BELFAST, Maine — Some Primrose Hill residents are fighting back against a Frankfort woman’s proposal to create a preschool and day care center in one of the historic homes in their Belfast neighborhood.
Iris Hooper has a contract to purchase the white-columned home on High Street known as the Admiral Pratt House, which was built in 1812. If her plans and requests for licenses are approved by entities that include the Belfast Planning Board, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the city fire marshal, the Children’s Voice Preschool could be up and running as soon as late fall.
She is seeking licensure for 40 children, and said that the school will include a focus on gardening, art and the history of the home and the area.
“It will be a very unique preschool,” Hooper said last week. “My preschool will aim to build community for the Belfast area and build citizenship.”
But those intentions ring hollow for Terrance Smith and Beth Anne Gordley-Smith, who live next door to the property. They said that the Pratt House is a historic property, but is nonetheless “defenseless” against a use which they argue is inappropriate at best and destructive at worst.
“The property is historically significant,” Terrance Smith said. “And it’s going to really be, in my opinion, in jeopardy of destruction. That’s something I don’t want to see.”
He spoke against the project at a recent Belfast Planning Board public hearing. He and his wife have two teenage children, and said that they understand from personal experience that the big downtown houses are expensive to heat and maintain. Nonetheless, they believe there will be a groundswell of support from people who love old historic homes and wish to see them preserved.
“We have a jewel in this community,” Smith said of the Pratt House.
The preschool is in the initial stages of permitting, according to Belfast Assistant City Planner James Francomano. He said that Hooper needs to address questions about motor vehicle and pedestrian circulation on the site, which might be resolved by making the driveway exit on Waldo Avenue, behind the home. Other issues which need resolution include stormwater, sediment and drainage control.
“We obviously respect that somebody is trying to open a business,” he said. “We will not be the reason that things slow down.”
Francomano said that the city anticipates seeing a more formal design proposal from Hooper at the Aug. 8 Belfast Planning Board meeting. There will be another public hearing at that meeting.
The house sits on an acre and a half of property, and was most recently valued by the city at over half a million dollars. It was built by Ralph Cross Johnson, a young Belfast merchant who became the first elected mayor of Belfast in 1853. A Johnson descendant married Adm. William V. Pratt, who served as Chief of Naval Operations beginning in 1930. The Federal-style home remained in the same family until the 1980s, according to Megan Pinette of the Belfast Historical Society.
It even survived a roof fire caused by a direct lightning strike in the 1980s, she said Thursday morning.
“It is a beautiful house,” Pinette said. “It is one of the finest houses in Belfast.”
The home is part of the Belfast Historic District, which is recognized — but not protected by — the National Register of Historic Places. There are nearly 300 houses and other structures within that district, according to Pinette.
Smith said that he has met this week with Francomano and attorneys, to look into what kind of options neighbors might have.
He said that adding a driveway between Waldo Avenue and High Street could potentially cause flooding for neighboring properties. He also is worried that Hooper intends to rip out some of the existing gardens and landscaping to put down blacktop and a playground, meaning that some of the structural and historic integrity could be lost.
“Having 40 children aged two to four in a historic property that’s 200 years old — it would be a disaster, in my opinion,” Smith said. “And the attorneys today said that they could paint it pink, purple and green and nothing could be done to protect the home.”
The neighbors are all opposed to the preschool project, he said.
“I just don’t want this to be confrontational,” Smith said. “[But] we speak for the dead — the people who built these homes.”
But Hooper said concerned neighbors might not have a full understanding of the proposed preschool. She said that she has a lot of experience, having worked with Head Start for nearly 30 years, and also has a degree in early childhood education. She wanted to open her school right in Belfast, and was interested in the Pratt House in part because it has so much land.
“For me, it’s an exciting opportunity,” she said. “I don’t think always that young children are given enough credit for what we can do for them. I think the neighbors are concerned that it’s too beautiful for kids, and that really has offended me.”
She said that she understands that change is hard, and wants neighbors to know she respects their thoughts.
“I will address concerns,” she said. “I want to make this a very pleasant part of the neighborhood.”