The Portland Museum of Art wants to tear down the former Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine to make way for its planned renovation, but it needs the city’s approval to do so. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Portland Museum of Art is asking the city to remove a historic designation from the former Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine so it can tear down the building to make way for its transformative expansion plans.

The building at 142 Free St. is considered a “contributing structure” to the surrounding Congress Street Historic District, which protects it from demolition. Built in 1830 and later renovated by John Calvin Stevens, it has been home to a theater, church and the Chamber of Commerce. But the museum says the many changes made to the structure over time have diminished its historical significance.

“Without the removal of this designation, we can’t build the museum that our communities have asked us to,” said Graeme Kennedy, the museum’s creative director and spokesman. “We can’t show the collections that our communities have helped us build. We can’t be the museum that we know we need to be.”

The Portland Museum of Art bought the neighboring property in 2019 with an eye toward growth. The Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine moved to Thompson’s Point in 2021, and the art museum has been using the Free Street space for offices. Last year, it launched a $100 million campaign to expand and unify its campus, which no longer has adequate space for its collection and staff. The plan called for an “architecturally significant” building that would either add to or replace the former Children’s Museum. The winning design announced in January would require razing it for new construction three times its size.

Changing the existing building’s designation to “non-contributing” would make the demolition possible. The Historic Preservation Board agreed Wednesday to take up the review. The members will schedule at least one workshop and a public hearing on the application before voting on a recommendation. The planning board also will review the matter before it goes to the City Council, which will make a final decision. The process likely will take months.

If the City Council supports the change, the museum would still need to bring the proposed design for the expansion to the Historic Preservation Board and the planning board for review. If the council doesn’t approve it, the museum will likely have to take its current plan back to the drawing board.


Christine Grimando, the city’s director of planning and urban development, said she does not have a position on the application, but she did recommend that the board take up the review because she felt that the museum brought forward a thorough application that warranted a public process.

The Congress Street Historic District stretches from Franklin Street to Deering Avenue and encompasses the entire museum campus. The city designated 142 Free St. as a contributing structure when it created the district in 2009.


The Portland Museum of Art submitted a 45-page report about 142 Free St. by historic building consultant Margaret Gaertner as part of the application. Gaertner used city records, newspaper clippings, photographs and other materials to document the various owners of the building and the alterations each one made on the property through the 1990s. The columns that are part of the façade today, for example, date to the 1920s. The Chamber of Commerce had just bought the building and hired architects John Calvin Stevens and John Howard Stevens to renovate it.

The museum argues that the existing 19,000-square-foot building has been changed too much over the years to contribute to the historic district.

“When considered for its role in the Congress Street Historic District, and as part of the PMA’s historic campus, 142 Free Street does not carry the same historical stature, architectural consistency, or community significance that the District’s or the museum’s other properties do,” museum Director Mark Bessire wrote in a letter to the Historic Preservation Board.


Bessire also noted that the façade, which the new wing would replace, dates to the Jim Crow era.

“Our region is one that is striving to become more inclusive, dynamic, and diverse – a city where everyone belongs – and some architecture styles can carry unfortunate legacies of the past into the future that undermine these values and goals,” he wrote.

The Portland Museum of Art chose Lever Architecture to design its renovation and expansion. Images by Lever Architecture, Courtesy of Portland Museum of Art and Dovetail Design Strategists

Kennedy said all four finalists for the design proposed a new building at 142 Free St., although one incorporated the existing façade in the design. The chosen concept by West Coast firm Lever Architecture shows a curved front, dominated by windows, that would match the height of the Payson Building facing Congress Square.

The museum submitted several letters of support for the redesign alongside its application, including from the owners of nearby businesses Flea-For-All and Springer’s Jewelers, and Lauren Wayne, general manager of the State Theatre.

“The potential for more programming, event space and community events is certainly an exciting and big part of it all, but so is the commitment the PMA has made to sustainable building practices with this project, which is crucial as we navigate climate change in a coastal city,” Wayne wrote.

The public will have the opportunity to comment on the proposal at future meetings.



In March, the then-executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks expressed concern about the possible demolition of 142 Free St. in an op-ed in the Portland Press Herald. Sarah Hansen, who left the organization in July, wrote that the initial design by Lever Architecture had “worthy distinctions, including its scale, choice of sustainable materials, homage to Maine’s Wabanaki heritage and ability to welcome the public.”

But she noted that the building was protected because of its age and association with notable architects.

“Outside of the preservation protections for 142 Free Street (and the other buildings of the campus), the signature Payson Building was designed to be in conversation with the façade of 142 Free Street, and its rhythm and scale were influenced by the earlier building,” Hansen wrote. “Removing that context thus diminishes the Payson Building, which is also proposed to be significantly modified with the introduction of an archway leading to a High Street courtyard. This design effectively reorients the museum away from Congress Square. These changes would dramatically affect the museum’s interactions with a major intersection undergoing significant publicly funded upgrades.”

Carol De Tine, the vice president of the board of trustees for Greater Portland Landmarks, on Thursday reiterated the points Hansen outlined in her op-ed but said she was not prepared to comment in greater detail without having reviewed the application.

“I think it’s important that it’s reviewed according to the criteria for designation set out in the ordinance, and those criteria haven’t changed over the years, but Portland has,” De Tine said. “I think we’ll be looking at it with 2023 eyes, but also very aware that we are a preservation organization, and we are relied upon by the community to carry out our role. So we trust the preview process, we support it, and we’ll be watching it closely.”

The museum does not have a timeline for the expansion but has said it is not expected to be completed until at least 2026.

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