A renovation project expected to cost as much as $5 million is intended to breathe new life into historic Memorial Hall in Oakland, shown last August. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

OAKLAND — A handful of architecture students from the University of Maine at Augusta are helping Oakland officials institute a plan to bring the historic Memorial Hall in compliance with state and federal codes.

Michelle Fontaine, secretary of the Oakland Area Historical Society, said the town recently repaired the building’s rotting wood foundation and its leaking roof. The next major hurdle, she said, is getting exterior stones repointed using “historically accurate mortar” and bringing the building into compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Town Manager Ella Bowman said the deteriorating condition of Memorial Hall was causing one problem after another.

“The fire marshal’s report, back a couple years ago, (found that) it was just so out of compliance,” Bowman said. “The occupancy level had to be cut back to 49 people.”

Memorial Hall was built in the 1870s and is one of four buildings in Maine to serve as Civil War memorials. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

It’s an example of Italian-Gothic architecture that Fontaine said is “very unusual” for a small rural community.


Memorial Hall, which is on Church Street, has had a range of purposes since the 1800s. It has been a bank, a post office and a town hall. It’s also been home to community gatherings and performances, such as weddings and musicals. For the last 40 years, the building has not been widely available for public use and is primarily used as a dance studio.

To brainstorm ways to bring the building up to code, earlier this year Bowman reached out to professors at the University of Maine at Augusta. UMA’s architecture program is the only professional architecture degree in Maine, and since 2007 the program has run a community design studio, deploying its students to municipalities across Maine to volunteer design ideas for renovation projects.

Oakland Town Manager Ella Bowman stands in a doorway last August at Memorial Hall. A renovation effort is underway to breathe new life into one of the oldest and most unique structures in central Maine. The town is collaborating with architecture students at the University of Maine at Augusta on improvements that are needed to meet state and federal code requirements. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

Patrick Hansford, who joined UMA this year as an assistant professor of architecture, runs the program.

He said that when he was in architecture school in Ohio 40 years ago, the focus was on new construction. But a survey of architectural firms found that 70% of their work now is coming from addition, renovation, alteration and preservation projects, he said.

Teaching his students about how to rehabilitate and reuse old buildings, he said, will better prepare them to launch their careers, and in Oakland there’s an opportunity to do that close to home.

“(Students) have to understand and have experience in ways to be of service within our community and be aware of how the profession serves within the community,” Hansford said.


He said 10 UMA students will be in Oakland in early April to begin a four-week project focusing on how to make Memorial Hall ADA-compliant and up to code while preserving its historic design elements.

The students, who are volunteering their time, will consider how to make a handicap ramp in front of the building “blend in” to the existing architecture, Hansford said. They’ll also consider how to install an indoor elevator in the same spirit.

At the end of the four weeks, students will present five design ideas to the town on how to address code issues.

Bowman said the students’ involvement will demonstrate to funding sources there is educational value in preserving the building.

“This is a project that’s been neglected for forever, and it’s time that we step up and start putting the love back into that building,” Bowman said.

The project is expected to take another two to three years and will probably cost about $5 million. She hopes state and federal grant money will cover much of that sum, with private donations and local fundraising making up the rest.

“The goal is to do this project without increasing property taxes in the town of Oakland,” Bowman said.

Fontaine said she will include visual illustrations provided by the UMA students as part of grant proposals to U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins. The grant is to the tune of $300,000 for phase one of the project early next year.

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