Chef and founder of Papi, Ron Medlock, in front of the restaurant’s antique Puerto Rican doors. The city of Portland has told Papi to remove the doors because they don’t meet historic standards. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When the founders of the Puerto Rican restaurant Papi were coming up with the concept for their new space, it was important to them that it reflected the island’s rich culture.

They were ecstatic to come across a pair of antique mahogany doors with wrought iron trim from Old San Juan that they decided to import and install at the entrance to 18 Exchange St. in Portland’s Old Port.

“We really felt like they matched our vibe in bringing what it feels like to walk into a place in Old San Juan but that also matches the street,” said co-founder and beverage director LyAnna Sanabria, who opened the restaurant last month.

The restaurant was disappointed to learn, however, that they will have to remove the doors by Labor Day weekend because they didn’t get the necessary approval from the city’s historic preservation office. Papi is located in the Waterfront (Old Port) Historic District, one of 12 historic districts in the city.

The doors simply don’t meet historic district standards, said Evan Schueckler, the city’s historic preservation program manager.

“They’re much more ornate and have a different shape than the doors that would have originally been on that building,” Schueckler said. “They’re sort of creating what we would call a false sense of history, where they’re trying to represent a design and historic character for that building that isn’t authentic to it.”


Sanabria imported these doors that date back to 1890 from Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Schueckler said they had some initial conversations with Papi’s owners about swapping out the doors before they opened, but no formal request had been filed and it wasn’t until someone who works in the historic preservation office happened to walk by that they noticed the striking change.

Papi’s owners have agreed to remove the doors to get into compliance with city codes, and the city won’t issue any fines if they do, he said.

It was all a miscommunication, Sanabria said. But the issue has also caused a stir among some patrons and residents who feel the city is being unfair.

“People have really been going to bat, messaging me and showing up with petitions like, ‘What do you need? We already have 35 signatures,'” Sanabria said. “I don’t know if signatures will do anything, but they do imply a lot of love.”

Jacob Michaud, whose roommate works at the restaurant, said he feels like the small business is being targeted for something minor.

“The doors add value to the space, especially compared to the architecture already existing on the street,” Michaud said. “I understand the goal of (historic preservation) but I think there needs to be space for sustainable change moving forward that represents not just our history, but Maine’s current cultural history.”


Scott Choquette, who lives downtown and said he is familiar with many of the Old Port bars and restaurants, thinks having to remove the doors is “sort of ridiculous.”

“They’re beautiful doors and they look amazing,” Choquette said. “If anything, they’re more historic than some of the modern things (the city) wants to put in in that area, so I don’t understand.”

LyAnna Sanabria, co-founder of Papi restaurant, a Puerto Rican restaurant and bar on Exchange Street in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The city’s historic district standards are based on federal rules laid out by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Schueckler said.

“It’s really about making sure the alterations that are done are in keeping with the building’s own character. … It’s about trying to be true to the history of that building,” he said.

The restaurant could appeal the issue to the city’s Historic Preservation Board, but that would come with some fees and Schueckler said that they probably wouldn’t have much luck reversing the decision.

Sanabria said the restaurant doesn’t plan to go to the board and will look to repurpose the doors, possibly moving them inside for decoration. She said they were expensive to import but did not know exactly how much they cost.

“The main thing was just to get the place open,” said co-founder and chef Ron Medlock. “That was our main concern, for our employees to have a job. It is what it is. If the door doesn’t comply, we will do what we have to do.”

Sanabria agreed.

“It’s not worth not opening our doors for,” she said.

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