Dr. Louis J. Martel (1850 – 1895)
From 1883 until his death in 1895, the brick house that stands at 122-124 Bartlett Street in Lewiston was home to Dr. Louis J. Martel, a leader in Franco-American political and social affairs. He was a prominent journalist, politician, and social organizer of the 19th century, described as “an official spokesman for all Franco-Americans in New England.”
Dr. Martel was born in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec in 1850 and came to Lewiston in 1873 to practice medicine in the new immigrant community at the invitation of Father Hervey, a local priest. As a doctor, he devoted himself to the city’s poor and working-class French population.
By 1879 Martel became a U.S. citizen and encouraged his fellow immigrants to do the same. He helped organize naturalization classes and provided financial assistance to new immigrants, and is sometimes referred to as “the Father of Naturalization.”
At the end of the 19th Century, Franco-Americans comprised close to half the population of Lewiston and a significant portion of Auburn. The initial French Canadian immigrants were migratory, short-term mill laborers. By the time Martel was living in L-A, the community had grown to include landowners, businessmen, traders, artisans and professionals. The Franco-Americans sought to establish themselves as both French Canadian (Canadien) and American. Martel expressed this sentiment perfectly: “We French Canadians love the traditions and tongue of old France, but we are true Americans and love America best.”
Many historical accounts show how the community encouraged each other to become American citizens, while retaining their language and culture. This effort was named “la survivance” (the survival) as French Canadians often faced terrible hostility and enormous pressure to assimilate.
In contrast to the fears many Mainers held then (and still hold) about immigrants, the “Canadien” community gradually became “part of the social fiber of our people – fellow citizens true and tried, respected honored and esteemed” according to a newspaper account at the turn of the 20th Century. Martel was a key figure in bringing about that acceptance.
In 1884, Martel was elected to represent his fellow citizens in the Maine Legislature, and in 1891-2 he was chairman of Lewiston’s Board of Aldermen. In 1893, Martel was the first Franco-American to become a mayoral candidate in Lewiston and was narrowly defeated by Seth Chandler.
Martel founded, or helped to found, a number of Franco-American institutions. He established and published Lewiston’s first French newspaper, Le Messager, in 1880 and it was America’s longest-running French-language newspaper until it folded in 1968. He helped organize St. Peter and Paul’s Parish as well as St. Mary’s General Hospital, Maine’s first Catholic Hospital. He founded the city’s premier Franco-American fraternal organization, L’Institute Jacques Cartier.
Sadly, it is said that his incredible generosity and business naiveté led him to die bankrupt and penniless.
122-125 Bartlett Street, Lewiston
The crumbling house at 122-124 Bartlett Street in Lewiston was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, noted for its political and historical significance as well as its architectural history. At one time, it was the house of prominent Franco-American, Dr. Louis J. Martel and stood as a singular example of Queen Anne architecture. It was designed in 1883 by the prominent Lewiston firm of Stevens and Coombs and is the oldest single-family brick residence in Androscoggin County.
The 2 ½ story structure features functional oriel bay windows, a three-story turret, pinewood porcettes and roof trim, and rests on a shallow granite foundation. The first and second floors are separated by a raised brick course and the eaves are set off by repeating ornamental brick teeth, called “dentils” in the architectural world. The structure also features a two-story open porch, each level supported by two pairs of thin columns with decorative wooden railings. A peaked gable stands in the center with a small round window and doors that open onto both levels.
The owner, when filing for historic status in 1982, noted the most striking feature as the 3rd story, octagonal turret at the southeast corner with a wooden porch exposed on three sides and an oriel bay window. The turret is capped by a slated octagonal roof with a small metal finial, a decorative spire in the Gothic style consisting of a vertical, pointed central element surrounded by four out-curving scrolls.
The house was converted from a single to a multiple-family dwelling sometime in the 20th Century with structural changes made to the north and west sides. A three-story porch was built along the house’s rear side to correspond to the porch in front and two small dormers were added to the rear and west roof surfaces. Also, the roof above the west porch was extended.
The floor plan follows an irregular pattern further confused by later conversions and additions. The front door opens into a narrow vestibule and the front hall boasts a massive staircase of dark, stained wood, now nicked and showing wear. The trim in most rooms of the house was said to be of dark, stained oak. The original front steps were replaced by modern pre-fab brick and cast-stone steps sometime before the 1980s.
It is the only single-family brick residence constructed in the nineteenth-century in any of Lewiston’s French districts. All other residential buildings in the French working class neighborhoods were multiple-family wooden tenement structures.
Considering her age, the house is in relatively good condition, but much can and should be done to further preserve the structure. All north-facing units have a perfect, unobstructed view of Sts. Peter and Paul Basilica on the corner of Bartlett and Ash streets and the building is located in a prominent position close to downtown Lewiston. She currently stands on an active corner beside an empty lot often used to dump unwanted junk, trash and dog poop.
On the day I visited the historic Martel House, several people passed beneath her turret, never once looking up or acknowledging the rich history and incredible architectural significance of the structure briefly shielding the harsh glare of bright, afternoon sun from their eyes.
Maine Memory Network Photos
Chase, H. (1893). Representative men of Maine. A collection of portraits with biographical sketches of residents of the state, who have achieved success … to which is added the portraits and sketches of all the governors since the formation of the state .. Portland, Me.: The Lakeside Press.
Hendrickson, D. (1980). Quiet presence: Dramatic, first-person accounts: The true stories of Franco-Americans in New England. Portland, Me.: G. Gannett Pub.
Michaud, C., & Leamon, J. S. (1974). Historic Lewiston: Franco-American origins. Place of publication not identified: Printed for the Lewiston Historical Commission.
Myall, J. (2016). A Great and Worthy Celebration: St. John’s Day. Retrieved August 01, 2016, from http://myall.bangordailynews.com/2016/06/23/maine/a-great-and-worthy-celebration-st-johns-day/
United States, National Park Service, Department of the Interior. (1982).National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form. ME.