Portland, Maine city council declassifies landmarked building to make way for its demolition as part of Portland Museum of Art expansion

Fate of 142 Free Street

Portland, Maine city council declassifies landmarked building to make way for its demolition as part of Portland Museum of Art expansion

Portland, Maine City Council ruled to declassify 142 Free Street as historic building. (Google Maps)

In Portland, Maine, the city council ruled to declassify 142 Free Street as a historic building. The locally designated structure is sited adjacent to the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) in the heart of the Congress Street Historic District. The move to redesignate the building lays the groundwork for a likely demolition that would allow the PMA to more than double its campus footprint, as part of a $100 million museum expansion.

The PMA purchased 142 Free Street in 2019 with the intention of demolishing it to grow its campus’s footprint, which is presently spread across four buildings from various centuries, including an addition by Pei Cobb Freed from 1983. The PMA formally announced plans to expand its campus in 2022. A design competition jury ultimately selected a scheme led by LEVER Architecture.

Under the proposed design, the brick structure along Free Street—with its classic, Greek-inspired facade—would be razed to make room for a new mass timber structure with a concave roofline. The PMA Blueprint, as the plan is known, responds to record visitor numbers, a diversified collection, and community feedback.

The city council vote on May 20 settled the fate for 142 Free Street with a 6-3 vote, among those in opposition was Portland Mayor Mark Dion.

timber extension on brick building
LEVER Architecture has been selected to design the campus expansion project at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. (Courtesy Portland Museum of Art, Maine; LEVER Architecture; Dovetail Design Strategists)

142 Free Street, formerly deemed a “contributing structure” to the historic district in Portland, has had a number of lives since its construction in 1830. It served as a theater, a church, the Chamber of Commerce, and as the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine. The decamped Children’s Museum reopened its facilities in 2021 at Thompson’s Point.

The Historic Preservation Board, Portland Planning Board, City Council, local nonprofit Greater Portland Landmarks, and the public have been debating the future of this site for several months. Both the Historic Preservation Board and the Planning Board recommended against stripping 142 Free Street of its landmarked status. The issue was brought in front of the Portland City Council which took public comment on it. A vote on May 6 was postponed to May 20 to allow the city’s counsel to review the proposed amendment to declassify the building as a “contributing” structure sited within the historic district.

Those opposing the declassification and likely demolition of the building view the structure as historically significant, integral to maintaining the integrity of nearby “contributing” structures. They particularly note its facade.

portland museum of art in snowy winter
If demolished 142 Free Street would be replaced with mass timber structure. (LEVER Architecture)

Carol DeTine, vice president of Greater Portland Landmarks, said during public comment at a city council meeting: “The expansion of the Museum does not depend on tearing down 142 Free Street. The PMA already has more than enough property to build on.”

Those recommending reclassification note that the building’s interiors have undergone significant alterations, most notably in the 1990s.

Portland Museum of Art Creative Director and Director of Public Relations Graeme Kennedy said: “This building is contributing to a district and the character of a district. It’s one of hundreds of buildings that does that, and so we believe that the removal of this building to build a new landmark, cultural institution in the museum is a good use for this site.”