PORTLAND — The Portland Museum of Art’s purchase last week of the longtime home of the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine adds another chapter to the building’s storied history.
The property at 142 Free St., which the museum purchased for $2.1 million, has long been an important place in the Portland community to see shows, worship, conduct commerce and engage the mind.
“It certainly has had an interesting history,” Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth Jr. said of the 189-year-old building.
Shettleworth said the Greek Revival-style building was constructed in 1830 as the Portland Theater. In 1836, it was sold to members of the First Baptist Society to serve as worship space for the newly formed Free Street Baptist Church. The building’s exterior was remained unchanged for 20 years. Portland architect Richard Bond remodeled the building in 1856, adding an Italianate-style front and 185-foot steeple. The steeple stood until 1876 when it was damaged in a storm.
According to a biography of Bond, “with its crowning spire and its location near Congress Square, Free Street was a major Portland landmark, and its design appears to have influenced later church architecture in Maine.”
The church continued there until 1922 when it merged with the First Free Baptist Church on Congress Street and relocated to High Street to form the Immanuel Baptist Church (now the Williston-Immanuel United Church).
Shettleworth said the Portland Chamber of Commerce acquired the building and John Calvin Stevens was hired “to restore the front of the building to what it looked like when it was a theater and early Baptist church.”
The Chamber remained in the space for more than 60 years until the Children’s Museum purchased the building in 1991. After a years-long capital campaign, the museum moved from a house it was renting on Stevens Avenue and opened in 1993. The only change made to the building at that time, Shettleworth said, was a cupola on the top of the roof to house the museum’s camera obscura exhibit.
The Portland Museum of Art has not released specific plans for the building. Because of the property’s preservation value as part of the city’s Congress Street Historic District, any alterations to it are reviewed under the historic preservation ordinance.
“We are excited about the future of Congress Square, and we want all our attention focused on the square,” Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art, told the Portland Press Herald. “This gives us such flexibility. We can now really start thinking how all those pieces fit in a paced growth for the future. With the extent of growth in Portland, it’s important to stake out our neighborhood. There is development coming from all areas and in all directions.”
The sale of the Free Street property gives the Children’s Museum funding to construct a new state-of-the-art museum at Thompson’s Point. The museum will be allowed to remain in the building for up to 20 months and plans to continue its programs there while the new museum is being built. The new site is projected to open in late 2020 or early 2021.
“We are delighted that 142 Free Street will become a part of the PMA’s campus. This is an exciting and generational change for both organizations,” said Chris Dougherty, president of the Board of the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine.
Rose Splint, the museum’s capital campaign director, told the Forecaster in June the new building “will be double the size of our current building, and will feature a vastly different configuration designed to better support our mission: three floors of custom-designed exhibits, two learning labs for our educational programs, a state-of-the-art children’s theater and outdoor exhibit and community spaces.”
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