From a prohibition hideout to Episcopal housing, from boarding school to bank runs, from Russian fortunes to hard luck tales, The Danforth has seen many slices of life since it was built in 1823.
The first owner, Joseph Holt Ingraham, lost all his money in the embargo of 1812. When his young wife inherited a fortune from a distant uncle, an admiral in the Russian army, they had this magnificent Federal style mansion built on Danforth Street with the inheritance. The neighborhood was home to many wealthy merchants and The Danforth fit right in with the other mansions and stately homes that distinguish this area. It also stood out, as it is capped by a unique architectural feature, a cupola (Italian for “little cup”) on the roof. A cupola that can be reached from inside is also known as a belvedere, widow’s walk, or “lantern of the mansion.” The Danforth’s cupola features built-in benches for relaxation, which look out over Portland’s bustling harbor. Holt unfortunately died not long after the house was built. Mrs. Holt chose not to stay in it, and it was soon sold.
The buyers, the Thomas family, have a rich Maine history. Family members include a former US senator, high-profile politicians, great landholders, and one of the founders of the local Casco Bank. Elias Thomas tells that their bank was the only one in Maine to survive the run on the banks because Elias, Sr. and the family chauffeur would drive all night to the Federal Reserve in Boston to bring back the cash required to allow their charter to continue.
Maine’s long era of prohibition was initiated right around the corner by Neal S. Dow, who was nicknamed the Napoleon of Temperance and was the prohibitionist mayor of Portland. The billiard room windows in the Danforth were opaqued so that passersby, including the mayor, could not see in.
While the Thomas family had many homes, they ultimately made this their “in town” home. They hired John Calvin Stevens (1855-1940), noted Colonial Revival architect and an originator of New England’s classic shingle style, to design guest quarters and make the home suitable for entertaining on a lavish scale. Family member Charlotte Thomas was noted for her social gatherings, which included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wayward artists, ambassadors, bankers, and governors. The block actually became known as Social Corners.
From high society to academia, in 1897 the Danforth became the original location of the Waynflete School. The Thomas family leased the property to the school founders before the school purchased property on Spring Street for their permanent home, and so The Danforth includes a brief stint as a select private school in its colorful history.
Hard times later fell on the Thomas family, and they sold the property to the Episcopal Diocese in 1941 for $10,000. It operated as a rectory and church office until 1993, when it was transformed into an inn and once again became a mecca for guests, Portland visitors, and society.
Today it is full of style and glamour and is once again the scene of weddings, social gatherings, high spirits, and memorable times.