The Portland Museum of Art is facing the next hurdle in its campaign to replace the former Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine with a much larger building.

The Portland Planning Board held a workshop Tuesday on the museum’s application to remove a historic designation that protects 142 Free St. from demolition. The board did not take a vote but will eventually make a recommendation to the City Council, which will have the final say. The Historic Preservation Board recommended against the change this month.

Museum leaders argued that a new building on that property would be more compatible with the city’s comprehensive plan than the existing one. They emphasized the economic and cultural potential of their expansion, and they said they deliberately chose to build on Congress Square instead of a surface parking lot on Spring Street.

“Congress Square is really struggling,” said Mark Bessire, the museum’s director. “It’s not getting there, and we feel that this building will say to the community that we’re willing to make an additional investment in Congress Square to get it to thrive again.”

The Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine sold its former home on Free Street to the adjacent Portland Museum of Art. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Opponents, including the nonprofit Greater Portland Landmarks, have defended the building’s historic integrity and warned that this change could set a harmful precedent. Carol De Tine, board vice president at Greater Portland Landmarks, testified Tuesday that the city does not have to see the application as an “either-or situation.”

“Reject the application, send them back to the drawing board,” De Tine said. “They can achieve their goals without demolishing 142 Free St.”


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 John Calvin Stevens, it has been home to a theater, church and the Chamber of Commerce.

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.

Now, the museum is asking the city to change the building’s status from “contributing” to “noncontributing.” Its leaders say 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. They have also argued that the new building planned for 142 Free St. would be more compatible with the city’s comprehensive plan than the existing one.

The application process started at the Historic Preservation Board. The members recommended against the reclassification but said their purview was more limited than that of the Planning Board or the City Council. City staff told the Planning Board that it can consider both the historic preservation ordinance and the comprehensive plan, but opponents disputed that interpretation at the workshop. The board asked for clarification at the next meeting, which has not been scheduled.

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