Terminal partially inspired by the 17-year-stay of Mehran Karimi Nasseri in the Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Terminal I, Paris, France from 1988 to 2006.)

Deported from Portland and not allowed to return to France or Germany, Bela was detained on the U.S.S. America for several months. His fate would be determined by the filing of a habeas corpus suit in the Federal Court of New York by his uncle in Detroit.

Docket image

For $20.00 you can obtain a copy of the Federal Court files from the National Archives in Kansas City. The case documents includes a transcript of his interview, the filing by his ‘relator’ Eugene Reinitz against the Commissioner of Immigration, legal arguments and the rending of the decision by Judge Winslow.

From those documents, I learned that Bela Gross was a Jewish Russian. I will never know if he ate in the kosher kitchen on House Island. I will never know if any of the National Council of Jewish Women of Portland offered him sustenance before he threw himself into the icy waters of Casco Bay rather than “…live a life with a lonely heart.”

The headline of the Boston Herald dated Thursday, February 14, 1924, read:

“Without Country” Admitted to U.S. — Court Finds Error in First Deportation of Gross

 There are 217 untold stories about those held on House Island in 1923 when Bela Gross made his decision to jump overboard.

There are other stories of those held at the Quarantine and Immigration Station between 1908 and 1937 when it was closed.

We may never hear them.

Fort Scammel

It has been 200+ years since Fort Scammell was erected to protect the entrance to Portland Harbor. President Jefferson, concerned with increasing British aggression, ordered the construction of the second system forts that included Fort Scammel, Fort Preble and Fort Sumner.


The granite for Fort Scammel was quarried on Mount Waldo and brought by stone sloops to the island. Wharves on the west side of the island were constructed for the off-loading of the stones, as was a stone cutting shed. Stones were unloaded and moved using block and tackle.

GraniteNot only were the stones for Fort Scammel prepared on House Island, but also the stones for Fort Gorges and Fort Preble. Stones were moved from the cutting area to the east bastion by way of a short narrow gauge railroad.

….The British are not coming

In June of 1812 the United States declared war on England. Fort Scammel was garrisoned during the War of 1812 (1812-1814), but the fort’s guns only fired once in August of 1813 on a British Privateer in Whitehead Passage. A month later in September 1813 a British Flag of Truce party landed at the Fort to negotiate for the release of British prisoners from the HMS Boxer captured after a battle with the USS Enterprise off Pemaquid Point on 5 September 1813.

This year is the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the writing of the Star Spangled Banner

According to Portland fort historian Kenneth Thompson, the British originally planned to invade the U.S. through the Portland Harbor.

The presence of the 3 earth and gun battery militia forts proved formidable and the British decided to attack Baltimore instead.

Maryland played a pivotal role during the War of 1812, particularly during 1814 when the British captured and burned Washington, D.C. and then made their way toward Baltimore. The British planned to attack Baltimore by land at North Point and by sea at Fort McHenry, which stood in defense of the Baltimore Harbor. It was during the bombardment of Fort McHenry that Francis Scott Key, a Maryland-born attorney brought by truce ship to negotiate the release of an American prisoner, was inspired to write the words to what became the United States’ National Anthem.

In the 1860’s, Thomas Lincoln Casey was assigned to Maine to oversee construction of Fort Knox and Forts Gorges and the redesign of Fort Scammel and Fort Preble.

After the Civil War, he was assigned to oversee construction on the Washington Monument He served as the Chief of Engineers for the US Army Corps of Engineers 1888- 1895 and was the engineer for the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building (1890-1897).

In 1954 Hilda Cushing, whose family owned House Island until recently, wanted to see the fort preserved and was quoted as saying,

“You can’t have tomorrow without today.”

Some people will look at a slab of granite and see an unused block of stone.

But I see the marks made by the hands of men who quarried the stone and constructed granite wharves and forts.

Some people will look the remnants of the Quarantine and Immigration Station – the original detention center, the doctor’s residence and the hospital – and see land for development.

But I hear the voices of those who came to America hoping for a better life for themselves and their children.

Some people will look at a fort that fired only one shot in defense of Portland and not understand its role in protecting the entire bay.

But I know that the architecture has more significance and its long history is of greater value than the firing of canon.

It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present, over a mutual concern for the future.

William J. Murtagh, First Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places

If you wish to be a part of the conversation regarding the possible historic district designation of House Island and Fort Scammel, PLEASE attend the Historic Preservation Board Hearing at Portland City Hall, Wednesday, October 1, 7:30 pm.

This is the first step in a multi phase process.

If you are unable to attend, please send comments to Deb Andrews,


House Island Analysis of Eligibility As a Local Historic District

Report prepared by tti-architects for Greater Portland Landmarks is available on line:


Sacred Spaces – Part 1

Sacred: highly valued and important; deserving great respect

What makes a place sacred?

 Loss of life?

I live near the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War that took place July 1-3, 1863 in Gettysburg. In one single day, 57,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured.

Brady photo

I always have trepidation when visiting memorial sites…frequently I find them too big or too controlled or too orchestrated or too pedantic and the emotions too difficult to access. I want to honor those who died and somehow connect to the feelings of those mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children who suffered their loss.

From our double-decker bus, we look across fields where 8000 soldiers were buried; 3000 horse carcasses burned; where the smell of blood and death and smoke permeated the land for weeks. We drive by the monuments erected to commemorate each regiment or battalion. (The difference escapes me. At this moment in time it hardly matters.)

There are 1,300 granite, marble and bronze monuments and markers throughout the 6,000 acres. The survivors erected many of the monuments.

imagesLincoln wrote in his Gettysburg address:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The battlefields envelop the town of Gettsyburg with its souvenir shops, fast food places, and points of interest – like the home of Jennie Wade wedged between a Holiday Inn and a gift shop.

 Jennie Wade – 20 year of age – was hit by a stray bullet that passed through her kitchen door as she was making bread. She had been baking for the hungry soldiers who appeared at her door daily.


It is said that her mother baked 15 more loaves after seeing her daughter die.

It is said Jennie was the only civilian casualty of that battle.

Is that place where she fell, sacred?

What makes a space sacred?

Acts of social change?

Heifer International Headquarters are located in Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock is experiencing a downtown renewal and a focus on sustainability – and the future.

imagesHeifer headquarters received a platinum LEEDS rating – fully sustainable. LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices.

A year ago, I was invited to exhibit my work: Heifer Relief: Compass, Ark, Berth as part of the 70th anniversary commemorating the Seagoing Cowboys.

Little Rock is also home to the Clinton Library. The structure cantilevers over the Arkansas River echoing Clinton’s campaign promise of “building a bridge to the 21st century.”

clintonlib1Little Rock is also connected to the past. From the Clinton library, it is about a 30-minute walk to Daisy Bates Drive through long established neighborhoods filled with Colonial revival, craftsman bungalows, four square homes – reflecting a diversity of design that at one time reflected the diversity of the population in the early years of the city

2120 Daisy Bates Drive is the location of Central High School – a National Historic Site.


Daisy Bates published the Arkansas State Press – an African American advocacy publication – highlighting among other issues – violations of the Brown V Board desegregation ruling.

Bates was the adviser to 9 students, known as the Little Rock Nine, as they attempted to enroll in the all-white Central High School.litlrck2

Inside the Visitor Center the displays tell the story of the civil rights movement leading up to the events in Little Rock. There are oral histories, video, photos, timelines.

Outside the Visitor Center you step back in time. The houses that existed in 1957 still stand. The trees are taller. A restored Mobil gas station anchors the corner and Central High School occupies an entire block.

Today, 2419 students attend CHS. And in the late afternoon sun on a sultry afternoon, a diverse body of students – white, Asian, African American – stream out of the building at the end of the school day.

What makes a place sacred?

Acts of violence?

In 2001, I visited the site of the Oklahoma City bombing while conducting interviews related to the WW2 McGinty – the ship on which my dad had served in WW2. I wanted to know if the ship and crew had been stationed at Nagasaki after the bomb. If so, it may have contributed to the rare cancer he had. He could have been classified as an atomic veteran and possibly qualified for benefits.02McGinty

After months of research in the National Archives, I found the name of the ship’s doctor that served with my dad. He was living in Oklahoma and invited me to visit and interview him. I learned more about his life on the McGinty and life on a destroyer escort but not the answer to my question.

It was several years after the Oklahoma City Bombings when I entered the museum doors. I had to leave midway as the displays were too graphic, too violent, too raw.

In the field next to the reflecting pool stand 168 chairs – in nine rows to represent each floor of the building. Each chair bears the name of someone killed on that floor. Nineteen smaller chairs stand for the children.


This year, some of those pre-schoolers would be graduating from college.

What makes a place sacred?

Acts of heroism?

The site of the crash of Flite 93 is spare and somber. Unlike the Oklahoma City Memorial site located within a city with its buildings, gardens, museum, Flite 93 Memorial is located off of Highway 30/Lincoln near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The approach to the site and visitor center is along a winding road through wildflower fields and wetlands. At the time of the crash, the site was being restored as a wetlands park in a former coal mine.

As you crest the hill to the parking lot, nothing resembling a traditional memorial is visible—no large visitor center blocking the view; no museum buildings. (The Visitor Center Complex is under construction and scheduled for dedication, 2015)

There are several small kiosks with photos of the 40 passengers and crew who died. There is a walkway – a black walkway – lined with stone barriers into which small niches are carved to provide places for notes, mementos.

Flite 93-1

There is this ever-present insistent wind that accompanies you along the path. There are ‘listening posts’ where you hear architects explain their design.

As you stop at each numbered post, it is easy to separate yourself from the reality – the memory of the event – the sacredness of the place.

Suddenly, you realize you are following the flite path taken by the plane as it was directed by the passengers…to crash.

Midway along the path, you notice a large boulder and a grove of trees – some old, some tall—swaying in the wind. They seem to be protecting a small group of newer saplings. In 10 years time, they have grown enough to begin to eradicate the black hole punched into the grove of trees by the crashing plane.

Hemlock grove

It has been more than 150 years since the battle of Gettysburg

It has been 57 years since the Little Rock 9 entered Central High School.

It has been 19 years since the Oklahoma bombing.

It has been 13 years since 9/11.

In 13 years, a grove of trees fills an empty landscape.

In 19 years, an entire generation of preschoolers has graduated from high school.

In 57 years, there is an African American President.

In 150 years, battles are re-enacted without shedding blood.

George Santayana:

We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.