May 27, 2018
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Making ‘endangered places’ list could help restore landmark Portland building

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland’s 185-year-old Abyssinian Meeting House, which was built before the Civil War by free African-Americans, has been listed as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 “Most Endangered Historic Places.”

“Frederick Douglass was here. William Lloyd Garrison was here. They spoke here,” said Leonard Cummings, chairman of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House, during a Wednesday morning news conference at the former church. “There was a play performed here in 1870 — it was called ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ and many of its characters were based on the people here.”

The trust issues its endangered places list annually. Alongside the Abyssinian Meeting House in the 2013 group is the iconic Houston Astrodome, which as the planet’s first multipurpose domed sports stadium in 1965 earned the nickname of the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” but has over the past decade and a half been abandoned by the Texas city’s football and baseball teams.

Others include the 1856 Gay Head Lighthouse — the first lighthouse built on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., which is in jeopardy of toppling due to erosion at its base — and the 1521 Spanish Gothic San Jose Church in Puerto Rico.

Last fall, the Abyssinian Meeting House was named to Greater Portland Landmarks’ first annual “Places in Peril” list, a local version of the national trust’s higher-profile rankings.

A local committee hopes to restore the Abyssinian Meeting House, which served in its early years as a place of worship, as a school for Portland’s small African-American community and as a stop on the Underground Railroad. But efforts to use the Newbury Street building as an education center have stalled due to a lack of money.

The structure has already undergone $1 million in repairs, but needs about $3 million more to finish the work, hire staff and prepare for long-term maintenance, according to Brent Leggs of the National Trust.

Completed renovations include a replacement of the deteriorating roof, removal of vacant tenement apartments built into the structure during the 1920s and reinforcement of the truss support system.

Supporters hope the structure’s placement on the National List of Endangered Places will boost awareness and fundraising efforts to further reinforce the walls and plug lingering basement leaks, among other still-needed repairs.

The trust has a strong track record of attracting fundraisers — out of more than 240 sites that have been listed in its 26 years of ranking endangered places, “only a handful … have been lost,” they say.

The endangered places list is an initiative that raises awareness, galvanizes public support and spotlights places across America that are in danger because of neglect, lack of funding or insensitive public policy,” Leggs said Wednesday.

“Hopefully, this will lead to many new opportunities for the Abyssinian,” said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan.

When the Abyssinian Meeting House was built, only 2 percent of Portland residents were African-Americans, according to the trust. At last count in 2010, that number was 7.1 percent. But the city is still predominantly white.

“Oftentimes, because we’ve got such a small percentage of African-Americans, parts of our city’s history are overlooked,” Brennan said. “But this building is a critical story we need to tell about the Underground Railroad and Portland’s role in the abolitionist movement.”

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