The renovation of a nearly two-century-old building on the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus is attracting a firestorm of criticism, but it may be too late for opponents to do anything about it.
USM began the project last winter after discovering that a main roof truss and two support columns on the front of the school’s art gallery, located at the entrance to the campus, had failed. But that work revealed other problems in the Greek Revival-style building and USM began a renovation that school officials admit has been done on a shoestring budget.
As a result, the building – which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was originally built as a meeting hall for the town in 1821 – was stripped of five large windows on each side and had its original white pine siding removed, to be replaced with vinyl siding.
“They tore off the fabric of the building,” said Adam Ogden, a Gorham resident who previously worked with the military on preservation matters. “I call it criminal.”
“I was appalled (and I don’t use that word lightly),” Tom Johnson, chairman of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said in an email to the Portland Press Herald after touring the site Friday morning. “As the university screams poverty, here is a pointless wasting of money to undertake a project – badly.”
The building was originally erected as a meetinghouse for religious and civic groups and functioned as a town hall from 1845 until the late 1950s. After a new town hall was built, the building reverted to state ownership and in 1961 was absorbed by what was then called Gorham State Teachers College as a chapel. USM now uses it as an art gallery.
Judie O’Malley, a spokeswoman for USM, said the roof work was required to keep the building structurally sound and officials feared the roof might buckle under a heavy snowfall. The work on the exterior walls is intended to make the building more energy-efficient, she said.
Because USM faces budget cuts that have forced it to eliminate academic programs and lay off professors, the college was able to provide only $275,000 for the work, she said.
“It looks as authentic as it can look on a budget,” she said, noting that the new siding will resemble the original wood siding and “telltale” signs of vinyl siding will be minimized.
Using new wood siding or reusing the original siding wasn’t financially feasible, she said. The building is currently covered in Tyvek house wrap and O’Malley said the work is expected to be completed this summer.
Many opponents are upset that USM did not publicize the work it planned to do, but O’Malley said the scope of the project required only a building permit from the town and no public hearing or vote by Gorham officials.
Ogden admitted that there’s little opponents can do to stop the renovation, although they are urging USM to halt the work and meet to discuss alternatives.
Ogden said the National Register of Historic Places listing is prestigious, but it operates mainly to encourage preservation rather than stop unwanted changes. The law that created the designation prevents federal funds from being used to significantly alter or destroy a building, but its chief tool is tax credits for those who preserve structures on the list. As a state institution, USM can’t use the credits.
State involvement was restricted because the building wasn’t on the Maine inventory of historic buildings, but Maine preservation officials said the project’s architect, Timothy D. Smith of North Bennington, Vermont, checked in with them only once.
Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said during that one phone call last September, Smith was “invited” to send his plans for the commission for comment, but never followed up.
In an email to Bob Bertram, USM’s director of facilities management, Shettleworth said the building is one of the most historic structures in Gorham.
Shettleworth also said he’s received reports of “a severe level of destruction” of exterior features that, “if not properly addressed, will result in the removal of the building from the National Register.”
O’Malley said USM has deliberately chosen to do the work with materials that can be easily and cheaply removed if money is found to do a restoration.
But Ogden said the damage has been done.
“It’s a gem of a building,” he said, and what USM is doing reminds him of the 1961 demolition of Union Station – the former railroad station in Portland – which sparked a preservation movement.
“This is USM’s Union Station,” he said. “USM is not being a good citizen.”