The town of Gray on July 24 will celebrate the historic Pennell Institute beginning a new chapter as town offices. Food, music and fireworks will mark the event.

Constructed in 1876, the brick Italianate structure is on the National Register of Historic Places and was dubbed one of Maine’s “most endangered historic properties” in 2008 by Maine Preservation.

Its future was anything but certain at that time. Ownership battles were settled in court and some advocated leveling the seemingly-obsolete complex. With the town deemed legal owner, voters ultimately approved a $2.4 million renovation bond in November 2008. Officials are happy to report the project, dubbed the Henry Pennell Municipal Complex, has come in both on time and under budget.

A new time capsule will be part of the rededication. Townspeople are encouraged to write something, anything, complete with their name and address and seal it in a plastic bag. Everything will get inserted into a large concrete enclosure donated by the nearby Wilson Funeral Home and buried on the site.

Apparently an 1880 time capsule resides here, but despite indications in old documents suggesting it was located in or near the foundation, it has yet to be found.

Don Hutchings, rededication and celebration committee chairman, said it didn’t make sense to spend untold dollars going on a wild goose chase, disturbing perfectly good parts of the building’s granite slab foundation.

The brick building is a veritable fortress. Its slate roof had deteriorated, but the structure still sits level, plumb and square. In fact, the ruggedness of this structure determined its service as a fallout shelter during the height of the Cold War.

A massive photo project will also be part of the rededication. Local photographer Nathan Tsukroff will do his best to capture everybody in town – at least everyone present for the celebration. Perched atop an 80-foot ladder truck courtesy of the Gray Fire Department, Tsukroff’s oversize work will ultimately be displayed on the wall of the new town office.

The time capsule and photo are just two of the ways Pennell’s rebirth will be physically documented. A memorial walkway 55 feet long and 5 feet wide leads to the town office entrance. “Four hundred eighty-five bricks have been ordered so far,” Hutchings said. “But there’s room for more. Folks can order a brick inscribed with their name at the town office.”

The bricks lead to the newly renovated 1950s-era addition, which will house the council chambers, with a local TV studio for broadcasting meetings; the town manager’s office; the finance office, and the clerk counter. Ironically, this newer section of the complex required more renovations than the 1876 brick building.

According to the Pennell Alumni Association, the first high school class was held at Pennell in 1889. Back then school was in session for only three months a year, from January to March. The last class marched out in 1962. Following that the building housed the historical society and was used for storage, but sat largely underutilized for decades.

“The classes were small,” recalls Jane Barton, class of 1955. “We all knew everybody.”

The alumni association raised funds for the restoration of the clock works inside the prominent tower. The clock mechanism will be visible through glass panels inside.

“It’s a testament to the great efforts of many,” said Matt Sturgis, Gray council member. “It will be a celebration of our new town municipal center.”

Events begin at noon, including softball and a water balloon toss, live music, and local wildlife celebrity Lawrence the eagle. Many town officials will speak and folks in 19th-century period costumes will give tours of the facility from 1 to 3 p.m. and again from 6 to 8 p.m.

A chicken barbecue starts at 5:30 p.m. Everything goes out with a bang with fireworks from the ballfield at 9.

 

Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at: [email protected]