India and Congress Street
India Street, once known as King Street, is one of the oldest streets in Portland. Eastern Cemetery, established in 1688, is the oldest cemetery in Portland. Fort Loyal, which stood at the foot of India Street, was an early settlement destroyed by a Wabanaki attack in 1690. By 1727 the area was the center of a settlement of about 40 families. In the late 18th century India Street (still called King Street) along with Exchange and Middle Streets formed the heart of downtown Portland. At that time India Street hosted the fashionable houses of Portland’s wealthier citizens and a boarding and day school for young ladies.
By the early-19th century, the India Street neighborhood was more working class. Many of the City’s African American residents lived here, making their living on the many ships sailing from the Portland Harbor. The Abyssinian Meeting House on Newbury Street, the third oldest African American meetinghouse in the country, serves as a tangible connection to this period of Portland’s black history. A walking trail through the area identifies other sites. Few buildings of this early period have survived as much of India Street was burned in the Great Fire of 1866.
Through the remainder of the 19th century and into the early 20th century the India Street neighborhood was home to immigrants from many parts of Europe, including Ireland, Italy, Greece and Scandinavia. Other immigrants were Jews from Eastern Europe. These groups both lived and ran businesses here including grocery stores, bakeries, and boarding houses. The Amato family opened a sandwich shop on India Street that eventually grew to become over forty stores in four states. Today, churches and synagogues across the neighborhood survive to remind us of the many ethnic groups that once called India Street home.
Since 2012, India Street has been the focus of intense planning efforts by the City of Portland. Plans for the immediate neighborhood have attempted to maintain the vibrant mix of uses, and to balance new development with preservation of the neighborhood’s historic buildings and character. Historic resource surveys have been completed and zoning regulations specific to the area are being developed. Input from residents has ensured quality-of-life issues have been addressed in all stages of the process.
The history of 273 Congress Street mirrors that of the surrounding neighborhood. It was built in the 1860s as a single-family residence for John W. Swett and his family. Census records listed Swett as a “carpenter” while the City Directories state he was a “joiner.” Originally two stories high, it was built of brick with Italianate details including a projecting center bay, arch-topped windows, corner quoins, and a bracketed cornice. These details survive, although they have been altered. After Swett’s death, his widow Jane continued to live in the house but rented out portions of it to tenants. The house was then owned by another widow, who also rented out to a variety of tenants including a doctor, a shipping agent, and a cook.
In 1924, the building was remodeled. A storefront was added to the front facade, and a full third story was added to the house. The storefront was initially two spaces and was used by a number of businesses including a furniture store, a bakery, and a several of barbers. By 1935, the two spaces were a single store occupied by the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, a forerunner of today’s A & P grocery stores. The house behind remained a multi-family residence.