The Town House School in Kennebunkport, Maine — a one room structure where generations of children from fishing and working class families were educated until 1950 — is scheduled for demolition in August of 2015. It is a decision that many residents are not happy with, and one that begs the question of how far they’re willing to go to save this historic building.
The Kennebunkport Historical Society has voted to tear down the Town House School citing extensive decay, structural damage, mold infestation and prohibitive costs involved in rebuilding and maintaining the building.
The building, which was built in 1899, also houses an extensive collection of educational and historically valuable community records, photographs and paperwork dating back to the school’s opening. The school remained open to the public to do research until early this year when the doors were abruptly closed. Former student Luverne Clough Preble Tinkham said, “In recent months, three historians volunteered Friday mornings filing and organizing memorabilia at the school. One Friday they went prepared for work and the schoolhouse door was padlocked. I am very sad to think the Historical Society no longer wants the school or wishes to put any money in to repairing it.”
In fact, the records in the little school house are the reason Tinkham — a past Kennebunkport Historical Society volunteer docent who grew up next door to the school — learned she had a brother and was able to reconnect with him later in life. “I lived in Wink’s house (a home well known to locals near the school) in 1940 and ran across to get to school for eight grades. If it wasn’t for that building, which I spent so many happy days in as a child and then later as an adult volunteer, I never would have come across the paperwork which helped me find my brother,” she said.
Kennebunkport residents, former students and several local and nationally-known historians vehemently disagree with the decision to raze the school, and are doing everything they can to preserve the building which still holds a prominent spot in the hearts of the people who attended or have family members who were educated there.
Renowned historical author and former Kennebunk town historian Joyce Butler said, “The demolition of the Town House School would be a great loss to Kennebunkport. It is the only (of many) surviving one-room schoolhouse in its essentially original form; thus, it tangibly represents the history of education in the town. No other historical aspect of town life and governance has more ongoing relevance than the education of its children.”
Tom Bradbury, executive director of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust commented, “It’s sad to see the loss of historic structures from Kennebunkport’s past. I know the building holds many fond memories for those who are still around who attended school there.”
Sharon Lichter Cummins, editor of someoldnews.com said, “The Town House School is a humble building. It may not have the tourist appeal of some Kennebunkport homes constructed by wealthy summer visitors but its preservation honors our many hardworking year-round families and their histories.”
Former Executive Director of the KHS Susan C. S. Edwards said, “As a historic preservationist whose projects have won honor awards from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and as a resident whose family goes back almost 400 years in this part of Maine, I find this news (the proposed demolition of the school) appalling. She went on to say “The Society’s mission of preserving Kennebunkport history, so clearly stated in the mission of 1962, appears to have been lost in the current focus of the organization.”
Also causing concern to those who are trying to save the school is the fact that the electricity at the building has reportedly been turned off since February. “If that’s the case, the immensely rich historical collection housed there (predominantly paper) sits in the ‘dangerously moldy building’ without the benefit of so much as a portable dehumidifier or an alarm system,” Cummins added.
In an interview for the York County Coast Star
, Executive Director of the Kennebunkport Historical Society Kirsten Camp “It’s an emotional process whenever you’re talking about tearing down historic buildings. It was very emotional for our members. Everybody is saddened that the school house has to be torn down.” The Kennebunkport Historical Society estimated the cost to repair the school is roughly $350,000, a number that school supporters also question.
John O. Goodwin of York County Builders feels restoring the school would be a task worth undertaking.“I took a good look at the building. It is in rough shape, but most likely salvageable,” he said.
Director of Planning and Development Town of Kennebunkport , Werner Gilliam, CFM said “The Town has not condemned the Old Town House School Building. I did a brief walk thru with representatives from the Historical Society, and asked that due to mold and structural concerns that the building not be open to the public until repairs were made and mold remediated. Due to the general issues listed above, I believe that the building is unsafe for public use and occupancy, but to say that the Town condemned the building is a bit of a stretch.”
Historic Preservation Specialist and Kennebunkport native Michaela Hutchins Jergensen made a public plea to the KHS in an open letter to the York County Coast Star
. “I implore the Historical Society to do the right thing for Kennebunkport’s cultural heritage. Explore every option through a full Historic Structures Report. Consider phased options for stabilization and eventual rehabilitation. Explore grant options, including Community Development Block Grants, if available though the town. Call the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and ask for their guidance. Create a fund-raising campaign; even start a crowd-funding page. There are options to save the school and there are still people who care, please don’t wait.”
Resident Barbara Barwise feels the long-term impact of the demolition of the school would be detrimental to the town. “Razing the Town House School may be much more than the loss of a historic building. It may also mean the loss of much of our town’s history.” Butler agreed. “I think if the schoolhouse is torn down that will alienate local long-time residents.”
“My Dad did a lot of work on that building over quite a few years. He and his brothers and sisters went to school there and he would turn in his grave if he knew they wanted to tear it down. Too much history is lost already, let’s save this one,” concluded former Kennebunkport resident Peter A Philbrick Sr.
Tinkham has set up a give forward page
in hopes of raising the funds necessary to preserve the school house, although the clock is ticking. Demolition is slated to begin in August.