SEARSPORT — For 61 years the Penobscot Marine Museum has hidden behind the buildings lining Route 1 in downtown Searsport.
But come this summer the museum will blossom onto Main Street in two historic buildings it has now acquired, both of which have been vacant for about a year. In addition, the museum plans in February to buy the Exxon service station on Main Street that abuts its property. That building will be razed to make room for a park with a sculpture that honors Searsport’s seafaring heritage.
“I’d estimate that eight out of 10 motorists passing through Searsport can’t find the museum,” said Renny Stackpole, the director of the museum. “After all, we don’t have a big ship to attract attention like they have at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath.” Given that the museum has 10 buildings with 29,000 square feet of exhibition space, it is surprisingly low-key visually.
Stackpole said he believes the acquisition will help double the 15,000 admissions that the museum averages each year. He noted that the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland has seen a threefold increase in sales since its gift store moved to Main Street.
The museum will refurbish the buildings and use them as a museum store and a workshop for conservation work. “This is a trend in museums now — to see conservators at work,” Stackpole said. Visitors will be able to watch some of the 12 year-round and 15 part-time employees working on the museum’s collection of furniture, ship models, paintings, fine art and figure heads. He expects that some of the museum operations will be in the buildings by this summer.
The museum was established in 1936 as a maritime memorial to the residents of the Penobscot Bay and river area, past and present.
The two buildings are included on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Earle Shettleworth Jr., the director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. “From an architectural standpoint, downtown Searsport has a very cohesive group of buildings,” he said. They are fine examples of pre-Civil War brick buildings, he said.
The museum bought one of the historic buildings from Stanley Israel, who, until about a year ago, operated an Epstein’s clothing store in the building. The storefront has been vacant since then, as has the storefront of the adjoining building purchased by the museum.
Museum officials declined to say how much the buildings cost. They have a combined assessed value of $232,860, according to the Searsport assessor’s office. The properties yielded about $5,700 in tax revenue each year.
Museum officials say that the Main Street historical properties will remain on the tax rolls, thereby not depriving the city of needed revenue. “They’ll be used as commercial outlets,” said R. Bruce Underwood, the president of the museum board of trustees. “They will be in harmony with the businesses across the street.”
Stackpole said the purchase would benefit the town. “There are a number of abandoned buildings here, and we hope the purchase will revitalize the area,” he said. “Our intent is to make Searsport more of a destination.”
However, the city coffers will lose out with the demolition of the Exxon station. The property and building currently belong to the Webber Oil Co. and Ralph Webster leases from Webber and operates the station.
Webster was notified by Webber Oil that it would not renew his lease when it is up on Jan. 31, 1998. Webster did have a contractual first chance to buy the property for $322,000, but he said the price was out of his range. “They knew I couldn’t touch that price because it was way too high,” Webster said Monday.
Webster said he felt the museum and oil company had conspired to keep him from having a realistic chance of buying the property. The service station and property have an assessed value of $134,060. Webster said he presented a petition with 600 names to the museum earlier this fall, which asked the museum to not buy the service station. “I thought that would be enough names,” he said. “But it didn’t matter to them.” Webster has not found another site for his service station and has not been offered any compensation for moving.
“Acquiring the service station has been in the wind for quite a long time,” said Underwood, the museum board of trustees president. A museum supporter had left enough money in her will to the museum to specifically purchase the service station, he said, but it was with the stipulation that it no longer be a service station.
The museum plans to turn it into a park, which will create a major downtown green space when combined with the existing small park across Route 1 from the Exxon station.
“We’ve gotten nothing but compliments for going ahead and doing this,” said Underwood.