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Updated: October 16, 2019

Children's Museum sells landmark building to its neighbor, Portland Museum of Art

PHOTO / PETER VAN ALLEN NAI The Dunham Group brokered the sale of the Children's Museum & Theatre of Maine's building at 142 Free St. in Portland.

The sale of the Children's Museum & Theatre of Maine’s property at 142 Free St. in Portland allows the nonprofit institution to move forward on construction of its new site at Thompson’s Point in the city.

The sale was also a meeting of like cultural interests: The buyer is the Portland Museum of Art, a next-door neighbor.

The sale closed Tuesday for a price of $2.1 million, Portland Museum of Art Deputy Director Elizabeth Jones told Mainebiz. The asking price had been $3.4 million, though the deal includes a 20-month agreement in which the Children's Museum will be able to stay at the site rent-free.

The property, which is a 19,158-square-foot mixed use building on 0.226 acres zoned for mixed use, was listed in June 2018 by NAI The Dunham Group. The listing was part of the Children's Museum’s plans to build and move into a new 30,000-square-foot facility at Thompson’s Point. 

For now, the Portland Museum of Art  has no specific plans for the property, which is located directly adjacent to the museum’s Charles Shipman Payson Building at 7 Congress Square. However, the deal gives the museum with flexibility for future opportunities in a highly developed urban area, and enables PMA to secure the area around Congress Square as a center for arts and culture, according to a news release. 

Both buyer and seller issued press releases on the deal Monday.

Jones said PMA will consider potential uses over the next 20 months, which is about how long the Children’s Museum is expected to be in construction.

PMA has a number of facilities. In addition to its primary facility in the Payson Building, it owns the McLellan House at High and Spring streets in Portland, the adjoining L.D.M. Sweat Memorial Galleries, the Winslow Homer Studio in Prout’s Neck, and the Charles Q. Clapp House at 97 Spring St. in Portland. Before yesterday’s purchase, the Homer Studio and the Clapp House were PMA’s most recent acquisitions, in 2006 and 2007.

Acquiring the Free Street property, said Jones, is “incredibly significant. I think it secures our future and gives us the flexibility we need to adapt to our changing community.”

Courtesy / Children's Museum & Theatre of Maine
Julie Butcher Pezzino, Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine executive director, and Mark Bessire, the Judy and Leonard Lauder director of the Portland Museum of Art, yesterday announced the latter’s purchase of the Children’s Museum property on Free Street.

Although PMA doesn’t know yet how it will use the additional space, its audience and collections are growing, and so the need for exhibition space is growing, she said.

“We’re about to launch a new strategic plan so we’ll be evaluating the needs of the museum for the future,” she said.

PMA has seen an increase in annual attendance in the past five years, from 130,000 visitors to 160,000. For 2019, the number is expected to be 175,000. In 2020, projections are showing over 200,000, she said. 

Why the increase? 

“We’re putting on a very diverse array of exhibitions and attracting new audiences,” Jones said. “And we’re trying to remove as many barriers to admission as possible. About 35% of our attendance is free” through school tour programs and the like. “So we’re working really hard to be as accessible to the community as possible.”

The Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine has been at 142 Free St. for 25 years. The building was originally constructed as a theater in 1830 and six years later became the Free Street Baptist Church. In 1926 it was renovated by architect John Calvin Stevens and later housed the Portland Chamber of Commerce.

The sale moves the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine closer to its capital campaign goal, Executive Director Julie Butcher Pezzino told Mainebiz.

In December 2017, the museum bought 1.12 acres at 10 Thompson’s Point for its planned construction of a new facility. The overall project is expected to cost $14 million.

“From the construction perspective, we’ll begin some of the immediate site work and brownfield remediation that’s been planned for some time,” said Pezzino. 

In June, the museum received a $500,000 cleanup grant in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brownfield funding to clean up contaminants including industrial chemicals, arsenic and metals from the former rail yard.

Brownfield remediation will begin in the next couple of weeks, she said.

The museum made a strategic decision to wait until the Free Street property sold before moving forward on construction at Thompson’s Point, she said.

“We felt like it was a prudent decision to wait to sell this building, to makes sure we had that sorted out before we fully started construction,” she said.

Fundraising for the project is still underway. The campaign aims to raise $13.75 million. The campaign is in a quiet phase. 

Rendering of future Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine at Thompson's Point.

“We’ve had a very successful quiet phase so far and expect that to continue,” she said. “We hope to go public soon.”

The Free Street building saw a good amount of interest from a variety of buyers both in Maine and out-of-state, she said.

“The building was shown fairly often,” she said. “We did receive offers. To us, PMA is the natural partner and should be the owner of this building. We are a nonprofit that values the arts and culture just as PMA values the arts and culture.”

With the Thompson’s Point construction, the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine is executing its strategic plan to serve twice as many children and families and to expand programming to a more diverse community. Proceeds from the sale of 142 Free St. are contributing to the construction of the organization’s new building and its exhibits; a capital campaign for the balance needed will be announced in the coming months. 

The Children’s Museum & Theatre will remain open in its Free Street location throughout the construction phase of the new building and until the move, which is projected for late 2020 or early 2021. Its exhibits, performances, classes, workshops, and community events will continue to welcome visitors at 142 Free St. until that time.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include details of the transaction. 

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