Town Ownership

From Fort to Park: the long and bumpy road

This is the final installment in a three-part series of edited excerpts from Nancy Masterton’s report, “From Fort To Park” which she wrote in 1990. In Part I, we learned how the town considered using Fort Williams as either a college campus or “urban renewal project.” In Part II, we learned how the town considered building “low income housing” or a science center. In this part, we learn what the town did after a consensus formed to dedicate all of Fort Williams as a park

Part III: How to build a park without busting the budget

By Nancy Masterton
[Edited and excerpted by Evan Roth with help from the C.E. Historical Pres. Society]

On Oct. 25, 1976, the Council adopted the policy for Fort Williams which was dedicated to preserving the land primarily for use as a park. In December, the Council followed up by appointing the Fort Williams Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to the Council on needs, uses, maintenance and operations.

Razing Officer's RowThe town then embarked on a series of ways to improve the park in the most frugal manner possible. Two buildings on Officers Row were restored in 1975 by the Cumberland County Manpower Department under the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program, one being occupied by CETA for its headquarters. In 1979, the town razed the remainder of Officers Row.

Between 1973 and 1981, gradual improvements took place. The manager applied for and received improvement grants from the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. The main entrance to the fort was moved and a new access road opened in July, 1979. The NCO Club was razed at no cost to the town (along with Officers Row) by a salvager. The Cape Elizabeth Garden Club donated trees and plantings. The National Guard continued to demolish buildings until only a handful stand today. A federal grant produced a picnic shelter. A playscape was erected nearby. Some batteries were filled in and seeded over, others secured and landscaped. Finally, in March of 1981, the town hung a sign at the entrance (a sign made by a Cape industrial arts student) which proudly declared “Fort Williams Park.”

What to do with Goddard Mansion?

The Cape Historical Society eyed with interest the Goddard Mansion, a magnificent Italianate residence of native stone on Fort grounds. The architect had been Charles A. Alexander, designer of such Portland landmarks as St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, the Libby Mansion, John B. Brown's “Bramhall,” and the Falmouth Hotel. Only the church and the Goddard Mansion escaped the wrecker’s ball. The mansion was built in 1853-59 for Colonel John Goddard and was purchased in 1898 by Judge Joseph W. Symonds. In 1900, during the expansion of Fort Williams, it was acquired by the federal government, which eventually converted it to quarters for noncommissioned officers.

Goddard MansionAt the time of the town's purchase of the Fort, the mansion was already in serious disrepair. Robie M. Liscomb, executive director of the URA, estimated that it would cost $100,000 just to stabilize the building, with an additional $75,000 for restoration work.

By March of 1981, the Goddard mansion was becoming more and more derelict. Town Manager John E. Henchey recommended to the Council that the attractive nuisance be razed immediately. The issue generated heated debate, and the mansion received a 48-hour reprieve for further study. The decision was made to burn the interior of the structure to remove dangerous debris, which was accomplished by the Fire Department. In August 1985, work began on capping the roof for stabilization. So the proud old mansion stands today, a stately ruin.

The lighthouse

On Aug. 27, 1989, the Cape celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Lighthouse Service at Fort Williams and the automation of Portland Head Light. Although the lighthouse would continue to be maintained by the Coast Guard, the Keepers Quarters was granted to Cape Elizabeth in a long-term lease. The advisory committee and a special committee to advise on the Keepers Quarters mulled over the possibilities for meaningful use of the building. During 1988-1989, the National Lighthouse Society lobbied strongly for a national lighthouse museum, but the Advisory Committee recommended a museum which would be local in nature, featuring local maritime memorabilia. The museum would be on the first floor, with an apartment on the second, to be rented out for income and security for the museum.

The council responded favorably to the concept, stating that the Keepers Quarters was an “extraordinary resource which deserves to be protected, preserved, and displayed for everyone’s appreciation for years to come.” The council pledged to work closely with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. It endorsed the concept of a “low-key historical exhibit on the first floor of the building, the theme of which will be Fort Williams and nautical, Coast Guard, and lighthouse history of Casco Bay, with emphasis on Portland Head Light.” UNUM, whose logo is a lighthouse, granted the town $10, 000 to hire a part-time coordinator of the project.

Conclusion

The park today is spectacular. To go there is to experience beauty and tranquility, from the sweeping views to the Portland Head Light. Recreational facilities include two tennis courts, a basketball court, baseball diamond, a course for physical fitness, picnic tables and cookout facilities, the picnic shelter, and recreational opportunities for walking, running, and dogwalking.

December of 1989 marked 25 years of the town's ownership of Fort Williams. At that time, Town Manager Michael K. McGovern described it as a “very, very high priority for the community… It’s amazing the strength of feeling on it… It’s a terrific resource.”

Courtesy of Nancy Masterton

Part 1 | Part 2

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