A nearly 100-year-old building in downtown Searsport, set very close to the busy coastal road, is something of a local landmark. But it was constructed on pillars set over a drainage stream, and every time there is an extreme rain event, water floods the building. That’s why it’s about to be torn down.
The demolition of the Hamilton Learning Center building on Route 1 is set to begin this week, according to its owner, the Penobscot Marine Museum.
Still, making the call to have it taken down wasn’t easy, according to Karen Smith, the museum’s executive director.
“It was a careful, thoughtful decision that we’ve been working on for years,” she said Monday. “It’s become a hazard to have a building that was flooding so much. We just couldn’t justify maintaining something that would continue to flood. In the long term, I think we’re better stewards of the property if we remove it.”
The 6,300 square foot building and the 1.4 acres of waterfront property it sits on were donated to the museum in 2013 by Wayne and Loraine Hamilton, with the intention that it be used as an educational center. That did happen, and it was most recently used as the Hamilton Learning Center. For several years, Searsport District High School used the space for the school’s popular boat building class.
But for the last five years or so, it has been vacant.
Smith said museum officials were hoping that when the Maine Department of Transportation rebuilds Route 1 in Searsport, the agency might be able to do something to address the drainage culvert that has caused the flooding. Instead, though, they learned that engineers wouldn’t be able to do much to fix the drainage problems without causing more damage to the building. After hearing that, museum officials decided to move forward with the demolition.
The Searsport Historic Preservation Commission signed off on the demolition permit, she said.
“They’re very aware of the flooding history,” Smith said. “They were supportive and understanding of our need to do that.”
Museum staff have been working to document and photograph the building before it is taken down.
“We want to make sure it’s remembered,” Smith said, adding that she expects many people will be wondering what is happening with the former seine loft. “It’s so distinctive. You can’t miss it when you drive by on Route 1.”
The building dates back to 1926, when Perley Andrews built a garage on a waterfront area that had been known as Mechanics Hollow, according to Liz Fitzsimmons, a museum trustee and longtime volunteer. Back when Searsport was a bustling shipbuilding and seafaring community, Mechanics Hollow was home to several profitable industries, she said, including two shipyards and, later, a barrel-making enterprise.
During the barrel-making heyday, large amounts of timber were brought in and stacked up on the property. In one photo from the early 1900s, it looks like nearly an acre of land was covered by stacks of timber, she said.
“It used to be that so many things were packed into barrels, in the era before cardboard cartons and things like that,” she said. “Fish came in barrels, lime came in barrels, everything came in barrels.”
After that industry drew to a close, Andrews opened his garage and expanded it over the years. When he retired in the 1960s, he sold it to Gordon Roberts, who had worked for him. Roberts ran the garage and then, in 1982, sold the building to Wayne Hamilton, whose home-based maritime supply business was growing and needed more space, Fitzsimmons said.
Wayne Hamilton moved his inventory into the former garage, where he found business to be very good. Sales tripled every month for Hamilton Marine, Wayne Hamilton told the Bangor Daily News in 2014, and by 1990 he expanded into a larger space up the road. The white building became the Hamilton Marine Seine Loft, where workers made seine nets and more.
When the Hamiltons donated it to the museum, they retrofitted it to make sure it would meet modern safety standards and accommodate students, Fitzsimmons said.
“[Wayne] put a lot of effort and money into making the building a good place for an education center,” she said.
But the essential flooding problem remained. And with more and more extreme rain events happening on the Maine coast, it meant that it likely would just get worse over time, Smith said.
Still, the museum didn’t want to lose the chance to one day build something else on the lot. The officials don’t have a timeline or a plan in mind, Smith said, but nevertheless have been working with agencies including the Army Corps of Engineers to make sure that eventually can happen. They learned that any new construction would need to be located on higher ground on the lot and conform to zoning regulations.
“We did want to ensure there could be future uses,” Smith said. “Although we don’t know exactly what the future will be for that property, it is part of our waterfront. It was donated by Wayne and Loraine Hamilton to further our educational mission, and we’d love to honor that.”