2012-09-28 / Front Page

Armory building listed as ‘place in peril’

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Greater Portland Landmarks, an organization that works to preserve locations with historical significance in the Portland area, listed the South Portland Armory on its inaugural list of “places in peril.”

The Portland-based nonprofit said in a report the armory “has not been well-maintained.” “The roof leaks and the plaster walls are in poor condition; the exterior concrete steps, tower corners, and plinths beneath the stone urns are all deteriorating; the original windows need to be reglazed; and the metal canopies above the doorways are rusting and peeling.”

The armory is one of seven buildings the organization identified, and the only one in South Portland that “are at critical points where they could be permanently lost.”

But the current tenant of the armory disagrees with Greater Portland Landmark’s interpretation of the state of the historic building.

Eric Matheson runs a local sound stage and film production company from the Armory, Fore River Sound Stage. He signed a 15-year lease for the property with the city of South Portland, which owns the building, in December.

“The conditions in there are not anywhere near as bad as (Greater Portland Landmarks) think they are,” Matheson said.

He said the building’s leaky roof is his primary concern. He had to move much of his equipment out of the way to avoid rainwater ruining it.

“If we can get the roof sealed up this winter I would be surprised. I plan to get up there on the tower myself, but I’m 70 years old. I shouldn’t be climbing around up there. It’s not what I do any more,” Matheson said.

But Matheson’s concerns are with cosmetic repairs rather than the structural integrity of the building.

“As far as I’m concerned, they can come to talk to me about that stuff. I’ve got the engineer’s report. There are repairs that have to be done, but the building is structurally sound. For these people to come along and say these things are in danger of falling down, it’s totally ludicrous.”

The armory was built in 1941, among what Greater Portland Landmarks calls a “flurry of new government construction” when the U.S. entered into World War II. South Portland was a major part of that war effort. Workers built 236 Liberty Ships at a shipyard where Bug Light Park now stands.

Currently, the armory is a highly visible landmark that sits just feet from the landing point of the Casco Bay Bridge, where many commuters from Portland drive every day.

“You see it right there as you’re coming into town. Thirty thousand cars pass by each day. It’s a gateway to South Portland, and it really represents an era in the history,” said Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks.

When the National Guard moved out of the building in 1994, ownership passed to the state of Maine. South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said the city had a longstanding interest in acquiring the building, in part to “protect who their neighbor was” because the armory is beside the city’s fire and police station. A deal was ultimately worked out in 2006.

Two years prior, according to Greater Portland Landmarks, the armory was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Bassett encouraged the city to take a “proactive” approach and explore listing the armory on the registry. The program would benefit the city, she said, because it ensures that the site will be preserved and would “open the door to tax incentives” that “might be a way to bring funds in.”

Other landmarks in South Portland listed on the National Register of Historic Places include Bug Light (formally known as Portland Breakwater Light), Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, and the Seavy-Robinson House, located at 580 Ocean St.

But Kathy DiPhilippo, historian at the South Portland Historical Society, said there are both positives and negatives to listing landmarks with the national register. DiPhilippo writes a weekly column in the Sentry titled “Window on the Past.”

“The pro is, if you’re a big believer in historic preservation, it’s a great way to preserve a place,” DiPhilippo said.

“But once it’s been registered on that list, I know that to keep it on the list, if they were going to do renovations they have to be very careful. I know some people don’t like the idea of the national registry because they aren’t able to do what they want with their home.”

Matheson is one of those people who would rather not see the building listed on the registry. He said he doesn’t mind if work is done to the exterior face of the building, but he doesn’t want the way he runs his business inside to be affected.

“If you put it on a registry, then all of a sudden I’m limited in what I can and can’t do, and the city and I have already come to an agreement.” Matheson said.

In May 2011, the city applied for a grant through Maine’s Office of Community Development to address some of the cosmetic needs the Armory has. The $100,000 grant would have been matched through $100,000 municipal Tax Increment Funds, but the city was denied. Gailey said there was about $30 million requested from various cities and towns for $3 million in grant money.

But Gailey said the upkeep of the building is a priority, and he hopes more money will be free for repairs soon.

“We’re hopefully coming out of the doldrums of a recession here. It started in 2007, 2008 and we’ve only owned the building since ’06,” Gailey said. “We haven’t had that much money to earmark, and we’re talking six figures to even start to work over there.”

Regardless of the outcome, DiPhillipo said the conversation about preserving history should be a discussion everyone in South Portland has a chance to weigh in on.

“We should probably be looking at our older buildings and decide what’s worth saving,” she said.

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