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October 11, 2023

Preservation group names 7 landmarks as Maine's 'most endangered places'

old brick building and car Courtesy / Maine Preservation  In Van Buren, two brothers recently acquired the 1921 Gayety Theatre and are making strides to secure and stabilize the building through sweat equity and community support.

A young Ellsworth resident revived the city’s candlepin bowling alley to keep the sport alive and create a cultural hub for the community. That's just one example of the grassroots efforts by preservation-minded people and communities to save historic sites in Maine.

Now Maine Preservation, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Yarmouth, has recognized these efforts in its annual list of the Most Endangered Historic Places in Maine. The list was started in 1996 to identify threatened historic properties and  raise public awareness, with the goal of preserving the sites. 

bowling lanes and balls
Courtesy / D’Amanda’s
In Ellsworth, a 1970s candlepin bowling alley, with pinsetters that date to 1949, has been kept afloat but is in need of many repairs and safety upgrades to the vintage equipment.

“Each of these seven places face a set of circumstances and challenges that landed them on this year’s list, but many of the obstacles are universal, allowing us to call upon our experience and network of supporters and preservation professionals to help,” said Tara Kelly, Maine Preservation’s executive director.

“Our statewide charge has given us the privilege of witnessing the strategies and steps to save imperiled places, like Oxford’s Pigeon Hill Schoolhouse from our 2022 list, which, through the efforts of the Oxford Historical Society has been retrieved from a site slated for development, and funds raised to relocate and rehabilitate the one-room schoolhouse closer to town.”

Nominations received last summer from all over the state were narrowed down to the most critically in need. The 2023 list calls attention to a diversity of buildings, sites and traditions significant to Mainers, and obstacles in saving, repurposing and stewarding the resources.

The Ellsworth project is a good example.

A 1970s candlepin bowling alley had long been a stalwart of good times along Route 1 in the Hancock City. So when the previous owner didn’t have any prospective buyers, the 19-year-old lane mechanic stepped up and proposed a trial run. Fast forward to 2023, and Autumn Mowery has kept the business afloat, singlehandedly repairing the 1949 pinsetters original to the bowling alley and boosting attendance with weekly specials and behind-the-scenes tours. A long list of repairs and needed safety upgrades to the vintage equipment remain as obstacles to stability.

Other sites on the list are described below.

Gayety Theatre in Van Buren

In Van Buren, two brothers, whose family once operated the Gayety Theatre on Main Street, recently acquired the property after it had experienced years of deferred maintenance and a leaking roof that jeopardized the 1921 building. After closing on the purchase from its absent owner, the brothers are making strides to secure and stabilize the building through sweat equity and community support. In addition to discovering details from the various phases of the theater’s evolution during clean-up, the brothers have unearthed a treasure trove of historic photos, ephemera and stories.

Swan Island properties

On Swan Island, at the head of Merrymeeting Bay in Sagadahoc County, historic farmhouses, outbuildings and a cemetery located in the Steve Powell Wildlife Management Area have been relisted this year, following it original placement on the list in 2001. The relisting followed a decision by Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife to end the public ferry service to Swan Island, combined with restrictions on funding and organized local support that has diminished preservation efforts.

old plank building falling down
Courtesy / Maine Preservation 
On Swan Island in Sagadahoc County, remaining historic farmhouses, outbuildings and a cemetery were relisted this year due to funding restrictions and other obstacles to preservation strategies.

Bowdoinham Town Hall

In 1912, the Bowdoinham Town Hall was described in a local history as the “conspicuous landmark of this town.” It has long occupied the high point in town and served as a place of worship, civic gathering space and community events venue. The building was constructed as a church by the Universalist Society in 1823, before the congregation relocated down the street in 1890. In 2021, the Bowdoinham Town Hall Committee commissioned an assessment of the building, which revealed costly repairs to replace the failing foundation, sections of the roof trusses, and rehabilitate the exterior. A $1 million bond issue was presented at the 2023 town vote and failed, leaving local leaders to develop a phased approach to saving the landmark building.

Colburn House in Pittston

In Pittston, early colonist Maj. Reuben Colburn built the Georgian-era Colburn House along the Kennebec River in 1765 and was later integral in helping plan and supply Col. Benedict Arnold’s expedition to seize control of Quebec during the Revolutionary War, which launched from Colburn’s property. The state-owned historic site is closed to the public because of structural deficiencies and life safety concerns. Grant funds have been secured, but more money is needed to rehabilitate the house and make it safe for public use.

Jonathan Fisher House in Blue Hill

In Blue Hill, the Jonathan Fisher House is considered unique as a circa-1814 plank-frame house designed and largely built by Jonathan Fisher, the first Congregational minister of Blue Hill and a "renaissance man" who pursued art, furniture making, farming, science, mathematics, surveying and writing. The property is now operated as a house museum by the nonprofit Jonathan Fisher Memorial Inc. A series of building assessments that commenced in 2019, intended to identify repair needs and develop a rehabilitation plan, left the nonprofit’s board in shock. Accompanying the identified repair needs was a price tag exceeding $1 million.

Winter Harbor schoolhouse

In Winter Harbor, the local historical society owns and stewards an 1877 schoolhouse as its museum, which is in need of structural interventions to ensure its future. Only 10 years after it was built, the school was moved by a local developer who wanted to build a hotel with water views. It took 10 oxen and two weeks before reaching its current location. Today, the balloon frame structure is bowing outward, jeopardizing floor joists and exacerbated by an unstable foundation. The small historical society needs to prioritize work and put together a plan to build support and save the schoolhouse before it’s too late.

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