Restoration effort renewed for Portland’s Fort Gorges

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PORTLAND — Crossing Portland Harbor on a sun-splashed morning, Paul Drinan talked about his newest endeavor.

“It is not hard to be passionate about this project,” he said of a renewed effort to restore Fort Gorges.

Drinan, who became executive director of Friends of Fort Gorges in 2014, said he is ready to push for restoration of the fort he has visited for 30 years.

“It is a space that has moved me since I was a kid,” he said.

The fort on Hog Island Ledge is named for Sir Fernandino Gorges, the colonial proprietor of Maine. It was first proposed after the War of 1812 to help triangulate harbor defenses with Fort Scammell on House Island and Fort Preble in South Portland.

It took more than 40 years to begin construction, and the granite fort was never fully garrisoned because of naval weaponry advances during the Civil War. It was eventually used largely for storage, most recently for submarine mines during World War II.

Vegetation on top of the two-story, semicircular structure was added to bolster defenses, but is now a strong contributor to the fort’s masonry problems and overall deterioration.

The city acquired the fort in 1960, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is open to visitors who can make the water crossing, but is falling on increasingly hard physical times.

Weather and vandalism have been far more destructive than warfare to the 150-year-old fort, but its advocates are convinced it is worth saving and restoring.

“It is such a distinctive element in Portland Harbor. Not to have it there would diminish the whole city,” architect Pamela Hawkes of Scattergood Design said Monday.

On Aug. 6, city resident Andy Brethauer paddled over in his kayak for a morning visit.

“I was expecting something smaller,” Brethauer said as Drinan greeted him. “This courtyard takes your breath away.”

Hawkes and engineer Alfred Hodson of Resurgence Engineering & Preservation are providing the expertise for a feasibility study and then a master plan to restore the fort. Their enthusiasm is barely eclipsed by Drinan’s.

“I love seeing the craftsmanship that went into the construction of these forts. I love to see some of subtle signs of human presence out there,” Hodson said Monday.

The Friends are enjoying a resurgence of their own after a period of dormancy that lasted almost a decade. First formed after 9/11 to erect a flagpole on the island, the group lost its nonprofit status in 2011, but regained it in June.

Drinan has organized cleanup drives, including one this Saturday, and held a birthday party for the fort during the Iberdrola USA Tall Ships Portland 2015 festival last month.

From a pier and stairwell worn away by time and waves, to long, half-inch-wide cracks in brick work,Fort Gorges is fraught with challenges that will not be resolved cheaply.

Yet Hawkes and Hodson, who have consulted on work at other Maine and East Coast forts from the same era, do not see a doomed structure.

“The longer we wait, the more serious the deterioration will be and the more expensive it will be to preserve,” Hawkes warned.

Drinan estimated the feasibility study and master plan could cost as much as $250,000. The process is essential to determining how to move forward in both the physical and financial senses, and an estimate on restoration will be based on the master plan.

City Historic Preservation Manager Deb Andrews on Monday said the plan will document “the history of this place, the character design elements, and ensure (the) city is not putting good money after bad,”

Drinan said the Friends will be looking first at foundation, corporate and private contributions to fund the study and future work.

If city funding proves elusive, Andrews said assistance may still be available from the Maine Historical Preservation Commission to at least offset study costs.

“I would be happy to sponsor a grant request to support a master plan for this,” she said.

From the interior parade grounds to the powder magazines as dark as a coal seam, Drinan has explored the fort’s past with an eye on its future.

“The question is ‘what will it be in 10 years,'” he said.

Hodson said restoration will strike a balance.

“We will be coming up with historically appropriate and common-sense repairs that will enhance safety for the visitors there,” he said.

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

Sidebar Elements

Paul Drinan examines masonry damage at Fort Gorges that comes from more natural than military causes, including water seepage and ice.

Friend of Fort Gorges Executive Director Paul Drinan ties up his boat Aug. 6 during a visit to the fort on Hog Island Ledge in Portland Harbor.

Friends of Fort Gorges Executive Director Paul Drinan, left, greets visitor Andy Brethauer on Aug. 6. “I was expecting something smaller, this courtyard takes your breath away,” Brethauer said.

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.