The Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine sold its building at 142 Free St. in Portland, its home for 25 years, to the Portland Museum of Art. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Portland City Council voted 6-3 Monday to remove a historic classification from the former Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, paving the way for its controversial demolition and the ultimate construction of a sweeping new building for the Portland Museum of Art.

Councilors April Fournier, Roberto Rodriguez, Anna Trevorrow, Victoria Pelletier, Anna Bullet and Kate Sykes supported the change. Mayor Mark Dion and two councilors, Regina Phillips and Pious Ali, opposed it.

The councilors acknowledged the divide the debate has created in the community in recent months, when both the Historic Preservation Board and the planning board recommended against the change.

“This is one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve made yet here on the council,” Sykes said. “I’ve been really saddened to see the way that it’s torn our community apart. … No matter how we vote today, there will be disappointed and sad people on the other side of this vote, and we have to go forward as a community and work together after this.”

The vote means that the Portland Museum of Art has cleared the first significant hurdle in a major expansion of its downtown campus. The concept design for that site, which has not yet been approved by the city, would more than double the museum’s footprint with free galleries, performance space, a photography center and a rooftop terrace.

“The Portland Museum of Art believes our communities deserve a dynamic museum that brings people together through transformational experiences with art,” Mark Bessire, the museum’s director, said in a written statement after the council meeting. “Throughout this process, we have been guided by our values of courage, equity, service, sustainability and trust, and we continue to look forward with optimism toward a vibrant future for the arts and everyone who calls our region home.”

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But the fight might not be over. Days before the vote, Greater Portland Landmarks held a news conference to signal that it would keep trying to protect the building from demolition, although speakers stopped short of saying they would sue the city over the vote. Carol De Tine, board vice president, said Monday that the preservation group disagrees with the City Council’s position but will need to review the matter before making a decision about whether to file a legal challenge.

“It’s detrimental to the historic preservation ordinance. … It’s a sad day for historic preservation in Portland,” De Tine said.

Chris Rhoades, one of the owners of the iconic Time and Temperature Building in downtown Portland, had said at an earlier meeting that the change could jeopardize the historic tax credits needed to build as many as 250 affordable apartments in the vacant high-rise. The museum disputes the claim that allowing the building’s demolition would affect the federal certification of the Congress Street Historic District, which enables buildings within it to receive tax credits for their rehabilitation.

Neither city nor federal officials have provided a definitive answer, and none of the councilors broached the question Monday.

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, the Chamber of Commerce and the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine.

The Portland Museum of Art bought the neighboring property in 2019 with an eye toward growth, and the children’s museum 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 the building’s demolition.

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Throughout the process, museum leaders, city officials, board members and attorneys have debated exactly what criteria should inform the eventual decision on the application. Ultimately, both boards took a narrow view of the historic preservation ordinance.

The ordinance has two prongs that define a “contributing” building. First, the City Council needed to decide whether the building met one of six criteria, such as whether it is an example of a significant architectural style. If it does, the City Council must next decide whether it has “sufficient integrity of location, design, condition, materials and workmanship to make it worthy of preservation or restoration.” For example, if the roof is caved in, a building might not have integrity of condition.

The Portland City Council took up the item for the first time two weeks ago, and a majority of members signaled then that they would support the museum’s application. But they delayed a vote until Monday while the city’s attorney considered whether a last-minute amendment offered by Sykes and Trevorrow could hold up in court. After months of meetings, hundreds of letters and hours of public comment, the discussion and vote on Monday was over in less than 10 minutes.

“I do believe that the building is a contributing building for several reasons,” Phillips said, citing its location and historical significance.

Ultimately, six councilors voted in support of an order that changed the building structure to “noncontributing” on the basis of “significant alterations since it was originally constructed.” They found that the building lacks integrity of design, materials and workmanship.

“I really understand why people are attached to this building and why so much significance has been placed in it, but just because a building looks like that doesn’t mean that it’s worthy of historic preservation, and for me, that’s where the crux of the matter is here,” Sykes said.

Preservationists have said the exterior renovations in the last 100 years of the building’s life have been minor and reversible, so it retains its integrity. But it is not yet clear whether that disagreement will be the basis of a lawsuit.

“We will be looking at that,” De Tine said. “We will be talking to our board, our attorneys, several supporters, and trying to figure out what we do.”

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