2015-08-21 / Front Page

Final bell tolls for Town House School

Last ditch effort underway to save Kennebunkport’s last one-room schoolhouse
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Luverne Preble, 80, sits on the steps of the Town House School at 135 North Road in Kennebunkport, where she attended grades one through eight. Built in 1900, the school closed in 1951 and was deeded to the Kennebunkport Historical Society four years later. In May, citing an advanced state of decay — note the lumber used to shore up one bowing wall — society members voted to tear down the building by the end of August, an act Preble is fighting to forestall. (Duke Harrington photo) Luverne Preble, 80, sits on the steps of the Town House School at 135 North Road in Kennebunkport, where she attended grades one through eight. Built in 1900, the school closed in 1951 and was deeded to the Kennebunkport Historical Society four years later. In May, citing an advanced state of decay — note the lumber used to shore up one bowing wall — society members voted to tear down the building by the end of August, an act Preble is fighting to forestall. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNKPORT — For Luverne Preble, the Town House School at 135 North Road in Kennebunkport is more than just an old building, it’s a dear family friend.

On Monday, Preble, 80, sat on the steps of the former school, in between two giant green doors that, when they first opened in 1900, admitted boys on one side, girls on the other. In her hands, she held a photo, believed to be from 1920 or 1921, that showed 23 students in Little Rascals dress, seated in three neat columns, two to a desk.

Among the still bright faces is her father, Burton Clough, then about 11 or 12 years old, a serious looking boy safely ensconced in a back row. But seated front and center in the photo is R. Longley Philbrick, who, in 1925, according to Barbara Bush’s 1994 memoir, would find work at Walker’s Point, incorporating a porch into the main house as a living room. Philbrick later did a complete restoration of the now-famous Bush family home in the early 1980s, alongside his son, Danny, who reportedly still does work at the compound.

It’s a photo steeped in history, or pre-history, as the case may be, but soon — very soon — that picture and a few remaining relics like it may be the only evidence left of the building that served generations of children in what was once the town’s municipal center.

The school closed in 1951, and four years later was deeded to the then-fledging 


A photo from the blog SoMeOldNews.com, shows Kennebunkport’s Town House School and its student body in 1913, long before the addition of the ell that today contains the documents vault of the Kennebunkport Historical Society. The society has owned the building since 1955 and now wants to tear it down. While the main building is easily recognizable, the surrounding landscape of the Town House area is vastly different today, although the Arundel Cemetery is easily discernible. (Courtesy photo) A photo from the blog SoMeOldNews.com, shows Kennebunkport’s Town House School and its student body in 1913, long before the addition of the ell that today contains the documents vault of the Kennebunkport Historical Society. The society has owned the building since 1955 and now wants to tear it down. While the main building is easily recognizable, the surrounding landscape of the Town House area is vastly different today, although the Arundel Cemetery is easily discernible. (Courtesy photo)

Kennebunkport Historical Society for $1,500. For decades afterward it served as the society’s headquarters and research center. But from the 1980s, when the society obtained White Columns — formerly known as The Nott House — on Maine Street, attention shifted, and dollars soon followed, leaving the old school wanting for maintenance. In May, citing black mold and buckling walls, the society voted to raze the building “no later than Aug. 28.”

Although board members say it’s unlikely they will meet that self-imposed deadline, the old school is nonetheless Dead Building Leaning, with little-to-no hope of a last-minute reprieve.

Still, Preble has vowed to fight for preservation of the building, which she also attended, right up until the wrecking ball swings.

“I want to save my building, there’s got to be a way,” she said. “I’m not doing this for me. I only have so many years left. I’m doing this for my community, because this community needs this center, and I think I’ve got this one last fight left in me, even though the friends who would have been here supporting me are almost all gone now.”


In a photo thought to be from 1920 or 1921, students at Kennebunkport’s Town House School pose for a group shot, including Burton Clough, then about age 12, fifth back in the farthest row to the left. He is the father of Luverne Preble, who also got her entire primary education in this building and is now fighting to keep the town’s last remaining one-room school house from being torn down. Also in the photo, front and center, is R. Longley Philbrick, who in 1925 found work at Walker’s Point incorporating a porch into the main house as a living room. He later did a complete restoration of the Bush Family home in the early 1980s, alongside his son, Danny, who reportedly still does work at the compound. (Courtesy photo) In a photo thought to be from 1920 or 1921, students at Kennebunkport’s Town House School pose for a group shot, including Burton Clough, then about age 12, fifth back in the farthest row to the left. He is the father of Luverne Preble, who also got her entire primary education in this building and is now fighting to keep the town’s last remaining one-room school house from being torn down. Also in the photo, front and center, is R. Longley Philbrick, who in 1925 found work at Walker’s Point incorporating a porch into the main house as a living room. He later did a complete restoration of the Bush Family home in the early 1980s, alongside his son, Danny, who reportedly still does work at the compound. (Courtesy photo)

According to local historian Joyce Butler, author of the books, “Kennebunkport: The Evolution of an American Town, Vols. 1 and 2” (2013 and 2015), the Town House School is the last extant example of 13 one-room schoolhouses that once dotted the local landscape.

“Historically, it has significance, but it also has strong emotional meaning for a lot of people,” Butler said on Monday.

That’s certainly true for Preble, both before and after the building’s tenure as a school

house. Like her father before her, Preble spent all eight years of her primary education at the Town House School, so called because it lies in an area of Kennebunkport where the original town office, or “town meeting house,” once stood. By the time Preble was enrolled during the World War II era, the building had grown to two classrooms, although the student body was still minuscule by modern standards — less than 70 students in grades one through eight and only six in Preble’s class.

Inside, she and her classmates studied reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as such long-lost components of the curriculum as penmanship and “manners.” Outside, Preble was permitted to play baseball on the front lawn during recess, albeit most often stationed in a special position designated as “far right field” — literally as far from home plate at the schoolhouse doors as the Arundel Cemetery, where the boys felt confident Preble had little hope of disrupting an important play.

After graduating from Kennebunk High School, Preble married and raised six children in Cape Porpoise, where she ran a hair salon for more than 15 years, while she and her first husband ran Preble’s Fish Market. But her connection to Town House School did not end.

When it was given to the historical society, she was among the volunteers who helped clean out the building to ready it for new tenants. Later, as a research volunteer, she happened across town records that actually connected her to a brother she never knew she had.

“I found his name in a birth book,” Preble said. “If it hadn’t been for that building, which I spent so many happy days in as a child, I never would have come across the paperwork which helped me find my brother.”

Preble understands not everyone is going to have the same kind of emotional attachment to the Town House School that she does. However, she feels the historical society’s current board of directors has even less of a connection than the average town resident.

“The society has dumped its leaders constantly because new people come in and they want to run things like their towns in New York, or New Jersey or Pennsylvania, or wherever they’ve come from, and the people who have lived here forever, they get rid of them,” she said.

Butler says she “does not disagree” with Preble’s assessment, and similarly ties the ill fortunes of Town House School to White Columns, which in recent years has incorporated a museum room dedicated to former President George H. W. Bush, and an exhibit honoring former First Lady Barbara Bush, as well as a First Families showcase.

“The focus is now, and has been for some time, on the Nott House and the Bush story that has been brought in there,” Butler said. “I understand that effort, because it is a money-raiser, but unfortunately it has meant that the campus at the Town House has not been taken care of properly.”

The historical society has not exactly been flush with funds in recent years. In August 2013, Executive Director Susan Edwards was let go “due to financial constraints.” That led to the mass resignations of the office manager and four board members.

The current key staffer, Executive Administrator Kirsten Camp, came on board a month later. She was out of town earlier this week and was not available for comment, but has been quoted in other media saying the decision to raze the school was “an emotional process.”

In February, David Pinkham of Portland based Pinkham and Greer Engineers conducted an inspection and deemed the building unsafe for occupancy.

By that time, a special committee had been formed to decide the fate of the old building. Still, Camp, her husband, and a local boat builder friend worked through the night soon after Pinkham’s visit, installing a system of 2-by-6 lumber braces for fear the roof and west wall, already bowed out, might buckle under the snow load.

At that time, the building was padlocked, a move Preble said came as a surprise to a core contingent of Friday afternoon archive divers.

On May 19, the special committee held a workshop to discuss the fate of the building. That session, Preble complains, was poorly advertised. Apart from herself and the committee, only four of 315 society members showed up, she said.

The agenda for that meeting claimed that repair of the Town House School would cost $350,000. Meanwhile, routine maintenance of the building was said to be sucking $1,000 per month from society coffers. It also said the building had been “condemned by the town.”

However, while Town Planning Director Werner Gilliam has said he did conduct a walk-though of the building, and did recommend against its use until rehabbed, both he and Assistant Code Enforcement Officer Wayne Mathews deny ever ordering the building closed.

Less than a fortnight later, on May 28, the society held a special meeting to vote on the fate of the Town House School. Accounts vary on how many members were in attendance — the number is pegged between 30 and 50, depending on whose memory is being taxed. But most agree that in a clear show of hands, three-quarters of those present voted to demolish the old school building. The society archives and other items in storage there further up North Street, to new space to be allocated within the Pasco Center, another structure owned by the society, where its administrative office is located. The members also agreed to retain the lot where the school sits, as well two smaller build- ings — containing the old town jail cells and Clark fishing office.

On Monday, society board member Peter Whalon, who chaired the special school committee, declined to say how his group reached its decision to recommend the demolition, which will reportedly cost the society $10,000.

“The response of the society has to be consistent and to be consistent it has to come from a senior officer, or one person,” he said. “I’m not going to get in the way of whatever they might do. That reply has to come form them.”

Whalon did say a report issued by his committee “explains everything anyone could want to know,” but declined to share a copy, claiming it could only be released by a board officer.

Attempts to reach Society President David Micca and Treasurer Dana Dakers for comment before the Post’s deadline were unsucessful.

Society Secretary Albert Black did return a call, but declined to discuss “any specifics,” including the numbers given on the May 19 workshop agenda.

Still, “speaking generally,” he said, “it was regrettably determined that keeping the Town House School would be an inordinate financial strain.”

“That isn’t to say we don’t value the building, as certainly we do,” Black said. “None of us would be on the board if we did not value and revere the history of the town, but some- times difficult decisions need to be made.”

Black, who moved to Kennebunkport in 2010 and joined the society board in 2013, says he can empathize with Preble’s view, given the number of historic structures he’s seen disappear from his native Ellsworth.

“It’s not that we are indifferent or callous or insensitive to the concerns of people like Ms. Preble, who think this is an unwise decision,” he said. “We respect that. But this is a bit like Social Security — it’s a can that’s been kicked down the road, and kicked down the road, until eventually our board had to react in an adult fashion.”

“You see what we have to fight against? Their heads are so full of themselves,” Preble said, citing what she calls the “very high level of education” and general from-awayness of the typical historical society board member compared to her more provincial bonafides.

Meanwhile, both Black and Whalon say it’s a little late for Preble to come in like a silver-haired hurricane, trying to undo what’s already been decided.

“This decision wasn’t made indifferently or impetuously,” Black said. “The response seems almost delayed because members were give an opportunity to speak to the committee.”

“Other than to say it’s been on the street and in the membership’s hands for more than three months, I can’t comment any further,” Whalon said.

Still, Preble isn’t giving up. She agrees the society archives housed in the schoolhouse, in a vault added on to the building in the 1950s, should be moved to the Pasco Center. But beyond that, she wants to board to unhook the padlocks and let her in with a structural engineer of her own.

“They say the floors are all warped. Well, it was like that when I was a little girl,” she said. “We’re not going to get that straightened out. But it’s got a beautiful granite foundation. You can’t convince me it’ll cost as much as they say to at least maintain the shell of the building, even if it’s just to be open in the summer.”

Preble has launched a crowdfunding attempt on the website GiveForward.com, in hopes of raising enough money to convince the society board to do a rethink on the building’s future.

Since launching the page in late July, Preble has raised $800 from 12 donors toward her initial goal of $7,000. But many older residents in town are leery of entering a credit card number online, and have simply written her checks, boosting her total raised thus far to something just shy of $1,400.

That may be too little too late. Black said plans are on track to tear down the old school building, although the society might not make the “not later than Aug. 28” date.

That’s partly because board members are not confident the building is secure enough at this time for volunteers to go in and move the archives. Still, every day that a move gets delayed can do untold damage to the materials, Preble said, given that electrical power, and climate control, was reportedly shut off in February when the building was closed.

But one person who has donated to Preble’s preservation effort is Peter Philbrick Sr., whose father, R. Longley, seemingly bridges the gap between the familial history Preble fears society board members are consigning to the dustbin of history, and those presidents and sea captains tourists pay to learn about.

“My Dad did a lot of work on that building over quite a few years,” he wrote when donating $100 on July 21. “He and his brothers and sisters went to school there and he would turn in his grave if he knew they wanted to tear it down. Too much history is lost already, let’s save this one.”

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