AUGUSTA — Construction is expected to begin soon at the Gannett House, as the nonprofit organization that now owns it seeks to preserve and restore the historic structure itself and plans for its future as a museum dedicated to the First Amendment.
Work on the State Street property next door to the Blaine House is expected to begin this fall with an immediate focus on securing and preserving it before winter strikes, as planning continues for what will take place within its walls.
“The construction we’re looking to do this fall is going to be on the exterior and mostly maintenance-related to make sure the home is secure,” Rebecca Lazure, executive director of The Gannett House Project, said Monday. “We feel good about the soundness of the property. There are some definite visible repairs that are needed, but there is also a good sense that this is a house that was built very, very well.”
The ornate but in recent years neglected building at 184 State St. was built in 1911 by William H. Gannett, a major publisher and founder of Comfort magazine, the first American periodical to reach a circulation of 1 million, as a wedding present for his son Guy P. Gannett, founder of the Guy Gannett Publishing Company. The family’s company grew to include the Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Portland Press Herald newspapers as well as WGAN, which is now WGME television, and WGAN radio. The family sold the business in 1998.
Gannett family members are now leading efforts to turn the former family home into a museum they hope will foster dialogue and discussion about the First Amendment, which guarantees Americans’ freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and rights to peaceably assemble and petition the government.
“My sister, Terry Hopkins, and I are excited to bring our grandfather’s former home back to life,” Genie Gannett, president of Gannett House Project’s board of directors, said in a news release.
Organizers are working with a museum consultant and meeting with stakeholders including industry representatives, educators and others to hear what they would like to see the museum do.
She said that planning includes what will be in the interactive museum building and what sort of programming it could offer outside of the building, such as educational programs for students.
“There needs to be an interpretive plan for the house, but also what can we do outside of the house to promote our mission?” Lazure said. “There is a real desire for this mission to spread not only in Augusta but also across the state.”
She said organizers would love to hear from people about what they think it should include as they start planning. The project’s website, www.gannetthouseproject.org, contains a link to a form where people can leave their comments about what they’d like to see.
Lazure said the importance of the First Amendment and the rights it protects is increasingly relevant in the current political climate.
“There’s a pretty compelling call for a museum of this kind right now,” she said. “The political atmosphere is so fraught with strong opinions on both sides, locally and nationally, and promoting active speech on both sides in a nonpartisan venue is one way to move away from isolating opinions and toward dialogue.”
Project organizers have selected an Augusta-based firm, Ganneston Construction Corp., as the construction manager.
“Ganneston is excited to be working on this historic project,” Stacey Morrison, CEO and owner of Ganneston Construction, said in a news release. “This is the start of a phase of work that will maintain important elements of the home’s character.”
Lazure said organizers made it a priority to hire a Maine-based firm to oversee the project. Camden-based engineering firm Gartley & Dorsky will also work on the project, helping ensure work is done to the satisfaction of Maine Historic Preservation Commission and that it follows the standards of the federal Secretary of the Interior for historic buildings.
On Monday, organizers placed a banner in front of the Mediterranean Revival style building which says “First Amendment Museum, Under Construction.”
Lazure said they hung the banner to let people know the project is underway and work is beginning.
Programming is expected to begin this fall, though not in the under-renovation Gannett House building. A professional development day for educators, “The First Amendment in Your Classroom,” is planned at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center at the University of Maine at Augusta in October.
The museum is expected to open in late 2017.
The building has been vacant since the State Planning Office moved out in 2010.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647