2018-03-16 / Community

A Window on the Past

The armory, revisited
By Craig H. Skelton
South Portland Historical Society

The front patio at the Rusty Lantern was designed with a tank decoration to help capture the history of the building as the Maine National Guard Armory. (Courtesy photo) The front patio at the Rusty Lantern was designed with a tank decoration to help capture the history of the building as the Maine National Guard Armory. (Courtesy photo) I first wrote about the South Portland Armory back in 2006. An update to the article has been on my mind for many months now. I drive about 500 miles each week to and from work, so in the past year, I have stopped in to purchase gasoline at the Rusty Lantern about every four days. Each time, I have looked up at the rear façade of the building, even with snow or sleet slamming me in the face, and have thought about how the developer did such a good job redoing the old building.

On my most recent visit, I walked through to the front entrance and admired how they had incorporated one of the cast concrete tanks, formerly located above a window, into a planter on the front patio. The armory on Broadway was built in the Art Deco style and had been adorned with other images of military armament, as well, all cast as concrete images and mounted high on the walls around the outside of the building. The front patio is quite inviting to visitors and I imagine sitting there as the weather warms, to enjoy a sandwich or slice of pizza.

Readers may be interested to know that the untold story of the building involved the construction of the new Casco Bay Bridge. The relocation of Route 77 during the mid- 1990s that bypassed the old connection of 77 on Waterman Drive attracted a lot of interest from local businesses who wanted to stay nearby the high traffic count.

A local burger joint wanted to buy the armory for that very reason and negotiated a price in excess of $1 million for the property. As is the case with commercial transactions, the purchase was dependent upon the local planning board approving plans for redevelopment of the building and property. South Portland, in accordance with its adopted Comprehensive Plan, had long ago zoned one side of Broadway for business uses and the other side as residential. The city followed the plan and the dream of relocation for the burger joint was shot down. This also came as a huge disappointment to the state who saw their willing buyer walking away, and also saw a sizable drop in the potential sales price due to the restriction to residential use.

Late in 2002, the armory attracted the attention of the Museum of Glass and Ceramics who purchased the building for $550,000. With every rule there are exceptions and, in the residential zone, the museum would have been allowed. Efforts to meet fundraising goals to transform the building into a destination for everything glass never materialized and the organization sadly fell into bankruptcy.

Enter the city of South Portland, which acquired the building out of bankruptcy for $650,000. Its vision was to locate city hall at the gateway to our community. I thought the location to be perfect for that use because, with city hall next to Central Fire Station and the police department, it would enable the city to arrange traffic patterns to and from the three facilities in a way that no other entity could. I had suggested relocation of the exit across police property to Anthoine Street to alleviate traffic congestion on Broadway as one of the many positive merits of the plan, but alas, that was not to come to pass.

With the condition of the armory continuing to deteriorate, Eric Matheson of Cape Elizabeth signed a lease with the city in 2011. He operated his Fore River Sound Stage in the building until February 2014 when he closed down, citing the lack of heat and hot water in the building, and stating that the state had not done enough in the way of tax incentives for filmmakers.

By June 2014, with the building now empty, city staff were already talking with potential developers when the South Portland Planning Board voted to recommend the sale of the building. There were many hurdles to overcome but Priority Real Estate of Topsham came forth with the plan to develop the property into a gas station, while attempting to preserve the façade of the building. In May 2016, they finally closed on the property with a purchase price of $700,000 after going through a lengthy process to change the zoning from residential use. Justification for the change was concern that few if any developers would undertake a project that involved saving the front section of the existing building. Were it not for that change, we probably would not be enjoying the convenience of the Rusty Lantern in the nicely renovated former state armory.

Although I was initially disappointed about the lost opportunity for city hall at the gateway to our community, I have come to enjoy the convenience of slipping in and out of the Rusty Lantern on my way to and from the daily grind.

Craig H. Skelton is a member of South Portland Historical Society.

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