AUGUSTA — An interactive “newseum,” focusing on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, is on track to move in next door to the Blaine House.
The Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee voted unanimously Monday to endorse a bill authorizing the negotiation of a lease with the Gannett family, whose ancestors built the Mediterranean revival-style building at 184 State St. in 1911.
The lease would allow the Gannett House to become an interactive museum after more than $800,000 worth of renovations. The proposed museum would focus on teaching about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and document the work of the Gannett family in Maine’s media industry.
It would also help preserve, and potentially provide income from, a now-vacant state building that needs repairs.
“This is a wonderful idea,” said Rep. Alan Casavant, D-Biddeford. “I’m thrilled about this whole proposal.”
The Gannett House, next to the governor’s residence, has been vacant since the State Planning Office moved out of it in 2010. The house was built in 1911 as a wedding present from William Gannett to his son, Guy Gannett.
Guy Gannett and his family lived in the home for about 10 years before moving to Portland when his publishing company bought the Portland Press Herald.
William Gannett, born in Augusta, was an entrepreneur who sold patent medicine and founded Comfort magazine.
He and his son, Guy, founded The Gannett Publishing Co., which bought the Waterville Sentinel, followed by the Portland Press Herald, The Portland Sunday Telegram, The Portland Evening Express and The Daily Kennebec Journal.
The family business expanded to include broadcast media, including WGAN radio and WGME television. Guy Gannett’s daughter, Jean, continued to expand the company until she died in 1994. The house was sold in 1998.
Genie Gannett, president of the Gannett House Project, a nonprofit corporation established with Gannett family members and others to turn the building into a museum, said the building needs a significant amount of work, which her organization would take on at no cost to the state.
“Our intent is to obtain a lease agreement with the state whereby the Gannett House Project will be able to fund capital improvements to the house in order to open and operate a museum dedicated to the understanding and practice of this cornerstone of American democracy,” Gannett said during a public hearing Monday. “It was built by my great-grandfather and given to my grandfather as a wedding gift. It was my father’s boyhood home.”
She said the organization would put about $826,000 into restoring the structure and converting it for use as a museum.
The museum would include interactive exhibits of state, national and international issues, and a digital archive of Maine’s historic newspapers. And the family has proposed lecture programs, workshops, seminars and outreach programs to help promote the practice and understanding of the First Amendment.
The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and was acquired by the state in 1973.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the building is a financial drain on the state and needs a lot of work.
“Fortunately, the Gannett family, including Genie Gannett, has stepped forward with a terrific, well thought-out and financially viable plan,” Katz said. “The family has formed a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization to open a vibrant museum — a newseum and culture center in this building.
“From my perspective, this would be a perfect use for a building so close to our Blaine House and Capitol and would be a further draw for school kids, Maine citizens and tourists,” he said.
Earle Shettleworth Jr., chairman of the Capital Planning Commission and Maine’s state historian, said the commission endorses the proposal. He said the building is historically significant and is prominent at the entrance to the complex of state buildings.
Katz said the proposal has the support of Gov. Paul LePage. He noted that the bill would not set the terms of the lease, which would be negotiated.
The resolve approved by the committee Monday would authorize Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Sawin Millett to negotiate to lease the Gannett House to a nonprofit organization for use as a museum.
Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at: [email protected]