BIDDEFORD — A historic house in Biddeford Pool that was owned originally by a famous artist who painted murals on its interior walls will likely be torn down, over the objections of at least one neighbor.
The city’s Historic Preservation Commission this week approved a request by the owner to demolish the 3,500-square-foot house and rebuild on the valuable site overlooking the Gulf of Maine.
The house is at 25 St. Martin’s Lane, in perhaps the most exclusive part of the oceanfront enclave. Its owner, Robert Ittmann, needed permission from the commission to demolish it because the house is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The house was built in 1910 by James Montgomery Flagg, a New York artist who is best known for illustrating the iconic “I Want You” military recruitment posters that were used during the world wars. His work also appeared in national magazines including Life and the Saturday Evening Post.
Flagg used the house as a summer retreat until he sold it in 1940. On the first floor walls, he painted expansive murals of local landscapes and seascapes, which became the main reason the property earned historic status in 1980.
Biddeford’s three-member Historic Preservation Commission had to consider three criteria before granting Ittmann’s request:
• Could he get a reasonable return on the property as it exists?
• Does the request meet exceptional or unique circumstances?
• Were the circumstances that caused the hardship within Ittmann’s control?
In a 3-0 decision Wednesday, the commission concluded that the answers were “no, yes and no,” and ruled in Ittmann’s favor.
The ruling, said Chairwoman Aurelie Wallach, came down to the fact that, without the murals, the house would have no historic significance and would not meet criteria for the National Register of Historic Places. A letter submitted to the commission by Ittmann from a Portland architect, Julie Larry, supported that assertion.
The Craftsman-style house deteriorated under the ownership of the second wife of Ittmann’s father, who inherited the house and then passed it on to Robert Ittmann. Leah Rachin, an attorney representing Ittmann, told the commission that the house could not be sold or lived in year-round, and has numerous structural and mechanical problems.
Ittmann has told the city that he plans to move the murals to a new house he plans to build on the 2.7-acre parcel. The house will be nearly identical in style to the one that was built a century ago, with modern amenities including a second-floor master bedroom suite.
Ittmann also told the city that he considered renovating the house, but was told it would cost more money to renovate than to build new. The house is valued at $331,400, according to city records, and the land is worth nearly $1.4 million.
Attempts Friday to reach Ittmann and his attorney were not successful.
Not everyone is happy with Ittmann’s plan. Don Stever, whose family owns the property next door, wrote in an email to City Planner Greg Tansley on Aug. 21 that he had concerns.
“Is it unfortunate that the (Flagg) house has been allowed to deteriorate to its current condition,” Stever wrote. “Demolition of this structure and replacement by a modern structure would be unfortunate.”
He later wrote a letter to the Historic Preservation Commission, asking it to deny the request.
“We do think … that he has not been adequately advised by his contractor as to the options available to him short of demolition,” the letter read.
Stever said Friday that other neighbors are bothered by the plan to raze the house, but he would not provide names, and attempts to reach other neighbors failed.
Stever said his wife’s family has owned property on St. Martin’s Lane for years. He said “everyone knows everyone” in the oceanfront community, which includes a seasonal home owned by the best-selling author Anita Shreve.
“(Ittmann) never mentioned to any of us what his plans were,” Stever said.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: