Portland’s Historic Preservation Board indicated Wednesday that it is unlikely to remove a historic designation for the building at 142 Free St. that formerly housed the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine. The Portland Museum of Art purchased the building and wants to raze it as part of a major expansion. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Members of Portland’s Historic Preservation Board said Wednesday that they are unlikely to recommend the removal of a historic designation that protects the former Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine from demolition.

The Portland Museum of Art wants to tear down that building at 142 Free St. to make way for a major expansion of its downtown campus. Wednesday was the first public meeting of many in a process in which the City Council will have the final say. The outcome will determine whether the museum can move forward with its current concept.

The Historic Preservation Board did not vote Wednesday on a recommendation, but members shared their initial reservations.

“I don’t think anybody in this room is against the mission that you’re trying to put forward in terms of trying to create the art space that Portland needs to embrace,” member Jeffrey Talka told the museum team. “The question here is one of legality. We have an ordinance. I think in 2009, this board, and also the City Council, had deemed that this building is a contributing building, and that’s going to be hard to undo.”

Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art, said he feels that the City Council will have more flexibility than the Historic Preservation Board, and he was not discouraged by the feedback from the first meeting.

“We have faith that we have a great project and a great reason to do what we’re doing, and we’re going to come back here and talk to them again and try to convince them,” he said.


The building is considered a “contributing structure” to the surrounding Congress Street Historic District, which protects it from demolition. Built in 1830 and later renovated by renowned architect John Calvin Stevens, it has been home to a theater, church and the Chamber of Commerce.

The museum says the many changes made to the structure over time have diminished its historical significance, and it should never have been deemed contributing in the first place. Their application includes a lengthy report on the life of the property over nearly 200 years. On Wednesday, Bessire delivered a sweeping presentation not just about 142 Free St. but also about museum’s planned expansion.

But the board said they are required to limit their analysis to the property at hand, not its broader place in the museum’s plans. And six of the seven board members agreed that the building clearly meets the criteria to be considered a contributing structure. City ordinance outlines those criteria and also says the buildings must have “sufficient integrity of location, design, condition, materials and workmanship to make it worthy of preservation or restoration.”


“Frankly, I think you have a great plan, and honestly, I would love to see it happen,” member Ashley Keenan said. “But there’s a legislative question being asked here. On a plain reading, I don’t see how this isn’t contributing.”

One member, Valerie Paquin-Gould, recused herself from the discussion.


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 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. The winning design announced in January would require razing it for new construction three times its size.

The board heard public comment from a handful of attendees on both sides of the question and has received at least two dozen letters, with opponents of removing the historic designation slightly outnumbering supporters.

Those against the application defended the building’s historic significance in Portland. Among them is Greater Portland Landmarks, which announced Monday that it would not support a change to the building’s designation. Carol De Tine, vice president of the nonprofit’s board, wrote in a letter and told the board Wednesday evening that there is “no basis” for reclassification.

“Greater Portland Landmarks believes that the building clearly meets the criteria for designation as a contributing structure, both in terms of its architectural and historic significance within the Congress Street Historic District and its retention of the required level of integrity,” she wrote.


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 by Stevens, “the city’s leading late 19th- (and) early 20th-century architect, as well as a figure of state and national reputation.”


Those in favor emphasized their support for the expansion plan for the museum. Proponents included the owners of nearby businesses and the heads of other arts organizations.

“Research is showing us that 142 Free Street does not contribute to the city historically in any way that should present as a barrier to the PMA’s innovative vision for the future,” Marcia Minter, chief officer of strategic growth and innovation at Indigo Arts Alliance, wrote.

Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, wrote that she supports the museum’s leadership and believes their expansion will bring more visitors to the city. She also said that the organization considered staying on Free Street and building an addition to its former home.

“However, studies and financial models showed that it was not a viable option given the significant updates needed to the building in both operating systems and physical accessibility, as well as a lack of opportunity to greatly expand our footprint,” she wrote.

The board did not yet set a next hearing date for the application. The planning board also will review the matter before it goes to the City Council, which will make a final decision. The process likely will take months.

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