BUCKSPORT — Two years ago, the Town Council nearly voted to demolish Wilson Hall, the two-story brick structure on Oak Hill that once served as a Methodist seminary.
Owned by the town and one of nine local structures on the National Register of Historic Places, the 165-year-old building has sustained considerable damage in the last couple decades. Holes have formed in its roof and water has leaked through, some of its supports have rotted, the tower and cupola on top have sagged and mischievous kids have broken in.
Code Enforcement Officer Jeff Hammond was one of the first officials to sound the alarm about the safety of the building. In the early 2000s, before the town acquired Wilson Hall from a developer in New York, he warned the Town Council that it might be dangerous.
But after hearing from several engineers that the building was in better shape than he thought — it has a solid foundation and its brick shell is in sound condition — Hammond’s tune changed.
“When I looked more closely, I realized it wasn’t in such bad shape,” he recalled. “It was save-able.”
Since the building nearly met its end in early 2014, a group of volunteers, including Hammond, has been rallying support for Wilson Hall. They have raised almost $5,000 from private donors. In the last year, they have spent about $3,200 of that on the materials needed to patch up the structure.
Hammond, Larry Wahl (owner of Wahl’s Dairy Port) and Emeric Spooner (librarian at Buck Memorial Library) are among those who have been quietly working on the building and property in their spare time.
On a recent tour, both Hammond and Wahl expressed their appreciation for historical structures and pointed to the various roles Wilson Hall has played over the years: dormitory, seminary, meeting hall. They also highlighted the view out one of its front windows onto the Bucksport Harbor, Fort Knox and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge.
Both Hammond and Wahl have building experience. Using hydraulic jacks, they have installed some-50 wooden posts — each made of two 2-by-4-inch pieces of lumber — to support each of the building’s sagging floors.
They have built walkways where the floor is weak. They have removed the building’s dilapidated front porch.
They have sprayed foam insulation on the roof to prevent water from coming through — but holes keep forming, so it has been a game of whack-a-mole.
Wahl got involved with the restoration effort after the close call with the Town Council in 2014, he said, and is now recognized by the council as a “designated developer” of the building. For a time, state Rep. Richard Campbell (R-Orrington) and Bucksport Enterprise Publisher Don Houghton were helping him in the effort.
Those supporting the town’s small art scene, including members of the Bucksport Area Cultural Arts Society (BACAS), have also been consistent supporters of the building’s preservation.
Christmas lights and a wreath were hung on the building during the holidays, and BACAS held a carol singing event at the property that drew about 30 people.
Support for the building has persisted despite — in some ways, because of — the closure of the local paper mill by Verso Paper Corp. in late 2014, which has prompted many discussions about the town’s future.
Shortly before the holidays that year, the Town Council approved putting $30,000 into a special account that Wilson Hall supporters could borrow from, so long as they were actively raising matching funds. At the time, councilors spoke of the need to beautify the town to counter the malaise that accompanied the mill closure.
The volunteers have not drawn from that account, Mayor and Council Chairman David Keene said.
At this point, there’s not much more work Hammond and Wahl can do to keep improving the structure. The next step would involve making some sort of lasting repair on the roof, but the volunteer group hasn’t raised the funds for that work. They are now looking at possible grant funding.
The town is not likely to make any significant funding contributions, Keene said, in part because the council is trying to present a lean budget this spring.
But he added that the town would consider selling the building at a reasonable amount to a developer with a compelling plan. At least that way, the town could start earning tax revenue from the property.
“It’s a landmark, a part of the history of the town. It’s a wonderful building. It’s too bad it’s been neglected over the years,” Keene said. “We’ve offered almost to give it to somebody, if somebody came along and put money into it. We’re not looking to make money off selling it.”
One reason the council has held off on approving Wilson Hall’s demolition is that it would also be costly to do so.
Developers from Portland have recently expressed interest in converting the building into a set of dormitories, Wahl said.
That conversation started as Jim Boothby, superintendent of Regional School Unit 25, was looking into how the Bucksport area school district could start an exchange program for overseas students. But the district’s board recently advised against going forward with that concept, given the steep start-up costs.
For now, Wahl and Hammond said, they will keep making minor repairs to ensure the building is weatherproof.
For Wilson Hall, the rest remains to be written.