CALAIS, Maine — History or hazard?
That’s the crux of the debate swirling in Calais this week as a demolition crew knocks down a downtown, 1930s-era red brick building at 10-12 Church Street.
Greg Paxton, executive director of Yarmouth-based Maine Preservation, contends the Neoclassical-style building that once served as the Washington County community’s courthouse is “sound, well-built, architecturally significant and highly reusable.”
Jeff Nevins, a spokesman for FairPoint Communications, which owns the long-vacant building, contends it is “structurally compromised.” He claims a heavy snowfall could cause the building to collapse, perhaps onto FairPoint’s abutting central office building, which houses an array of sophisticated telecommunications equipment.
The city of Calais issued a demolition permit last week, and the work required to safely bring down the structure began Wednesday with the one-by-one removal of the building’s slate roofing tiles. The demolition is being undertaken by a local contractor, Richard Mingo Construction.
Calais City Councilor Anne Nixon is among those distressed to see the building come down.
“It’s a beautiful building with a lot of history, and [demolition] will leave a big hole in the downtown,” she said Wednesday. “It would be a perfect place for a little theater or some other civic-minded activity.”
Paxton agrees that the Calais demolition revives public confusion over what constitutes a “historic” building. He agrees that “old” does not constitute “historic.”
The National Register of Historic Places program administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior has three basic criteria for a building or site to be considered “historic.” It must have been either associated with a historic event — such as Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln was assassinated — or it must have a direct connection to a historic figure, such as a presidential birthplace. The National Register also lists buildings determined to be rare and distinctive examples of a particular style of architecture.
“Appreciation of historic preservation is relatively new,” Paxton said. “Many of these buildings are seen by communities as a burden, and people do not see that they can be a major catalyst in downtown revitalization efforts.”
Nevins said Wednesday that FairPoint is not insensitive to local history nor the significance of historic properties.
“We own a number of historic properties across the Northeast, and we understand how important they are to the landscape of northern New England,” he said. “FairPoint invested $2 million to restore the building on Forest Street in downtown Portland that houses our central offices there.”
Nevins said an engineering analysis of the Calais building showed structural problems with the roof and the condition of its brick walls, which he says are crumbling in places.
The future use of what will soon be a vacant lot has yet to be determined, Nevins said.