In February, the Planning Board examined whether 142 Free Street – originally built as a wooden clapboard theater and then converted into a wooden church; its steeple then torn down and the building redesigned with a brick façade and columns for the Chamber of Commerce; later converted into a children’s museum, which gutted the Chamber of Commerce’s interior work; the museum then home to a fake space shuttle, a fire truck, a lobster boat and a two-story climbing tree – somehow represents a significant architectural style or consistent connection to a shared past.

Which style are we preserving? The theater, the church, the Chamber of Commerce or the children’s museum? Which is significant?

The “contributing building” ordinance is arbitrary. Although the Planning Board members and city staff have said the ordinance is poorly written, supporters of historic preservation are using this ordinance and handpicking a point in time of the site’s history, as well as a preferred architect, as significant.

John Calvin Stevens was a popular architect who designed beautiful buildings throughout Maine and New England. He designed more than 1,000 buildings, including the State Street Church. Stevens redesigned 142 Free Street. I see no significant value to a structure that has been gutted and received several facelifts.

The Planning Board acknowledges that the Portland Museum of Art’s proposed new entrance and addition will be good for Portland. It will bring more people and traffic to Congress Square, the Arts District and the Congress Street Historic District. Furthermore, it will increase tourism to Portland. This is needed; the Press Herald recently reported that many city restaurants in Portland have seen a 20% decrease in patrons in the last year. In the Congress Square area, a number of coffee shops and restaurants have already closed. There are multiple vacancies neighboring the museum. The economic situation in the heart of our city is dire.

Yes, the museum could build a new property on Spring Street, leaving 142 Free Street as is, continuing to degrade because renovating the building won’t address the museum’s real needs for gallery, storage and community space. But the museum is committed to Congress Street and anchoring “the arts district,” which depends on the museum as a cultural and economic anchor. The purpose of a Free Street location is to have more people enter the museum naturally, to increase foot traffic in Congress Square and to better present art.


Additionally, the building is designed by a team led by a Black female architect and its layout and design was envisioned with the support of Maine’s Indigenous people. The building has a chance to be built using sustainable timber from Maine.

All of this will be lost if our communities are limited to an antiquated and provincial ordinance that prioritizes preservation above everything else. Preserving a non-landmark building at the cost of our economy and cultural diversity is not worth it. Is a John Calvin Stevens’ redesign more significant than a new world-class landmark?

What this ordinance says to me, and to people of color, is that because we were not part of the original decision-making process, we cannot add to the present and future history because opponents to change want to preserve what they used to own. If a non-landmark building can stand in the way of a building designed by people of color that honors people of color, whose history are we preserving? Whose history can be told?

It is time to bring this ordinance in line with who we really are.

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