The Portland Museum of Art with the former Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, at left, which the PMA purchased in 2019 and hopes to tear down and replace as part of a $100 million expansion. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Greater Portland Landmarks has sued the city in an attempt to save the 19th-century building at 142 Free St. from demolition.

In May, the Portland City Council voted to remove a historic classification that protected the former Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine from being torn down. The Portland Museum of Art plans to build a sweeping glass-and-timber expansion on that site as part of a $100 million capital campaign. The public debate leading up to the vote was impassioned and divided, as people on both sides of the issue wrote letters and testified for hours at city meetings.

Greater Portland Landmarks spearheaded the opposition and on Thursday filed a complaint in Cumberland County Superior Court seeking to reverse the City Council’s decision, saying it ignored recommendations of other city boards and did not demonstrate how changes made to the building significantly altered its character. The filing names the Portland Museum of Art as a “party-in-interest.”

In a prepared statement, Carol De Tine, vice president of Greater Portland Landmarks board, said the preservation nonprofit “has never experienced the arrogance and blatant disregard for the law that have been displayed by the PMA and its supporters on the council.”

“We have thought long and hard about taking this action, but the fact is, for 60 years Greater Portland Landmarks has worked to protect and preserve historic buildings and neighborhoods, and we are not going to stop now,” De Tine said in a written statement. “We have been encouraged to mount this appeal by supporters and donors and many other community members who were appalled by the recent City Council vote, and we are confident that we will prevail.”

City spokesperson Jessica Grondin said Thursday that the city did not have any comment about the lawsuit. The Portland City Council at one point postponed a vote on the museum’s application in order to consult an attorney about how its order would hold up in court. Councilors voted on an amended order two weeks later.


“The decision that the council makes tonight, there’s a fair likelihood that it’s going to be appealed by one side or the other,” corporation counsel Michael Goldman told the councilors on May 6.


Museum officials declined to say how the legal action will impact the timeline for the expansion. Director Mark Bessire shared a brief written statement in response to the filing.

“The Portland Museum of Art campus expansion and unification plan is a transformative opportunity for the museum, Congress Square, Greater Portland and Maine,” Bessire said. “For the past year, we have fully committed to an extensive civic process in good faith with the city of Portland, adhering to all regulations, and fully agree with the decision made by the Portland City Council. This appeal questions the judgment of our elected officials and will also impose a significant financial and human resource burden on the city of Portland. The PMA remains committed to our mission of being an open, accessible, inclusive and welcoming museum for everyone.”

The building at 142 Free St. is considered a “contributing” structure to the surrounding Congress Street Historic District, which means it cannot be razed. Built in 1830 and later renovated by architect John Calvin Stevens, it has been home to a theater, a church, the Chamber of Commerce and the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine.

The Portland Museum of Art bought the neighboring property in 2019 with an eye toward growth, and the children’s museum vacated in 2021 for a new home on Thompson’s Point. Since then, the art museum has used the space mostly for offices. The museum applied to change the classification to “non-contributing,” which would allow for the building’s demolition.


The Historic Preservation Board and the Portland Planning Board both recommended against the change. But the Portland City Council ultimately voted 6-3 to reclassify the building on the basis of “significant alterations since it was originally constructed.” It found that the building lacks integrity of design, materials and workmanship.


In the complaint, Greater Portland Landmarks challenged the factual and legal basis for that decision. The filing says the council abused its discretion by ignoring the recommendations of the other two boards. It also says that the changes cited by the Portland City Council in its decision “did not change the building’s character-defining elements or its historic integrity.”

“The fact that a building has undergone some changes does not, in and of itself, make those changes significant or demonstrate that the character-defining integrity of the historic building has been compromised under the terms of Portland’s Historic Preservation Ordinance,” attorney Elizabeth Boepple, who is representing Greater Portland Landmarks and is a former chair of the Portland Planning Board, said in the nonprofit’s statement. “Merely reciting the changes does not make them significant.”

The nonprofit said in its statement that five of the six councilors who supported the Portland Museum of Art declined to meet with Greater Portland Landmarks in advance of the vote. A spokesperson said last month that museum officials met with each councilor and the mayor since launching the capital campaign in 2022.

“The two council-appointed boards did their jobs: they looked at the facts, carefully applied the ordinance criteria and came to reasoned conclusions,” De Tine said in the statement. “A majority of the council did just the opposite: they started with a predetermined outcome, ignored the specified process, and then tried to paper over their decision with irrelevant information. We are confident that the court will see through this charade.”

Museum officials said in May that demolition is “not imminent.” Fundraising is ongoing, and the plans for expansion still need to go through the city’s permitting process. Boepple said the council’s order will remain in place while the case is pending, and it is unlikely the court will consider the filing until September. She said Greater Portland Landmarks will file for an injunction if the museum moves to demolish the building in the meantime.

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