Bucksport officials are trying to figure out whether to spend big money to save historic Wilson Hall, before the looming Maine winter makes the decision for them.
The fate of Wilson Hall, a former college preparatory high school property perched on a hill overlooking town, has been in limbo for nearly two decades. The town has been seeking a developer to take over the derelict building and bring it back to life, but no one has stepped forward with the money needed to back what would be a major restoration effort, according to Bucksport Town Manager Sue Lessard.
The large copula that tops the building tilts precariously and sections of the roof are sagging. Town officials worry that the roof may collapse under heavy snowfall in the winter if something isn’t done soon to shore up the building.
“That would end the discussion of the building,” and force demolition, Lessard said.
The council will try to determine what the next steps should be during a meeting Thursday at 7 p.m.
They have several options. They could patch and replace the roof and windows, at an estimated cost of $300,000; do a partial repair that might slow the deterioration of the building; or talk again about future demolition. Given the expense involved with shoring up the building’s roof and installing new windows, Lessard said several councilors wanted to consider having voters decide whether the town should spend the money on the ballots in November or through a straw poll.
That timeline raises the question of whether the work could be done before winter, and whether the building will survive the snow and ice long enough to get repaired.
The cost of a full rehabilitation project could reach $1 million, which likely would far exceed the value of the building when the work is completed.
The council came close to demolishing the building in 2014, but a group of locals stepped forward and said they wanted to raise money to shore up the structure and save it. They raised several thousand dollars, but fell well short of the amount needed to do all the necessary work to secure the roof, which is near failure.
The discussion sparked a fundraising effort, which pumped several thousand dollars into the project and helped shore up some structural issues inside the building, but the roof continues to be a lofty and expensive concern.
John Paul LaLonde was among the locals involved in that fundraising effort.
“It’s one of the the oldest structures in town. It’s very visible when you’re going over the bridge and on the other side of the river,” he said Tuesday. “I think it can be a real rallying thing for the town.”
LaLonde said he wants to see the building saved because its revitalization could be a big victory for a town that’s pushed to reimagine itself since its paper mill shuttered in 2014.
Wilson Hall was the first of several buildings constructed as part of the East Maine Conference Seminary, a college preparatory high school. The building held the first class of 13 males and 14 females and later became a girls dormitory.
Sometime after 1937, the Oblate Fathers purchased the buildings that made up the school and used them to train young priests to become missionaries. The Oblate Seminary was in operation at least until 1942, but it is unclear from records at the Bucks Memorial Library when the building went out of use.
The East Maine Conference Seminary saw 288 of its alumni leave Maine to fight in the Civil War, according to the East Maine Conference Seminary War Record.
Wilson Hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but that designation does not make it immune to demolition.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.