Preservation rules guard USM buildings slated for demolition
Three buildings in a town historic district are on a demolition list for the University of Southern Maine campus in Gorham.
The University of Southern Maine recently provided to the American Journal the 2020-2022 “Approved Demolition” list issued by the University of Maine System Board of Trustees. Six buildings on the campus could be razed within two to three years.
Noah Miner, chairman of the Gorham Historic Preservation Commission, said three of the buildings are located in the Gorham Historic District. They are protected by a town ordinance and razing them would require town approval.
One of the three structures is the so-called Johnson family home at 7 College Ave., which is scheduled for a 2021 demolition, according to the list. It was built in 1856, according to the register of National Historic Places, and the quaint property includes a carriage house topped by a vintage cupola.
Bruce Roullard, a neighbor and preservation commission member, said the home contains several original interior features.
“It’s a prominent house in the neighborhood,” Roullard said.
The other two buildings in the historic district on the list are at 19 College Ave. and 62 School St. Both are scheduled for demolition this year and both are listed as being vacant.
“This designation requires that any structure within the district needs a certificate of appropriateness from the Gorham Historic Preservation Commission prior to any demolition, moving, or construction,” Miner wrote recently in a letter to university officials.
Miner sent the letter to raise the university’s awareness of the town ordinance, which is strictly designed to prevent destruction of historic properties.
“The buildings that are in the Historic District have to go before the Gorham Historic Preservation Commission for permission to demolish,” Town Council Chairwoman Suzanne Phillips said.
A USM official said there are no immediate plans to remove the three buildings in the historic district.
“USM did identify buildings for the University of Maine System Board of Trustees that have very low net asset value and that could be removed, if needed,” Nancy Griffin, USM chief operations officer, wrote in an email Tuesday to the American Journal.
“Currently, the only building on the Gorham campus that USM is planning to take down is the white house located at 128 School St.,” Griffin wrote.
That house is not in the historic district. It may be burned in a Gorham Fire Department training event this summer. The university plans to use the empty lot to park school buses during athletic events.
Griffin said the university is “not actively planning” to remove other buildings in Gorham.
A map in the university’s master plan for all of its campuses, approved Jan. 27, 2019, doesn’t appear to include the three Gorham houses that are in the historic district.
The Johnson family home, 7 College Ave., is home to TRIO, a federal student services office. The USM Geography-Anthropology Department also uses part of the building for storage, said Professor Lydia Savage, the department chairman. The university has “no idea where to put TRIO people” if that building is razed, Savage said last week.
Savage said Professor Rob Sanford has used 19 College Ave. as an energy lab to test devices for use in old homes.
“It’s located in an old house for a reason,” Savage said.
Sanford’s experiments have included innovative installation ideas for pellet stoves. Sanford doesn’t know where his lab could be relocated if 19 College Ave. is demolished.
“A problem still to be solved,” he said.
Savage said most on the Gorham campus are unaware those buildings are on a demolition list.
“It’s frustrating,” she said.
A university dorm not in the historic district but listed as proposed for demolition in 2022 is the vacant Dickey-Wood Residence Hall, a pair of round, eight-story buildings.
Gorham’s historic ordinance was passed in 2016 to preserve landmarks and character of the town’s three historic districts. Roullard pointed to the number of landmarks lost over the decades along the town’s Main Street.
The town has three historic districts: South Street Historic District, Gorham Campus Historic District and Gorham Historic District along College Avenue, State and School streets.
When a demolition permit is sought at the Code Enforcement Office for a structure in one of those districts, the applicant is directed to the seven-member Historic Preservation Commission. If an applicant doesn’t agree with the commission’s decision, Miner said, they may file an appeal with the Town Council.
“We are aware of the town of Gorham ordinances and processes should we wish to move forward with new construction or removal of buildings on this campus,” USM’s Griffin wrote.
With 128 School St. outside the historic district, Griffin said the university is working with Gorham Fire Department to use it for training in August. Fire Chief Robert Lefebvre is waiting for an environmental assessment to determine whether the building contains lead paint or asbestos before meeting with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Firefighters would practice a variety of training scenarios before burning it.