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Saving Scarborough – Councilor hopes to kickstart historic preservation effort

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Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 9:11 am | Updated: 1:21 pm, Thu Feb 14, 2013.

SCARBOROUGH – After four years of nominating “historic preservation” to the annual list of Town Council goals, and three years of seeing it languish in last place among the priorities, Jessica Holbrook says she’s ready to make 2013 the last time she’ll have to bring it up.

“That’s good,” said Town Manager Tom Hall. “I think something like that, when there are so many worthy goals competing for staff attention, to get done it sort of requires someone on the council to really embrace it and make it their own.”

Holbrook says she hopes to form an ad hoc preservation committee, out of volunteers and any residents she may recruit, to devise a hit list of “very specific,” most-endangered properties in Scarborough – sites that are significant to the story of the town and its people, but which may not last another generation without public intervention.

Once a list is compiled, Holbrook said second and third phases could involve drafting a historic preservation ordinance to keep those places from being torn down, built up or irrevocably altered. The land bond money the town often uses to help the local land trust obtain property could also be used to buy and restore certain buildings, she said, or to rebuild trails and create parking areas for access to the town’s natural wonders.

A Scarborough native who can remember riding horses and snowmobiles where subdivisions sit today, Holbrook says she hopes to save the buildings and open spaces that give the town its character, to keep Route 1 from looking even more like Anywhere, USA.

“We’ve lost so much already,” agreed Councilor Judy Roy. “If you look at the Oak Hill, where the Wentworth Farm was is the Exxon Mobil station now. Where the credit union is now, that’s where the first telephone office was in town.”

“There are a few remaining spots around town like that, that are going to get lost quickly,” said Holbrook. “Not that new buildings aren’t pretty, too, but it’s nice to know your history a little bit, because once you lose these things, they don’t come back.”

As an example, she cites the “Widow’s Walk” property at 23 Black Point Road, a large colonial home and that has fallen pray to vandals, while its attached barn merely falls.

“What a crying shame. Even if we wanted to do something to save that property at this point, it’s well beyond, I think, the reach of anything,” said Holbrook.

Carol Rancourt, who grew up and still lives across the street from the Widow’s Walk, says she’s “absolutely sickened” by the state of the property, agreeing that it probably is past saving.

“Anyone who has been in town any amount of time mentions the indignity that wonderful home has been subject to, where the owners don’t even care enough to mow the grass,” she said.

The property was purchased in 2007 by the Jarvis Group of Hartford, Conn., from a couple that ran a gift shop out of the home, but were forced out of business by illness. The building, assessed at $118,200, has been vacant ever since.

The legend, says Rancourt, is that a sea captain of the Libby family built it so that his wife could watch from the crowning copula as his ship came in from sea. Town records show the home was built in 1790, but assessor Paul Lesperance says that’s probably a best guess.

Most locals of a certain age know the property best as the home of Franklin Heald, the longtime superintendent of schools for Scarborough, says Rancourt, adding that even then the property was a “grand farmstead” that ran from Route 1 to the bottom of the hill at the railroad tracks, what is now the Eastern Trail.

Last year, Jarvis sold the property above the home to the Wegman Group, which plans an 81-unit senior housing complex. While the Widow’s Walk was held back from the sale, no plans have been announced for the property.

“It kills me that the owners have intentionally let it fall apart,” said Rancourt. “It just absolutely kills me that there has been no pride of ownership.”

“There’s another one that always breaks my heart,” said Holbrook. “It’s a one-room schoolhouse, on Holmes Road near the speedway, with the windows all smashed out of it. It makes me cry every time I drive by.”

Rancourt, who sat on the council for nine years until this past fall, credits Holbrook for making the attempt on historic preservation, which was a perennial goal for her, as well.

“Any of those things she wants to do are possible, they just never came to fruition while I was on the council,” she said. “The idea of historic preservation just never reached a critical mass that called on us to do anything with it.”

According to Roy, the long-range planning committee is working on an ordinance that would slow development of archeologically significant sites. However, there is nothing now in the works to project history that’s above ground rather than buried in it. That may because of a fear of pushback, she says, from residents fearful of losing control of their properties.

“It’s not that I want to hog-tie property, of course,” said Rancourt, who favors development of a preservation ordinance of some sort, “but the idea of re-using and repurposing buildings for any of a number of uses, while still maintaining historic character, may be better than razing them.”

Rancourt also says there is a precedent in Scarborough for using public money to buy, restore and preserve specific properties.

The Hunnewell House on Black Point Road was a chicken coop when she was a little girl, says Rancourt. But it’s also the oldest home in town, dating to 1702, the year before its builder, Richard Hunnewell, was killed with 19 other men at what’s become known as Massacre Pond.

In 1958, as part of the town’s 300th anniversary celebration, Scarborough bought the Hunnewell House and moved it across Black Point Road, where it is still maintained by Public Works crews and the community garden club.

“Still, I bet if you asked the newer Scarborough, anyone who’s come along in the last 10 years or so, they wouldn’t have a clue about it,” said Rancourt.

“There are some places still worth saving in town that are hidden gems. I feel it’s good to look forward but it’s also good to respect the past,” said Rancourt.

“Hopefully, people who are interested in seeing places preserved, not just to look at but for use, will see now that someone is interested in it, that somebody does care, that somebody is paying attention to it,” said Holbrook. “Renewed interest is never a bad thing.”

Welcome to the discussion.