SOUTH PORTLAND — Workmen are dismantling the rusted steel skeleton of the last remaining industrial shed where Liberty ships were built here during World War II.

It’s one of two structures that P.K. Contracting Inc. of Randolph, Mass., is removing for the property’s owner, John Cacoulidis, who once wanted to build a towering convention center on the 22-acre site, with cable cars spanning Portland Harbor.

Cacoulidis is still considering various development options for the former New England Shipbuilding Corp. property on Front Street, but he has no definite plans, said Tom Moulton, a real estate broker with The Dunham Group.

“He’s basically cleaning up the site for future development,” Moulton said Wednesday. “The demolition company approached us about taking the buildings down. It was very entrepreneurial of them.”

P.K. Contracting has demolished about 30 abandoned shipbuilding sheds along the East Coast in the last 15 years, said Michael Pusateri, general manager. Most of them have been much larger than the estimated 100-foot-by-350-foot structure the company is dismantling here.

Cacoulidis, who has homes in New York and Maine, bought the land near Bug Light Park in 1999 and has submitted several redevelopment plans since then. The property is viewed as the last major piece of undeveloped waterfront in the city.

Cacoulidis removed the industrial shed’s exterior and interior walls a few years ago because city officials considered them safety hazards.

The remaining skeleton could have been knocked down in a day, Pusateri said. Instead, the dismantling will take about three weeks because Cacoulidis wants to salvage about 15 20-foot-long I-beams for future projects. The rest of the steel — 300 to 400 tons of it — will be sold for scrap and recycled.

P.K. Contracting also will demolish a rectangular steel warehouse that was built in more recent decades. Cacoulidis has city permits to remove both structures at 149 Front St., said Patricia Doucette, code enforcement director.

Most of the shipyard was built on waterfront that was filled to support the war effort, said Kathryn DiPhilippo, executive director and historian of the South Portland Historical Society.

An aerial photograph of the shipyard, taken during the war, shows that the remaining industrial shed was the smallest of three on the Front Street parcel, about one-quarter the size of the biggest shed.

The sheds had large overhead cranes that ran on tracks the length of each building and carried massive sections of the cargo ships through the manufacturing process. Men and women worked as welders and riveters.

The shipyard employed 30,000 people at peak production and built 244 Liberty ships during the four years in which the U.S. was at war, DiPhilippo said. It was one of 17 shipyards across the country that built a total of 2,751 Liberty ships, according to the U.S. Merchant Marine. It gradually ceased operating after the war ended in 1945.

Through the years, some shipyard buildings were occupied by other companies. Eventually, all of the industrial buildings were torn down, except this last one.

Some passers-by stopped to watch on Wednesday as heavy equipment picked away at the gray and brown beams.

Neal Flaherty, who delivers mail along the waterfront, was disappointed to see the structure coming down. He grew up in South Portland in the 1960s and 1970s and sometimes played on the property.

“It was just a big, open space with no one around, so we could do whatever we wanted,” said Flaherty, 49, who lives in Buxton. “I’m a history buff, so I like to see the old stuff.”

Richard Davis, a semi-retired lawyer who lives in Cape Elizabeth, was born on nearby Preble Street in 1932. An uncle and neighbors worked in the shipyard.

He relishes its history, collecting photos and newspaper clippings about the shipyard. He even moved his law office into a small building that stands where the shipyard’s gatehouse once stood.

Still, Davis is glad that Cacoulidis is removing derelict buildings and hopes he’ll do more.

“I think it’s terrific,” Davis said. “That whole area is like a wasteland. It should be improved so people could enjoy it.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

 


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