Portland’s historic preservation board voted last Wednesday in favor of creating a historic preservation district on House Island, a prominent land mass in Portland harbor that’s slated for private development. The nearly two dozen members of the public who testified at the board’s meeting generally fell into two camps: Those who view House Island as a site rich with historical significance worth protecting, and those who believe that, history aside, it would be “appalling” (in the words of one businessman) for the board to impose the designation on the island shortly after its purchase by a developer. Many in the latter camp also argued that nothing particularly important happened on the 24-acre island anyway.
The board’s vote will serve as a recommendation to the planning board and city council, which has the final say on whether to create the designation. If approved, the historic preservation district will not block development. Instead, owners would be required to seek approval for construction or improvements that are visible from a “public way,” which in this case includes the water around the island. Rick Romano, the board’s chair, assured the public that the process does not involve the city dictating to property owners what they can and can’t do. “It’s a collaborative process,” he said. “It’s not something that people should be scared of.” Greater Portland Landmarks director Hilary Basset pointed out that the designation would also qualify the island’s owners for various preservation grants and tax incentives.
House Island has long been singled out as a potentially endangered historical site. But relatively few people have the chance to visit the island since it can be reached only by private boat, and the Cushing family, which purchased it in 1954, has forbid visitors from landing on its beaches without invitation. In the past they’ve offered commercial tours, but in recent years they’ve been more focused on selling the property. Last May, a local developer, Michael Scarks, finally paid $2.5 million for the island, along with its three houses, 206-year-old fort and several beaches. He plans to build luxury homes.
The only three buildings currently standing were all part of the federal immigration and quarantine station that led the island to become known as the “Ellis Island of the North.” During its operation from 1907 to 1936, thousands of immigrants were processed, and often detained, before being allowed into the US, where many caught the Grand Trunk Railroad in Portland on their way to start new lives in Canada. The barracks that still remains on the island was designed to hold up to 600 people.
The other historic structure that occupies the island is 206-year-old Fort Scammel, which President Thomas Jefferson ordered built to protect Portland harbor. Most of the fort is underground, but its exposed granite wall that curves along the southern end of the island is one of the most distinct landmarks visible from the city’s main shipping channel. The fort’s interior, for those lucky or sneaky enough to get inside, features large tunnels, parapets, and expansive rooms constructed with gorgeous brick and stonework, much of which was added during the Civil War.