House Island historic designation moves forward

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PORTLAND — House Island, the privately owned, 24-acre Casco Bay island once used for military and immigration purposes, could become a historic preservation district.

The Historic Preservation Board unanimously forwarded a nomination to place the island under the city preservation ordinance at its Oct. 1 meeting. The nomination was formally made July 16 by board members Penny Pollard and Bruce Wood. Board members also toured the island on Sept. 3.

The vote followed about 90 minutes of testimony from the island owners, local architects and historians, and the executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, who debated the significance of the island’s heritage and the potential effects of regulating development on the island.

The nomination will now be reviewed by the Planning Board to see if it conforms with the city Comprehensive Plan. The historic preservation district designation must be approved by the City Council.

Owned by Harold Cushing and his family for almost 60 years, House Island was sold to local developer Michael Scarks for $2.5 million at the end of May. The hourglass-shaped island features Fort Scammell at its southern end, and several buildings used for processing and quarantines by federal immigration authorities from about 1890 to 1925.

Scarks announced at the meeting he has sold the northern half of the island to Vincent and Christina Mona, principals of Naples, Florida,-based Three Palms Design.

Scarks and the Monas all spoke out against placing the island in a historic preservation district, saying it was unnecessary and could possibly be costly to redevelopment plans for the island.

“We hope (the process) is collaborative and without restrictions,” Scarks said, adding he hopes to build a couple of homes on the southern portion he retains while understanding the historical significance of the fort.

Fort Scammell was used during the War of 1812, Civil War and Spanish-American War, and was included in defense plans for World War I, local historian Kenneth Thompson said. The fort was reconstructed several times as military needs demanded, he added.

The Monas now own the portion of the island used to process and quarantine European immigrants during the four-decade wave of immigration that ended in the mid-1920s, when a quota system was enacted by the federal government.

Remaining buildings on the northern end include a former home for the public health officer and a small quarantine barracks, both about 110 years old.

In an Oct. 3 email, Vincent Mona said the couple intends to “bring back the three existing houses to their former glory,” and were aware of the effort to place the island in a historic district as is allowed in Article 9 of the city Land Use Ordinance.

In the board meeting, the couple cited their work in preserving an 1840s-era house on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., as proof of their intentions.

“It tickled us to death when we saw it,” Christina Mona said. “We fully intend to keep the integrity of these buildings as they are.”

Support for placing the island in the district, which allow Historic Preservation Board and Planning board review of site plans, came from Hilary Bassett, the executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, which placed the island on its “Places in Peril” list in 2012.

Bassett said the designation would fall in line with the stated intentions of Scarks and the Monas. Peaks Island resident Arthur Fink, a former Historic Preservation Board member, agreed.

“Where else can we encounter so much history in one place?” Fink asked. “I was appalled to find some people are so afraid of being designated as if it is economic disaster.”

Phineas Sprague Jr., the former owner of the Portland Co. complex on Fore Street, argued against the designation, saying the criteria was not there while preservation plans by the Monas were.

“It is a severe overreaction predicated by sale of House Island earlier this year, grounded on emotion rather than facts,” he said.

Former island owner Harold Cushing strongly condemned the nomination and possible restrictions on development in terms of principle and in support of the new owners.

‘It is not public property, it could have been, maybe it should have been,” he said, adding he previously offered to sell the 26-acre island to the federal or state governments for $1.

“If you don’t own it, don’t restrict it,” Cushing said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements


The former home for the public health officer serving on Portland’s House Island is one of three buildings that new owners Vincent and Christina Mona would like to restore. They oppose a city effort to place the 24-acre island in a historic preservation zone that would allow increased oversight of development plans.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.