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Updated: April 22, 2024

Fate of historic Portland building heads to city council — along with art museum's future

Photo / William Hall The Portland Museum of Art, whose flagship Payson Building is shown at the right, hopes to expand on the site of an 1830 structure, at left.

A much-debated proposal that would allow the Portland Museum of Art to raze real estate it owns next door — the first step in the PMA's planned $100 million expansion — will go to the Portland City Council for a formal introduction Monday.

Councilors are scheduled to hear — but not yet act upon — the museum's request to reclassify the 19th-century building, at 142 Free St., as a "noncontributing structure" in the Congress Street Historic District.

The change is necessary if the PMA is to move forward with its plan, which includes demolishing the structure to make room for a 60,000-square-foot addition. The design of that wing was chosen through an international competition and announced in January 2023.

But the proposal has faced months of opposition from a nonprofit group, Greater Portland Landmarks, and others who believe 142 Free St. has architectural significance. The opponents say the building, constructed in 1830 but later renovated and modified, should remain a "contributing structure" under the city's historic preservation ordinance.

The structure has been used as a theater, a church and an office for an area chamber of commerce. More recently, it had been home to the Children's Museum & Theatre of Maine, until it moved to a newly built center at Thompson's Point in 2021. The PMA purchased the property in 2019 and began using it for offices and storage after the Children's Museum & Theatre left.

The art museum's plan to expand at the site has provoked strong reactions, both from the opponents and from PMA supporters and business advocates — who say expansion would revitalize the downtown with hundreds of jobs and millions of tourism dollars.

Meanwhile, both the Portland Historic Preservation Board and the Portland Planning Board have considered the reclassification request. Both voted not to recommend approval by the Portland City Council, which has the final say.

Because the request is coming for its first reading to the council, rules don't allow discussion of the measure at the Monday meeting and the council will not take action at that time. A second reading, which would include public discussion and a possible vote by the council, could take place as soon as its next meeting on May 6.

The April 22 meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. at Portland City Hall. The agenda and more information can be found here.

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