SOUTH PORTLAND- This past spring, Cape Elizabeth resident John Leasure happened to be driving by the South Portland Public Library at the corner of Broadway and Cottage Road when he saw something odd. What was odd, he says, was that for the first time in years, he could actually see the building.
Shrubbery in front of the structure, fresh off a 46-year run of fending for itself, had been pulled up by the roots. Quilted window blinds were pulled down, the grounds were landscaped and broken lighting was removed. There, revealed to the world for the first time in decades, was a prime example of mid-century modern architecture.
“I thought, well, my God, they actually care about that old place,” he said last week.
That fact that anyone cared about the look of the library was welcome news to the 84-year-old Leasure. After all, he designed the place.
Leasure, 84, immediately made a detour and went into the library that day, a place he admits visiting only rarely since it opened it the public in 1966.
“I just wanted to know if they intended the to finish the thing,” he joked. “I thought, maybe I can get a job.”
Leasure’s expertise may be needed, as the style of the building has drawn attention since the work was done, making library officials wonder what else can be done to take advantage of the library’s architecture.
As much as anyone, Leasure put his stamp on the look of Maine’s fourth-largest city. Starting with the library, he went on to design the Cash Corner fire station, the municipal swimming pool portion of the community center on Nelson Road and the Maine Savings Bank building (now TD Bank) by the mall, along with several buildings on the Southern Maine Community College campus. He still has designs for a new city hall that was to have been built over the pool.
In addition, Leasure created the Franklin Towers, the Cumberland County Jail and the Bramhall Fire Station in Portland, Saint Bartholomew Catholic Parish in Cape Elizabeth, the Warren Pool and the public safety building in Westbrook, the Diplomat condo in Old Orchard Beach, the chapel at the veterans cemetery in Augusta and the hotels at the Sunday River ski resort in Bethel.
“How many buildings have I done? Oh, wow, you’ve got me there,” he said. “I bet I’ve done about a billion.”
In all, it’s not a bad resume for a kid from Pennsylvania who only ended up in the trade following chance inspiration from the movie version of one of the most famous novels about an architect, “The Fountainhead,” by Ayn Rand.
A native of Altoona, Pa., Leasure joined the Navy for two years and then went to Penn State as a music major, based largely on the advice of a guidance councilor who learned he’d spent time singing with swing bands.
“Today I’m in six choruses,” said Leasure, “but back then I didn’t want to me a music major, and I certainly didn’t want to become a music teacher, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
That’s when Leasure caught Gary Cooper’s performance as individualist architect Howard Roark, who vows to destroy his own buildings rather than suffer trough the bastardization of his work by lesser talents.
“I sat there in that movie and thought, oh wow, that’s what I want to do,” recalled Leasure, quickly clarifying with a laugh that his sudden inspiration was to create buildings, not blow them up.
“When I went in to see “The Fountainhead” I had no idea what an architect was,” said Leasure. “I mean, I never drew a line. But I came out of that move and I thought, that’s great, that’s what I’m going to do with my life.”
By then, Leasure was done his freshman year, which ended up being a throwaway year when none of his classes were applicable to the school’s five-year architecture degree. Leasure got married in his senior year and graduated with “a degree under one arm and baby under the other.” He eventually had six children, including five boys who all followed his in his footsteps as architectures or structural engineers.
By his early 30s, Leasure was headhunted to Portland by Walsh Engineers, who was then launching a new concept of bringing all building services under one company roof. However, when the firm failed to get the contract for what became the Long Creek Youth Development Center, it bailed on Maine, said Leasure.
“I thought, well here I am and here I’ll stay,” he said. “Eventually, I opened my own office and had 25 or 30 jobs at a time, doing mostly garages and outhouses at first.”
Leasure said he landed the South Portland library as his first big municipal project when the old-boy network of the era canceled itself out.
“I was the boy architect and the council hated me,” he said. “They all had buddies they wanted to give the job to.”
However, Leasure was friendly with the city manager at the time, Bernal Allen.
“I called him the Old Fox because he knew how to take care of stuff and get it done,” said Leasure.
Allen’s simple advice to Leasure, was, on the anointed evening, to not answer his phone until after 10 p.m. The phone rang several times, presumably from councilors eager to check Leasure’s references.
“They all wanted to find out what I had done so they could say, ‘Oh, he’s never done one of these before, he’s no good,’” recalled Leasure.
By the time Leasure finally picked up his resume didn’t matter. All the other candidates has been eliminated.
Leasure’s design was eventually bid out to Casburage Co. Inc. in 1965 for $300,579 – $2.2 million in today’s dollars – but not until the council had “nipped it near to death.”
The area in front of the five concrete slabs that guard the front door facing Broadway were originally supposed to back a bi-level reflecting pool with fountains and a sculpture. Everything by the slabs was cut, saving $1,500 (or $11,000 today).
“That feature, it was kind of sexy, but no one cared,” said Leasure.
Also cut was part of the stonewall on either side of the building, made with rocks mined from the Bluestone Quarry on Sawyer Road in Cape Elizabeth. The original vision, said Leasure, who professes to be a fan of simple, “clean” architectural lines and minimalist shapes, was for the library to look like its concrete shell was sitting on a ring of stone. The large glass walls on either end then created what library director Kevin Davis describes as a “human fishbowl.”
After the cuts, the stonewalls simply ended at odd angles from the building, for no apparent reason. A long-term goal, said Davis, is to raise funds to finish off the walls to complete the stone circle, filling it in with vegetation, as originally intended.
Davis said he hopes to eventually undo or disguise to the extent possible the “improvements” made to the building over the years, many of which are at stylistic odds to Leasure’s concept. In particular, he notes, HVAC units on the ceiling that were originally hidden as well as flashings from when the roof was redone that cover was what meant to be an clear, unobstructed top line.
“I was trying to give it some style, to give it some class,” said Leasure. “Not make it look like George Washington’s little dormers.”
Since the library emerged from its shrubbery overcoat, Davis said, public reception has been strong.
“I can’t tell you how many people have come in over the last few months, saying they never realized we were here,” said Davis.
“I think this building is a treasure,” said Linda Eastman, chairwoman of the Library Advisory Committee. “What’s been done recently to show it off has given it new life and new energy.
“This building has had a long road,” said Eastman, “and, like a country road it’s had its share of bumps and rocks and ruts and hasn’t always been appreciated. It’s a road well traveled now, and well worth traveling some more.”
Davis said he hopes to consult with Leasure on future library projects, which, while they may not be paying gigs, seems to come to welcome news to the silver-haired draftsman.
“Nobody calls me anymore,” he joked. “I suppose they think I’m dead.”