The Portland Planning Board on Tuesday recommended keeping a historic classification that protects the former Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine from demolition.

The Portland Museum of Art has asked the city to remove that protection so it can tear down the building at 142 Free St. and replace it with a much larger one. Two city boards have now wrestled with that request in the context of the city’s historic preservation ordinance, and both have disagreed with the museum’s reasoning. The next stop is the Portland City Council, which will have the final say.

The Portland Museum of Art chose Lever Architecture to design its renovation and expansion, which would include removing the former Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine and replacing it with the structure on the left in this rendering. Images by Lever Architecture, Courtesy of Portland Museum of Art and Dovetail Design Strategists

Mark Bessire, the museum’s executive director, said he is not yet considering what would happen if that body also votes against the application.

“We’re not in that place,” he said. “It’s a long process, and as we know, these two boards, they’re volunteers. They’re doing their job, and we appreciate the hard work they put in, but it’s a process. So until we get to the City Council, which is really the only body that has the authority to make a decision, we still feel like we’re very excited about the opportunities we’re bringing to Portland.”

Greater Portland Landmarks has led the charge against the museum’s plan. Carol De Tine, board vice president, said the nonprofit was encouraged by the planning board’s position.

“The board was very careful in how they looked at the application and looked at the ordinance, and we’re onto the council, and the council will do the same thing,” she said. “They’ll be charged with the exact same purview.”


The building at 142 Free St. is considered a “contributing structure” to the surrounding Congress Street Historic District, which means it cannot be razed. Built in 1830 and later renovated by John Calvin Stevens, it has been home to a theater, a church and the Chamber of Commerce.

The Portland Museum of Art bought the neighboring property in 2019 with an eye toward growth, and the Children’s Museum and Theatre in Maine vacated in 2021 for a new home on Thompson’s Point. Since then, the art museum has used the space mostly for offices. The museum has applied to change the classification to “non-contributing,” which would allow for demolition.

142 Free St. in Portland where the Children’s Museum of Maine was located, in October 2023. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The question first went to the Historic Preservation Board, which recommended against the change in November. The planning board met earlier in February but got too tangled in Portland’s historic preservation ordinance to vote. They were confused about how broad their discussion should be and whether they also should consider the bigger themes of the city’s comprehensive plan, so they tabled the item. In the two weeks since the last meeting, attorneys for the Portland Museum of Art and the nonprofit Greater Portland Landmarks submitted letters offering competing interpretations.

In a memo, a city attorney instructed the board to do keep its deliberations to narrow criteria in the historic preservation ordinance. Among those factors are whether the building exemplifies a significant architectural style or has a connection to a significant architect. Also important in the ordinance is whether the building maintained “sufficient integrity” of its materials, structure and design.

A majority of board members took that approach. The final vote was 5-1 in favor of keeping the “contributing” classification in place. Sean Murphy, Brandon Mazer, Justin Baker, Maggie Stanley and David Silk voted yes. Marpheen Chann voted no because he said he did not agree with the city attorney’s interpretation. Austin Smith recused himself.

“I think you’ve all seen how much we’ve struggled with this,” Mazer said.


Most said they agreed with the preservation board, which found that this building clearly met the criteria to be considered a “contributing” structure under the ordinance.

“I think one can support the expansion in general without necessarily thinking that this board needs to allow this building to be removed,” Murphy said. “At the end of the day, it’s unfortunate that we’re in this situation. The beauty of museums is they preserve our artistic heritage and go forward in that way. It’s just unfortunate we’re in a situation where we’re comparing our heritages and trying to find which one should have predominance.”

The public debate has been passionate. At the last meeting, the planning board heard nearly two hours of public comment from people on both sides of the issue. Mazer, the chairman, said the city also had received more than 200 written comments. The board did not reopen public comment Tuesday night.

Opponents have emphasized the architectural significance of the building. Even more, they have warned that such a change would weaken the city’s historic preservation ordinance.

Museum leaders and supporters have said the existing building is not compatible with the needs of a growing collection and staff. They also have emphasized the cultural and economic potential of the new construction they have planned for the lot, and they have argued that the changes made to the building over time have diminished its historic significance.

The new building envisioned by the museum would be part of a $100 million campaign to expand the downtown campus. The museum launched a design competition for an “architecturally significant” building that would either add to or replace the former Children’s Museum. The winner was announced in January 2023.

Still, the museum announced last week that it had eliminated 13 positions from its roughly 100-person staff. In addition to the layoffs, Bessire is taking a voluntary 20% reduction in his annual salary of about $440,000. The museum cited financial strain and decreased visitation since the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason, and a spokesman told the Portland Press Herald said the museum needs to “build more infrastructure in order to have a shot at thriving.”

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