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‘Portland’s Ellis Island,’ six other historic sites make list of local landmarks in jeopardy

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Greater Portland Landmarks Executive Director Hilary Bassett unveils the group's first list of most endangered historic properties in Portland on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012.
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — A nearly 350-year-old cemetery and “Portland’s Ellis Island” are among the landmark buildings and properties in danger of being forever lost if steps aren’t taken soon to protect them, a local historic preservation group announced Thursday.

Greater Portland Landmarks unveiled its first “Places in Peril” list Thursday, a local spin on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 24-year-old annual Most Endangered Historic Places rankings, which have sought to raise the profile of deteriorating properties deemed important to the country’s heritage.

“The properties are what I would describe as at a tipping point,” Greater Portland Landmarks Executive Director Hilary Bassett said. “They could fall into ruin or they could be revitalized and made an important part of Portland’s future.”

Greater Portland Landmarks placed seven places on its inaugural peril list, three of which are in danger in part because they could be sold to new owners who would have no obligation to restore them.

The 1847 Portland Company Complex at 58 Fore St., the 1903 Grand Trunk Office Building at the base of India Street, and the 24-acre House Island — where Fort Scammel stood and for many years served as a first checkpoint for immigrants coming to America — are all on the market with no protections in place to prevent them from being razed, organization leaders said Thursday.

The remaining properties on the list — the 1828 Abyssinian Meeting House at 73 Newbury St., the 1941 Maine National Guard Armory at the corner of Broadway and Armory streets in South Portland, the ornate 1911 Portland Masonic Temple Grand Lodge at 415 Congress St., and the 1668 Eastern Cemetery on Congress Street — are in desperate need of investments to prevent them from deteriorating beyond repair, Greater Portland Landmarks officials said.

“These properties help define Greater Portland,” Bassett said. “In every case, the properties we’ve identified are prominently visible or have such historic significance that we must advocate for their protection and preservation.”

Organization trustees were quick to point out previously endangered properties which were converted into economic engines, as well as other landmark sites that were destroyed before lists such as Thursday’s were around to draw attention to them.

Real estate broker and Greater Portland Landmarks trustee David Robinson, who listed three examples of renovation success stories, said a former historic warehouse at 217 Commercial St. was converted into retail and office space in recent years, driving its assessed value from just more than $308,000 in 2003 to $2.6 million today. The structure now generates $49,000 in yearly property taxes, he said.

But locations such as the 1873 Portland Union Station on St. John Street — where a photograph of the clock tower crashing to the ground during its 1961 demolition is widely credited with triggering Portland’s historic preservation movement — never got that chance, Bassett said.

By releasing its list of endangered properties Thursday, Bassett said, the organization hopes to attract investors and developers with an interest in saving historic properties, as well as creating a rallying point for stakeholders and fundraisers hoping to preserve the landmarks.

Organization leaders pointed out that historic preservation tax credits — worth 20 percent of the restoration costs at the federal level and 25 percent at the state level — have been effectively used to bring old structures back to life in Portland before, and could be heavy motivators for developers.

Greater Portland Landmarks’ official 2012 “Places in Peril” list features the following properties:

  1. The Portland Company Complex, a seven-building Fore Street campus described by the organization as the “only relatively intact 19th century waterfront industrial site” on the peninsula. Current owner Phineas Sprague is credited with maintaining the property’s historic character, but with plans to relocate and expand his Portland Yacht Services to West Commercial Street, the site is currently on the market.
  1. House Island, a 24-acre island at the entrance of Portland Harbor, where in 1808 the Army built Fort Scammel, reportedly the only fort in Casco Bay to ever fire a shot and be fired upon, which took place during the War of 1812. Portions of the fort remain, as do buildings constructed during a 30-year period in the early 20th century when the island was used as a U.S. Immigration Service Quarantine Station alternative to New York’s famous Ellis Island. The island has remained in the family of Hilda Dudley since she purchased it in 1954, but now descendants, who have historically ensured the historic structures were maintained, have put the property up for sale with an asking price of nearly $4.9 million, Greater Portland Landmarks officials said. Like with the Portland Company Complex, no legal preservation or conservation protections exist for the property, leaving it vulnerable to complete redevelopment.
  1. The Maine National Guard Armory, built in 1941 as the United States tried to keep up with the demands of World War II, was acquired by the city of South Portland in liquidation proceedings in 2006. Greater Portland Landmarks leaders point out that the structure remains a strong example of Art Deco style — with unique keystones sculpted with images of tanks, grenades and bullets — but say the building has not been adequately maintained since the military vacated it in 1996.
  1. The Portland Masonic Temple Grand Lodge turned 100 years old last year, and although the Masons have tried to expand uses of the building in order to increase revenues and pay for upkeep, the structure faces years worth of deferred maintenance, historic preservationists worry. Greater Portland Landmarks describes the building as “one of the finest examples of Beaux Arts architecture in Maine,” as well as the state’s “last unrestored and unmodified grand lodge building.”
  1. The 109-year-old Grand Trunk Office Building at 1 India St. is the last remnant of a once majestic Grand Trunk Railroad complex in the area, which has become a hotbed of economic development in recent years. With the building now vacant and rapidly deteriorating, Greater Portland Landmarks leaders worry that the building’s complicated joint ownership status could block new developers from buying it and fixing the place up before it’s too late.
  1. The Abyssinian Meeting House at 73 Newbury St. is believed to be the third-oldest standing African American meeting house in the country, and is listed not only on the National Register of Historic Places, but also the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. A committed group is working to restore it, but Greater Portland Landmarks officials said Thursday that group needs more money to keep up with the costly project.
  1. The Eastern Cemetery was opened in 1668 as the city’s first public burial ground, but an active support group in the neighborhood has not been able to reverse the damage of years of neglect and vandalism. “Above all, time and weather have not been kind to Eastern: stones have toppled over, broken and sunk into the ground,” a Greater Portland Landmarks description reads, in part. “Photographs from the 1960s and 1970s disclose that scores of stones have been lost. Others are badly in need of conservation. Numerous family tombs require repair against the threat of collapse.”

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