2017-05-12 / Front Page

Feds to determine future of history in SoPo

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


A Google Earth image prepared by the South Portland Historical Society for its May 8 presentation to the city council shows the half-acre it currently leases from the city, with its headquarters/museum and parking lot, to the right, and the half-acre it would like to also lease, outlined in red, which it hopes to utilize for an expansion project. (Courtesy image) A Google Earth image prepared by the South Portland Historical Society for its May 8 presentation to the city council shows the half-acre it currently leases from the city, with its headquarters/museum and parking lot, to the right, and the half-acre it would like to also lease, outlined in red, which it hopes to utilize for an expansion project. (Courtesy image) SOUTH PORTLAND — With an eye set firmly to the future, the South Portland Historical Society is asking to lease a halfacre of city land for an expansion project that would more than double the available floor space of its Cushing Point Museum at Bug Light Park, a space that could double as a lecture hall for as many as 100 visitors.

On Monday, May 8, the society’s executive director Kathryn DiPhilippo presented the plan to a resoundingly positive reception from city councilors. But there is one catch — the city council can’t lease the land without a mothermay I from the federal government.

When the historical society signed the 99- year lease for its current half-acre home in 2008, it discovered the cityowned property is still encumbered by deed restrictions left over from the area’s days as a World War II naval shipyard. That means for any use of the land other than as a compliment to the nearby public boat ramp, South Portland needs to obtain permission from Ryan Zinke, secretary of the United States Department of the Interior.

And that’s a blessing that will likely require more than a quick phone call.

“In order to get the approval for that (lease) from the Secretary of the Interior, I would expect that we would need to enlist the help of a U.S. senator,” DiPhilippo said.

Founded in 1962, the South Portland Historical Society is today one of the largest organizations of its kind in the state. With more than 500 members and an active volunteer base of about 70 people who help staff and maintain its museum operations, the society boasts a digitized library of more than 17,000 items, said to be just a small fraction of its total collection. Still, the society gets by on a relative shoestring budget, with DiPhilippo as its only paid employee.

“Ten years ago our historical society was operating from one room in the basement of city hall,” DiPhilippo said. “He had one desk in a closet and most of our items were in storage. It was a challenge just letting residents know that we even existed.”

That changed when Portland Pipe Line Corp donated the Cushing Point House. Used as an administrative building during and after the war years, the two story brick building, sometimes mistakenly referred to as the Captain Nichols House – the society discovered the building, built around 1900, is not nearly old enough to have actually been the captain’s home – was moved onto its current site in 2009 from a spot on Madison Avenue.

Still, the restored building, despite the many architectural changes over the decades that DiPhilippo said would keep it from ever qualifying for the National Register, is the only remaining residential home left from the Cushing’s Point neighborhood that existed before World War II. Not even the point itself still stands, having been buried under what is now Bug Light Park by tons of fill brought in to build the shipyards. Today, the building houses a museum and gift shop on its first floor, and an archival library on its second story.

“Just as I see Bug Light Park as the people’s park, I see our museum as the people’s museum,” DiPhilippo said. “Although the recession was in full swing (in 2009), it was the people of South Portland who came together to create this museum, donating their money, materials and time to make it happen.”

However, as bright a jewel as the site has become, it is not nearly large enough to suit the need. The museum is small enough that city schoolchildren have to tour it in shifts, while tour buses are forced to give it a miss entirely. For its many educational programs, the society is forced to seek other venues, with no room in its headquarters able to hold a standing-room crowd of more than a dozen people.

“There is a large disconnect when programs are held off site, and we will run out of archival space to store items,” DiPhilippo said.

With that in mind, the society, which spent the last decade assuring it could sustain its first real home, hopes to secure a lease to an additional half-acre of land adjacent to Cushing Point Museum.

“Our board of directors feels that we have solidified our operations in the existing building and the timing is right for us to embark on a capital campaign to address our current and future needs,” DiPhilippo wrote in a Jan. 20 memo to the city council that was part of Monday’s presentation.

Assuming an OK is given by Zinke, and assuming the city council chooses to parlay that permission into a property lease, the historical society would launch a funding drive that DiPhilippo expects to last about two years. Once funds are in hand, the society would build a new two story building on the abutting lot, connected to its current home by a breezeway. Like the Cushing Point Museum, the new space would include a museum and exhibit gallery on the first floor, and research rooms and archival storage up top. But the bonus, DiPhilippo said, is that gallery walls on the first floor would be movable, giving the society the ability to turn the space into a lecture hall in order to host its own events.

“We believe the expanded capacity for visitors will bring in expanded donation and gift shop revenue, and that the added revenue will not only pay for the increased cost of the facility but might also support the hiring of an additional staff person who would be focused on education and educational programming,” DiPhilippo said.

As an added benefit, DiPhilippo said, architects engaged by the society have assured them that the new building could accommodate an attached public restroom to serve visitors to Bug Light Park, as well as storage space for tables and chairs now carted in by the city’s parks and recreation department for special events on the property.

The half-acre lot the society hopes to obtain from the city is currently used only for overflow boat trailer parking, and then only four or fives times per year for large events, DiPhilippo said.

Former city councilor Michael Pock, who now is one of 16 members of the historical society’s board of directors, said the concrete slab on the otherwise vacant lot is all that remains of a shipyard building he worked in when he first moved to South Portland in 1973. Owned at that time by General Electric, the space was used to drill tube sheets used in heat exchangers for nuclear reactors, he said.

Pock urged the council to sign a memorandum of understanding promising its willingness to lease the site, which could then be used to secure permission for new construction from the federal government.

“It’s a great little museum. Every time I go down there I learn something new. But we’re bursting at the seams down there right now,” he said.

Based on council reaction at Monday’s workshop session, it was an easy sell.

“I’m going to support this 100 percent,” said Councilor Susan Henderson.

“I’m certainly in favor if it, it would be a wonderful addition to the park,” said Mayor Patti Smith, calling the current museum a “valuable gem” in the city crown.

“I think this is something we should definitely be doing,” said Councilor Linda Cohen. “We can’t plan our future if we’ve lost sight of our past. The only way to see where you are going is to look back and see where you’ve been.”

Cohen did say, however, that she was uncertain about signing a memorandum of understanding promising a future lease deal, as one city council cannot compel action for a future council, which may include new members by that time. Instead, she suggested the current council simply go ahead and approve the lease.

Meanwhile, Councilor Eben Rose saw potential on a couple fronts.

“Just for the record, I am very much an advocate of public bathrooms,” he said. “It’s some of the baseline health and safety issues that we all do.”

But apart from what might he housed within the new building, Rose said the skin of the structure also holds great promise.

“There’s potential for it not only as a functional archival site, but as an attraction – a place of beauty for traffic coming across the river,” Rose said. “There’s a boat ramp right there and it would be wonderful if in the future there was an architectural marvel that came into this space that people would want to come to, not only for Bug Light (which is) one of the main reasons people come to this part of the country, but to actually visit this museum.”

Although the council expressed a desire to fast track the historical society proposal, it may take a couple meetings before it can squeeze a vote onto one of its regular business meetings.

City Manager Scott Morelli said the question of leasing the property to the historical society could be a June agenda item for the city council.

“It’s not going to be on the next agenda because that one is already six pages long,” he said, adding, “That’s not a joke, either.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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