2016-12-16 / Front Page

Anonymous donor aids Townhouse School project

Will match donations made by year’s end, up to $25,000
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer


A photo taken in front of Kennebunkport’s Town House School about 1913, shows the entire student body of the day. The Kennebunkport Historical Society has owned the building since 1955 and last year announced plans to tear it down. A friends group soon formed, however, and has been trying to raise funds to restore the town’s last remaining one-room schoolhouse. (Courtesy photo) A photo taken in front of Kennebunkport’s Town House School about 1913, shows the entire student body of the day. The Kennebunkport Historical Society has owned the building since 1955 and last year announced plans to tear it down. A friends group soon formed, however, and has been trying to raise funds to restore the town’s last remaining one-room schoolhouse. (Courtesy photo) KENNEBUNKPORT — Things are heating up in the effort to save Townhouse School on North Road, the last surviving one-room schoolhouse in Kennebunkport, thanks to an anonymous donor who as agreed to match all contributions made over the next four month, up to $25,000.

In May 2015, members of the Kennebunkport Historical Society voted to tear down the 115-year-old building, citing the high cost of repairs needed to maintain the structure. The school building was the society’s first headquarters — it obtained the building in 1955, after the last class bell had been rung there four years earlier — but had fallen into disrepair in recent decades as attention and limited funding shifted to other sites.

Bracing was erected along one wall in the winter of 2014 — said at the time to be necessary to avoid a collapse — and the presence of mold made the building seem more trouble than it was worth to preserve.

That’s when Luverne Preble Tinkham sprang into action. She had attended the school as a child and thought the building, one of the last remaining structures in what was once Kennebunkport’s downtown area, worth preserving. Acting with a zeal some likened to a veritable force of nature, Preble Tinkham got the society to issue a stay of execution on the old schoolhouse, and inspired the formation of Friends of Townhouse School, a group that has since organized as a 510 (c)(3) nonprofit.

But the reprieve came with a catch. In late August 2015, just days before the building was due to come down, the society said it would agree not to swing the wrecking ball until this fall, if Preble and her peers could put together the funding needed to rehabilitate the aging structure.

That meant $350,000 — $200,000 for repairs and mold mitigation, with $150,000 dedicated to the establishment of an ongoing maintenance fund. A pair of anonymous $50,000 pledges got the ball rolling and a host of fundraisers — from dinners and art shows, to auctions and lectures — over the past year have added to the kitty.

About $4,000 donations came in this past spring, many in the form of checks for $108, each, from friends and family of Mary Firth, a former teacher of the school who died March 29 at age 108.

“That was very special,” said Friends secretary Barbara Barwise. “It’s very unusual for a woman of that age to have so much in memorial gifts given in her memory, to any organization.”

However, even with that outpouring of memorial support, the full $350,000 is not quite in place.

On Friday, Friends vice president Sandy Severance said a new anonymous donation of $25,000 was made Dec. 1 — not by the person who gave last year’s gift. The new donor is willing to augment that $25,000 by matching all donations made between now and March 31, up to an additional $25,000.

“Just since Dec. 1, when we let people know we were accepting matching funds, we’ve gotten $10,000 already,” Severance said. “While the offer stands though March, we wanted to get word out now, for folks who’d like to make a tax deductible donation before the end of the year, for tax purposes.”

As of Dec. 9, Severance said, the Save Our Schoolhouse fund stood at about $280,000. The first $140,000 was put toward the endowment and the historical society gave $10,000 to complete the fund. Now, Severance says, the drive in on to raise the final $70,000 needed.

On Thursday, Severance and Barwise, along with other board members, were scheduled to have a sit-down with historical society trustees. That meeting took place after the deadline for this week’s Post, but Barwise said the goal was to convince trustee’s to allow more time for fundraising — the agreement signed last year actually set an October 2016 deadline for fundraising — and to allow work to begin before the full amount is raised.

“The first thing we have to do is put a new foundation underneath it,” Severance said. “We’re hoping they’ll agree to let us start the work in stages. But as of right now they are still requiring us to raise the full $350,000 before they’ll allow us to start the project.

“We’ll know better after the meeting what our future will look like,” Barwise said.

Severance and Barwise say plans are to put the original granite foundation blocks back in place after the new walls are built, “so it will look exactly the same as it does now.” Given full funding, the addition built by the society in the 1960s to house its archive vault will be redone to make it look to the casual observer from the outside as if it was part of the original school.

“We’re anxious to get started,” Barwise said. “It’s not that the historical society didn’t care about the school, they just didn’t have the money to save it themselves. So, we have taken it on ourselves. All eight of our board members are members of the historical society. And we’re all seniors. But we all work very well together.”

Severance and Barwise say once the schoolhouse is stabilized and cleaned, the ultimate goal is to use it as a teaching tool, to show area children and adults what public education was like a century ago. The building may also be let out for various private functions and public events.

“That has been a real show of support from the community for saving this vital, living piece of our shared history. It wonderful to have a community that so cares about their history, that wants to preserve something that otherwise could easily disappear. Even people who can ill afford to give are still doing it, donating $5 and $10 at a time, because they care so much about that school,” Severance said. “All we need is that last little push to get things started.”

To donate to the project, send checks payable to Friends of Townhouse School, P.O. Box 7, Kennebunkport, ME 04046. In addition to checks, the donors can also sign over stocks, which the group will sell, with proceeds going to its renovation fund.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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