2015-09-18 / Front Page

Town House School saved ... for now

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — The last remaining oneroom schoolhouse in Kennebunkport has been given a year-long reprieve from demolition, but that may do little good once the snow starts piling up.

“I’m convinced the work we did saved the building during last winter’s storms,” said Kirsten Camp on Monday, “but I saw the engineer’s face when he entered that building — I’m not convinced it can stand up to weather like we had last year.”

Camp is executive administrator of the Kennebunkport Historical Society, which owns the building. In May, society members voted to tear down the 115-yearold building. But in late August, thanks in large part to the efforts of Cape Porpoise resident Luverne Preble, the society granted a stay of execution, agreeing not to swing the wrecking ball until next summer, or ever – if Preble and her peers can put together funds needed to rehabilitate the aging schoolhouse.

But Preble also fears the worst may come to pass, if hammers do not start to swing soon.

“If they don’t let us go in soon and put in the cables needed to hold it together, and we have another winter like we did last winter, it probably will fall down,” she said Monday. “My goodness, it might fall down tomorrow. Who knows?

“We have to work fast,” Preble said. “The historical society says they want to help us, but, oh, they drag their feet.”

At stake is the fate of the Town House School located at 135 North Road, which is so-called because, when it was built in 1900, Kennebunkport’s municipal hall was located just a stone’s throw away. According to local historian Joyce Butler, it is the last extant example of 13 one-room schoolhouses that once dotted the town’s landscape.

The school closed in 1951 and, four years later, was deeded to the then-fledging Kennebunkport Historical Society for $1,500. For decades 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.

Flash forward to February, when David Pinkham of Portland-based Pinkham and Greer Engineers conducted an inspection and deemed the building unsafe for occupancy.

Soon after, Camp worked through the night with her husband and a local boat builder to install a system of 2-by-6 lumber braces for fear the roof and west wall, already bowed, might buckle under the snow load from a storm racing its way up the coast.

A special committee had been formed to decide the fate of the old building, and the future did not look promising. On May 19, the committee held a poorly attended workshop to discuss the fate of the building.

The agenda for that meeting claimed repair of the Town House School would cost $350,000.

“And that was just to stabilize things, to jack it up and repair the roof and walls,” Camp said. “That did not include any other repairs.”

That note is important because the school is said to be infested with black mold.

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,” although Town Planning Director Werner Gilliam denies ever doing more than recommending against using the teetering structure.

On May 28, the society held a special meeting to vote on the fate of the Town House School. About 40 members attended that session, with three-quarters raising hands to demolish the old school building, as the $10,000 cost of demolition was the cheaper way out.

Preble attended that session and said she was the only one to vote against tearing down the school. With the Town House School given just three months to live, Preble sprang into action, trying to drum up interest in somehow reversing the society vote and saving the school. But by Aug. 18, when she first spoke to the Post, things looked grim. Although society members had by then admitted they would not make the Aug. 28 deadline — society Secretary Albert Black said board members were unsure the building would not fall in on volunteers tasked with moving archives to the Pasco Center — Preble had little hope of reaching her goal.

At that point, she had raised just $800 from 12 donors on an Internet crowdfunding page, plus another $600 in private checks. She was, she admitted, waging a one-person campaign that, in all likelihood, would result in a losing battle.

But then the tide turned.

At the historical society’s annual meeting Aug. 27, just nine days after all hope was seemingly gone, Preble announced that two $50,000 pledges had been received.

“I will not advertise who they are, at their request, but they are very solid donations,” Preble said.

Those and other recent gifts should be enough to pay for a second engineering opinion and some initial repairs, Preble said. Perhaps more importantly, a core group of eight or nine like-minded residents have recently coalesced around Preble, dubbing themselves the Save Our School Committee.

That’s S.O.S., if the allusion was not clear.

The annual meeting also was lightly attended — just 50 members present, by most accounts — but the decision to grant S.O.S. one year to raise enough money to save the school was “almost unanimous,” Camp said.

However, things are not as bright as they may seem. A team of eight volunteers, aided by a company that specializes in moving antiques, spent two weeks transferring society archives up North Street to the Pasco Center.

“The building is in rough shape,” Camp said on Monday.

“We took great care in getting the archives out in the safest way possible according to what the engineer’s report was, but there definitely shouldn’t be people in there.”

For that reason, the historical society’s board of directors and the S.O.S. group have been going back and forth since the Aug. 27 meeting on details, such as who will pay for liability insurance during inspections and renovations.

“We thought we would operate under their insurance, but they say they want us to pay for it,” Preble said. “And they want to use only board-approved contractors. And they say we have to raise so much before we begin work — what they call a ‘threshold of necessary funds.’ Time is so precious, and yet the school is still padlocked.”

Camp said the historical society board held a special meeting with S.O.S. Sept. 10 to hammer out details about working arrangements. A draft letter of that agreement is expected to be ready this week, Camp said, but neither she nor Preble profess to know what might be in it.

“I just hope we can get an agreement on them holding our funds, since they are already set up as a nonprofit,” Preble said, noting that many donations, including the two big checks, are given on the condition of claiming them as tax write-offs.

“We haven’t ironed those things out, but we’re within weeks of a final decision,” Camp said. “They feel they can raise the funds necessary to save the building, and we’re going to give them every opportunity possible to do that. We support them 100 percent and will assist them in any way we can.

“I’m very excited to see they rallied together to try and save the building. Nobody every wanted to see this building torn down,” Camp said. “And I’m very grateful to the current board of directors for bringing the severity of the condition of the schoolhouse to the membership. I’m excited to see what this group can do to save it.”

Still, Preble has her doubts, despite Camp’s assurances. While the society board wants to take time to cross its t’s and dot its i’s, Preble wishes they’d mind their p’s and q’s.

“It’s just so difficult to do business with them, but we go on because they own the property and we own the building,” she said. “We’re doing all this for the historical society, not for any of us, but they don’t seem to realize that.

“But we will not be controlled. That is the only thing I can tell you,” she said. “We have to have some leniency to do this job and do it right.”

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