The former Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine is at the center of a dispute over whether the building should be torn down to accommodate the expansion of the neighboring Portland Museum of Art. Greater Portland Landmarks weighed in on the controversy Monday, saying it could not support the demolition of the building at 142 Free St. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Portland Museum of Art wants to create a “new cultural landmark” with a major expansion project. Historic preservationists say they’ll be tearing down an existing one to do it.

The Portland Museum of Art is asking the city to remove a historic designation from the former Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine so it can tear down the building to make way for a multimillion-dollar unification and expansion project that is expected to more than double the museum’s current visitation.

But Greater Portland Landmarks, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the city’s past, says there is “no basis” for tearing down the 1830 building, arguing it would destroy an important piece of Portland’s business community history. In a statement it released Monday to Portland’s Historic Preservation Board, the nonprofit said it sees architectural value in the building and sees no basis to reclassify it in a way that would allow its demolition.

The building at 142 Free St. is considered a “contributing structure” to the surrounding Congress Street Historic District, which protects it from demolition.

Portland’s Historic Preservation Board will discuss the project during a hybrid workshop Wednesday evening.

There are no records of what the building looked like when it was built, but descriptions suggest a late federal or Greek revival style, according to Evan Schueckler, Portland’s historic preservation program manager.


The building, which started as a theater in 1830, was later sold to Free Street Baptist Church and was renovated three times over the next 90-odd years.

In 1926, the structure was sold to the Portland Chamber of Commerce, which hired architect John Calvin Stevens to renovate it again, this time to its current Greek or colonial revival temple-fronted form. The chamber eventually sold the building to the Children’s Museum of Maine in 1991. The museum altered the building somewhat through door and window replacement, dormer additions and the addition of the octagonal cupola.

The Portland Museum of Art bought the property in 2019 with an eye toward growth. The Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine moved to Thompson’s Point in 2021, and the art museum has been using the Free Street space for offices. Last year, it launched a $100 million campaign to expand and unify its campus, which no longer has adequate space for its collection and staff.

The plan called for an “architecturally significant” building that would either add to or replace the former children’s museum building. The winning design announced in January would require razing it for new construction three times its size.

It’s somewhat counterintuitive that a museum, which by definition aims toward preservation, is advocating for the demolition of a building with a historic designation. But museum officials argue that the building never deserved the designation in the first place.

Many Portland residents have fond memories of visiting the children’s museum, said Graeme Kennedy, the museum’s creative director and spokesman, but the original building is “unrecognizable” from what stands there now.


“So much of that building has changed or been altered and what remains are relics of 1990s renovations,” he said.


The museum argues that the myriad changes to the building over time have diminished its historic significance and that it never should have been designated a “contributing structure” in the first place.

But Carol De Tine, vice president of Greater Portland Landmark’s board of trustees, said those changes are part of its significance.

Greater Portland Landmarks previously expressed concern about the project in a March op-ed in the Portland Press Herald, and the organization announced its official opposition to the project Monday.

The Congress Street Historic District stretches from Franklin Street to Deering Avenue and encompasses the entire museum campus. The city designated 142 Free St. as a contributing structure when it created the district in 2009.


The historic district’s “period of significance” is broad, covering nearly 200 years from around 1780 to 1958.

During those 178 years, Congress Street saw many changes, with structures built, torn down, renovated and converted from residential to commercial, De Tine said.

“The fact that the buildings evolved is part of the historical significance of Congress Street and its eclectic nature,” she said.

The building at 142 Free St. was home to the Portland Chamber of Commerce for more than 60 years, seen here in an old postcard. Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of, item #25661

Earle Shettleworth, the state historian, wrote in a letter to the preservation board that the building’s significance comes from its status as a work of John Calvin Stevens, “the city’s leading late 19th-early 20th century architect as well as a figure of state and national reputation.”

The current facade, done in Stevens’ preferred Colonial Revival style, was designed to express his vision of a classical building to enhance the public space of Congress Square, Shettleworth said.

The building has had that facade for the better part of 100 years – a significant period in its history, De Tine said.


As the headquarters for the Portland Chamber of Commerce for more than 60 years, it is an example of the prominence of Portland’s business community within the state and region in the first half of the 20th century, she said in a letter to the board.


But the museum sees the site as an opportunity to “create a new cultural landmark,” preserving Congress Street as the heart of art and culture in a rapidly changing city, Kennedy said.

The museum expects to spend more than $60 million to complete the expansion and campus unification, according to the organization’s “blueprint” or growth plan.

The additional 60,000 square feet would allow the museum’s annual visitation to expand from about 177,000 in 2019 – which is already more than twice the intended capacity for the space – to between 300,000 to 500,000.

Kennedy said the updated museum is envisioned as a sustainable, inclusive and welcoming space for all people that also would be a boon to the local economy. The museum has support from nearby businesses Flea-For-All, Springer’s Jewelers and the State Theatre.


“The challenge for the city today is to find the balance between preservation and development,” he said. “We don’t believe (the building) has the historical consistency that would be worth saving over the benefit of the museum we’ve planned.”

If the preservation board does not vote in the museum’s favor, the project will have to go back to the drawing board. Either way, the project will have to work its way through the planning board and the City Council. Kennedy said it could be as late as 2030 before the project is completed.

“We think this project can be transformative,” he said. “We’re just making the next best choice at every step.”

The Historic Preservation Board will discuss the project 5 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.

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