MACHIASPORT, Maine — Contracts are expected to be signed today to begin the exterior renovations of a Machiasport historic landmark.
Earlier this year, Liberty Hall was awarded $350,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to begin the process of returning the once grand town building to its former condition.
Leading the charge is an unlikely champion: David Freedberg, a South African-born art historian from Columbia University in New York City, who summers in Maine in a former sea captain’s house just feet from Liberty Hall.
“Living next door does not come into it,” Freedberg said recently about his passion to see the hall restored.
“When we bought our home, the real estate agent said it was an eyesore and if we waited long enough, the town would let it fall down,” he said. “But I’m an art historian. I cannot just watch this building fall down.”
Freedberg said that during opening ceremonies for the hall in January 1873, the people showed how important it was by coming out on a stormy winter night and dancing until 4 in the morning.
In Freedberg’s eyes, the peeling, neglected Liberty Hall is a fantastic example of American architecture.
“There is wonderful carving on the exterior, a grand double staircase, a beautiful theater,” he said. “We even found the original stage curtains hidden in the hall.”
Once the renovations are complete, Freedberg said, he envisions town meetings, cultural events, dinners and a small museum. “We will bring it back to life,” he said.
“Nothing is more important in people’s lives, aside from day-to-day living, than an awareness of beauty and a consciousness of their history.”
Town officials are behind the renovation, calling it central to the economic revitalization of Machiasport.
The CDBG funds will be matched in part by funding from the town, the Belvedere Fund for Historic Preservation of the Maine Community Foundation, the New Century Community Program Historic Preservation Fund and funds given for the restoration by local contributors to the Friends of Liberty Hall.
Liberty Hall overlooks Machias Bay and, when it was built in 1873, had a front row seat on a prosperous harbor. Large schooners were tied up at its quays, cargoes of lumber and fish were loaded and unloaded, and the Whitneyville-Machiasport railway also had its terminus there.
At one time, the hall was used for annual town meetings, vaudeville shows, political rallies, games and community suppers. But over the years it fell into disrepair.
Several years ago, the building was nominated for inclusion in the preservation commission’s list of Maine’s Most Endangered Historic Properties.
Freedberg said the first phase of the project was completed last year with the installation of a new roof, replacement of carved eaves trim and a new drainage system to protect the foundation.
The hall’s ornately carved belvedere tower was removed from atop the building and will be part of the second phase of restoration.
Along with the tower restoration, the second phase will completely renovate the hall’s exterior. TTL-Architects, a Portland firm specializing in historic preservation, is overseeing the project.
“We will be putting the belvedere back up,” Freedberg said, “as it was, with a curved roof and its original 8-foot weathervane, which was found in storage.
“When the work is completed, by the beginning of January, my heart will rejoice,” Freedberg said. But he won’t be able to enjoy the sight for long because another $600,000 will be needed to restore the hall’s interior.
“People say, ‘Why spend this money on a building?’” he said. “And I answer that it must be saved. I am hoping the building will serve as an inspiration to people, inspire them to see the possibilities for their community.
“Liberty Hall spoke to me because it was so grand, so proud, yet so much in need. I don’t want it to be lost. It has my heart,” Freedberg said.
Photographs of the removal of the tower may be seen on the Liberty Hall Web site at www.libertyhallmaine.org. As the restoration work gets under way this summer, photographs charting the building’s changing facade will be posted on the Web site.
Contributions for the restoration of Liberty Hall may be sent to Friends of Liberty Hall, P.O. Box 22, Machiasport 04655.