ELLSWORTH — Can a dollar value be placed on history? That is the root question behind an effort to preserve the former sheriff’s house and jail that houses the Ellsworth Historical Society and is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
“Despite my own past misgivings and indecision, I have come to believe the society’s ethical, social, civic and moral obligation to Ellsworth is to preserve this important downtown building for future generations,” Society President Bill Fogle wrote to members on Dec. 31.
The old jail is located on State Street next to the Hancock County Courthouse.
The cost to keep the 1886 building’s historical integrity comes in at half a million dollars — in 2014 dollars and just for its exterior, according to an assessment completed by Sutherland Conservation & Consulting of Augusta, which was recommended by the Maine Historical Preservation Commission.
“That’s just to secure the envelope of the building, that’s nothing to do with repointing bricks or the interior,” Fogle said, standing in the front hallway where doorways open to a parlor on one side and a dining room on the other side, both with period décor. The interior was restored in the 1980s, according to Past President Terri Cormier.
With bricks falling from its exterior, the south side was partially wrapped in plastic years ago, and the society recently added more protection. The interior, Fogle said, is incredibly solid. “Yeah, we have falling bricks … but it’s got good bones.”
According to the 2014 assessment (which included bid documents): “The primary focus of the EHS [Ellsworth Historical Society] in the near future needs to be on arresting the ingress of water into the building and repairing the extensive damage that has accumulated over the years.” It also warned against the Band-Aid approach used for years: “This approach cannot be continued because in doing so, the larger needs of the building are not being met and it continues to degrade at an accelerating rate. The longstanding exterior envelope and water management issues must be addressed in the near future to ensure the preservation of the building and the collection it houses.”
The assessment sat for the past six years for two reasons, Fogle said: a lack of support within the society and a lack of funds.
“The money simply wasn’t there,” he said. “My plan is to try and influence the other people in the society to really make a last-ditch effort with this building and really get behind it. The downtown location for the society is golden.”
Fogle is floating the idea of selling the society’s second property, the Whitney House — known in historical circles as the Chamberlain House — at 357 State St. in Ellsworth Falls. That house, built in 1810, is a generation older than the jail and was donated to the society in 2015 by Tradewinds owners Chuck and Belinda Lawrence. Fogle said it could be sold with the deed written to preserve its history.
“There’s no danger of that building not being treated as the historical building it is,” he said.
While the Whitney House has yet to be assessed, Fogle said he would be surprised if it brought in less than $200,000. The remaining funds needed for the jail project could be raised through grants and a capital campaign.
Cormier, who joined the society roughly 40 years ago as a teenager, served as president for over 10 years starting in 2007 and now is treasurer.
“We really have to sit and weigh the pros and cons and look at both [buildings] and see what is the most feasible,” she said. “Can we raise the money to restore the jail and sell the house or is it less expensive to keep the house? It’s a very emotional decision either way with everybody in the society. We love both buildings and both have such history.”
The society has spoken with the County Commissioners, as the county owns the property around the jail. The historical society was given the building on the condition that it be maintained.
Fogle said he is in no hurry for a board vote on the project, as he first has information to gather and pass on to the approximately 30 society members.
The society would like to hear the community’s opinion, too.
“I think that’s what we really need the most, to know how the community really feels,” Cormier said.
Community members may email the society at historical[email protected] or call 667-8235.