Maine Maritime Museum in Bath eyes improvements, expansion

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BATH — Maine Maritime Museum hopes to have a second chance to make a first impression as part of a campus redesign.

The approximately 20-acre campus at 243 Washington St. is comprised of three pieces, Executive Director Amy Lent said in an interview July 19.

One includes the historic Donnell and Percy & Small shipyards, as well as the life-sized evocation of the Wyoming, the largest wooden ship ever built in the U.S.

The centerpiece houses the maritime history building with its galleries, administrative offices, and parking lot.

The south end of the campus has the Deering Pier where cruise ships tie up, the gravel back parking lot, and the Snow Squall clipper ship exhibit and education building.

In the midst of this cluster of museum assets – between the main and south end parking lots – are two residential properties on Washington Street. The museum acquired those parcels with an eye toward having contiguous frontage along the street and room for aesthetic and access improvements.

Two houses and outbuildings sit on the residential properties, which would have to be rezoned for museum use. The two parcels total less than an acre.

The lots will in part be used for expanded and more efficient parking. The museum is looking for people to purchase the two homes” at a very fair and reasonable price,” Lent said, and move them.

The museum went before the Planning Board July 18 for a pre-application workshop, to outline its plans and hear feedback from the panel. The work could begin in fall 2018, after the busy summer season and before winter hits.

With finalized design work, engineering studies and site plan approval by the Planning Board on the horizon, “there’s still quite a long way to go before we’re going to be ready to put a shovel anywhere,” Lent said.

The scope of improvements will stretch from the museum’s front entrance to its south parking lot. The south lot in part facilitates overflow parking from the main lot, but the two are not connected.

“The front steps of the museum are starting to deteriorate after 20 years of freeze and thaw,” Lent said. “The brick and the granite are starting to shift, and we knew that we needed to do some work out there.”

Finding that replacing the steps would be costly, museum staff determined that if they were to spend that type of money, they might as well address other issues there, such as improving handicapped-accessible parking by moving the parking up to the same grade as the front entrance.

“We have, technically, handicap parking, but it is quite a hike,” Lent said. “From the bottom of the parking lot, up and around this sloped walkway to get to the front door. So it’s really not very practical at all.”

Tour buses visiting the museum are significantly larger and lower than they were when the museum’s front was designed in the 1980s, and some have a rough time managing the turning radius, Lent explained, noting that vehicular congestion sometimes develops at the top of the driveway.

Visitors coming from the south end lot, often disembarking from cruise ships, “are basically walking through a dusty, dirt parking lot that directs them toward our loading dock and dumpsters,” Lent said. “It’s not a welcoming first impression.”

In fact, the project’s name is “First Impressions.”

“The first impression you get of the museum is in the parking lot,” Lent noted. “… We’re trying to create a much better first impression.”

The museum – which has hired Richardson & Associates of Saco for the landscape architectural work – currently has four vehicle entrances, two of which could be eliminated to decrease the traffic flow along Washington Street.

The museum has scenic views of the Kennebec River, marshlands and Doubling Point Light Station at the south end, “but it’s a parking lot; there’s no place that’s created as an open, public space where people could sit on a bench and look at the scenery,” she said. “… Here’s a part of the river that is not fully developed. It’s publicly accessible, but there’s place to really enjoy it unless you’re sitting in your car.”

Public spaces for visitors, with educational fixtures on the river, wildlife and history are consequently in the planning. The parking lot would be pulled back from the waterfront to create more attractive, ecologically-friendly spaces.

Quoting a phrase used by landscape architects, Lent said, “it’s aesthetically underperforming.”

“The museum is a world-class museum, and that part of our experience is not world class,” she added. “We need to make it better, and we’re really committed to doing that.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Improved handicapped access is one of several improvements the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath is planning for next year.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.