Lingering questions that restoration on the University of Southern Maine Art Gallery in Gorham could jeopardize its standing as a federal landmark now has ignited concerns about the historic academy building on the same campus.

The art gallery building was constructed in 1821 and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1972. Gorham State Teachers College, forerunner of the university, acquired the building in 1961 for $1 from heirs of a benefactor after the town no longer needed it for meetings.

The restoration of the art gallery began in 2013, but last year work was temporarily halted following objections from critics about the university’s plans to replace vintage clapboards with vinyl siding. In a series of meetings, the university, which scrapped vinyl siding plans, met with several local, area and state preservation authorities about how to proceed with the restoration.

Acting at the request of Bruce Roullard, Town Council vice chairman and chairman of Gorham’s Historical Preservation Committee, Adam Ogden, a Gorham resident and historical researcher, viewed the restoration and faulted it in an April 15 letter.

Since then, another issue that has surfaced involve university plans for repairing columns in front of the art gallery. Christopher Quint, university spokesman, confirmed Tuesday that the bases of the columns won’t be to preservation standards. He cited university financial constraints as a factor.

Quint said the university is doing everything it could to keep the building consistent with the time period.

In a letter April 28 to Town Manager David Cole, the university updated the town on restoration progress of the art gallery.

“All of the work completed to date has been accomplished within the spirit and intent of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission guidelines and in accordance with conversations held with Gorham officials and the Gorham Preservation Committee,” Buster Neel, interim university financial officer, wrote.

Quint said the university has spent close to $400,000 on the art gallery project. But Thomas Johnson, chairman of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said last week the state commission could have helped the university save money.

Johnson said he’s concerned about what the university is doing to the art gallery, “especially the bases to the columns, which are non-historical.”

It’s “more than likely,” Johnson said, the commission would review the art gallery restoration to determine whether it would retain its recognition in the federal registry “with all the historic damage that has been done.”

Roullard hopes the art gallery won’t be de-listed as a historic site and that issue will be discussed in a meeting of the Historical Preservation Committee this week.

“We’ll certainly discuss the art gallery,” Roullard said last week.

The meeting is set for 5 p.m. on Thursday, May 14, in Conference Room A at Gorham Municipal Center, 75 South St.

The art gallery matter has fueled worries over another historic campus building, Gorham Academy, which is under long-term lease to the state.

“One of my primary concerns is the old academy building,” Roullard said.

Johnson agreed.

“I’m very concerned about the Gorham Academy building,” he said.

According to university information, Gorham Academy opened Sept. 8, 1806, with 33 students. The General Court of Massachusetts incorporated the academy, which predates Maine’s statehood. The academy was listed on Jan. 18, 1973, in the National Register of Historic Places.

The academy opened as a tuition school and, according to Gorham Historical Society records, the Rev. Reuben Nason was its first preceptor. The academy became co-ed in 1807.

The academy closed after enrollment had declined.

The university does not own the academy, according to information Ogden recently uncovered. Academy trustees leased the building and its lot to the state in 1909 for 999 years.

According to lease restrictions, the university is obligated to replace it if destroyed by fire, and the university is responsible for interior and exterior repairs while retaining the same architectural design.

Under terms of the agreement, it appears that the lessor could have standing to reclaim the property if the lessee violates provisions.

According to a University of Maine letter in 1975 located by Ogden, “The Gorham Academy Trustees had to be re-activated and vote on permitting the lease to be transferred from the State of Maine to the University of Maine,” but the letter said the trustees refused “to remove some restrictions” in the original lease.

The late Bernard Rines, who was one of the academy trustees, said in an American Journal article in 2000 that the board replaces itself when vacancies are created by death. But it’s unclear whether the academy board of trustees remains in existence.

Rines said in the newspaper article that the trustees years earlier had asked the university to repair the rock wall when it washed out and the university did.

In an American Journal visit this week, the front steps of the academy and a pillar base on the academy building appeared in need of repair.

“Given the university’s performance on the art gallery, of course, that does make us pause when we think of the academy building, which is one of the finest federal academy buildings in the state, if not New England,” Johnson said.

The academy building’s rear entrance appears to have been altered.

“There already have been changes on the rear fac?ade that really are not in keeping with the place,” Johnson said.

Quint said in an email May 11 to the American Journal that in 2013 the university created a handicapped entrance to the academy building and were required to provide an accessible bathroom. It changed some interior partitions to provide wheelchair access to the bathroom.

“Other than the normal Gorham building permits, no further permission was sought and we are not aware of any required,” Quint wrote when asked whether the university had sought approval to make changes from the academy’s trustees.

The Gorham Academy, which opened in 1806, today is a landmark at the University of Southern Maine campus in Gorham. Staff photo by Robert Lowell


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