The exterior of the Barnard Tavern in Kennebunk on Thursday. Randy and Kari Gates bought the building in February but have had to stop working on the main part of the house until voters decide whether to release the town from a covenant in the deed that stipulates it cannot be torn down. Kari Gates says the structural damage is so severe in the building that they have no choice but to take it apart and reconstruct it. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

KENNEBUNK — As Kari Gates walks through the Barnard Tavern, stepping over unsteady floorboards and around a fireplace framed with crumbling support beams, she sees history worth saving.

But to preserve the 230-year-old building, to reverse years of deterioration and extensive damage from a 1975 fire, she contends, she has to take it apart and put it back together.

Whether she will be able to do that remains uncertain – and every month that passes without an answer, she says, increases the risk the tavern will collapse.

“This is a dangerous building,” she said. “The last thing I ever wanted to do is spend the amount of money we did on this house just to take it down.”

The future of the stately charcoal Colonial, considered by many an iconic piece of town history, hinges largely on an unusual townwide vote. Residents will decide Nov. 2 if they want to release the town from enforcing a deed covenant that stipulates the tavern cannot be torn down – and makes no exception for the possibility that it might be torn down to be rebuilt.

Historic photo of Barnard Tavern. Town residents will vote next month on whether to release the town from a covenant in the deed that stipulates it cannot be torn down. The tavern, built around 1780, was badly damaged by fire in the 1970s and the new owners say they have to take it apart and reconstruct it to fix the damage. (Photo courtesy of Kari Gates)

That covenant dates back to the 2016 deed, drawn up when former owner Jo Johnson, trustee of the Johnson Property Trust, sold the property to C&K Realty Corp. But it was left off the deed drawn up in February, when C&K Realty sold the property to Gates and her husband, Randy, who planned to restore the structure and convert it into small apartments for seniors.

The couple, who live in Kennebunk, say they did not learn of the covenant’s existence until after they submitted an application to the town’s Historic Preservation Commission for permission to deconstruct and reconstruct the building. Kennebunk officials also were unaware of it until the town attorney pointed it out. They grappled with how to handle the covenant’s wording, which gave the town the right of enforcement.

In the end, they determined the best course of action was to commission an independent review of the tavern’s condition, and then leave it to voters to decide whether the town should enforce the covenant.

The review may have complicated matters since it disputed the assertions that the building was falling down and that it needed to be taken down to be saved. Add to that the further complication that the town’s vote won’t erase the covenant, just the town’s potential oversight. The only person who can remove the covenant is the owner who put it there and who has said she will do that only if the town determines there is no way to save the building.

A beam that supports the third floor in the Barnard Tavern, running left to right in this photo, is seen sagging. Randy and Kari Gates bought the building in February. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographe

The tavern, which overlooks Route 1 near downtown Kennebunk, was built before 1800 by Joseph Barnard, who drove the first mail coach from Portsmouth to Portland in 1787. Town property records show the house was built in 1776, but Kari Gates and others believe, based on newspaper clippings, it was built around 1790. The ell – a wing perpendicular to the original house – and attached barn were added in the mid-1800s.

The home has been used as a post office, inn, tavern, farm and rooming house. Barnard, who was Kennebunk’s second postmaster, and his wife, Rachel, operated a hotel there until his death in 1817. After running a tavern for several years, she sold the business to Timothy Frost, who operated it until 1853.

For more than a century, the building was owned by members of the Day family, who made it the Old Stage Tavern. William and Jo Johnson bought it in 1975 after a fire damaged the house but left the barn untouched.

Kari Gates says she fell in love with the property when she moved to town from Texas more than two years ago. Then she found out after she bought it that she is a descendant of the Day family. The whole thing felt at first like a Hallmark movie, she said, in which “a girl from away falls in love with a house” and discovers a special connection to it.

“But it’s become a nightmare,” she said. “It’s not a Hallmark movie anymore.”

‘A LABOR OF LOVE’

Kari Gates has worked in construction for two decades and knew the Barnard Tavern was going to be a project whose costs would far exceed the $469,000 sales price. But until the plaster walls were taken down for a structural analysis, she didn’t know about the damage from the fire.

In a letter to the couple, engineer Joseph Leasure of L&L Structural Engineering Services Inc. said he saw extensive fire damage on the home’s three floors and that the first floor was “significantly deteriorated.”

He suggested that “it would be more cost effective to demolish and remove the existing timber frame superstructure and salvage the existing foundation” than to try to fix the structure that was there.

The building had been vacant for about six years by the time Kari Gates and her crew began work in March to secure and stabilize the structure. They repointed the stone foundation and replaced rotted sills that sat directly on a crumbling foundation wall. They stored all of the flooring, panels and other woodwork they removed in the barn with the intention of reusing it in the house.

Kari Gates points out structural damage while standing in the basement of the Barnard Tavern building in Kennebunk on Thursday. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

Gates applied to the Historic Preservation Commission in April to deconstruct and reconstruct the house. That’s when the covenant came to light. That same month, the code enforcement office issued a stop work order on the property, citing violations of building and zoning ordinances. Part of the problem stemmed from the removal of some siding as crews replaced a crumbling sill, Kari Gates said.

Town ordinance requires that the commission grant a Certificate of Appropriateness for projects on buildings in the historic district. Created in 1963, it is the oldest historic district in the state. The commission has not begun a review of the application because the deed restriction means, at least for now, that Kari and Randy Gates do not have standing.

Since April, the house has sat untouched as the couple waits. Throughout the house, the walls have been removed down to the timber framing. Caution tape marks off areas Kari Gates says are unsafe to enter. The floor in the ell, which connects the original section of the house to the barn, has been removed, leaving the basement visible from upstairs.

The couple say they have dropped plans to convert the house into senior apartments because zoning would not allow for more than three. Instead, they hope someday to return the building to one of its original uses as a tavern or an inn. They spent the last few months restoring the barn, which Kari Gates would like to use as an art gallery and studio space.

“This is a labor of love for us,” she says, but “we’re not in a financial situation to keep it going on and on and on.”

SEARCHING FOR A PATH FORWARD

In July, the Select Board voted to put the question about releasing the town from the right of enforcement on the November town meeting warrant and to get the outside review, both to help the Historic Preservation Commission and to help Johnson, the owner who put the covenant in place, decide whether she can let it go.

“If the town has the building evaluated and feels it is not safe to stand, then I will release the covenant,” Johnson told the board. “But if the town has it evaluated and they feel it is salvageable, then I don’t want to release the covenant.”

Mary Folsom, who lives across the street from the tavern, told town officials during the same meeting that she has watched for years as the building deteriorated. She was excited when she heard about the plans the new owners had to save the building.

On the second floor of the building known as the Barnard Tavern in Kennebunk, Kari Gates talks about various points of structural damage on Thursday. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographe

“Through the years and all the changes, I still have high hopes for the tavern. I hope that it is saved,” she said.

Another neighbor, Tom Nelson, urged town officials to take immediate action to help save a “magnificent piece of property” from being lost.

“It’s as important to the town as the sea captains’ mansions on Summer Street,” he said.

The structural review commissioned by the town was conducted over the summer by an architect and an engineer from Christopher P. Williams Architects of Meredith, New Hampshire. They concluded that “there has been no reason given to consider demolition of the building. The Barnard Tavern should be preserved.”

In a Sept. 21 report to the town, the firm said the building is remarkably unchanged, especially given its age, and said it is not on the verge of collapse. The report noted areas of deterioration and damage, but said repairs to the foundation and timber framing are possible. It did not estimate the costs.

“Perhaps the owners were unaware of the responsibilities they were undertaking when they purchased this historic building in the Kennebunk Historic District and jumped into demolition work without clearly communicating their intent to the town, but this responsibility to the community should not be diminished by any surprise on the owner’s part at this time,” the report said.

Kari and Randy Gates withdrew their application to the Historic Preservation Commission on Oct. 7. The same day, their attorney, Kristin Collins of Preti Flaherty, sent a letter to the town disputing many of the conclusions in the outside structural review. Collins said the couple would move forward with their application on two conditions: The town would have to waive enforcement of the deed restriction or Johnson would have to release them from it, and the architectural firm hired by the town would need to provide a detailed bid specification they could use to ascertain if its recommendations are technically and economically feasible.

Johnson said last week that she has not decided if she will release the deed restriction and that the recent report on the tavern’s condition speaks for itself. She declined to further discuss the situation on the advice of her attorney.

Kari Gates says she and her husband are still hopeful that one day they will be able reconstruct the old house on its historic footprint, creating an identical facade largely from original materials. And they hope town residents will support a plan to save as much of the tavern’s history as possible rather than watching it fall apart.

“If we don’t have a path forward, it’s going to sit like it has for the past five or six years,” Randy Gates said. “But it’s not going to make it.”


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