The nearly $1.9 million restoration of downtown Portland's historic U.S. Custom House is set for completion this fall and one new federal tenant is ready to move in.
Ultimately, the late 1800s building, which until February of this year housed the offices of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, will host three federal agencies – two not yet disclosed – according to Patrick Sclafani, a public affairs officer for the federal General Services Administration.
The federal Mediation and Conciliation Agency will become the first new tenant of the building at the corner of Commercial and Fore streets in October, Sclafani said, and two others will be announced later.
With blue scaffolding flanking the building's boarded-up windows, the restoration project has focused on the building's masonry, windows and slate roof.
The GSA earlier this year awarded that work to CCB Inc. — a Westbrook-based construction company doing similar work on the nearby courthouse — for a total of about $1,883,000 in July 2011. Marc Belanger, CCB's vice president of operations, says they started construction last year but have done more work since this spring.
"We really hit it hard when the weather came our way this year," Belanger says. "That's when we started the bulk of the repairs."
Construction includes the replacement of the window glazing systems, including the hardware, seals and weather stripping. Belanger says they're also stripping all the lead paint off the windows and repainting the frames.
In the process, they're making all the windows operational again, as they couldn't open prior to the renovation. Belanger says the glazing had never been replaced on the windows prior to CCB's work.
To maintain a historically appropriate slate roofing system, CCB is removing and then reinstalling the existing slate and is limited to repairing damage with salvage slate in the attic. It's also installing a new copper perimeter on the roof system.
CCB is repointing – a process of repairing mortar joints that have eroded over time – on much of the exterior masonry, and in some cases, says Belanger, replacing it.
Sclafani says the work is not an energy conservation project, but an improvement on the construction of the exterior that will help them maintain the heat and cooling in the building. CCB installed a geothermal energy system in the building in the late 1990s.
The building, designed by Alfred B. Mullett, supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury from 1865 to 1874, was built between 1867 and 1872 and is the best remaining example of Mullet's work, according to the GSA. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Sclafani says they're required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to maintain the building's appearance and use materials appropriate for the building's architecture during construction. The work is being completed with cooperation from the Maine Historical Preservation Officer and GSA's regional historic preservation officer.
Customs and Border Protection left the historic Custom House in Portland and moved to a facility in South Portland because the downtown building no longer fit the agency's safety standards in protecting against the threat of terrorist attacks, according to Michelle Benson-Fuller, a public affairs officer for the agency.
"If we do not have the capacity and dimensions to improve our facility, then we have to leave," she says.
Benson-Fuller said the decision was a result of a closer examination of the agency's facilities across the country following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
So far, CCB has completed the majority of the granite repointing with only the cupolas and perimeter moat remaining and a few boarded-up windows are still awaiting their restored replacements.