GORHAM — The University of Southern Maine halted renovation work this week on a nearly 200-year-old building on its Gorham campus after the project was criticized by historic preservationists.
The building, used by USM as an art gallery, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but preservationists say the renovation work, which involves ripping off the original old-growth pine siding and windows and replacing them with vinyl siding and modern windows, is destroying the historic integrity of the building.
“It would be like going to the White House and putting vinyl siding on it,” said Adam Ogden, a Gorham resident and preservationist. “It will never be the way that it once was.”
Judie O’Malley, spokeswoman for USM, disagreed with that assessment and said the renovated building will look “very much like it did.”
She said that although the building will have new windows, the shutters are being crafted using old photographs of the originals. The trim work also will be custom-milled, she said, and will essentially hide all evidence of the vinyl siding.
“We worked closely with the architect to preserve, as much as we could, the historic elements of the building,” O’Malley said.
Work was suspended temporarily on Tuesday by USM’s chief financial officer, Dick Campbell, to allow USM officials an opportunity to meet with town officials and other interested parties who had concerns about the renovations.
“It’s a chance to bring everybody up to speed on what the project actually is and the steps that we’ve taken to be sure we are not doing anything that we should not have been doing,” O’Malley said.
The renovation work required only a building permit from the town of Gorham, and no public hearing or council vote was required. Its listing on the National Register includes no restrictions on what can be done to it, and state involvement was limited because the building isn’t on the Maine inventory of historic buildings.
Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, said she’s encouraged to hear that USM will have a community dialogue about the project, but is still concerned about the building’s historical integrity.
“That’s part of what makes Maine really special,” Bassett said. “These buildings really tell the stories of Maine’s communities.”
She said the university should, as much as possible, store old materials that were stripped off the building, in case preservationists can find a way to put them back on.
The Greek Revival structure, built in 1821, was used as a meetinghouse and town hall until the late 1950s. The former Gorham State Teachers College assumed ownership of the building in 1961 and used it as a chapel.
USM officials had said the work was undertaken because a roof truss and two support columns in the front of the building had failed. O’Malley said last week that the roof work was required to keep the building structurally sound because the roof might buckle under a heavy snowfall. The exterior work was undertaken to make the building more energy efficient.
Officials admitted that the $320,000 renovation project was being done on a shoestring budget because of the university’s budget woes. O’Malley said that using new wood siding or reusing the original siding wasn’t financially feasible.
USM, along with other campuses in the University of Maine System, has been making deep spending cuts in response to a financial crisis brought on by flat state funding, declining enrollments and a tuition freeze.
Ogden said the installation of the vinyl siding and modern windows would destroy the historic integrity of the building, and that the building would likely be de-listed from the National Register if the work were completed. At this point, Ogden said, perhaps a few pieces of original siding might still be salvaged, and the renovations could replicate the way the building was originally constructed as much as possible.
O’Malley said USM has undertaken repairs on a number of buildings at its campuses in Gorham and Portland without such criticism. She added that if USM simply allowed the art gallery building to crumble without spending money to renovate it, the school would be criticized for that, too.