Hilary Bassett, who has helped lead the historic preservation effort in Portland over the past two decades, will retire as executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks in June. She recently informed the organization’s board of her intention, and a search for her replacement will begin soon.

Bassett has directed Greater Portland Landmarks for 18 years and served on its board prior to that. She grew up in Kentucky, received her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College and holds a master’s in business administration from Indiana University. She also served as an art museum administrator in Michigan and Indiana.

Bassett moved to Maine from Minnesota in 1993 and was on the development staff at Bowdoin College. Arriving here from the middle of the country, she was immediately engaged by the character of Portland, its architecture and history. “In the upper Midwest, you don’t see as many early buildings and architecture, and being on the ocean was incredible,” she said.

In the years since, she has lived all over the peninsula – on the waterfront, in the West End and now on Munjoy Hill – and has become the city’s most vocal advocate for preservation and an ardent ambassador for Portland’s history and neighborhoods. She is leaving during a critical time, as the city faces intense pressure from builders seeking to tear down or alter historic properties or construct new buildings that threaten the character of the city and its neighborhoods.

The organization’s mission is to preserve and revitalize Greater Portland’s legacy of historic buildings, neighborhoods, landscapes and parks, and she said it’s more important now for the organization to be vigilant and committed to its cause.

“We are in a huge development boom right now,” she said. “All kinds of demolitions are happening. We are not under siege so much, but there is so much pressure on the existing fabric that preservation is more important now than ever. Let’s think about what we want our city and the Greater Portland area to look and feel like. People love this area, and a lot of that has to do with the built environment. It’s very fragile. We can very easily lose the character that everybody loves about the area.”

Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., Maine’s longtime state historic preservation officer, said Bassett has been an effective leader of Greater Portland Landmarks because of her ability to get along with people and work with them to find solutions. “Hilary has a wonderful personal manner about her that gives people, whether they are in favor of preservation or might be concerned about the relationship between preservation and development, confidence they are dealing with an intelligent and fair player,” Shettleworth said. “In the time that she was director in Portland and I was director here in Augusta, I was always confident in her good judgment and leadership. That has won many friends for the organization and for the cause of preservation in Portland.”

Among the accomplishments of Greater Portland Landmarks under Bassett’s directorship was the purchase and rehabilitation of what is now the organization’s headquarters, the 1858 Safford House at 93 High St., and the advocacy that led to the designation of three historic districts, along Congress Street and India Street and on House Island.

In 2008, it published a comprehensive history of Portland’s Deering neighborhood, which involved an architectural survey of historic properties along Forest and Stevens avenues and prompted additional research in the Oakdale, Fessenden Park, Oakwood Heights and Deering Highlands neighborhoods. Shettleworth said the survey work off the peninsula is vitally important because a “survey is always the bedrock of deciding whether individual properties or areas are significant enough to be preserved.”

Before becoming executive director, Bassett helped Greater Portland Landmarks raise $1.3 million to restore the Portland Observatory in the neighborhood where she now lives.

She urged people to continue to fight for preservation. “Portland has been discovered in a bigger way than it has before. There have been periods of intensive development before, but it feels like an order of magnitude bigger. Right now is a critical time for the area. There is more risk and more at stake right now.”

Her last day is June 30. Greater Portland Landmarks will post a job description for her replacement on Dec. 15, and applications will be accepted beginning Jan. 3.

Bassett said she intends to stay in the preservation field but hasn’t made firm plans yet.

 

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